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This Week in Military History: September 29th - October 5th

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October 2nd: HMS Curacoa Incident

In her over 40 years of service to the British Royal Navy, the cruiser HMS Curacoa lived through her fair share of action. But in the early afternoon of October 2nd, 1942 she went down off the Irish coast with most of her crew, sunk by one of the most horrible scourges to ever plague the seas: a cruise ship.

The HMS Curacoa, 1941HMS Curacoa, 1941

The Curacoa, launched in May of 1917, was a light cruiser with a length of 450’ 3”, beam of 43’ 5”, and a displacement of 4,260 tons designed to protect fleets from enemy destroyers. She served as the flagship of the 5th Light Cruiser Squadron for the final years of the First World War, performing mostly reconnaissance and anti-mine-laying operations. After the war’s end, she was assigned to the British forces intervening on behalf of Tsarists in the ongoing Russian Civil War. The only action she saw there was when she struck a mine in the Baltic Sea on May 17th, 1919. One crewman was killed, three injured, and the flag officer aboard (Rear Admiral Walter Cowan) was blown out of his bath and had to report to the bridge wearing nothing but his overcoat.

Rear Admiral Sir Walter CowanAdmiral Cowan had a distinguished career in the Navy, including his decision in 1942 to accept a reduction in rank to commander in order to join the Commandos. At age 72. He was captured the next year after singlehandedly fighting an entire Italian tank crew armed only with a revolver, returned to Britain in a prisoner exchange, and went back to fighting with the Commandos. