From ‘Sailor At Sea’ by Vice Admiral Harold Hickling, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1965.
It was in September 1939 that Mr Churchill had been lunching in H.M.S. Southampton lying at Rosyth close to the Forth Bridge. After lunch the Captain took the First Lord onto the quarterdeck for a breath of fresh air. The sirens went and two minutes later a covey of Heinkels put down a pattern of bombs which fortunately near-missed the cruiser and the bridge though they struck a spark in Winston.
‘Decoys, that’s what we want, dummy ships!’ he exclaimed.
It was just the sort of thing that appealed to his quick, imaginative mind, indeed in the First World War he had had a dummy [H.M.S.] Queen Elizabeth built which performed off the Dardanelles and as far as is known achieved precisely nothing*.
On the face of it, it seemed a good idea. Enemy air raids on Rosyth, Scapa [Flow] and other ports were becoming more and more of a menace and our anti-aircraft defences were thin and not very effective; so, argued Winston, why not have decoys to draw the enemy bombs. Too simple. Possibly a bit too simple.
In the upshot three old New Zealand frozen-meat ships, each of about 8,000 tons gross were converted, Pakeha, Waimana and Mamari. They were taken out of mothballs in the Gareloch and sent over to Belfast, arriving at Harland and Wolff’s yard on 25th September, 1939.
Two of the ships were to represent ‘R’ class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Revenge; the third, the aircraft carrier Hermes. Mr. MacClogrie, a Naval Constructor, was in charge of the designs and a very good job he made of them. In addition to the camouflaged upperworks each ship was loaded with some 7,000 tons of stone as ballast, to keep them down as it were, and 17,000 forty-gallon drums for buoyancy, to keep them up. They had it both ways.
The three ships of the decoy squadron are on the left. The real Home Fleet is in the background on the right. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29655.
The recently-promoted Commodore Hickling took command of this plywood and canvas squadron on 11th April 1940 and entered a slightly sureal world.
About 4 p.m. I clambered up a rope ladder – there were no fancy things like accommodation ladders, and as my feet touched the deck I noticed with approval my broad pendant break at the yardarm. I also noticed a sailor go up to a 15-inch gun turret, open a door in its 12-inch armour-plated side and take out a leg of mutton. The officers, all seven of them, for as Senior officer I had a staff of two, were introduced to me by the First Lieutenant; with one exception they were all Royal Naval Reserve.
My cabin was nothing more than a large rectangular wooden box. Its whitewashed walls reminded me of the waiting room in a French nunnery. There, alas, the resemblance stopped ……. Looking round it all seemed a bit strange, accustomed though I was to being pitchforked into every sort of odd job that no one else could be persuaded to take. I pressed the bell and when my steward entered with a tray of drinks I began to feel more at home.
A few days later he asked his First Lieutenant what their main armament consisted of – “Six .303 rifles, sir,” he replied. “With ammunition, of course.”
The decoy aircraft carrier Hermes from above. Photo: Imperial War Museum A29653.
Hickling eventually persuaded his superiors that locking up three hundred officers and men in decoy ships didn’t make sense – “It’s doing them no good, nor the enemy any harm.” The squadron was left to swing around permanent moorings and the crews were dispersed to more useful duties. The ships were transferred to the Ministry of War Transport in 1941 and resumed their lives as cargo carriers.
*The real Queen Elizabeth was part of the Dardanelles campaign but, so far, I’ve found no record of a decoy taking her place. Can anyone help with this?