Lest We Forget
Q Ships -About Them
Compiled and copyright © Tom Tulloch-Marshall - 2001
"Tom, Im done, throw me overboard"
"Q Ships are decoys .. obviously unarmed and an easy pray to the submarine .. the ships are manned by volunteers the very best and the very bravest that our sea service can produce" (Sir Eric Geddes, First Lord of The Admiralty).
Every so often I am asked to carry out some research which, on the face of it, looks to be quite straightforward, - only to find that there is some fairly intriguing "story" buried away in the detail. In this case I had been asked to search for the service record of Able Seaman 201483 Alfred Preece RN who had served during the Great War, but about whom little else was known. Fairly straightforward, but there was something about Alfreds records which attracted attention
Initial searches brought to light a fairly interesting record. Alfred was born on the 2nd of October 1882 at Northfleet, Kent and enlisted in the Royal Navy on the 10th of October 1898. He was to become a career sailor and was essentially a "big ship" man, with service aboard (amongst others) the Dreadnought "Agincourt", the Cruisers "Minotaur" and "Royal Arthur", and the Battleships "Hannibal" and "Ocean". But what particularly caught my eye was Alfreds final posting, because it just looked to be such an unlikely name for one of His Majestys vessels the "Ethel & Millie".
It was also clear from the service record that the Ethel & Millie had been sunk by enemy action, but intriguingly she didnt appear in standard reference works such as "British Vessels Lost At Sea". However, casting the net a bit wider soon began to bring up possible leads. The Ethel & Millie appears in the indexes to Admiralty correspondence and the Admiralty files at the Public Record Office, and several printed works do in fact refer to her normally linking her with another boat of the same type called "Nelson". Ethel & Millie and Nelson were Lowestoft Smacks, fishing boats, and further investigations were to reveal that the action during which both of them were sunk was in fact a "famous" one. Unfortunately this action was also to prove to have a very tragic aspect.
Ethel & Millie and Nelson were real fishing boats, they did go fishing and they caught fish and brought it to port in the normal way. But that wasnt their real purpose in life; these Smacks were sprats to catch a mackerel. They were two of the smallest of the so-called "Q Ships", sailing vessels taken over by the Admiralty and fitted with engines and a single concealed gun, and crewed by a mixture of Royal Navy and Royal Naval Reserve men the latter normally being fishermen by trade. German Submarines were wreaking havoc amongst the British North Sea fishing fleet so these small boats were sent to mingle with the normal "sail only" ships and wait for the enemy to surface; submarines wouldnt "waste" any of their expensive and limited supply of torpedoes on the small unarmed fishing boats, but would simply pick them off with their deck guns.
But come up too close to a "gun smack" and a U-Boat crew could find themselves in serious trouble. The fishing boats engine would be started and she would become manoeuvrable; a buoy would be tied to the net line and the fishing gear thrown overboard. Simultaneously the gun covers would be dropped and the gun crew would hurry to action, and, almost piraticaly, the White Ensign would be raised and the enemy engaged. Gun smacks were almost always out-gunned by the submarines and had inferior speed, but they were relatively manoeuvrable and did not present too large a target for the German gunners. They had enjoyed some spectacular successes, such as an action at the beginning of 1917 which had involved two men who were later to play a significant role in events at the time of the sinking of the Ethel & Millie and Nelson; Thomas Crisp and Charles William Manning.
At the beginning of 1917 German submariners had still to cotton-on to the use of fishing smacks in the role of "Q Ships", and on the 1st of February that year (the day after Germany declared virtually unrestricted submarine warfare) two over-confident U-Boat Commanders decided to try their luck with a pair of Smacks trawling the North Sea seventeen miles south-east of Southwold, about thirty miles from Lowestoft. They picked the wrong boats.
