Today marks the 75th anniversary of the sinking HMS Curacao and it wasn’t sunk by the Germans or Japanese or other Axis powers but by one of the most famous cruise liners HMS Queen Mary.
On the morning of 2 October 1942, Curacoa rendezvoused north of Ireland with the ocean liner Queen Mary, who was carrying 10,000-odd American troops of the 29th Infantry Division.The liner was steaming an evasive “Zig-Zag Pattern No. 8” course at a speed of 28.5 knots (52.8 km/h; 32.8 mph), an overall rate of advance of 26.5 knots (49.1 km/h; 30.5 mph), to evade submarine attacks. The elderly cruiser remained on a straight course at a top speed of 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph) and would eventually be overtaken by the liner.
Each captain had different interpretations of The Rule of the Road believing their ship had the right of way.Captain John Boutwood of the Curacoa kept to the liner’s mean course to maximize his ability to defend the liner from enemy aircraft, while Captain Charles Illingworth of the Queen Mary continued their zig-zag pattern expecting the escort cruiser to give way.
“We could see our escort zig-zagging in front of us it was common for the ships and cruisers to zig-zag to confuse the U-boats. In this particular case however the escort was very, very close to us.
I said to my mate “You know she’s zig-zigging all over the place in front of us, I’m sure we’re going to hit her.”
And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armoured plating.
The RMS Queen Mary was used as a troopship throughout World War II and usually crossed the Atlantic without an escort, relying on her speed to evade the U-Boats. In the WWII conversion, the ship’s hull, superstructure and funnels were painted navy grey. As a result of her new colour, and in combination with her great speed, she became known as the “Grey Ghost.” To protect against magnetic mines, a degaussing coil was fitted around the outside of the hull. Inside, stateroom furniture and decoration were removed and replaced with triple-tiered wooden bunks, which were later replaced by standee bunks.
As she came north of Ireland on the 2nd October 1942 she was joined by HMS Curacoa, providing an anti-aircraft escort for the last leg into Scotland.
At 13:32, during the zig-zag, it became apparent that Queen Mary would come too close to the cruiser and the liner’s officer of the watch interrupted the turn to avoid Curacoa. Upon hearing this command, Illington told his officer to: “Carry on with the zig-zag. These chaps are used to escorting; they will keep out of your way and won’t interfere with you.”At 14:04, Queen Mary started the starboard turn from a position slightly behind the cruiser and at a distance of two cables (about 200 yards (183 m)). Boutwood perceived the danger, but the distance was too close for either of the hard turns ordered for each ship to make any difference at the speeds that they were travelling. Queen Mary struck Curacoa amidships at full speed, cutting the cruiser in half. The aft end sank almost immediately, but the rest of the ship stayed on the surface a few minutes longer.
Acting under orders not to stop due to the risk of U-boat attacks, Queen Mary steamed onwards with a damaged bow. She radioed the other destroyers of her escort, about 7 nautical miles(13 km; 8.1 mi) away, and reported the collision.Hours later, the convoy’s lead escort, consisting of HMS Bramham and one other ship, returned to rescue approximately 101 survivors.
Lost with Curacoa were 337 officers and men of her crew, according to the Naval Casualty file released by The National Archives in June 2013.Most of the lost men are commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial and the rest on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. The graves of those who died after rescue, or whose bodies were recovered, were buried in Chatham and in Arisaig Cemetery in Invernesshire.Under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, Curacoa‘s wrecksite is designated a “protected place”.
Those who witnessed the collision were sworn to secrecy because of national security concerns.The loss was not publicly reported until after the war ended, although the Admiralty filed a writ against the Queen Mary’s owners, Cunard White Star Line, on 22 September 1943 in the Admiralty Court of the High Court of Justice. Little happened until 1945, when the case went to trial in June; it was adjourned to November and then to December 1946. Mr. Justice Pilcher exonerated the Queen Mary‘s crew and her owners from blame on 21 January 1947 and laid all fault on the Curacoa‘s officers. The Admiralty appealed his ruling and the Court of Appeal modified the ruling, assigning two-thirds of the blame to the Admiralty and one third to Cunard White Star. The latter appealed to the House of Lords, but they upheld the decision.
I am not sure how to qualify this event because it wasn’t even ‘Friendly Fire’ it was purely accidental but a tragedy nonetheless.