There were plenty of hazardous postings during World War I, but serving as bait to lure German U-boats to the surface certainly ranked among the most perilous.
The British navy is believed to have produced between 200 and 300 so-called “Q-ships” during the conflict, vessels specially adapted as decoys and armed with concealed guns. Their goal was to lure enemy submarines to the surface and then attempt to destroy them.
This little-known aspect of the Allied war effort came to the fore last weekend, when researchers announced that they believe they have found the Q-ship HMS Stock Force, sunk in July 1918.
A team of divers spent about four years searching for the Stock Force and discovered the vessel about eight miles from where charts had indicated, at a depth of 200 feet, 14 miles from Plymouth, (England), according to the blog Remembering 1914.
The Stock Force was a former collier which retained the appearance of a merchant vessel and was manned by a Royal Navy crew disguised as merchant sailors.
On July 30, 1918, it was attacked by a U-boat, believed to be the UB 80, off the coast of Devon, and suffered a torpedo strike. However, the British ship then turned the tables on its assailant.
As the Stock Force began to sink from damage caused by the torpedo, its crew remained hidden at their posts while the U-boat surfaced to attempt to finish them off with shellfire, according to The Telegraph.
“To coax the submarine close enough to be within range of its guns, a so-called ‘panic party’ of sailors rowed away from the stricken ship, before turning back towards it,” according to the publication. “Taking the bait, the enemy submarine drew closer until the Stock Force’s weapons were revealed and it opened fire.”
The Stock Force scored three direct hits on the submarine, with one shot blowing off the periscope, another blowing up the conning tower and the third ripping into the hull of the submarine.
Firing continued until the U-boat vanished beneath the surface, The Telegraph added.
The Stock Force, however, succumbed to damage from the torpedo, sinking less than five hours after being struck.
The ship’s crew was picked up by trawlers and two torpedo boats. The submarine managed to limp back to its port.
The Stock Force’s captain, Harold Auten, was later awarded the Victoria Cross. He wrote a book about his adventures after the war.
Not surprisingly, Q-ships were classified as top secret during the war and few details were given regarding the loss of Stock Force.
However with the end of the war, the legend of the Q-ships, especially that of the Stock Force, grew.
Today only a single Q-boat, the HMS President, moored on the Thames, survives afloat, according to The Telegraph.
The Stock Force’s antagonist, the UB 80, was one of the most prolific submarines of the First World War, sinking 20 Allied vessels and damaging five more in less than a year, according to uboat.net.
UB 80 survived the war, surrendering to Italian authorities in November 1918.
(Above: HMS Stock Force, the British “Q-ship” sunk off the English coast in July 1918.)