At first only one of the submarines surfaced. It came up about 300 yards from the smack "Boy Alfred" (Skipper Wharton) and hailed, at the same time firing their machine-gun at the fishing boat. Wharton went to the bow and feigned deafness, at which point the submarine dived, came forward about 200 yards, and again surfaced. Wharton had meanwhile engaged his motor and had begun to manoeuvre to engage the enemy, and now had two crewmen standing infront of his unconcealed twelve pounder gun to shield it from sight of the submarines bridge. A hail from the conning tower told Wharton to abandon ship as he was to be torpedoed Boy Alfreds answer was a shell straight into the submarines hull, followed by another which penetrated the conning tower and exploded inside. The U-Boat keeled over and went down by the head; the third time that Wharton and his crew had sent an enemy submarine on its final dive.
Meanwhile, the second submarine had approached the smack "Ill Try" (Skipper Crisp), staying submerged with only its periscope showing. Presumably unaware of events a short distance away this U-Boat played a cat-and-mouse game with Skipper Crisp until eventually its Commander brought it to the surface about 200 yds away. Ill Trys crew immediately opened fire with their deck mounted 13 pounder, blowing pieces off the sub, but at the same time watching in horror as the trail of a torpedo streaked towards them. The torpedo was running too deep and passed under the smack, but no such luck would fall the U-Boats way; it went down bellowing bubbles and an ever expanding oil-slick. A first "kill" for Crisp and his crew. Wharton was awarded the Bar to his DSC for this action, and Crisp the DSC.
This was an impressive performance by the crews of the two small boats and as a direct result of their success of February 1st the Admiralty pressed for an urgent increase in the fishing "Q" force. On the 15th of the month Commodore-in-Charge Naval Base Lowestoft wrote to the Secretary to the Admiralty and advised him of a further four Lowestoft Smacks "taken up" and equipped "for service against submarines", and crewed by RN and RNR volunteer crews. The C-I-C also advised the Admiralty that the names of all smacks "will constantly be altered for disguise purposes."
In accordance with this re-naming policy Skipper Crisps boat "Ill Try" now came to be called the "Nelson", and Whartons "Boy Alfred" became the "Ethel & Millie". Wharton moved on to other things, and Crisps 2nd Hand at the time of the February action, Charles William Manning, was appointed Skipper and took command of the Ethel & Millie. One of his crew on the E&M was Able Seaman Alfred Preece the sailor whose service record had first prompted this search.
The spring and summer of 1917 passed fairly uneventfully for the crews of the two smacks, but on the 15th of August they were to encounter the enemy again, this time with disastrous results. The action on this day was also to lead to the award of Britains highest gallantry award; the Victoria Cross. It would also lead to the breaking of some the secrecy surrounding the "Q" boats because the event was considered to be a significant demonstration of the bravery of the crews of the "mystery ships", which the public should be aware of, and it was decided that the Prime Minister himself would announce the matter in the House of Commons. "The House" and the press were however only told part of the story, and even the Board of Inquiry held aboard the Monitor HMS Havestock at the Naval Base at Lowestoft later during August failed to grasp the entire significance of what had happened. It would be some time before the full significance of events dawned, and inevitably they would be "covered-up". This was most definitely not for public consumption.
At about 2.45pm on Wednesday August 15th 1917 the Nelson and Ethel & Millie, sailing together as usual, had their nets "shot" over the Jim Howe Bank. Another quiet days fishing, until Second Hand Thomas W.Crisp, below deck on the Nelson, heard his father Thomas cry out "Submarine !", as almost simultaneously a shell landed about 100 yards from the port bow. The Nelson was being attacked by the German mine-laying submarine UC63, which was about three or four miles distant and coming towards them from the northwest. Skipper Crisp immediately ordered the nets to be thrown and, despite the fact that UC63 was well beyond the range of his inadequate deck gun, ordered fire on the submarine. There was nothing else he could do; escape was impossible and the U-Boats commander was not going to fall prey to the brazen type of close-range attack which had caused the demise of earlier submarine crews. At this point the Ethel & Millie was about 100 yards farther away from the submarine.
The fourth shot from UC63 got the range and went through Nelsons port bow just below the waterline. Nelson was now doomed but Crisp kept ordering fire, which the gun crew continued to do until their boat had listed so badly that they couldnt get sufficient elevation on their gun. The seventh round from UC63 hit Skipper Crisp, the shell severing both his legs and partially disembowelling him before passing through the deck and out through the hull. Second Hand Crisp took control of the Nelson and tried to make headway, but she was making water fast and sinking, and still the UC63 was bearing down on them firing its deck gun.
