The main focus of the British military effort in the Great War was on the Western Front. The other theatres of war were what amounted to costly sideshows - some major - in Africa (East, West and Southwest) the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Salonika.
The British could only prosecute the war in all these theatres of war if a guaranteed uninterrupted supply of material and manpower could be ensured to and from the homeland - Great Britain. And provided that an equally vital unimpeded contact was maintained with Britain's allies, neutral suppliers and the battlefields of the British overseas armies.
Therefore, from the outset of the Great War, it was Britain's and its Allies principal aim to ensure an uninterrupted flow of this material and manpower. And it was the Axis Powers' equally firm intention to interrupt this flow to the maximum extent possible.
A separate consideration for the British was the interdiction of the German maritime supply routes by a naval blockade of the German ports. This aspiration for an efficacious Naval Blockade in time of war is almost as old as the Royal Navy itself. The principal role of the Royal Navy has always been to impose a military and economic blockade on its enemies whilst protecting the Britain's own Merchant Marine trade routes from interruption.
In 1914, the Royal Navy had a battle fleet of 24 modern dreadnought battleships, nine pre-dreadnoughts,10 battlecruisers, around 200 cruisers, a similar number of destroyers and numerous torpedo boats. This fleet continued to grow as the war progressed. There were also 57 submarines - 17 ocean-going and 40 coastal - rising to a total of 137 in service by 1918. Additionally there were the semi-autonomous naval fleets of the Dominions - Canada, Australia and New Zealand. At the outbreak of the Great War these ships were immediately put at the disposal of the Mother country. All in all, numerically, the British Navy was by far the most potent naval force in the world, and would remain so for the duration of the Great War. Technologically, the Germans would maintain their pre-eminence.
Initially, the German Navy's response was to concentrate on attacks on the Royal Navy warships by its warships, 10 operational submarines, numerous torpedo boats, and with the lying of mines. It met with some success. A single submarine, U-9, torpedoed HMS Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue, all armoured cruisers, on the 22nd September 1914 and a German mine off the Irish coast sank HMS Audacious on the 27th October 1914; 1,500 sailors were killed.
The British initial response at the outbreak of war was to withdraw most of the Grand Fleet to the Irish Sea, until the naval bases at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, and Rosythe in Northern Scotland, were considered sufficiently well protected against German warships, submarines and mines. Smaller concentrations of the British Battle Fleet were located around Dover and Harwich in Southeast England and in the Mediterranean.
The submarine factor
As the Rules of Submarine Warfare stood at the outbreak of war, submarines could be used against enemy warships with no restriction - although some commanders on both sides considered their use to be unethical. As for merchant ships, the rules required that the target ship should be stopped, boarded and its status as a belligerent, or a non-belligerent nation established. If the vessel belonged to the enemy, or was transporting material on its behalf, the attackers would allow the ship's crew to take to the ship's lifeboats before using scuttling, torpedoes, gunfire or explosives to sink it. Some ships of the more valuable enemy ships and cargoes would be taken as prizes.
However, these same rules allowed merchant ships to arm themselves against such attacks by submarines, or other craft. During the war, particularly in the latter part, increasing numbers of merchant ships of the belligerent nations were appropriately armed.
Realising the dangers of attacking British warships when compared with the relatively risk-free and highly productive sinking of merchant ships, the Germans quickly targeted some of their available lighter warships and submarines on the British merchantmen. In early 1915, they began a co-ordinated campaign by both warships and submarines against the Allied merchant shipping world wide. The Germans called this campaign the Handelskrieg - Trade Warfare.
At the beginning of the war, submarines of all the belligerents lacked deck guns. So to sink ships they were restricted to using the limited numbers of torpedoes that they could carry aboard, making the mining and/or scuttling of the captured merchant ships by far the preferred option. As the German submarines became progressively armed with deck guns, gunnery became the favoured method of sinking the Allied commercial ships, especially those with smaller tonnage. The small numbers of torpedoes that could be carried on board could then be reserved for the sinking of the larger commercial vessels and warships.
Towards the end of 1914, even before the British Grand Fleet was sequestered in safe harbours, the thoughts of the British naval commanders turned to how the attacks by the German submarines on the British merchant marine could be countered on a global scale. Since the arming of all merchant ships was an impossible immediate proposition, due to the shortage of suitable naval and artillery pieces in the early days of the war, the British decided that stealth might succeed where brute force was not available.
The decoy ships
In November 1914, whilst progressively directing as many destroyers and other smaller craft as could be spared into anti-submarine duty, the British (and French) created the first of a small flotilla of decoy ships to expressly deal with the German U-boats. These ships came to be known as Q-ships. But they were also known as Mystery Ships, Decoy Ships or Special Service Ships. The class designation 'Q' is said to have been derived from the British naval base at Queenstown, in Ireland, where many of these ships were based. The majority of the Royal Navy's Q-ships was quite small in size - less than 4,000 tons - and included sailing ships, tramp steamers, coasters, colliers, fishing boats and marine tugs. They were deliberately kept or made to look old and run down, and usually bore a false name. Often, various false names were used at different times. The ship would often be painted in the colours of neutral nations and the silhouette of the ship changed by additions to the superstructure and by the erection of dummy funnels and masts.
