Episode 100



It's World War I and German submarine technology terrorizes the British Navy. Fortunately, Captain Gordon Campbell is anything but traditional. He's at the helm of the first 'Q-boats' - heavily armed sub-busters ingeniously disguised as civilian ships. Vanessa Kirby sets sail with Captain Campbell on a secretive mission to take back the oceans. Could you stare down a torpedo?
Read the transcript →

True Spies, Episode 100: Q, Followed by U

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their secret skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies, Episode 100: Q, Followed by U.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Some might say what we were doing was unsportsmanlike - based on deception, or, or, or ‘underhand. Well, that might have worked on a field of battle between gentlemen. But anyone who has seen the carnage of a German submarine attack on civilian shipping will know there is nothing gentlemanly about submarine warfare. We simply set a trap and used ourselves as the bait.

NARRATOR: How do you counter new military technology when the enemy already has the upper hand and knows it? One strategy is to use their confidence against them. To lure them into a false sense of safety. And then to strike.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Well, it was a curious dance. Bullfighter and bull - with ourselves posing as prey - until the very last moment. And no guarantee of survival for either party.

NARRATOR: In World War I, Captain Gordon Campbell was part of a secret British project to combat Germany’s powerful U-boat submarine fleet in the Atlantic, a project based on disguise and deception.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Well, it’s been years since I thought of any of this. But I haven’t forgotten. Quite the contrary. How, I mean, how could I? 

NARRATOR: The following is a recreation inspired by Campbells’ memoirs and the writings of others involved in the campaign. His words are spoken by an actor. But the events described are absolutely real. June 7, 1917, the North Atlantic, southwest of Ireland.

GORDON CAMPBELL: There’s a curious sense of calm that always descends on a ship in situations like this. The crew waited as one for the order to act. In thick fog and heavy seas, Captain Campbell’s boat, the Pargust, has just been struck by a torpedo from a German submarine: U-boat UC -29.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I remember peering out through one of the hidden spy holes on the bridge and trying to get a read on the damage we’d already suffered. The blast had blown a fairly sizable hole in our starboard side - splinters of a lifeboat and parts of the boiler room were sprayed around our upper decks. The engine room was gone. We were immobilized, dead in the water. We were already listing - tilting - noticeably. There was every chance we were sinking. Naturally, this was exactly what I’d been waiting for, hoping for, for months.

NARRATOR: From the outside, the Pargust appears to be an unarmed British merchant ship, crewed by civilians, carrying supplies to the south coast of Britain. Exactly the kind of target a German submarine most hopes to find in these waters - valuable, harmless, and now crippled by a hit to the stern.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I started belly-crawling across the floor of the bridge from spy hole to spy hole. You know, it’s quite tricky when there’s a tilt like that. From my position, I could see some of my crew already at their posts. 

NARRATOR: The Pargust is not what it seems. Hidden around the ship is a formidable arsenal - a four-inch Mark IV naval artillery gun concealed on the poop deck and four 12-pounder naval guns were hidden along the sides of the vessel. Elsewhere, there are machine-gun nests and torpedo tubes all manned by a battle-hardened Royal Navy crew keeping silently out of sight.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Damned proud of them, actually, yes.

NARRATOR: This is what is known as a ‘Q-Ship’ - the letter Q chosen because of their base at Queenstown, in Ireland. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: So then, all we had to do was wait, wait to see if our disguise could tempt the enemy into dropping his guard. 

NARRATOR: All that firepower can only be used if an enemy U-boat chooses to surface within range, something a sub will only do if they are sure a battle is over.

GORDON CAMPBELL: We’d seen the periscope about 50 yards off the starboard side giving us a thorough inspection. But then it vanished. He’d dived. And now, not a sign of him in any direction. I knew the tilt was getting steeper. Odds and ends were starting to slide across the floor. I had to remind myself to breathe.

NARRATOR: There’s nothing stopping U-29 from finishing the job safely - a second torpedo strike from medium range - except torpedoes are expensive and submarines prefer to know the full details of the cargo ships that they sink.

GORDON CAMPBELL: And then it happened. At 8.26 am, off our port side - just 50 yards off - a great gray conning tower rose out of the waves, water pouring off it: sleek, curved, painted with the Kaiser’s cross. The whole thing looked like some kind of strange sea creature. I crawled over to the voice tube and gave the order: “Stand by. Stand by. Stand by.”

NARRATOR: You haven’t heard the last of the Pargust. But for now, let’s jump back to 1914.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Well, this all came about because I was concerned I wouldn’t really see much action in the war.

NARRATOR: At the start of World War I, Gordon Campbell is a young Lieutenant in command of a Royal Navy destroyer protecting ports on Britain’s southern coast. Keen to make his name. The problem is there isn’t much chance to do so. German warships rarely make an appearance in these waters.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It was pretty maddening, to be honest with you. Often we would be escorting our troops over to the continent, knowing the extraordinary challenges they faced, and there was nothing more for us to do than patrol up and down. I’d put in my papers to be sent anywhere in the world where I might have more of a chance of getting into a bit of a scrap.

NARRATOR: And one day, he receives a call from the Admiralty. His request has been noted. Not a posting to the Middle East or Asia. But something else. Would he be interested in taking on ‘special service’?

GORDON CAMPBELL: No more detail than that. I did know I’d be serving under Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly. Bayly had a challenging reputation which was all to the good.

NARRATOR: Around this time, it is becoming clear that Britain’s military leadership has miscalculated badly in its preparations for the war at sea. While the Royal Navy is still the strongest in the world on the surface, little thought has been given to combating the new technology of submarines.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It’s remarkable but I think at the beginning of the war we simply didn’t consider the submarine to be a major threat. No one thought that they might do far more harm than any of the German warships. 

NARRATOR: The Royal Navy is able to keep the German surface fleet mostly blockaded and trapped in their ports but it is almost unable to counter the threat from German submarines hunting British civilian shipping. As the war goes on, the losses begin to mount. Hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping every month in early 1915 - shipping that includes the raw materials for the war effort and the food needed to keep Britain from starving. But Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly has a radical new idea that might go some way to turning the tide.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I knew he was a man who could be, let’s say, formidable if crossed. But I also knew he was a superb military tactician. And I was keen for a new start.

NARRATOR: If you’ve heard of the Battle of The Atlantic in World War II - when German U-boats also faced off against British and American shipping - some parts of this story might be familiar. In some ways, history did repeat itself. But in the early years of the First World War, the balance was firmly in favor of the submarine.

GORDON CAMPBELL: The anti-submarine tools that are now familiar - hydrophones, sonar echolocation, anti-submarine nets - were all in their very early infancy or not present at all. At first, we didn’t even have depth charges. Submarines were almost invincible. 

NARRATOR: Behind the scenes, there is a growing sense of desperation as the Royal Navy casts about for countermeasures. At one point, the use of trained sea lions as submarine detection devices is even considered. It was believed that sea lions might be able to detect the sound of a U-boat engine underwater, and could be conditioned to alert their handlers. A group of circus-trained sea lions is hired by the Royal Navy and given intensive training in swimming pools in Glasgow and London. Sadly, the marine mammals fail to perform their patriotic duty in open water and are released back to the circus in disgrace. So, by comparison, the ‘special service’ plan that Admiral Bayly has in mind for Captain Campbell is not that far-fetched.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It was all very hush-hush. I went to his office at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and was quizzed at some length about my thoughts on the submarine threat, the risk to shipping and ways in which we might respond. He called what we faced ‘an entirely new method of warfare’, which seemed right to me. He never put my mission in writing or even spelled it out explicitly. But I quite quickly cottoned on. 

NARRATOR: Campbell is not alone. Across Britain, dozens of captains and crews are being reassigned to ‘Q-ship’ projects. 

GORDON CAMPBELL - A few weeks later, I was posted to Devonport and taken to the quayside to see my new ship. I have to say, when I first laid eyes on her pulling into port my heart sank. An ancient old thing, a civilian collier, a coal ship who had seen decades of service around the world. Her name was Loderer, a tramp steamer who could barely manage eight knots and was absolutely filthy inside and out.

NARRATOR: Campbell’s task? To transform the Loderer into a secret killer.

GORDON CAMPBELL: But, of course, as I soon realized, if I felt she lacked the appearance of a man o’ war so would the enemy.

