The RFA's that weren't
The RFA's that weren't
Decoys and Dummies of World War Two
James R. Smith
The RFA Cover-Names Q-Ships
Small merchantmen armed with concealed guns which could be quickly unmasked when they were stopped by an enemy submarine had been in service as decoys, or Q-Ships, as early as November 1914. Perhaps the first successful Q-Ship was the collier PRINCE CHARLES which managed to sink U-36 off the Orkneys on 24 July 1915. During the course of World War One a total of eleven enemy submarines were sunk, forty two were seriously damaged and a further forty three were slightly damaged.
Commander Gordon Campbell, Royal Navy enjoyed notable success in this field, earning himself a VC and a DSO in the process. After Munich, when it became apparent that another conflict was inevitable, the idea of the Q-Ships was again revived within the Admiralty and a Committee which included Campbell, who was now a Vice -Admiral, met on 11 July 1939 to discuss the whole question. The agenda for this meeting consisted of the following points:
- 1. areas of operation
- 2. types of ship to be employed
- 3. number of ships to be employed in each area of operation
- 4. area of operation
- 5. where the ships were to be based
- 6. names of available ships
- 7. where the ships were to be fitted out
- 8. the armament arrangements
- 9. methods of concealing the armament
- 10. devices for changing disguises
- 11. methods of ensuring flotation
- 12. crews required and how they were to be selected
Hitler invaded Poland and Britain went to War again before much action could be taken, but within days the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, gave Campbell, by now recalled from retirement for "Miscellaneous Service", authority to requisition a number of merchantmen for service as Q-Ships, although for security reasons there were referred to as Special Service Freighters.
HMS ORCHY used the cover name of RFA ANTOINE
They were to be used partly as a counter to the renewed submarine threat but also partly to attempt to decoy the enemy surface raiders. Unfortunately the Ministry of Shipping (later the MOWT) was somewhat reluctant to part with any modern vessels due to a shortage of tonnage and Campbell (and later his successor Rear Admiral G. W. Taylor) had a fleet of nine (later increased to ten) small vessels which had been built between 1917 and 1936 and which were mainly coal burners and not really suitable for their intended roles allocated to him.
HMS CITY OF DURBAN used the cover name of RFA BRUTUS
It was decided that six vessels would be required for deep sea oceanic work, while a further three vessels would be required for coastal work. As a result, eight of these vessels were requisitioned from their commercial owners while the ninth one was already a HM patrol craft. (The tenth vessel was a French ship which was later handed over to the Admiralty by her commander). The vessels were as follows:
for deep sea oceanic work:
CITY OF DURBAN
for coastal work:
HMS PC 74
The final vessel was LE RHIN, not included in the text as she was not one of the original planned groups.
After requisitioning they were sent to naval dockyards for the necessary fitting out to be undertaken.
HMS CAPE SABLE used the cover name RFA CYPRUS
All were commissioned as HM ships under their original names, but on completion of conversion they were given Royal Fleet Auxiliary cover names. On entering and while in harbour they wore the Blue Ensign and behaved as RFA's and adopted the RFA commercial practices.
HMS KING GRUFFYDD used the cover name RFA MAUNDER
|Commissioned Name||RFA Cover Name|
HMS CAPE HOWE
HMS CAPE SABLE
HMS CITY OF DURBAN
HMS KING GRUFFYDD
HMS WILLAMETTE VALLEY
HMS PC 74
HMS PC 74 used the cover name of RFA CHATSGROVE
All were given new Official Numbers and commercial call signs, but in addition they were assigned pennant numbers, ordinary secret call signs and five other special secret call signs. Their conversion included the fitting of an impressive armament outfit: a number of Mk 2 7-inch guns, 12 pdr. guns, Lewis machine guns, depth charges, 21-inch torpedo tubs and some of them were even fitted with Asdic. The effectiveness of the concealing arrangements for the armament was proved on at least two occasions when two of the ships were boarded by parties from a French AMC and a British Warship - the boarding parties failed to discover the armament while their mother ships lay stopped at point blank range. Had the Q-ships been German raiders, the French and British ships might well have suffered the subsequent fate of HMAS SYDNEY.
HMS CAPE HOWE used the cover name of RFA PRUNELLA
The general tactics which had been decided upon were that the Special Service Freighters, when operating with a convoy, should be stationed at the rear of the convoy on the wing. This was so that:
1. the freighter could keep a listening watch to give warning of an attack.
2. after an attack the freighter could obtain a contact and act as a directing vessel
3. there was a remote possibility of being able to carry out a counter attack.
When the convoys were at a rendezvous or at anchor, the Special Service Freighters were to be placed on the seaward side. They could also of course be stationed some way astern of a convoy in the hope that some enemy submarine commander would regard them as a straggler, to be picked off from the surface.
In general, the oceanic vessels spent a normal cruising period of between 24 - 28 days at sea, followed by 6 days in harbour at short notice for sea when they could stock up with coal etc and then after a 3 month period, the period in harbour would be extended to 14 days to enable boiler cleaning etc. The coastal work vessels were to spend cruise period of about 10 days at sea, followed by 3 to 4 days in harbour at short notice, and then after a 2 month period, the period in harbour would be extended to 8 days. The oceanic vessels main operating areas were the North Atlantic/Caribbean where two further vessels, CITY of DIEPPE (stationed in the West Indies) and CITY of TOKIO (stationed at Freetown) were fitted out as special store ships and munitions carriers with spare torpedoes, etc.
HMS BOTLEA before being purchased by the Admiralty and while using the name of PENTRIDGE HILL used the cover name of RFA LAMBRIDGE
The Q-ships met with a total lack of success in North Atlantic waters and subsequently the larger survivors were sent to the Indian Ocean area in the hope that they might meet with more success there, but again they were unsuccessful due to two main reasons:
- (a) German commanders remembered the lessons of World War One and realised that merchant ships could be rapidly and effectively armed and thus they became unwilling to engage in surface gun actions and went in with the torpedo instead
- (b) the Q-ships were too slow to have much chance of meeting enemy surface raiders and were totally unsuitable for long ocean passages where they saw no action and were over-crowded.
The Admiralty finally decided to discontinue the use of these ships in their role as Q-ships and on 2 March 1941 they sent a signal to the surviving ships to advise them of their decision. Four of the ships, BOTLEA, CAPE SABLE, CITY OF DURBAN and KING GRUFFYDD then openly hoisted the White Ensign and operated as Armed Merchant Cruisers, but again their lack of success and losses led to their early redeployment and by 1 October 1941, all of the survivors had returned to commercial service and again the Q-ship saga came to an end.