Troopship liner Queen Mary sinks HMS Curacoa

The liner Queen Mary in wartime paintwork. She was known as the ‘Grey Ghost’ during this period when she conveyed tens of thousands of men across the Atlantic.

TheWorld War I vintage light cruiser HMS Curacoa.

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

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.

“Stand Easy” – stokers enjoying a smoke and a talk during cleaning boliler cleaning operations in the engine room of HMS CURACOA at Rosyth.

A stoker handing a cleaning brush to his mate inside the boiler of the cruiser HMS CURACOA at Rosyth. The stoker inside had to crawl through the same small opening.

A stoker cleaning inside the boiler of the cruiser HMS CURACOA at Rosyth. The inside of the boiler is 4 feet in diameter and 12 feet long.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet July 3, 2015 at 10:36 pm

My Grandfather was on the Curacoa, he spent two hours in the sea and was lifted by an Irish vessel, he was a petty officer, his name was Frank Barrow, he is sadly passed away now, such a wonderful man, husband father and grandfather, God rest all their souls :)

Walter Jarvis May 29, 2015 at 7:11 am

My Dad was on the Queen Mary on his way to war in world War two and landed first wave D Day

Linda Bailey April 21, 2015 at 2:44 pm

My father was on the Queen Mary. I would love to hear from any seaman that knew him. His name was Elton Horn lived in Nanty Glo, Pa at the time. He passes away, but he wouldn’t talk about what happened. I know he suffered injuries while he was in the Navy. He had a picture of the Queen Mary that my sister still has.

Sue Dentten March 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm

I was most interested to read Roy Hyde’s comment. My Mum was in the WRNS during the war and had HMS Pembroke on her hat. However she was not in Bletchley Park; she was a wireless/telegraphist based at Western Approaches Command in Liverpool.

Roy Hyde March 14, 2015 at 5:33 pm

One of those who died on the Curacoa was George Percival Windsor Cunliffe, the father of Prof. Barry Cunliffe. The GRO Marine Deaths Indices names his vessel as HMS Pembroke. This was a cover name used at the time (WWII) to disguise various Naval postings, including WRNS working at Bletchly Park. News of the collision was suppressed until after the war. I assume Cunliffe’s wife was not given the full facts at the time. The Curacoa was built at Pembroke Dockyard, Chatham, in 1916/17. George Cunliffe was a Shipwright 1st class.

Rebecca Dycus February 15, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Recalling the memory of having gone abroad the QM @Longbeach Harbor,CA…..my research brought me here, only to learn of such a great loss of human life in the most unthinkable and horrific ways….those men…….their courage, their bravery…..and the loved ones who waited for them.

Barry Eaton February 7, 2015 at 12:00 am

My father’s brother, Donald Eaton, was one of those lost.

Fortuantely, before he died, he managed to meet one of the survivors who was with Donald as the ship went down. I think it gave him some closure after almost 60 years.

My grandmother would never have Queen Mary mentioned in her house until the day she died.

Brave men, all of them.

Ronald Fairfax February 4, 2015 at 3:57 pm

I interviewed Harry Bell one of the Curacao’s crew for a TV/VDO Documentary,”Yorkshire at War”. Harry described his lucky escape. He could not remember how it happened. What he was able to say was that when he got home to Hull no-one knew of the sinking. Because many of the lost sailors were from the Humber Branch of RNVR their wives came to Harry’s house expecting him to have information about their menfolk as he was home. He was not able to tell them . That he said was worse than anything.

J.G. Loughlan November 7, 2014 at 11:59 pm

My great uncle, James Docherty, Royal Marine, went down as a result of this collision.
God bless him and and his shipmates. I have just explained the background of this event to my 2 very successful children, who are Scottish/German. They have certainly understood the sacrifices made and are great people who support European cooperation.

Tim Jamfrey September 23, 2014 at 7:56 pm

My Grandfather was a stoker on the Curacoa who died in the collision. He had served in the Navy in world war one on the Royal Oak. My Grandfathers name was James Jamfrey. Gone but not forgotten.

Art Devonmille June 18, 2014 at 2:34 am

My father, was on the Queen Mary , when this tragedy happened. He told me the story back in the 60’s .

basil coates May 9, 2014 at 9:56 am

Saw the story of this awful tragedy on “Yesterday’s Deep Wreck Mysteries” programme. What a deep debt of gratitude we owe to these brave men.

It is difficult to believe that in time of war ships have the abandon sailors languishing in the bitter sea to their fate because, in the case of the Queen Mary it would have been suicide to stop for survivors with it’s huge cargo of servicemen on board.

We must never forget.

Basil Coates

Diane Murphy April 25, 2014 at 8:25 am

is there a site where I can find a list of crew aboard the QM? My late father-in-law told my husband he served aboard the QM in the merchant navy. He was born in Ireland in 1912 but came to Australia in 1925, could he have served aboard the QM?

Hilary Connelly March 1, 2014 at 11:21 pm

My late father was a survivor of HMS Curacoa. He was a stoker his name is Kenneth Clarkson.

R K Russell January 5, 2014 at 4:30 pm

My Father was a stoker on HMS Curacoa and survived if anyone out there has any information I will be pleased to here from them as his Navy Record shows nothing. I know dad used to talk with our local GP who was on the QM at the time and had a lot of time for him.

di Mayne November 16, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Where could we find the list of survivors? Husband was looking at old photos and found one of his late father in hms curacao uniform. His father never would talk about the war except to say that he was a stoker.

Tina November 12, 2013 at 12:31 am

My Grandfather Royal Marine Ernest Davis also perished on Hms Curacoa. My Dad was only 5 at the time.. Sadly I have lost my Dad now!

graeme burbridge October 8, 2013 at 12:53 am

hi
just came upon this site whilst browsing, My late father who passed away in 2004 was on the queen mary when she cut the curacao in half , he often told me of the event and how disturbing it was to his mates in the engine room,I think my dad was on deck when it happened
Graeme R BURBRIDGE

kathleen twyman October 5, 2013 at 11:14 am

My elder brother was one of the unfortunate ones to perish. Still much loved ,he was only 19 a stoker 1st class his name was Charlie Sadler.

Editor June 12, 2013 at 10:14 am

Naval History Net is the primary source for information about RN ships and casualties

For more on HMS Curacoa:

http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-06CL-Curacoa.htm

and the casualty list:

http://www.naval-history.net/xDKCas1942-10OCT.htm#curacoalost

joy bieltz June 12, 2013 at 1:30 am

Is there a list of crew who perished on the ship Curacoa

David Peters-Ellis April 4, 2013 at 11:57 am

Lest we forget, all those good, dedicated, trusty men. God bless them all.

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