BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

BBC Homepage
Inside Out
East Midlands
North East
North West
South East
South West
West Midlands
Yorks & Lincs
Go to BBC1 programmes page (image: BBC1 logo)

Contact Us

  Inside Out - South West: Monday June 23, 2003


Heroes of the Q ships
Q SHIPS| Men risked their lives on the mystery Q ships

During the First World War Britain had a secret weapon - the decoy 'Q' boats. Inside Out investigates the ships and the brave seamen who sailed in them.

Britain's secret weapon during the First World War was built in the dockyards of Devonport and other South West ports.

The Q-ships were Britain's amazing answer to the German's potent new weapon - the submarine or U-boat.

These fighting vessels were a great trick of disguise and cunning - they were actually ordinary ships built as decoys.

Battle lines

During World War One Germany's fearsome new weapon was the submarine.

The German strategy was to starve Britain to defeat by sinking every ship it could.

880,000 tons of shipping went to the bottom of the seas in one month alone.

This was a fight to the death and the biggest casualty was the traditional rules of war which sank without trace

There was only one solution - to outwit the Germans with a clever plan - the Q-ships. More than 200 boats were disguised and sent into action against the U-boat menace.

Secret men of war

Sinking Q ship
Many Q ships were sunk without trace

In the ports of the South West, ships of every shape and size were transformed - trawlers, steamers, schooners and cargo ships were all transformed secretly into men of war.

The ships were nicknamed Q-ships after the original 'Q' numbers given to the some of these special service decoy vessels.

The ships had guns under dummy lifeboats or hidden under fake funnels and awnings. Some of the ships used paint to hide their cache of weaponry.

The idea was to lure the U-boat into attacking these decoy ships which would unleash their hidden weaponry.

The men on these mystery ships showed courage beyond the call of duty. Until now their story is little known for theirs was a secret mission.

Courage under fire

The Q- Ships

1914 - 3 ships entered service

1915 - 29 ships entered service.
9 Q-ships lost. 2 U-boats destroyed by the South West boat Baralong

1916 - 41 ships entered service.
11 Q-ships lost

1917 - 95 ships entered service.
23 Q-ships lost. 6 U-boats destroyed. South West boat Penshurst sunk two U-boats

1918 - 25 ships entered service.
1 Q-ship lost

Total - 193 Q-ships in service.
44 Q-ships lost. 15 U-boats destroyed

Forty four of the Q-ships were destroyed by the U-boats, some were sunk without trace.

However the Q-boats were able to destroy fifteen enemy boats, with many other submarines limping back to port for repairs.

But the Q-ships sustained their own losses as illustrated in the table below:

During the First World War there were 70 duels between Q-ships and U-boats. One of the fiercest fought involved a battle off the Devon coast involving the HMS Stock Force in 1918.

The boat was fatally hit and sunk in Bigbury Bay by a U-boat after luring the German vessel to the surface.

This ship was a small converted collier captained by Harold Auten who was awarded the VC for his courageous actions.

Remnants of war

In this famous mismatch of strength, the Q-boats were David compared with the Goliath-like power of the U-boats.

But the battling spirit of the men who fought in the Q-boats lives on.

These decoy ships played a valuable part in the Allies anti-U-boat campaign.

Today only one of the boats survives - the HMS President moored on the Thames.

It remains a testament to the unsung heroes who risked their lives under a veil of secrecy.

See also ...

BBC History: U Boats

On the rest of the web
Imperial War Museum
HMS President
Royal Navy

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

This week's stories

The Pilgrims' Way
Take a journey on one of the South East's most historic routes.

Cornish tea
Inside Out goes behind the scenes at Cornwall's tea plantation.

Storm chasers
Join the storm chasers in search of Yorkshire's worst weather..

More from Inside Out

Inside Out: South West
View the archive to see stories you may have missed.

BBC Where I Live

Find local news, entertainment, debate and more ...

Meet your
Inside Out
Go to our profile of Sam Smith  (image: Sam Smith)

Sam Smith
your local Inside Out presenter.

Contact us
Contact the South West team with the issues that affect you.

Free email updates

Keep in touch and receive your free and informative Inside Out updates.


Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

please note, the three masted schooner RESULT now preserved at the Ulster Folk Museum Northern Ireland was a Q ship and actually suffered damage in conflict.

Most of her working life was spent around the south west coast, being based in N Devon. I served on her for some years after WW2.

Robert Butland
Very interested in the programme since my father C.P.O. William Butland was a member of the 'Stock Force' crew, one of those mannining the twelve pounder gun, so he appeared in the short snatches of the film shown.

I have a video of the film, also Lt. Cdr. Autens book and the brochure produced by 'New Era' who made the film 'Q Ships' Research by the American expert and author R.M.Grant would suggest that some of the information given in Harold Auten's book, the brochure and by Sam Smith is incorrect.

He categorically states that (1)the 'Stock Force' fought with UB80 and not U98 as was stated in the brochure (2)the U boat was not completely destroyed but, despite serious damage, made it back to base. Both U98 and UB80 made it to Armistice and were surrendered to the allies to be broken up for scrap.

Father then joined the crew of the 'Suffolk Coast' until demobilised.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy