Robert Walsh

Freelance writer from Cornwall

Q Ships – A Weapon Against Modern Piracy..?

Q ships carried concealed weapons and looked defenceless, luring enemy submarines to the surface and then sinking them.

Q ships were the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing, a peculiar product of the First World War. Originally submarines were expected, by maritime law and tradition, to surface, stop their targets and allow their crews to safely abandon ships before sinking them. In 1917 the Imperial German Navy, desperate to strangle Britain’s maritime supply lines, declared unrestricted submarine warfare. After 1917 German sub skippers simply sank on sight civilian merchant ships. They struck without warning and with no consideration for a target’s crew.

Basic naval strategy dictates that subs are most vulnerable when surfaced. Sub commanders tended, even then, to surface only out of necessity. As the pre-1917 practice dictated surfacing before sinking civilian merchant ships the British came up with a cunning way of destroying subs that might otherwise hit and run. ‘Q’ ships also gave any German sub commander pause for thought before surfacing to sink apparently defenceless targets. The ‘Q’ ships looked exactly like any other civilian ship while carrying concealed heavy weapons that were quickly unveiled when a surfaced sub stopped close by.

The British deployed many ‘Q’ ships. Germany lost many subs as a result.

Even today, piracy represents a serious problem to mercantile and civilian shipping around the world. The Indian Ocean (especially near Somalia), some areas of the Pacific and the South China Sea have long been hotbeds of piracy. That doesn’t look like changing any time soon. While there’s much debate about the legality of civilian vessels carrying either weapons or armed security to deter pirate attacks, I can’t help wondering whether modern-day ‘Q’ ships might provide not only a means of practical defence, but also a similar deterrent factor.

Pirates are maritime predators and, like all predators, they’re opportunists. They cruise the seas looking for the most lucrative and most defenceless victims. If they see an undefended target that looks worth taking, potential rewards outweigh potential risks which makes an attack more likely. It’s likely many pirates will pause to reconsider before attacking, thereby lowering the number of attacks, if they risk picking the wrong target. A target that can either force their surrender or sink them if they resist. The fear factor would arguably make attacks less likely.

Modern-day ‘Q’ ships could act as undercover police officers of the world’s oceans. By letting it be known in piracy’s hotbeds that ‘Q’ ships were in those areas, it’s possible many pirates might be intimidated into abandoning piracy entirely. Those who did’t would constantly run the risk of being forced to surrender or being sunk. The intimidation factor would probably work well in curbing pirate activity. Capturing pirates and sinking their ships once they’re securely confined aboard a ‘Q’ ship might well make the oceans safer for mercantile and civilian shipping everywhere.

Given that the world’s navies have long faced having a limited supply of warships to protect vast areas of ocean, ‘Q’ ships could be converted from ordinary merchant ships with relative ease and relatively limited expense. A medium-sized merchant freighter or tanker could readily be converted with concealed heavy weapons, a brig for prisoners, improved communications facilities and suchlike and modern Private Military Companies might well be prepared to provide both ships and crews for the right price. The financial opportunities for a dedicated supplier and operator of ‘Q’ ships would no doubt be immense, certainly the expense to global shipping might be less than the annual cost of piracy. Maybe it’s time for some wolves in sheep’s clothing to tackle the job. It doesn’t look as though existing methods and practices are having much positive effect.

Perhaps Blackbeard’s descendants might start picking some other line of work.




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