NARRATOR: The Loderer’s reinvention begins.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I was given a great deal of latitude by Bayly, as I believe all the Q-Boat captains were. There was no textbook to follow. It was up to us to decide how a job like this was done. My first step was to fumigate and completely clean the interior. Much needed. Bring it up to naval standards. But only the interior. The exterior we kept in its rather weather-beaten, sea-worn state. Then I got hold of a nice 12-pounder, 1,800 weight gun - the kind of thing that was standard on a destroyer. Needs a crew of four or five to operate. Not what anyone would want to be pointed at their sub.

NARRATOR: That’s 1,800 pounds worth of gun, and 12 pounds of ammunition - about five and a half kilos per shell. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: We also had two smaller 12 pounders, some rifles, and a maxim machine gun for anti-personnel purposes. A few primitive depth-charges too, but in those days you couldn’t rely on them. Later I was able to finagle even more deck artillery by slightly unorthodox methods. The point was, we needed to be able to deliver a knockout blow at the start of any encounter. We knew any submarine would dive within seconds of us opening fire.

NARRATOR: It’s a pretty impressive arsenal for a tramp steamer. The problem is how to hide it.

GORDON CAMPBELL: So that’s where the artistry began. We needed, essentially, to retain every outward appearance of a civilian ship at the same time as being able to deploy all our firepower at a moment’s notice. And we’d studied the habits of the enemy.

NARRATOR: German U-boat tactics early in the war followed an established pattern. To attack unarmed cargo ships, they would surface at close range and give a warning shot with their deck gun - a small artillery piece carried on the top of the submarine.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Yes. That was the signal for the target ship’s crew to take to the lifeboats and abandon ship. Now that might sound quite merciful but bear in mind this was generally the middle of the Atlantic in an open boat with no signaling equipment. A lot of the time, that’s a slow, cold, death sentence.

NARRATOR: Once the ship was abandoned, the U-boat commander would attempt to seize the ship’s papers - the documents listing its name, history, and cargo - either by boarding or by searching the lifeboats. The final step? Explosives would be placed on the ship to sink her, or the submarine’s deck gun would be used to deliver a death blow.

GORDON CAMPBELL: What we realized was that they avoided firing torpedoes whenever possible. Quite obvious why - the same for our subs too. A torpedo is a very expensive and sometimes quite temperamental piece of kit and you can only carry a handful with you. So the deck gun was your U-boat’s weapon of choice at all times.

NARRATOR: The problem with a deck gun - and this whole strategy - is that it requires the submarine to surface to give up the protection of the sea. That weakness was what General Bayly’s project aimed to exploit.

GORDON CAMPBELL: The entire point was to convince a U-boat that there was no longer a need to remain submerged and at a distance. If we removed every shred of concern that we presented a danger, he'd drop his guard. And then? We’d let fly. Now, of course, none of our weaponry would be of any use if it couldn’t be completely hidden from the enemy. To hide the main 12-pounder, we designed a sham wooden engine house on the top deck complete with walls, a roof, and windows. And then - by pulling on a single wire - the whole of the top half would instantly fold away allowing the gun crew an almost complete field of fire. The same wire also raised the Royal Navy’s White Ensign declaring our identity as a British warship. We only raised that at the moment of attack. The maxim machine-gun nest was hidden by an actual nest - a chicken coop in front of the funnel. Again, collapsible through pulleys and wires. The other big guns were hidden on either side of the main deck, behind special wooden panels that could be dropped on hinges with a pin. The crew would have to first aim through spy holes. We built a whole warren of trapdoors and internal gangways. They allowed the men to reach their battle stations without being seen from outside. My idea was that in a heartbeat the entire ship could transform from hunted to hunter. 

NARRATOR: The Loderer also needs a crew. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: Well, it was an unusual posting for the officers and the men. And because of that, it called for some very unusual qualities. On the first morning we were gathered together I explained to them what we were about and that this would be the kind of posting that they wouldn’t find anywhere else in the Navy. And that, above all, the success of our mission depended on their individual discipline and vigilance. Any time we were at sea, we might be under observation by the enemy. One man’s mistake could jeopardize our whole disguise.

NARRATOR: The training is intense. Daily drills, shooting practice, disguise inspections.

GORDON CAMPBELL: A daily routine - using floating targets to simulate a U-boat conning tower. We got it so that we could aim, drop our disguise, and deliver an accurate broadside in minutes. I knew that I was placing unusual demands on the men. Some thrived - and some very fine sailors found it wasn’t for them - the moral strain of disguise and constant readiness. But those who remained became the finest fighting force I ever knew.

NARRATOR: October 1915.The Loderer leaves port on its first hunt armed and equipped - and promptly sinks.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Well that was the rumor we put about. We couldn’t be sure if the Kaiser had ears at Devonport and might have got wind of what we were planning. Much better for any stories about a submarine-hunting collier to go straight to the seafloor. It wasn’t easy for the men, actually. Some of their families heard the story and they - well, you can understand - they thought they’d been lost. So that was hard to reckon with.

NARRATOR: Once at sea, the Loderer is reborn as HMS Farnborough. Although of course it never carries that name openly.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Each day, we would decide the part that our vessel would be playing that day - so, a timber merchant, a food ship, a passenger boat - and plot a plausible route for us to travel based on the reports of U-boat activity. We’d then adjust our outward appearance to make a tempting target. Sometimes we’d sprout an extra funnel. I’d packed collapsible masts to allow us to transform into an entirely new class of vessel. Or we might repaint the funnels overnight. Although painting the ship in the dark on an ocean swell was not a popular task with the men. None of this was frivolous. We knew the U-boats were staffed by experienced merchant seamen, and those men would spot if the slightest detail was off.

NARRATOR: And at all times, the disguise must be maintained.

GORDON CAMPBELL: The appearance of the men on deck was closely managed. Only a few at a time were permitted up top during daylight and always in plausible civilian clothing. Some merchant ships at that time allowed the master to travel with his wife, and for that reason, one of the lookouts would often be dressed in women’s clothing during his watch, pushing a pram up and down the deck. During drills, it was quite a sight to see what seemed to be a very proper young lady suddenly abandoning her baby and manning the Maxim machine gun.

NARRATOR: The waiting begins. One month, two months, three months go by, cruising the Atlantic sea lanes without any interest from the enemy. Some of the other Q-Ships never see a single U-boat throughout the whole of the war.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Christmas that year was hard on the men. Sent back home, after all those months at sea, and nothing to show for it. Then having to maintain the fiction that they had become civilians. The feeling in some towns was very strongly against men who weren’t fighting. Some of the crew were given white feathers by local women, a symbol of cowardice.

NARRATOR: Winter turns to Spring. More patrols. And then, in March 1916, a lookout spotted something on the horizon.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Lying very low in the water. Very hard to be certain at that distance - so I ordered a strict observation kept on it. And sure enough, it vanished. Only a sub could do that.

NARRATOR: HMS Farnborough’s preparations are about to be tested for the first time.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I could tell my men were electrified with excitement and nerves but everyone knew their part, knew their place. Below deck They got to their battle stations, checking the weapons, the pumps, just as we’d practiced. Of course, outwardly, nothing in the ship’s appearance changed. We looked at the ideal target. I used to say that I know how cheese in a mousetrap feels.

NARRATOR: For 20 minutes, nothing happens. Is the enemy suspicious?

GORDON CAMPBELL: Then the lookout saw it. ‘Torpedo approaching, starboard quarter’. So no, that’s not what we had planned for. Not the normal attack. There wasn’t time to react. We’d never have turned in time. Thank God the thing passed just in front of us. A miss. We braced for a second shot.

NARRATOR: But the U-boat tries another tactic.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I watched him through the spy hole. An uprush of water - and he surfaced. The first time I’d seen the enemy with my own eyes. Men spilling out of the conning tower to man that evil-looking deck gun in front. He was still cautious, kept his distance. Still too far off for us to be sure of a kill.

NARRATOR: The U-boat’s deck gun fires warning shots at Farnborough.

GORDON CAMPBELL: That was their signal for us to abandon ship. We had another performance ready for that. We called it the ‘panic party’ where some of the crew would scramble into lifeboats, to look as if the ship had been abandoned. They were careful not to get into the lifeboats too quickly. We wanted the enemy to get impatient and sail closer. Even so, he kept firing warning shots. But I still needed him a little closer. 

NARRATOR: The U-boat is now closing the distance.

GORDON CAMPBELL: He must have been nervous because he kept firing from the deck gun even before our panic party had left. I would definitely say that I was nervous too. I was aware that our own decks were filled with hidden ammunition and explosives. It wouldn’t have taken much to ignite. When he was about 800 yards off - and that’s still further than I would’ve liked - I gave the signal.

NARRATOR: The trap is sprung.

GORDON CAMPBELL: He dived of course, but not before we’d got a few good broadsides in. I also ordered depth charges dropped on the last spot we’d seen him.

NARRATOR: The U-boat surfaces again.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I knew we had him then. You could see the damage on the hull and the angle he rose at. One of the 12-pounders got a few more rounds in, close range, then he slid under. We waited a few minutes and then great bubbles of oil began to appear on the surface together with bits of wood and wreckage. No survivors. I gathered my whole crew on deck and read a prayer for victory, followed by three cheers for the King.

NARRATOR: Admiral Bayly is impressed by their achievement - awards, cash, and medals are distributed among the crew.

GORDON CAMPBELL: He didn’t often give speeches but once we were back in the harbor, he came on board and spoke briefly to the officers and men, congratulating them on a tricky job very well done. I felt we had proved ourselves as a crew and proved the concept of the Q-Ship.

NARRATOR: But the sea war does not go well for Britain. Over the next year, U-boats tighten their stranglehold on British food and supplies - around half a million tons of shipping is sunk every month in early 1917. Shortages at home are worsening. It is the closest the country has come to defeat and German tactics are evolving.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Yes, they were learning about our tricks. Word had gotten out that some of our cargo ships contained a nasty surprise. So it was becoming more difficult to coax the average U-boat commander into attacking. And when they did take the bait, they were less likely to issue a warning shot with the deck gun. More often they would stay submerged and engage with a torpedo first. And obviously, that gave us little or no ability to strike back. 

NARRATOR: Over the next few months, HMS Farnborough is often close to the action but never gets another submarine in its sights.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It felt like the enemy was all around us, but just out of reach. One morning we watched as an ammunition boat was blown to pieces in a torpedo attack - like seeing a volcano explode. Another time we found a ship carrying maize that had been abandoned by its crew on the orders of a U-boat but had been left drifting, a very eerie sight. But for some reason, the U-boats steered clear of us.

NARRATOR: So, time to evolve with the enemy. What would you do? Request more detailed intelligence from the admiralty? Re-equip with more weaponry? Or make yourself an even more tempting target?

GORDON CAMPBELL: There was no additional intelligence I could call on. And at that, we were unlikely to be given any more guns. But there was one simple, but very hazardous, means to increase our chances of success. If the Germans would only surface after firing torpedoes we would have to learn to take torpedo hits as part of our modus operandi.

NARRATOR: The risks are huge. A single German torpedo can sink a destroyer. A repurposed civilian vessel like the Farnborough is far more vulnerable and the hold is packaged with weapons and ammunition. Even if the ship survives a hit, there is no guarantee that she will be in any shape to fight a surface battle.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Nevertheless, I guessed that to persuade a U-boat to surface we would need to convince them, beyond any doubt, that we were done for. That meant taking a gut punch by torpedo. I put it to the men. I told them such a policy would inevitably involve loss of life and limb - and perhaps the ship herself - and that any man who wished to part with us was quite free to do so. A few did, and I didn’t blame them. February 16, 1917. Heading east, 50 miles off the southern coast of Ireland. The first tour under the new strategy. During patrols, it wasn’t unusual for us to intercept radio communications between U-boats. Quite a strange, unnerving experience eavesdropping on enemies talking to one another. You knew they were somewhere nearby, just below the surface. On the evening of February 16th, heading east - our wireless operator alerted me to a ‘conversation’ between two submarines in the vicinity. We weren’t able to break the code, but it put me on my guard.

NARRATOR: Campbell is right to be wary. The enemy is close and watching.

GORDON CAMPBELL: A beautiful day the next morning - hardly any swell at all. Then at 9.45 am, I heard from the lookout: “Torpedo, torpedo, torpedo!”

NARRATOR: Terrifying. But the new strategy is clear. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: It was from long range - and it felt even longer. Nothing feels stranger than knowing a mortal danger is approaching - to watch it approach and to do absolutely nothing to defend oneself. Nothing can prepare you for the impact of a torpedo for the first time. We were all braced, but I was thrown clear across the bridge.