A carrier pigeon was released with the hastily scribbled massage "Nelson being attacked by submarine. Skipper killed. Jim Howe Bank. Send assistance at once.", but the bird simply circled the boat and wouldnt fly off. A second, then third pigeon were released, but none of them would leave until Crisp released the fourth and final bird, and they all flew off together. Nelson was now down to five rounds of ammunition and in any case her gunner could no longer get a line of sight on the submarine and the boat was going down fast. Second Hand Crisp now ordered the crew to lower the small boat and abandon ship, asking his mortally wounded father if they should try to get him aboard the life-raft. According to Thomas Junior (in evidence to the Admiralty Board of Inquiry) his father replied "No, throw me overboard", but "This I would not do so we had to leave him on board the smack as he was in too bad a condition to be moved". (Private George Cox, RMLI, was to say that Crisps words were "Tom, Im done, throw me overboard", and the gunner, Percival Ross, also went to see if he could do anything for the Skipper; he was to tell the inquiry that Crisp told him "Its all right boy, do your best."). Nelson sank within fifteen minutes, taking Thomas Crisp with her.
Up till the point when the Nelson sank the UC63 had directed all her fire at her, but now the more distant Ethel & Millie became the focus of their attention. Thomas Crisp, and other members of Nelsons crew, would tell the Board of Enquiry that as they rowed away from their sinking boat the E&M hailed them and told them to come aboard, "but we would not go", and Crisp and his men continued to row away towards the south east. The crew of the E&M were firing at the UC63 for all they were worth, but their 6 pounder deck gun was useless at the range involved. There was to be contradictory evidence about what exactly happened next, Thomas Crisp said he saw one shell hit the E&M, as did Leading Seaman Percival Ross (Nelsons gunner) and Leading Seaman Edward Hale, but Private George Cox of the Royal Marine Light Infantry (on Nelsons crew) was to say that at the point where E&M had hailed them "Our mate sent a signal telling the E&M to fight the action out. They abandoned ship shortly afterwards. In my opinion there was no damage done to the E&M whatever." Crisp was of the opinion that the E&M had used all their ammunition, and presumably were now just sitting-ducks.
Meanwhile, Crisp and his men carried on rowing for all they are worth and continued to draw away from the E&M and the fast approaching UC63. They could see that the entire crew of the E&M have now got into their small boat and are also rowing away from their own boat, but the submarine is much closer to Skipper Manning and his crew and was now heading towards their life-raft, shortly drawing alongside. "We saw the submarines crew line the E&Ms crew up on the submarines foredeck." reported Crisp, and the Germans then tied the smacks boat up astern of the submarine and turned away towards the E&M which was being blown yet further away from Crisp and his men. Manning and his crew were now prisoners, but Crisp and his men may just get away.
A mist began to settle and Crisp and his crew were losing sight of the UC63 as she caught up with the drifting and crewless E&M, but immediately after that they saw a billow of smoke in that direction and presumed that the E&M had been sunk by a bomb or the like (they heard nothing because of the wind direction and distance). They continued to row overnight and the following morning spotted a buoy, but couldnt reach it as the wind was carrying them eastwards faster than they could row towards the west. About 3pm that day they spotted the old Gunboat HMS "Dryad", which at that time was operating as a minesweeper out of Lowestoft, but "He came in sight of us and then directed his course to the northwest and went out of sight." (Dryad had in fact signalled Lowestoft Naval Base at 11.20am that morning; "Dreadnaught reports smack Friendship picked up pigeon 10pm last night from Ethel & Millie with message attacked by submarine Jim Howe 2/10. I have patrolled area since 4.30am but have not met Ethel Millie.")
