Diary of the War: July 1918 (continued)


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: April 1918


Over the course of the War Diary on this blog, the featured wrecks have illustrated the twists and turns of the war away from the Western Front. Today’s wreck is no exception: the Spanish steamer Luisa, torpedoed by UB-74 off Pendeen lighthouse on 12 April 1918, while bound from Barcelona to Liverpool with a general cargo.

Built in 1897 as the Tyneside collier Minerva, she was sold on into Spanish ownership under the same name in 1899, and ten years later was sold on again to the Cia Naviera Sota y Aznar of Bilbao, who renamed her Aizkarai Mendi. Each ship in their fleet was evocatively named in Euskera (Basque) after a different mountain (mendi) in the Basque country. 

Aizkarai Mendi was sold on once more in 1915 to become Luisa for a family firm whose main business was timber. Spain was neutral during the First World War, a stance which opened up her shipping to commercial opportunities which companies such as Luisa‘s owners Hijos de José Tayà were quick to seize. Bilbao’s exports of iron ore were much in demand from both sides requiring raw materials to turn into war materials, and Luisa became the first in the family’s fleet. (1) The Tayà fleet would go on to expand rapidly over the course of the war with vessels which, like the Luisa, were bought up from other fleets.

As we have seen in previous articles, neutrality was no guarantee of safety at sea, and finding ready markets on both sides carried the risk that the belligerent powers would each seek to hamper the other’s trade, and U-boats began to target Spanish shipping. The news from Madrid broke in Britain a fortnight later, in the context of three Spanish ships ‘sunk in a period of four days’, including the Luisa ‘with a cargo of coal’. (2)

‘The indignation in maritime circles is enormous . . . A very energetic protest has been made to the Government by M. [sic] Señor Taya, the owner of the Luisa, who demands the immediate seizure of all German vessels now lying in Spanish ports.’ The U-boat attacks were attributed to reprisals for the ‘diplomatic check sustained by Germany in the matter of the commercial agreements concluded between Spain and the Entente nations’.  In further news from Madrid, clearly seen as connected, the next paragraph goes on to reveal that the ‘German submarine U.C. 48, which sought refuge in a Spanish port in a damaged condition, has been interned.’ (3)

More details on the wreck event emerged as the survivors arrived back at Barcelona in late May. In a telegram to the Spanish Prime Minister, Señor Tayà described the circumstances. Luisa was torpedoed ‘unarmed, neutral, and flying the Spanish flag’ in ‘full daylight at one o’clock in the afternoon’ while ‘following French and British steamers with a view to avoiding mines,’  the French vessel 3 miles ahead and the British a quarter of a mile ahead. ‘The submarine, however, kept at a respectful distance from the foreign steamers, as they were armed.’  (4)

After being torpedoed, the Luisa sank within a few minutes with three men killed in the engine-room, but the remainder of the crew were rescued by two British patrol vessels. ‘The owners of the lost vessel fully expect the Spanish Government to make a claim on Germany and in the meantime to seize a German steamer of equivalent value.’ (5)

As the U-boat campaign against Spanish shipping continued, the Aznar company would go on to lose Anboto Mendi off Runswick Bay, while en route from Bilbao for Middlesbrough with iron ore on 10 May 1918, and the Tayà company’s ship Villa de Soller would be sunk in the Mediterranean on 15 May 1918. Ten days later, the U-boat which had attacked her sister ship Luisa would be depth-charged by HM Yacht Lorna off the Bill of Portland.


(1) García Domingo, G. 2007 “El impacto de la Primera Guerra Mundial en la marina mercante española: un apunte sobre el caso catalán (1914-1922)”,  Transportes, Servicios y Communicaciones, No.13, 122-144; Lowry, C. 2009 At what cost? Spanish Neutrality in the First World War MA thesis, University of South Florida

(2) Cambridge Daily News, 25 April 1918, No.9,269, p4

(3) Ibid.

(4) The Scotsman, 7 May 1918, No.23,279, p3; Londonderry Sentinel, 25 May 1918, no issue number, p4, republishing in translation a contemporary article in El Sol.

(5) Ibid.

No.73 HMS Formidable (Diary of the War No.6)

Lifebelt from HMS Formidable washed up on the Dutch coast during the First World War, presented to the Imperial War Museum in 1920. © IWM (MAR 66)
Lifebelt from HMS Formidable washed up on the Dutch coast during the First World War, hundreds of miles from the site of the sinking in mid-Channel off the Bill of Portland. Presented to the Imperial War Museum in 1920. © IWM (MAR 66) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30004000

As the year turned to 1915, the 5th Battle Squadron were deployed in the English Channel some 25 miles off the Bill of Portland on exercises, among them HMS Formidable, a pre-dreadnought battleship of 1898. Two hours and twenty minutes into the New Year, as the fleet crossed the path of some fishing vessels, and the weather began to worsen, a torpedo launched from U-24 roared out of the dark and into the Formidable. She began to list to starboard, compounding the difficulties of getting out the boats at night and in rough weather.

Twenty minutes later another torpedo struck the Formidable, causing her to capsize and sink completely at about 4.45am. One survivor told the Daily Telegraph of his ordeal bobbing about in the water as he watched the ship before she finally went under: “It was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in my life . . . All this time a very loud hissing noise was coming from the sinking warship.” To him the water temperature seemed warmer than standing in his pyjamas for “over two hours in the terribly cold wind on the deck”. (Daily Telegraph, 4 January 1915, No.18,636, p9). Out of a complement of 780, only 199 men were saved.

It was a fishing vessel, the Provident or Providence, a Brixham smack out at sea off Berry Head, Devon, which picked up a significant number of the survivors. One of the Formidable‘s boats was spotted under the lee of the smack and after several perilous manoeuvres in waves 30 feet high, all 71 men were successfully transferred from their open boat to the smack in half an hour – just in time, for she had “a hole under her hull. This had been stuffed with a pair of pants, of which one of the seamen had divested himself for the purpose”. Another survivor downplayed the situation they were in: “undress uniform: swimming costume!” (Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1915, No.18,634, p9).

Captain Pillar and his crew aboard the Provident received numerous awards for the rescue, including a Gold Medal from the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, ‘only given in exceptional cases of bravery’. There is a memorial to those who lost their lives at Lyme Regis: the site of the wreck itself is a Controlled Site under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

It would not be the last time that wartime naval exercises in mid-Channel off Lyme Bay were interrupted by enemy action. During the Second World War, as Exercise Tiger was taking place in April 1944, German E-boats torpedoed two of the American landing craft which were taking part, Landing Ship Tanks LST 507 and LST 531.