NARRATOR: A great hole has been torn in Farnborough. One of the bulkheads was completely destroyed. Fires break out, then icy water rushes in. Casualties are moved astern.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It was ghastly but discipline held. And on the outside, the ‘panic party’ played their part, bundling themselves into lifeboats. One man dressed in uniform as me, the Captain. The idea behind that was to offer a tempting prisoner to the enemy - if only they chose to surface.

NARRATOR: As the water rises, men begin moving to the parts of the ships that are usable. But the engine teams and gun crews are forbidden from taking refuge on deck and breaking the disguise. They shift to more and more awkward hiding places below decks, as the flooding spreads through the ship. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: Now, this wasn’t like before. This time, I knew the Farnborough was dying. It wouldn’t be long before our gun positions began to be flooded. Never mind the engine.

NARRATOR: And the U-boat still remains submerged.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Lying on my belly, peering through a spy hole, I could see her periscope approach. They were examining every detail of our vessel: the stern, the panic party lifeboats, the piles of sham cargo on deck.

NARRATOR: At just 10 yards from the Farnborough, the periscope stops and appears to have spotted something.

GORDON CAMPBELL: He was so close I could see the whole of her hull just beneath the surface. The periscope scans back and forth above. 

NARRATOR: The U-boat pauses, then moves off and begins to do another circuit of the ship.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I was getting reports that we were really sinking now. I was tempted to at least fire on his periscope - little that that would have done. 

NARRATOR: There is another risk here. If the U-boat really believes the ship has been abandoned, it may begin firing more torpedoes just to sink the ship faster.

GORDON CAMPBELL: At 10:15, he blinked. At a hundred yards out, a great beautiful conning tower appeared. The hatch opened and I saw the Commander standing up, looking directly at us. It was the last thing he ever saw.

NARRATOR: U-boat U83 was sunk at around 10.30 on 17th February 1917 with only two survivors found in the water.

GORDON CAMPBELL: One of them perished soon after from injuries and exposure. A brave man.

NARRATOR: HMS Farnborough has its own problems though.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Boiler and engine room had gone. Water levels continued to rise elsewhere in the rest of the ship. Very ominous clankings from across the whole vessel. I put out an immediate message over the wireless to headquarters: “Q5 slowly sinking, respectfully wishes you goodbye."

NARRATOR: Q5 being the Farnborough’s Q-Ship codename.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Perhaps a little dramatic, but I was aware that we were many miles from shore, and help might be some time in arriving.

NARRATOR: And of course, it is known that there is more than one U-boat in the area.

GORDON CAMPBELL: A very hairy situation. No question. And a very curious sensation to know that as a Captain I might shortly have to abandon ship. A ship that had served us very well. I gave orders for all confidential papers, codebooks, charts, and so on to be destroyed immediately. The ship’s safe went over the side too. I didn’t want anything to be found in the wreckage that might aid the enemy. I told the men to prepare.

NARRATOR: But help does appear. Two British destroyers - HMS Buttercup and Narwhal - arrive on the scene. Farnborough is towed towards land. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: So initially, yes, that’s a great relief. But then during the towing, one of our depth charges detonated of its own accord. The destroyers assumed we had been torpedoed again and abandoned us, without even looking for survivors. We eventually made it back to port with assistance from another warship. That evening, there were reports that the remaining U-boat was again heard signaling over the wireless. This time he received no reply.

NARRATOR: Gordon Campbell is awarded the Victoria Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness and skill in command’ during the action with U83. Other members of the crew are also decorated. The policy of deliberately taking torpedo hits is adopted by other Q-Ships. Admiral Bayly sees Campbell and his crew fitted out with a new ship. HMS Vittoria, also known as Pargust.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I missed dear old Farnborough of course, but Pargust gave us a chance to learn from our mistakes. She was much the same in terms of size and design - a civilian tramp steamer. And we equipped her with many of the same ruses. One theatrical element that I enjoyed was the addition of a stuffed parrot in a cage to the panic party cast. The idea being that this must be a treasured ship’s pet, so the ship must be well and truly abandoned.

NARRATOR: Pargust sees service in several encounters - including the incident which began this episode. In that attack, after a torpedo hit was sustained, U-boat UC-29 was lured into the range of the guns and sunk. Once again, there are only two German survivors. Captain Campbell’s final and most challenging engagement of the war takes place with his last Q-Boat, HMS Dunraven.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Possibly my favorite ship. By this stage in the sea war, the battle had changed again. Merchant ships had begun to be lightly armed against submarine attack, usually with a little two-and-a-half pounder. Too feeble to have much chance of really harming the enemy but still reassuring to the merchant crews, if nothing else. This put us in a slightly comical position. Our Q-Ship would now have looked suspicious if it were not visibly armed so we installed one of these potato guns on the poop.

NARRATOR: There are new gadgets too.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Submarines were becoming ever more careful, more cautious about the risk that they might be engaging a Q-Ship, which required us to become more inventive in our turn. I had an ingenious device installed which could release a continuous cloud of steam from the bridge. You just had to open a little valve. The idea being to give the illusion that a submarine had scored a direct hit on our boiler, and so convince her we were crippled. Another set of controls allowed me to release clouds of smoke from parts of the deck, to the same end. And of course, beneath trapdoors, hen coops and collapsible walls lay, as usual, our real arsenal.

NARRATOR: And here is where Gordon Campbell, VC, may have made a mistake.

GORDON CAMPBELL: The Dunraven was the most heavily armed of all the Q-Ships I commanded. We even had torpedo tubes. Within the Navy, our previous successes spoke for themselves and we were able to acquire all the ammunition, explosives, and guns that we could want, or fit, on board.

NARRATOR: That proves to be a dangerous decision. On August 4, 1917, the Dunraven is sent to patrol the Bay of Biscay, north of Spain.

GORDON CAMPBELL: We’d had reports of a very active - and formidable - U-boat in the area. The commander seemed to have a different modus operandi from anything we’d experienced before. 

NARRATOR: U-boat tactics are shifting again. This submarine does not favor torpedoes in its opening attacks. Instead, it uses a more powerful deck gun to conduct long-range shelling on the target.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Not something we’d seen before. And concerning. In a long-range artillery duel between cargo ship and U-boat, the submarine will have the upper hand just because it’s a smaller target. And, of course, better armed and trained in gunnery than most merchant crews. Our chances of success still depended on luring the enemy close and keeping him on the surface. I almost began to miss our days of inviting torpedoes.

NARRATOR: A few days in, the enemy is spotted on the horizon.

GORDON CAMPBELL: We acted as though we hadn’t seen him, but continued toward him And presently it began. We made a great show of trying to escape his bombardment - pretending to run - but not too fast. I ran the engines slow. We wanted him to close the distance. Of course, we then began returning fire with our feeble deck gun. The gun crew showed great bravery, staying on top in the midst of a real bombardment - but also exhibited some really commendably poor, slow shooting, as per my instructions. Couldn’t afford to scare the prey off. The rest of the crew found it rather amusing.

NARRATOR: And so the chase is slowly on. The U-boat begins to follow.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Once he had closed the distance to about 1,000 yards his shells began to land much closer - worryingly so, actually. I switched the artificial steam on, and ordered the panic party to begin their performance of abandoning ship - stuffed parrot included. Our usual pantomime of surrender was beginning.

NARRATOR: But the U-boat isn’t playing its part. The shelling continues.

GORDON CAMPBELL: That shell hit the poop deck where our main gun was stored, along with most of our ammunition and the depth charges. And this was what I was most afraid of. There was a terrific explosion - probably one of the depth charges - and members of the gun crew were blown into the air. Immediately fires broke out. I was certain the rest of the ammunition would follow soon and that would be the end for all the men at that end of the ship. And maybe the rest of us too. At the same time, the enemy had ceased firing and was now coming into range of my other guns.

NARRATOR: What would you do? Evacuate the gun crews before the ammunition can detonate? Or keep at battle stations a few minutes longer to attack the enemy?

GORDON CAMPBELL: I chose to wait for the chance to shoot. I thought of the names of all the men on the poop deck. I was quite certain they were doomed. But in battle, you - a captain - you have to make those decisions. The alternative might be to lose every man to the U-boat. I gave the order to standby for firing.

NARRATOR: The decision is taken out of his hands.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Before I could give the order, two more shells hit the deck, destroying more depth charges, which tore the stern apart. Just a terrific detonation. After that explosion, the enemy - no doubt realizing we were no ordinary steamer - crash-dived. One of my gun crews got a shot in before he disappeared, but that was it.

NARRATOR: The Dunraven is now on fire and sinking, with a hostile U-boat somewhere nearby.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It was looking bleak. Every few minutes, more shells and explosives blew themselves up in the fires, so you can imagine the noise and the heat of that. Throughout it all, the gun crews remained at their posts surrounded by piles of ammunition. I moved the wounded to the salon for treatment and considered the situation. The wise thing to do would be to radio to other warships to help but even then the U-boat might finish us off before they could arrive, so I decided to try one last bluff.

NARRATOR: There is a last-resort plan that Captain Campbell has discussed with his crew. The so-called ‘Q abandon ship plan’.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Our panic party boat was intended to convince the enemy that we had abandoned the ship and that it was safe to approach. The 'Q abandon ship plan’ would repeat the ruse. Now that he knew we were a warship, we would make a show of also having the gun crews leave the ship. But in truth, they would leave me and two gun crews still on board, ready to fire. 

NARRATOR: The final lifeboats are lowered and most of the gun crews exit. 

GORDON CAMPBELL: I lit a pipe and tried calming my nerves that way. Waiting for his next move - didn’t have to wait long

NARRATOR: A torpedo amidships, causing more fires.

GORDON CAMPBELL: I had a feeling we wouldn’t last much longer now.

NARRATOR: But then, the U-boat does surface.

GORDON CAMPBELL: Directly in front, close range but in such a position that we no longer had any guns we could bring to bear. He shelled us solidly for 20 minutes. Shrapnel tearing through the ship. Some landing amongst the wounded men hidden below decks. Other hits threaten to detonate yet more explosives. New fires break out around the bridge and the mess. And of course, the men in the panic party boats could do nothing except watch the ship sinking lower and lower in the water. But - but! For a moment he came in line with our torpedo tubes. We fired both and one made contact. 

NARRATOR: It fails to detonate. It’s the last throw of the dice. The Dunraven is defeated.

GORDON CAMPBELL: After so many false surrenders, I couldn’t expect to be shown any mercy from the enemy. So I sent out a distress call to Allied warships and went below decks to wait with the injured for the final blow.

NARRATOR: It never comes. For reasons still not clear, the U-boat never returns.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It’s possible he was out of torpedoes or he thought we were done for anyway. It had been a good fight, and we had lost it. But I have more pride in how my crew performed on that day than in any of our other engagements.

NARRATOR: Later that day, the survivors are picked up by the Destroyer HMS Christopher and the Dunraven sinks soon after. Two Victoria Crosses are awarded to crew members for their actions under fire. Campbell receives a second bar to his distinguished service order. The era of Q-Boats is ending. Allied shipping is now escorted across the Atlantic in armed convoys, making them a much more dangerous target for submarines. Campbell disbands his crew.

GORDON CAMPBELL: It was a quiet ceremony with us all gathered together one last time at the barracks. Not much needed to be said. If you’ve served, you’ll understand the significance. The Q-Boat was a response to the conditions of the time. It was an era when we had little or no means of countering the submarine threat directly and were forced to respond with guile and cunning instead, as any nation has the right to do when faced with a mortal threat.

NARRATOR: Gordon Campbell was one of the most successful Q-Ship commanders of the war, the only one to have had three confirmed kills. Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly later described him as a 'born leader of men, with a wonderful sense of duty to his country'. After the war, Campbell served as a member of Parliament and rejoined the Royal Navy at the rank of Vice-Admiral during the Second World War. His Victoria Cross is still kept by his old school, Dulwich College. The legacy of the Q-Ships lives on in other ways. The letter ‘Q’ became British military code for any project involving deception and disguise. Ian Fleming named James Bond’s weapons and gadgets developer ‘Q’ as a result. If you want to know more about Gordon Campbell and the history of the Q-Ships, we recommend his gripping memoirs My Mystery Ships. We also enjoyed Smoke and Mirrors by Deborah Lake, and Q-Ships and their Story by Edward Keble Chatterton while researching this story.

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Guest Bio

British naval officer Gordon Campbell (1886–1953) was an author and politician awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He also received the Croix de Guerre and was appointed a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur for his actions during WWI.

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