A group of minesweepers then came in sight of the lifeboat but didnt see them. "All the time we had a large piece of oilskin and pair of trousers tied on two oars to attract attention, but they did not see us." so they continued to row westwards all night as hard as they could. They saw some smacks on Friday morning but could not get close enough as they were moving away too fast. They spotted the Jim Howe Bank buoy and tied up to it about 10.30am in the morning, and HMS Dryad found them about 1.45pm the same afternoon Crisp had climbed onto the buoy and was waving his handkerchief to attract them. Dryad signalled Lowestoft Naval Base at 2.19pm on the 17th. "Picked up crew of Nelson at Jim Howe. Skipper killed remainder all right. Crew of Ethel & Millie reported aboard submarine."
The evening of 31st October 1917 was as near perfect as Captain Albert P Addison RN could have hoped for. A fine clear sky with just a smattering of cloud, hardly a breath of wind, and sea conditions in the English Channel which mariners refer to as "slight". A routine day for Addison, whose boat was tied up at its usual berth alongside HMS Arrogant at Dover (Arrogant was a dated Cruiser now acting as a submarine support vessel, and doubling as flagship for the Dover Patrol). His duty crew had spent the day cleaning up and dealing with minor maintenance and everyone was ready for another night patrolling the Channel in search of any of the enemy who may try to slip through under cover of darkness. His Majestys Submarine E52 and her crew were ready for action.
Moorings were slipped at 4.24 in the afternoon and the navigating officer guided the E52 through the harbour entrance to rendezvous with the Destroyer escort which was waiting immediately outside, the pair then steaming off into the channel till they reached the patrol departure point at "No7 Buoy". A blast on the Destroyers horn and a wave from E52s conning tower and they parted. Addison would follow routine for weather like this and cruise on the surface unless he absolutely had to dive; he could cruise faster and further and more importantly he could spot possible targets at far greater range. Anything "enemy" was fair game, but what he really wanted was an Unterseeboot. The U Boat was a special "prize".
Oberleutenant Karsten von Heydebreck and his crew had completed another successful cruise and it was time for home. UC63 was coming in from the western channel and Heydebreck used his usual method of negotiating the dangerous Straights of Dover, holding tight to the coast on the English side and diving deep enough to pass under the defensive boom which stretched out to sea. Once safely through he surfaced, and under cover of darkness started the final leg of his ninth cruise in the UC63. Heydebreck had commanded the boat ever since she had entered service and had now accounted for over thirty-six thousand tons of allied shipping, a "respectable" tally for a sub whose primary function was mine-laying.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Fritz Marshal was a butcher by trade. He was born on the 18th of September 1895 and lived in Anklam, Pomerania. Called up for naval service on the 31st of October 1913 he served on torpedo boats till April 1914, when he transferred to the Destroyer V.187, then had various transfers until he went to the submarine service during July 1916. Marshal was the PO on UC63s bridge look-out late during the night of 31st October 1917, together with Officer of the Watch Streuermann (Navigating Officer) Glatzel and an Able Seaman. A later report on Marshal by the British Department of Naval Intelligence would say that he "Does not appear to be very intelligent". Maybe he wasnt a "very intelligent" man, but he was just about to become a very lucky one.
Marshal had the starboard to bow watch, Streuermann Glatzel had taken the port to bow side, and the Able Seaman was keeping an eye astern. It wasnt a desperately unpleasant night by any means, but it was bitterly cold and at about 1am on the morning of November 1st Glatzel sent the Seaman below to fetch some warming coffee. UC63 was now about 16 miles east of the British barrage. At this point the Chief Engineer, a man called Danker, came up onto bridge and, according to Marshal, the two officers chatted and did not pay attention to the surrounding sea. It was a fatal lapse of attention; Captain Addison logged sighting of a German submarine off his port bow at 1.12am and had ordered hard a-port to attack.
Marshal was distracted by the officers talk and, though mindful of his position, chanced a look round. The sight that met his eyes turned him cold " an English submarine proceeding on the surface and apparently turning to bring the bow tubes into action." E52 had caught the UC63 silhouetted against the moon. Addison was turning fast and had brought the range down to less than 450 yards; the E52 was within killing range, well within killing range.
