Thursday, April 20, 2006


Queen Mary's deadly drama at sea


By Craig Howie
April 18, 2006

The RMS Queen Mary, now moored
in California, was a massive and majestic
ship in its heyday.

PALM trees and a Russian submarine are the slightly incongruous sights that greet any onlookers from the captain's bridge of the RMS Queen Mary today. Berthed in Long Beach, California, the Queen Mary still boasts at its outlook point all manner of polished-brass navigational instruments that convey a feeling of what it would be like to pilot such a ship throughout its fantastic history.

But one disaster involving the Queen Mary, which occurred just under a year after America joined the Second World War, stands as a reminder of less glorious times on the Cunard liner's bridge.

On 2 October 1942, carrying more than 15,000 American servicemen from New York to Gourock, Inverclyde, the Queen Mary collided with its escort, the HMS Curacoa anti-aircraft cruiser, about 20 miles off the coast of Northern Ireland, sinking it with the loss of more than 300 men. At this point in the war, the Queen Mary and its sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, frequently ferried Allied troops across dangerous seas filled with the menace of German U-boats - heroic actions that would, in the opinion of Winston Churchill, eventually shorten the war by a year.

Built and launched in 1936 from John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank, the Queen Mary had been refitted in Australia from a luxury passenger liner to a troop carrier in preparation for wartime. The Queen Mary would eventually be capable of carrying an entire division of US troops, or more than 16,000 men. It was often shepherded into port by three or four destroyers.

Adolf Hitler was said to have placed a bounty - $25,000 and an Iron Cross - for the ship's sinking, and Churchill, under his pseudonyms "Colonel Warden" or "Two-nine-three and party", is believed to have plotted D-Day from his bath aboard the ship.

The Queen Mary, shown here with
thousands of military personnel on
board during the Second World War.
Picture: Mercury Press

Known as the Grey Ghost as a result of its grey paint makeover and the speed at which the Queen Mary could navigate through U-boat territory without attracting fire - the ship was never targeted in all its years at sea - the ship's swiftness was tempered by a series of "zig zag" maneuvers undertaken to confuse enemy crafts.

It was under these maneuvers - "zig zag No.8", with the Curacoa two miles ahead, both positioned approximately 20 miles from the Northern Irish port of Donegal - at about 2pm that the Queen Mary crossed the much-smaller escort ship's path, approaching it from starboard side, hulling it amid ships and slicing it almost in half.

At 28 knots, the 4,200-ton cruiser built in Pembroke, Wales, gave little resistance to the Queen Mary - almost 20 times her weight at some 83,500 tons - and sank quickly.

Many of the men onboard the punctured vessel plunged in desperation into the icy Atlantic, expecting the Queen Mary to turn round and collect survivors. But the ship was on captain's orders to continue, lest it become a sitting target for U-boats.

Only 102 men survived, rescued by two other destroyers; 338 perished. A number of the servicemen who died are buried in north-west Scotland - at Lower Breakish in Skye, Arisaig and Morar.

The ill-fated HMS Curacoa.

The Queen Mary sailed on to the Clyde, where it would dock safely and receive temporary repairs to its bow, which was badly bent and patched with cement before it would be fully repaired across the Atlantic in a Boston shipyard.

The tragedy would not be made public until the war's end three years later, for fear of demoralising the troops or the UK's civilian populace.

After the war Cunard White Star Line was sued by the Commission of the Admiralty, which claimed the Queen Mary's crew were responsible for the collision. However, the sitting judge, Mr Justice Pilcher, ruled the cruiser was to fault for the accident. After several appeals, one in the House of Lords, the decision that the Curacoa was two-thirds to blame, with one-third blame apportioned to the Queen Mary, pleased neither Cunard nor the Admiralty.

In California, Will Kano, who scripted the Second World War tour aboard the Queen Mary, says that in the course of his job as exhibitions manager on the ship, he met an American relative of a Curacoa survivor.

"Last year, the daughter of a survivor said that her father had been at the forward end of the Curacoa, by the engine rooms, in his bunk next to the oil drum," Kano says. "When the drums burst, it covered him head to foot in heavy, thick black oil. He was in the water for between 16 and 18 hours as they couldn't see him - he was so covered in oil - but it also insulated him from the seas, saving his life."


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