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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A boat of VC's

Just before 0700 on 22nd March 1916, Kapitan Ludwig Güntzel was staring through his periscope aboard the German submarine SM U-68. Less than a week into her first war patrol, she was laying off Dingle in Ireland. So far she'd scored no kills, but that was about to change. Through the murk and across the pitching ocean was the 3200 ton collier and tramp steamer Loderer. Kpt Güntzel lined up his submarine and fired a single torpedo. After a few seconds it narrowly missed the Loderer's bow. The tramp steamer continued thrashing her way through the sea unperturbed.
After about 20 minutes Kpt Güntzel ordered the U-boat to the surface. Instead of wasting another precious torpedo he'd sink this steamer with his 4.1" deck gun. Once on the surface the submarine was quickly able to catch the tramp steamer and Kpt Güntzel ordered a warning shot across the Loderer's bow. This brought an immediate response. The Loderer came to a halt in a cloud of blown off steam, and the Merchant Marine crew launched a boat in panic and haste. Wanting to be sure SM U-68 closed the range by about 200 yards. Any of the German Sailors looking at the stern of the deserted Loderer would have seen the Merchant Marine flag being hauled down, and a flash of white raised in its place. Was this a flag of Surrender? No, it was the Royal Navy Battle Ensign. At this moment the sides of the structures on deck dropped and SM U-68 found herself staring down the barrels of five 12 pounder guns, which immediately started to roar. The five guns quickly pumped out 21 shells, several of which struck the submarine. SM U-68 started to submerge, as HMS Farnborough as the Loderer was called after being taken into service, sped up and moved towards the submarine. As she passed she threw a barrel over the side of the ship, this was a brand new never used before weapon; the Depth Charge. The barrel full of explosives blew the bow of the submarine out of the water, as the submarine continued to sink the 12 pounder guns continued to fire scoring more hits on the submarine. Finally SM U-68 slipped under the waves with all hands on board. HMS Farnborough, a former tramp steamer and one of the Royal Navy's new Q-ships had scored her first kill.
SM U-68
For the next 13 months HMS Farnborough continued her patrols without further success. During this period of nothing the Captain, Gordon Campbell, hatched a new scheme. On February the 17th 1917, SM U-83 was to experience the full force of this plan.
Again off the Irish coast HMS Farnborough was sailing alone, when the lookouts spotted a torpedo in the water. Campbell deliberately didn't avoid the torpedo, but let it strike his ship. The explosion blew a large hole in the hold and she began to ship water and list. On board HMS Farnborough the panic party (a group of sailors detailed to abandon ship in order to represent a terrified merchant crew) immediately launch four lifeboats and abandoned ship.
This time the ruse worked, SM U-83 surfaced and approached to within almost touching distance. At which point the crew ran out the White Ensign and unmasked a 6 pounder gun, along with a number of small arms and blasted the submarine at point blank range. The sinking submarine left only eight men in the water, however due to being unpowered HMS Farnborough only managed to rescue two, one of whom later died.
Now faced with a sinking ship of his own Campbell sent a mayday which read "Q5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you goodbye." Luckily two nearby destroyers picked up the message and came to HMS Farnborough’s rescue. They tried to take her under tow, after picking up most of the ship's company. However during the night several depth charges detonated on board the ship, nearly killing Campbell and the first officer Ronald Niel Stuart. However despite all this, and the explosions severing the tow, the ship was beached at Mill Cove too heavily damaged to return to service.

HMS Farnborough at rest
For this action Campbell won a Victoria Cross.

Most of the crew were then transferred to the collier Vittoria, whom was once again fitted out as a Q-ship named HMS Pargust. Patrolling from Ireland in the same area Stuart was as convinced as Campbell had been, the only way to successfully lure a submarine into the trap was to be hit by the torpedo, and hope that the hold full of wood would keep the ship afloat.
At 0800 on the 7th June 1917, a torpedo was spotted heading towards HMS Pargust, and like before Stuart deliberately let the torpedo hit. This time the ruse was almost blown when the force of the impact as well as causing massive damage to the ship blew one of the gun ports down, which would have revealed the 12 pounder deck gun. Luckily one sailor, William Williams, like Atlas, grabbed the weighty cover and took the considerable weight on his back holding it in place.
As rehearsed the panic party was ordered overboard. They watched as the periscope of the submarine circled the stricken ship at a range of 400 meters. The Germans were well aware of the Q-ships and so the captain of the U-boat was looking for signs of danger. After a while the U-boat surfaced and began to head towards the panic party in its lifeboats. Realising that the Germans wanted to interrogate them, Stuart ordered his lifeboat to head back towards the ship, and round behind the stern of HMS Pargust. Believing the crew were trying to regain their ship the U-boat began to follow them signalling at them to heave to. This brought the U-boat to within 46m of the ship, at which point the White Ensign was run out along with the guns.
Gun hidden on Q-ship
Same gun cleared for action
The U-boat despite several hits tried to flee on the surface and disappear into the mist, however further volleys caused the submarine to halt and the crew to seemingly raise their hand in surrender. Dutifully HMS Pargust halted firing, at which point the submarine started its engines in an attempt to escape. Further shell hits caused the submarine to explode and sink. Of the submarine’s crew two were rescued by the panic party. HMS Pargust was taken under tow back to Ireland.
HMS Pargust
The after action review faced a problem. The entire crew was deemed to have acted with valour in the face of the enemy, which made it impossible to decide on how to award the Victoria Crosses. However the Royal Warrant for the Victoria Cross under Article 13 contains a clause that enables a vote to be carried out amongst the men involved in the action. The crosses were awarded to William Williams and First Officer Stuart.

The ballot system had to be used for a further two Victoria crosses on the next Q-ship commanded by Campbell, HMS Dunraven. A much fiercer battle and one that the Q-ship lost when her identity was revealed. That action involved the crew holding position and waiting for the U-boat to close while the ship was on fire. However the U-boat failed to take the bait and left after causing enough damage to sink the Q-ship.

Image credits:
vrakdykking.com, nickoftimemktg.files.wordpress.com and www.wrecksite.eu