The ‘rag-tag and bobtail of the seas’
On 30 July 1918 a U-boat sighted a ship on a westbound course some 25 miles or so off the south Devon coast in the English Channel.
She had happened upon Stock Force, a modern steel-built collier of only 732 tons, launched in 1917, one of the little ‘rag-tag and bobtail of the seas’, under the command of Harold Auten. (1) Steaming westward without convoy, the Stock Force, though small, was better than nothing for a U-boat half-way through a hitherto unsuccessful war patrol.
At 5pm the U-boat launched a torpedo whose track was spotted by the crew of Stock Force, who tried their best to port the helm and put the engines full speed astern. Even so, they could not avoid the incoming torpedo, which struck their ship on the starboard side forward. The explosion caused a ‘tremendous shower’ of timber and a 40-foot hole in her side, and she began to settle down by the bows, with five men injured. (2) There was nothing for it but for the crew to put the long-rehearsed ‘abandon ship’ order into effect.
Not all the crew got away. There were some left behind . . . with five wounded taken below decks by the surgeon, working ‘up to his waist in water’, to have their hurts attended to. (3)
The U-boat surfaced half a mile distant and watched for some 15 minutes as the crew pulled away, then drew closer to investigate on the port beam, perhaps considering why, as you might too, why a modern vessel, and a collier at that, was throwing up such a shower of timber.
Thus began one of the most well-known duels between a U-boat and a Q-ship. In a sense Stock Force was indeed coasting in home waters, but she was on patrol in the hope of attracting just such attention from a U-boat. The timber was ballast bolted into her hold to keep her afloat in the event of being torpedoed – ‘floatation planks’. (4)
The men who got away were a ‘panic party’ for show: the remainder of a crew larger than usual for a collier of her size were now busy dropping all pretence along with her false sides as they opened fire with the ship’s hidden guns, minus her forward gun and some of the ammunition – the gun had been knocked out of action and the ammunition blown up in the explosion. One man was pinned underneath the forward gun and remained there ‘cheerfully and without complaint’ (5) while in a very real situation of danger. Nevertheless, forty minutes after the torpedo had struck, the Stock Force was engaging her enemy.
They were all naval men wearing the clothes of merchant seamen, and such was the level of pretence there was even a ‘Board of Lies’ aboard the vessel, so that every man knew the story of each patrol by heart to account for the greater crew complement – the extra men were supposedly crew of one or more mined vessels (always mined, never torpedoed, to avoid the risk of the story not checking out).
The Stock Force continued to attack the U-boat, inflicting so much damage upon her periscope, conning tower, and finally also tearing a hole in the submarine’s hull. They ‘poured shell after shell until the submarine sank by the stern, leaving a quantity of debris on the water.’ (6) In turn the ferocity of the action contributed to the Stock Force‘s own demise and the water gained on them even as they tried to nurse her back towards land.
As Auten would later put it: ‘ . . . it was particularly hard to have got her almost within sight of land – the shore was only eight miles away – and then to lose her’ as ‘poor little Stock Force sank to her last home’. (7) She sank at 9.25pm with the crew taken off by two torpedo boats and a trawler. (8)
Another story of mutually assured destruction on the high seas? Not quite. There was more to the tale of the Stock Force than met the eye. Few, if any, details emerged of the action in the press, with greater prominence being given to other successes against U-boats, for example off the east coast by a British submarine and in the English Channel by a yacht (9) The key detail widely extracted in the press from a statement by David Lloyd George in Parliament was that U-boat losses now stood at 150. (10)
Details began to trickle out with crew honours gazetted, divorced from any context and prefaced only by the words that ‘The King has been graciously pleased to award the following honours . . . ‘ (11) Auten was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part commanding the action. Immediately after the war, details emerged of the Stock Force in action and it was there that the ‘kill’ of the submarine came to light. (12) The story was then widely taken up in the press, with double-page spreads and artists’ dramatic impressions of the U-boat upended and sinking below the waves, even as Auten and his crew met the public aboard Q-ship Suffolk Coast on tour. (13)
The lost U-boat was originally attributed to U-98, which can, however, be placed south of Norway with the sinking of Alkor on 31 July and was surrendered on 16 January 1919. The attacking submarine was UB-80, which sank only to rise again, for once again she was out on patrol in September 1918 following repairs and surrendered to Italy on 26 November 1918, but it is unsurprising that at the time she was credibly believed to have been lost. Both were broken up in the UK and Italy respectively. (14)
So, after all, there is only one ship on the seabed off the south coast of Devon as a result of the action of 30 July 1918. Camouflaged in service, the Stock Force also remained camouflaged on the seabed following her demise and was attributed to two different sites, both also probably contemporary war losses, before being identified in 2011 in a location much more consistent with Auten’s description of the position of loss than the previous two candidates, at some 7 miles SW off the Bolt Tail, Devon. (15)
Or is there? We will continue the story of Stock Force across this week as we commemorate the centenary of one of the most well-known of all Q-ship incidents and its significant contribution to the maritime heritage of Devon.
[With many thanks to Steve Mortimer and John Butland for their very kind help in telling this story over the week.]
(1) Intertitle, Q-Ships, 1928, New Era Productions
(2) Auten, Lt Commander Harold, 1919, Q-boat Adventures London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd; Keble Chatterton, E, 1922 Q-Ships and their Story London: Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd
(3) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695
(4) Auten 1919; Keble Chatterton 1922
(5) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695
(7) Auten 1919
(8) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695
(9) for example, Hull Daily Mail, 21 August 1918, No.10,265, p2, Gloucestershire Echo, 9 August 1918, extra, p1
(10) for example, Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle, 9 August 1918, No.7,167, p4
(11) London Gazette, 13 September 1918, No.30,900, p10,847
(12) London Gazette, 19 November 1918, No.31,021, p13,695
(13) The Sphere, 14 December 1918, No.986, pp196-197
(15) UKHO 18017; Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment records 832147, 832260, and 832265