Monday, 17 January 2011
Q-Ships and Ronald Niel Stuart VC DSO RD RNR
The character Geoffrey Firmin, the Consul in Lowry's Under The Volcano was a Lieutenant-Commander of the Q-Ship S.S. Samaritan during WW 1. In the novel, Firmin is haunted by his involvement in the deaths of a captured German U-Boat crew by placing them in the furnace of the Samaritan. There is no documentary evidence that this event occurred in the war. I have already discussed a few sources in a previous post centred around the movie Dark Journey 1937.
I have been exploring the possibility that the source for Lowry's naval background for the Consul may have been from his own contacts in Liverpool. Bowker notes that Malc was taken by his bother Wilfrid to see a Q-ship in Liverpool in either late 1918 or 1919 (Bowker Pursued by Furies P16). Wilfrid was then a member of the Royal Naval Reserve based on H.M.S. Eagle (Eaglet) in Canning Dock. Could the ship have been H.M.S. Tamarisk based in Liverpool and commanded by Ronald Niel Stuart? The intriguing possibility that Neil was the basis for the Consul's wartime exploits is that he was the same rank, he was involved in the sinking of UC-29 in which German detailed below, he survived the war and was a local hero returning to service with the Canadian Pacific based in Liverpool. Stuart had been a member of the Royal Naval Reserve before the war and became a leading member when he returned.
Following the action Stuart remained with Campbell and Loveless as Inspectors of Shipping, choosing those vessels they believed to be best suited to Q-ship work for naval service. After some time ashore all three returned to sea in a vessel they had personally chosen, an old, battered tramp steamer named SS Vittoria. Renaming it HMS Pargust, they armed their vessel with a 4" gun, two twelve pounders, two machine guns, torpedo tubes and depth charges. Thus armed the Pargust departed on her first patrol to the same grounds where U-83 had been sunk, in the waters south of Ireland. For the first few days her duties consisted only of rescuing survivors from sunken cargo ships but with increasing German activity, an attack was expected at any moment. On the 7 June 1917, Pargust was suddenly struck by a torpedo fired at very close range from an unseen German submarine. Unlike the Farnborough action, the damage done to the Pargust was immense. The ship was holed close to the waterline, and its cover was almost blown when one of the twelve pounder gun ports was blasted free from its mounting; it was only the quick thinking of sailor William Williams, who took the full weight of the gun port on himself, that prevented the gun being exposed. One petty officer was killed and a number wounded.
By this stage in the war, the German submarine authorities had become aware of the existence of Q-ships and Captain Ernst Rosenow of the UC-29 was taking no risks with his target, remaining at 400 yards (366m) distance watching the staged panicked evacuation of the ship. While the hidden gun crews watched the enemy approach the lifeboats, the officer in charge of the boats, Lieutenant Francis Hereford, realised that the submarine would follow his movements, as its commander assumed him to be the captain. Hereford therefore ordered his men to row back towards the ship, thus luring the enemy into range. This made the submarine commander believe that the ship’s crew were planning to regain their vessel and he immediately closed to just 50 yards (46m), surfaced and began angrily semaphoring to the "survivors" in the boats. This was exactly what the gun crews had been waiting for and a volley of fire was directed at the U-boat. Numerous holes were blown in the conning tower and the submarine desperately attempted to flee on the surface before slowing down and heeling over, trailing oil. The gun crews then stopped firing only for the submarine to suddenly restart its engines and attempt to escape. In a final barrage of fire the submarine was hit fatally, a large explosion blowing the vessel in two. Rosenow and 22 of his crew were killed, whilst two survivors were rescued by the panic party. Wikipedia
It isn't impossible that Wilfrid may have heard stories/yarns or quite conceivably unpalatable truths of the Q-ship war, due to his access to sailors who had fought in the war. He may have related these stories to Malcolm or Malc may have heard them first hand and adapted them later from memories of an impressionable child in 1918/19.
I also came across another mention of H.M.S. Eagle (Eaglet) and Q-ships which involving a Liverpool sailor which again demonstrates the strong local links and the possibility of Lowry getting first-hand accounts of the Q-ship action.
One other coincidence in tracing this story is that the original H.M.S. Eagle was destroyed in a fire in 1926 and was replaced by a former Q-ship Sir Bevis - could this have been another possible source?
The photograph below was taken in the 1970's when I recall seeing her myself many times:
Here is the Sir Bevis in her guise as a Q-ship: