‘Q-ship’ torpedoed in the Atlantic

HMS Crispin, seen before she was converted into a British Ocean Boarding vessel and later equipped with Anti-Aircraft guns to protect convoys. Image courtesy U Boat Net.

H.M.Armed Boarding Vessel Crispin, a special anti-aircraft ship, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat 400 miles to the westward of the Bloody Foreland on the 4th February. H.M. Ships in the vicinity took off the crew and casualties are unlikely to be heavy.

From the Naval Situation report for the week, TNA CAB 66/14/48. Almost every entry in these reports represents an extraordinary experience for the individuals involved, yet in only a minority of cases do we have the full story.

In this case George Woodley, one of the ship’s Royal Navy gun crew, has left a very full account. He describes the life on board HMS Crispin, which was a ‘special anti aircraft ship’, disguised to look like an ordinary merchantman with concealed Oerlikon guns that would be brought into action if the ship came under attack from aircraft. Unofficially such vessels were known a ‘Q-ships’ or ‘Q-boats’. During this early phase of the Battle of the Atlantic the long-range German Condor aircraft were having particular success in bombing ships, such as the Empress of Britain, as well as spotting convoys for U-boat wolf packs.

On the fifth day we left the convoy to rendezvous with another coming from Halifax to the UK. We were then at our most vulnerable, without escort. We were out of range of the Focke-Wulfs and we were making a steady 10 knots in rough seas with gale force winds imminent. I was watch on the first deck for the first watch (8p.m.-midnight), and sheltering from the storm in the passageway by the steering motor room, when suddenly there was a terrific explosion which lifted me off my feet, followed by the smell of burning explosive.

It was 2200 hours. We had been hit by a torpedo which had struck the bulkhead separating the engine room and the for’ard hold beneath the bridge. One “greaser” (stoker) was killed by the explosion and the NAAFI canteen manager had a lucky escape. He was blown out of his bunk and his cabin was wrecked. His young assistant was not so lucky and died as a result of his wounds.

The ship stopped and wallowed helplessly, the light went out, and all was silent except for the wind. The water rushed into the engine room and the hold. The ship took on a list to port, and as she rolled, the empty barrels in the hold sounded like thunder in the distance as they moved around. Instead of keeping the ship afloat, the barrels floated out into the Atlantic, so much for the theory of buoyancy! We mustered in the Wardroom, below the bridge, for roll-call. We then prepared to abandon ship. My station was the starboard lifeboat, a sturdy Royal Navy cutter.

This was a 32’ boat with twelve oars which had been disguised with a false stern to look like a Merchant Navy boat. The order to “Abandon Ship” was given. My Divisional Officer came along to say “Goodbye and good luck.” I was told later that the raft was launched, the Divisional Officer jumped into the sea to get to the raft, but he disappeared and was never seen again.

Able Seaman “Jumper” Cross and myself were experienced with cutters and we lowered the boat, which was overloaded with about 50 men, to just above the crest of the swell, which was not easy in the darkness. We then went down the lifelines and met the boat as it rose. The pins holding the safety catches were removed and the boat launched on a wave with a big splash.

We pushed and struggled to get the boat clear of the ship, and when clear we manned the oars, three men to each oar, and pulled for dear life to keep the boat bows to the wind. The waves were breaking and flooding the boat and there was a grave danger of overturning. We had to pull hard on the oars with the Officer Coxswain calling the stroke, and the crew calling out in unison — but they were the cries of desperate men. I was wet, cold, and very frightened. The Officer-in-Charge gave us encouragement when he said, “Every ship in the Atlantic knows that the Crispin is in distress and help is imminent”, but it was a dark moonless night as the gale continued. One moment we would be on the crest of a wave and the next moment 30’ to 50’ down in the trough. We were tired, but continued to row, it kept us warm.

We were 700 mile north-west of Ireland. Just before 0600 hours a destroyer appeared and circled to give us a “lee” and we came alongside. There were many willing hands to help us on board. Our saviour was HMS Harvester, a fairly new destroyer that had been built for the Brazilian Navy and commandeered by the Royal Navy. I well remember the relief I felt as I stepped on board. We were welcome to share their crowded mess deck which was to be our home for the next four days. Regrettably, HMS Harvester was sunk, with a great loss of life, four months later.

They had been sunk by U-107.

George Woodley believed that they were torpedoed on the 2nd, although official records show it as happening on the 3rd with the Crispin finally sinking on the 4th. Read his full account on BBC People’s War. HMS Crispin does not appear on every list of World War II ‘Q-Boats’, even though the Cabinet Naval Situation Report records her as being a ‘special anti-aircraft ship’, and George Woodley’s account makes clear that her armament was concealed. He was apparently mistaken about the loss of HMS Harvester “four months later” – see comments below.

U-boat U-107 returns to the U boat base at Lorient, France later during 1941.

U-Boat Net has details of this patrol by U 107 during which she sank four ships.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

judith simons July 7, 2017 at 12:34 am

My father harold forshaw was on the crispin. He had his ribs crushed when he fell into the sea between the lifeboat and the rescue ship. He recovered and lived into his nineties.

Jim Burton February 4, 2016 at 3:15 pm

Really enjoy seeing what happen 75 years ago, had many uncles and aunts in the service

Jason Pilalas February 3, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Reading your postings is so enjoyable and informative, particularly the personal experiences which historians sometimes downplay in favor of the “big picture.” One minor correction to today’s post – HMS HARVESTER was actually sunk in March 1943, very serious loss because her captain/escort group commander was lost with her. This had important knock on effects on the famous battle around convoys SC.122 and HX.229. Martin Middlebrook’s book ‘Convoy’ gives a very perceptive and sensitive treatment and is well worth a read.

Pablo February 3, 2016 at 2:55 pm

Wikipedia says that HMS Harvester was lost in 1943. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Harvester_(H19)

Roger Davies December 5, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I was the 2nd Radio Officer on board. Sadly, the first and third R/O’s were lost.

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