“Whilst his Brother Harry remained in the Trenches with his South Wales Borders, George Pike had transferred out of the Army & entered the Senior Service. Far from the heat & dust of the Middle East, he now served in the North Atlantic & beyond, on a submarine decoy vessel.
These ships were developed because of the large loss of shipping caused by German U-boats in the opening months of the war. It did not go unnoticed at the Admiralty that the Boche submarines preferred to attack unescorted, older and smaller vessels by using surface gunfire thus preserving their torpedoes for larger vessels or warships and extending their sea cruise durations. Thus it was conceived that a vessel, such as a coaster, if provided with a concealed armament, could meet a surfaced submarine on fairly equal terms.
The vessels chosen, code-named Q-ships (!) by the Admiralty and also known as Decoy Vessels and Special Service Ships, were comparatively small, ranging in size from 4,000 tons to small sailing ships, old and made to look poorly maintained. Their outward appearances were indistinguishable from ordinary merchantmen. When attacked, the Q-ship would allow the U-boat to come as close as possible before dropping the disguise, raising the White Ensign ( a requirement of international law ), and opening fire. The sinking of about 30% of the U-boats destroyed by surface forces by this method proved its success. In the early part of the war when successes were highest the number of such vessels was limited but, later as the numbers increased, the Germans became aware of the operation and successes declined. One source has been quoted that there were as many as 366 Q-ships, of which 61 were lost during the war, nearly all the larger vessels being torpedoed without warning. So sailors had a 1 in 6 chance of serving on a vessel attacked by U Boats. The strain & stress on Officers & crew must have been immense, as an attack could happen at any time, day or night.
The ships adopted greater secrecy and elaborate disguises. They changed their disguises and names from time to time, some vessels having had as many as five different names. Many ruses were developed to convince the U-boats that vessels were genuine. These included disguises for the crew – men made up as black merchant seamen, the captain’s ” wife “, and in one crew the ‘ cook ‘ was equipped with a stuffed parrot in a cage. Also a simulated abandon-ship routine was operated whereby half the crew, nicknamed the ” panic party “, would leave ship while the other half would remain hidden aboard to man the guns. When it became apparent that the decoys were likely to be torpedoed, their holds were filled with buoyant material to keep them afloat.
In August 1917 George joined the Arvonian which had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy and converted into a Q-ship, She was armed with three 4-inch guns, three 12-pounder guns, two .30-calibre machine guns and four 18-inch torpedo tubes all disguised in various ways : behind hinged bulwarks, inside dummy superstructures and deck cargoes, and even inside dummy boats
On 27 November 1917 she was handed over to the United States Navy by the Admiralty “for war purposes”, commissioned as USS Arvonian the same day, with Commander David C. Hanrahan in command. The ship was fitted out at Devonport and conducted ship’s drills in Plymouth Sound with a crew & officers composed with a mix of volunteer crew from American warships in European waters, & Royal Navy Officers. On 18 December she was renamed USS Santee, and arrived at Queenstown in southern Ireland the next day.
At 16:00 hrs on 27 December, Santee sailed from Queenstown bound for Bantry Bay to carry out exercises. At 20:45 she was south of Kinsale, when she was struck on the port side by a torpedo fired by SM U-61, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Victor Dieckmann. Hanrahan ordered his men to battle stations and sent away the “panic party,” a group of sailors who played the role of a crew precipitously abandoning their sinking vessel. They left the ship, as Hanrahan later reported, in “fine panicy [sic] style”, in an attempt to lure the enemy to the surface. After two and a half hours fruitlessly waiting for the U-boat to show herself, Hanrahan radioed for help. Destroyers and tugs were sent to her aid, and the ship was towed back to Queenstown, while the destroyers USS Cummings and Sterett rescued the boats of Santee’s “panic party.” After repairs at Queenstown , Santee was towed back to Devonport by 8 February.
She was decommissioned there on 8 April 1918 and returned to the British Admiralty. Commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Bendish, she was sent to Gibraltar for further Q-ship operations,
The war service for George had commenced in 1914, encompassing the appalling 1915 horrors of Gallipoli, intense action in Egypt in 1916, & subsequently the unending tension of 18 months cooped up on a small sea vessel, inviting attack from marauding German U Boats. George admitted in letters home quite frankly that his nerves were completely shot, but the end of hostilities in the Great War seemed nowhere in sight.
© DJM 2018