Q Ships, Bay of Biscay, 1917
Lieutenant Mark Norman Rennie, HMS Vala
Beverley Minster, Yorkshire
Mark Norman Rennie was born in Sheffield in 1887, the sixth child and fourth son of a draper, Thomas Edward, and his wife Elizabeth Ellen. By 1891 the family had moved to Whitby, which is where Mark grew up, living first on the West Pier, and then in Khyber House – I don’t know whether that is the same as the present Khyber Mount Guest House, though it might be given that Elizabeth Ellen listed her occupation as lodging house keeper.
Of the four sons one, John Francis (born 1875) became an artist, with paintings of Whitby scenes that can occasionally be found on the market. The other three, Gilbert Edward (1882), Thomas Cedric (1885) and Mark Norman all followed the main Whitby profession by going to sea, and all gained success at their trade. In 1910 Thomas Cedric received his Master’s Certificate, the same year Mark gained his First Mate’s Certificate, while the following year Gilbert also gained his Master’s. When war came, they all joined the R.N.R., the Royal Navy Reserve, and all became lieutenants.
The ships that Gilbert served with are not clear, but he survived the war, and went on to live into his eighties, his death being registered at Swansea in 1968. Thomas served at HMS Wallington, which was an Auxiliary Patrol Base at Barton-on-Humber, a shore-based establishment which sent small patrol vessels into the North Sea. He married in 1918, but died only a year later, at Leith. Mark initially served on HMS Virginian, which was involved in convoy protection, but in 1917 he moved to Special Service, aboard HMS Vala, a Q Ship.
The Q Ships were so called because they were based at the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. They were armed merchant vessels sent out to attract the attention of the German U-boats that were preying on allied shipping; in essence they were there to be shot at. The idea was that a lone merchant ship would be a tempting target for a submarine, and that an unarmed ship would be unlikely to be attacked with a torpedo. Instead the submarine would surface and attempt to sink the ship with its cannon. When the sub surfaced the Q Ship would swing down its false sides and open fire with its concealed guns.
I may now be speaking with hindsight, but it seems to me that the problem with this ploy is that the element of surprise on which it depends cannot be sustainable. Unless every U-Boat encountered was destroyed before it could communicate it surely it would not take long for the U-Boat captains to understand what was happening, and so be wary of the trap.
Certainly as the war progressed the tactic became more costly. In 1915 there were twenty-nine Q Ships which were involved in the sinking of six U-Boats, a ratio of nearly 1:5. In 1916 forty-one ships destroyed three subs, a ratio of 1:14, and by 1917 ninety-five ships led to the destruction of six U-Boats, a ratio of nearly 1:16. Over the same period an increasing number of Q-Ships were sunk, from none in 1915, to two in 1916, to eighteen in 1917, including five in August alone, one of which was the Vala.
The Vala was a cargo ship launched in 1894 and owned previously by J. T. Salvesen of Grangemouth. She had a busy time in the months preceding the 20th August. Between December 1916 and July 1917 she had been involved in fights with five different U-Boats, so presumably her appearance was reasonably well-known. When she was seen by UB-54, under Captain Egon von Werner, an experienced submarine captain in his third command, she was in the Bay of Biscay one hundred and twenty miles south-west of the Scilly Isles, and she was not given the opportunity to bring her guns to bear. Instead von Werner ordered the launching of two torpedos, and the Vala went down. One report says that survivors did manage to escape in lifeboats, but if that is true they were certainly never found, meaning the full crew of forty-five was lost.
In the end, and it is easy to be wise after the event, the Q-Ships policy has to be viewed as a mistake, wasting the lives and skills of many experienced seamen for an end result that was relatively slight – fifteen U-Boats in four years. RNR Lieutenant Mark Norman Rennie got a plaque in Beverley Minster, mounted by his wife Dorothy, who lived at 5 Highgate in the town at the time. He left effects worth £138 to Dorothy and their child, but never got his Master’s Certificate.
A postscript to Mark Rennie’s story is that in 2009 his medals, a 1914-15 Star and 1914-18 War and Victory Medals, which must have been sent to his widow, were auctioned at Baldwin’s in London. They sold for £440. From a sentimental point of view, it does not seem much.
West Towers of Beverley Minster - by Graham Hermon, from geography.org.uk on Wikimedia Commons
Interior of Beverley Minster, looking along the nave towards the West end - by David Wright, from geography.org.uk on Wikimedia Commons
The former German submarine UB 148 at sea - from National Archives and Records Administration, ARC identifier 512979, on Wikimedia Commons
Plaque in Memory of Lieutenant Mark Norman Rennie - Jon Dewhirst
© Jonathan Dewhirst 2013