On the waterfront: Mystery Q-ship in Wear visit

editorial image

On December 27, 1918, an 870 gross tons steamer berthed at Havelock Wharf, South Dock, her ordinary appearance belying her wartime mission of luring German submarines to their doom.

Named Suffolk Coast, she had been launched by W Harkness of Middlesbrough on March 22, 1917, for Powell, Bacon and Hough Lines of Liverpool, which became Coast Lines later that year.

Labelled a “mystery ship,” she was the last Q-ship to enter service during the First World War.

Requisitioned by the Admiralty in August, 1918, she proceeded to Queenstown, Ireland for fitting out. She left there on November 10, but with the Armistice being signed the next day, she saw no action.

Her three-day visit to Sunderland in command of Captain Harold Auten VC came during a post-war tour of East Coast ports to inform the public about the exploits of the secret Q-ship service.

A shilling entrance fee was charged, although ex-servicemen and children paid half-price with proceeds going to naval charities; the Mayor (Alderman WF Vint) and his party witnessed a demonstration of the ship’s capabilities.

Up to 366 British Q-ships operated during the war. Some were sailing vessels, while most were steamers. Their goal was to trick U-boat commanders into thinking they had a sitting duck not worth expending a valuable torpedo on.

Normally, ships would be sunk by submarine gunfire or captured by a prize crew in such circumstances. Often, a Q-ship would launch a lifeboat with a “panic crew” on board to fool the enemy into believing the ship was being abandoned.

Unknown to the Germans, however, a well-trained naval crew would be hidden on board waiting to fire upon an unsuspecting U-boat.

Once in range, orders would be given to “open fire” and down would come screens to reveal concealed guns. Meanwhile the Royal Naval White Ensign would be hoisted.

Q-ships had been introduced in 1915 but their use diminished with the advent of the convoy system later in the war.

Nevertheless, Suffolk Coast had been fitted out with a range of innovations developed since 1915.

Her two four-inch guns together with two 12-pounders were superior to most U-boat armaments.

Besides the 12-pounder customarily mounted at the stern on defensively armed merchant ships, the other guns were cleverly concealed.

A tunnel running the length of the ship enabled the captain to move between the bridge and forecastle to control firing via voice pipes, some inside hollowed-out wire rope reels. Disguised periscopes also allowed observation of an attacking submarine, while steam-emitting apparatus could create the illusion of the engine room being hit.

Special cork-packed bulkheads and a well-stowed timber cargo minimised the risk of sinking if attacked.

The ship survived until 1954, when as Sussex Oak, she was broken up by CW Dorkin at Gateshead.