Marshal called a warning, he couldnt recall what exactly but it would be the shout of a desperate man; UC63s helm was immediately pulled over and he sensed that the boat had just started to turn, but Addison had ordered "FIRE" at 1.14am and two Mk V111 torpedoes from the E52s bow tubes were already streaking the short distance towards the UC63. The first struck amidships, - and failed to explode, but moments later the second slammed home and tore the Unterseeboot apart. The shock of the explosion was so violent that it triggered the firing mechanism of E52s beam torpedo, which thankfully didnt explode and ran its course in the Channel.
Fritz Marshal was hurled across the UC63s bridge and, hitting parts of the superstructure on the way, was thrown into the sea. His chin was split open and he was badly knocked-about and lost several teeth, but he was still alive. He says he saw one of the German officers in the water (he didnt know who), but he "went down" before anyone reached him. Marshal told Naval Intelligence that he was fifteen minutes in the water before he was picked up by E52, though Addison logged the patrol as resuming at 1.24am on November 1st. The difference is neither here nor there, and it is probably more interesting to note that Marshal said that he was treated with "great kindness" whilst he was aboard the E52. Once his interrogations were completed Marshal was sent to the Pow camp at Frongoch; he told the Admiralty interrogator nothing of any significance.
Captain Addison and his crew resumed their patrol, without further incident. At 6.13am on November 1st they were back at "No7A buoy" with their Destroyer escort in sight, and by 7.33am they were tying-up at HMS Arrogant. Skipper Thomas Crisp, VC DSC, had been avenged. (By almost uncanny coincidence, the citation to Thomas Crisps VC was published in the London Gazette of November 2nd 1917).
Seven missing men
On the 18th of August the next of kin of the crew of the Ethel & Millie had been notified that the men were "missing", and the Admiralty now waited to receive notification of their Prisoner of War status from the Germans through the normal channels. Nothing happened until activity seemed to be prompted by Mrs Manning (Skipper Mannings wife) who queried her £2 per week Pows allowance with the Lowestoft Base on the 23rd of November 1917, and Lowestoft chased the Admiralty for any firm news of the missing crew.
It seems that more active enquiries were now made via the Swiss authorities as there are Foreign Office index references to the Pow status of the crew of Ethel & Millie at the PRO. Unfortunately the actual papers referred to have been "weeded" from the FO files and there is no record of specifically how the situation was addressed. The service records of the Royal Navy men aboard E&M throw no great light on the situation, but the records of the RNR men, Gibson, Soames, Lewis, and Thompson, all carry a note which is almost identically worded in each case. Skipper Manning and his crew had been taken prisoner by the crew of the UC63 and the last time they had been seen alive they were lined-up on the foredeck of the German submarine as it went into the mist in pursuit of the drifting Smack. What actually happened to them can only be guessed at, but the Admiralty marked the RNR mens records as follows:-
"In reply to enquiries made by the Admiralty, the German government state that no members of the crew of HM Smack Ethel & Millie were taken prisoner on board the submarine, that nothing is known as to their fate. In these circumstances it has been decided to regard (the sailors name) as having lost his life on 16/8/17."
The mens next of kin were advised that their death was now presumed, but just how this change from Pow status might have been explained is unclear. In his statement to Parliament the PM made no mention of the E&M in relation to the Nelson / UC63 action and the "official" account which appeared in the press on the 3rd of November 1917 gave no hint that any boat other than the Nelson was involved in the action. Whilst the Admiralty papers at the PRO are quite clear that the pigeon message reporting the submarine attack was received from the Ethel & Millie, later "unofficial" accounts say that this message was received from the Nelson, - in fact "Red Cock", the pigeon concerned, survived the war and upon its death was stuffed and displayed at the Imperial War Museum in this guise. Again, no mention was made of the involvement of the E&M and her crew, and as with so much in wartime, the "truth" was buried away in the official records.
Sources; (all PRO) RN and RNR service records, Admiralty correspondence, Foreign Office indexes, Court of Enquiry records, prisoner interrogation reports, submarine log books.
© Tom Tulloch-Marshall 2001
Last updated 15 August, 2008