Diary of the War: July 1918 (continued)

1918/1928

Q-ship Stock Force was the only ship to sink off the coast of Devon on 30th July 1918, despite her best efforts to sink the attacking U-boat. In fact it seems she may have been the only Allied vessel to have sunk anywhere in the world that day (although there were some unsuccessful U-boat attacks on the same day that damaged, but did not sink, the victims). (1)

Yet it could be said that Stock Force was not the only ship which sank as a result of that day’s engagement. There was a (very) delayed knock-on effect which came about through the post-war publicity generated by news of the event and the celebrity attached to her successor Suffolk Coast, which went on tour with the same crew. There were many popular naval memoirs, too, including Auten’s own. (2)

This suggested that even in the crowded market of wartime films a movie on the theme of Q-ships would be popular, and it was announced in late 1927. (3)

Its authenticity was a major selling point: ‘Reality and not “fake” will be the keynote of this production’. (4) Genuine and re-enactment footage were spliced together: as a review stated, ‘It is difficult to know at times when the “official topical” finishes and when the reconstruction of today starts, so fine is the production work and the editing.’ (5)

Harold Auten was a key stakeholder in the production: the film was largely based on his  Q-boat Adventures and Stock Force‘s final battle, he was the film’s naval consultant, and he and five of his crew also reprised their wartime roles ten years on for the purposes of the film, together with ‘the actual gun’ from Stock Force.

Historic black and white photograph of two men in shabby merchant seamen's clothes, shaking hands in front of a gun.
William Butland, Chief Petty Officer of Stock Force (l), and Harold Auten (r), her commanding officer, shake hands during filming. By kind permission of the Butland family.

After all, they had form as actors in keeping up the role of merchant seamen for months on end while on the lookout for U-boats! A U-boat captain, Hermann Rohne, was taken on board as U-boat consultant, while Earl Jellicoe played himself as Admiral Jellicoe of Jutland fame.

The cast was the easy part. Re-enacting naval engagements was much harder, with a number of practical hurdles to overcome. First of all, the 1917-built Southwick replaced Stock Force, now at the bottom of the sea.

There were no longer any genuine U-boats, which had all been surrendered in 1918-19 and broken up in the early 1920s as directed by the Treaty of Versailles. However, two obsolete submarines were placed on the disposal list in 1927 and H-52 was accordingly purchased by producer E Gordon Craig as a stand-in for a U-boat.

She was intended to be sunk in a set-piece battle off the Eddystone in January 1928. but she was very nearly wrecked en route to being sunk (and in this resembles the real U-boats so often taken in tow post-war for breaking, when the sea accomplished the task intended for the breaker’s yard: see our previous post on this subject).

Under tow out to sea, she missed the harbourmaster’s launch by inches, crashed into a jetty without somehow managing to set off the demolition explosives with which she was packed, then broke tow. Arriving on location, they were forced to turn back and nearly lost the craft again when she went aground. (6)

On the final successful attempt, the submarine lay off the Eddystone, while guns from the Southwick, representing the Stock Force, fired 8 rounds into H-52, sinking the submarine and reversing the fortunes of the original event. ‘There was a sudden explosion and a high column of smoke and debris as the submarine blew up just fore of the conning tower. One hundred pounds of TNT had been stacked in her for this realistic touch, and this was set off by an electric lead to the naval boat.’ (7)

The wreck has been charted ever since January 1928, and has a detached bow and associated debris field consistent with her manner of loss. (8) 

She joined a long heritage of naval vessels being repurposed at the end of their service lives – from 17th century accounts of wooden sailing vessels being used as foundations for new harbours, to 20th century warships and submarines being expended as gunnery targets, to the sinking of HMS Scylla as an artificial reef in 2004, but being expended for a film re-enactment is perhaps a little more unusual!

Another elderly vessel of mercantile origin, the schooner Amy, was also purchased to stand in for the schooner Prize in the film (the German schooner Else captured as a prize of war on 4 August 1914, hence her change of name). Prize was converted into a Q-ship and underwent three actions, being lost with all hands on her last battle with a U-boat. (The National Maritime Museum holds a watercolour of one of her previous actions.)

Amy was described as having been ‘one of the oldest sailing ships afloat’, built at Banff and 65 years of age on her first and last appearance on screen. This seems to refer to the Banff-built schooner Amy, official no.62443, which was, in fact, built in 1870 (and so was ‘only’ 58) and whose register was closed in 1928. (9)

Far from being a potential candidate for preservation, this ‘Grand Old Lady of the Sea’ (10) was selected to represent Prize in her final battle, which can also be viewed as an elegy for the sailing vessel in the light of the havoc wrought by the First World War.

Text at top right reads: New Era Presents Q-Ships. Special Exclusive Season, Marble Arch Pavilion, A Gaumont-British theatre. To left a silhouetted ship in full sail against a sunset and outlined clouds on red waves, with small U-boat just visible emerging from the sea to right below the text.
Front cover of Q-Ships souvenir programme. This striking image conveys at one and the same time the impending destruction of a sailing ship from the U-boat (seen bottom right) and the sunset of the sailing vessel in the aftermath of the First World War. © Historic England Archive

She too was sunk ‘in action’ off the Bill of Portland in February 1928, and again it took several attempts, blamed on the removal of her figurehead as a souvenir. Much was made of this in the press, with superstitious sailors saying that to be successfully sunk she should have her figurehead with its ‘lucky squint’ reinstated! If nothing else, it was certainly a good story to drum up interest in the film. (11)

Amy has also been consistently charted at her position of loss since 1928 and has a unique place in the maritime heritage of England’s Channel coast. In being expended for re-enactment purposes, she can lay claim perhaps to being the final (indirect) victim of the First World War at sea in English waters (there were other direct post-war losses but we will cover that in a future edition of Wreck of the Week). She is also a rare, if not unique, example of the wreck of a Victorian sailing vessel documented in the early days of 20th century film. And finally, she has the sad distinction of being a counterpart to a genuine wartime loss, whose remains are yet to be discovered.

The Q-Ships film created – and documented in the very creation – a heritage of its own.

 

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-1918, facsimile edition, 1990, London: Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd; uboat.net

(2) Q-boat Adventures, 1919, London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd.

(3) Western Morning News, Friday 25 November 1927, No.21,115, p5; Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 2 December 1927, No.3,114, p14

(4) Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 2 December 1927, No.3,114, p14

(5) The Stage, Thursday 28 June 1928, No.2,465, p24

(6) Western Morning News, Monday 2 January 1928, No.21,146, p5

(7) Belfast News Letter, Wednesday 4 January 1928, no issue number, p7

(8) UKHO 17584

(9) Entry for Amy on www.clydeships.co.uk

(10) New Era Presents: Q-Ships souvenir programme, 1928

(11) Dundee Courier, Monday 26 March 1928, No.23,340 p5

 

 

Diary of the War, July 1918

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.

Contemporary black and white photograph of merchant seamen, two men in foreground, with gun in background being manned by crew to right.
Manning the gun. Image courtesy of the Butland family, descendants of William Butland, Chief Petty Officer on board Stock Force.

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)

Pencil drawing of docklands, with barges in foreground and to right a submarine and ship are berthed alongside one another.
HM Q-Ship Suffolk Coast and U-155, Deutschland, St. Katherine’s Dock, London, 1918. Ministry of Information Commission, Scheme 2 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1496)

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

(6) ibid.

(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

(14) U-98 https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/?boat=98 UB-80 https://uboat.net/wwi/boats/successes/ub80.html

(15) UKHO 18017; Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment records 832147, 832260, and 832265