The first Royal Navy Q-ships were armed with three main guns; one 4-inch (102mm) naval gun and two 12-pounder artillery guns and - from 1915 - depth charges. Later in the war the number and calibre of the guns aboard was increased. Additional armaments that were carried on the ships included machine guns, depth charges and, on the later Q-ships, torpedoes.
The guns and other armaments were hidden behind false, hinged, bulwarks, dummy super-structure, deck cargo, and inside deck boats. When the Q-ships became increasingly subject to torpedoing themselves, efforts were made to counteract flooding by installing buoyancy material below decks.
The modus operandi of the Q-ship was simple. It would fly the flag of a non-belligerent (neutral) nation. When approached by a German U-boat, it would play the role of an innocent seafarer: even to the point of lowering in simulated panic a life-boat containing some of the crew in civilian dress, including 'females'. Once the Germans had seized the bait, and had drawn close enough to be able to hail the vessel and board it, or open fire, the crew would raise the White Ensign, proclaiming its nationality, reveal its guns and open fire first. Providing the White Ensign was raised before firing began, the ruse was permissible within the Rules of Submarine Warfare. One must suppose that at some point both sides would begin to feel they were taking part in a dark, dangerous, game of charades with very high stakes indeed.
In November 1914, the first British Q-ship, the British Victoria, went into service, as did the French decoy ship, Marguerite. The Russians and the Italians also employed a small number of decoy ships.
The first successful action of a Q-ship against a U-boat took place in July 1915 when the Prince Charles, a former coaster of 373 tons, sank U-36.
Various sources give the total number of Royal Navy Q-ships in service as between 220 and 400 (probably it was close to 366) and the French 15. The consensus on the number of Royal Navy Q-ships lost in action is 61 - the French losses were two. During the war the British Q-ships and the French decoy ships collectively claimed responsibility for the sinking of 11 U-boats; 30% of all the German submarines that were sank on the surface during the war.
Another British ruse was for a fishing trawler to tow a submerged submarine connected to the trawler by telephone. When the German U-boat approached the decoy, the British submarine would surface and attack the U-boat by gunfire. At least one U-boat fell to this ruse; U-40 in June 1915. The British submarine was C24, which was towed by the Taranaki.
As time passed, and the numbers of Q-ships on the High-Seas increased, the Germans became increasingly wary and frequently avoided approaching close enough to the Q-ship to carry out a surface attack, settling the matter with a long range torpedo shot. Accordingly, the pickings for the Q-ships became slimmer and, despite all the ruses they employed, costly in ships and men. By 1917, the results had declined markedly; although the numbers of Q-ships had increased considerably and included one built specifically for the purpose, i.e. Hyderabad. Even so, U-34 was sunk by Q-19 in 1918.
The toll of the decoy ships
On the face of it, the sinking of only 11 U-boats for a loss of 76 British Q-ships and French decoy ships, and the enormous cost in men and material utilised in mounting the Q-ship campaign, does not seem to give a very worthwhile return. But into the balance of account must be put the psychological and deterrent effect that the campaign had on the German U-boat crews, and thus the inevitable decrease in the amount of despoliation they were able to inflict on Allied and Neutral commercial shipping across the Globe.
The Germans also employed a version of the British Q-ship - the Auxiliary Commerce Raider (ACR). But these ACR's flew the flags of neutral nations at all times and were aimed specifically at surface vessels - predominantly merchant ships. Most were former auxiliary minelayers - so looked like warships, unless disguised - but did include a large sailing ship, the Staedler. This wooden decoy ship was eminently successful in alone claiming 10 ships in the Southern Ocean before it was itself destroyed. Other decoy ships that became famous in the German press were the Mowe and the Wolf.
In addition to the Q-ships, the Royal Navy also mounted rather less stealthy measures by placing heavy cruiser-grade guns on large, fast, former passenger liners. One formation of such ships - The 10th Cruiser Squadron, with 20-Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC's) - was deployed for much of the war in the shipping lanes between Britain and Iceland.
All the major combatant navies used AMC's in the Great War, but Britain's force was considerably the largest. Germany primarily employed its AMC's in an offensive role as Sea and Ocean Commerce Raiders. But by 1915 the Allies had quickly eliminated them. These German AMC's had wrought considerable angst across the Seven Seas whilst they lasted.
Allied losses of AMC's to torpedoes and mines were high, with the French Navy's losses proportionally heavy at 17, whilst the British were 12. Later in the war the Allies used their AMC's widely for troop transportation and as hospital ships.
Smaller British liners were armed and put into service in a whole range of wartime duties as Commissioned Escort Ships (CES's) and Armed Boarding Vessels (ABV's). British merchant ships that were provided with anti-submarine devices were given the general nomenclature of Armed Merchant Ships (AMS's).
The outcome of all this deception, allied with the arming of the merchant and commercial shipping of the belligerent nations, was a ruthless level of warfare that was at least as relentless and destructive as that which was waged on land. The bottoms of the seas and the oceans of the world are still carpeted with the detritus of men, cargo and ships that this merciless war afloat wrought. The tragedy was, 21 years later, when not even a generation had passed, the entire scenario was destined to run again for another five years.