The RMS Queen Mary was used as a troopship throughout World War II and usually crossed the Atlantic without an escort, relying on her speed to evade the U-Boats. As she came north of Ireland on the 2nd October 1942 she was joined by HMS Curacoa, providing an anti-aircraft escort for the last leg into Scotland.
The Queen Mary was on a standard zig zag course – it may have been difficult for HMS Curacoa to interpret what phase of the zig zag she was on when they met or it may be that the HMS Curacoa just didn’t have the speed. The two ships found themselves on a collision course – both Captains were informed and both believed the other would take evasive action. The consequences were tragic.
Alfred Johnson was on the Queen Mary:
It was 1942 and I was 22 years old and a Seaman in the Merchant Navy on the Queen Mary. We were returning to Glasgow from New York, which was a four / five day journey.
The Queen Mary was carrying about 20,000 American Troops to join the Allied Forces. She was known as a ‘hornets nest’ in the war as there were lots of nationalities on the ship.
There were 2 of us on the poop deck on the aft of the ship and we were manning the 6 inch gun – in case we came under attack. What good we could have done with one gun, I’ve no idea!
A cruiser called HMS Curacao met us 200 miles off the coast to escort us into Greenock. I could see her clearly as I was on the aft.
We could see our escort zig-zagging in front of us – it was common for the ships and cruisers to zig-zag to confuse the U-boats. In this particular case however the escort was very, very close to us.
I said to my mate “You know she’s zig-zigging all over the place in front of us, I’m sure we’re going to hit her.”
And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six inch armoured plating. The Queen Mary just carried on going (we were doing about 25 knots). It was the policy not to stop and pick up survivors even if they were waving at you. It was too dangerous as the threat of U-Boats was always present.
Read more of this story on BBC People’s War
See also the account of Francis S. Kalinowski, a Warrant Officer in the United States Army Air Forces, who was on board the Queen Mary at the time, first left in the comments.
Friday, October 2, 1942 – R.A.F. amphibian flew over the ship at 7:00 A.M. and flashed orders. Met by cruiser at 9:00 A.M. and three destroyers at 10:00 A.M. Now within easy bombing distance of Norway. Zig-zagging through North Sea at over 40 mph. Ship is really rocking and rolling.
Run into light cruiser 2:15 P.M. Cut cruiser in two parts and cruiser boiler exploded immediately. Our ship really jarred at the impact and we all thought we caught a torpedo. Rushed out on deck in time to see stern part of cruiser turn up on end and go down in icy waters. Saw front part of cruiser burning and rolling over slowly. It sank in about four minutes. Our ship is taking on water to the first bulkhead.
Our speed reduced to 10 mph. Ship signaled S.O.S. and gave position. Two destroyers turned back to pick up cruiser survivors. Now we are only convoyed by one destroyer and Flying Fortress. We’re easy meat for the subs at this slow speed. All of the ship’s crew called on the alert to look out for “U” boats. Everyone on the alert to abandon ship if necessary.
Sighted Ireland at 5:45 P.M. Sighted Scotland at 7:00 P.M. Land looks good especially on a leaky ship.
The two ships collided with each other at 2:12 pm. The massive Queen Mary split Curacoa in two, leaving the cruiser’s halves engulfed in flames. She sank six minutes later with a loss of 338 men – from a total crew of 439. The Queen Mary was under strict orders not to stop for anything and continued on to Scotland, where she was outfitted with a concrete plug and sailed to Boston for more permanent repairs.
HMS Curacoa was named after the island more usually spelled Curaçao – it appears this was the old spelling which had been used by four successive Royal Navy ships since 1809.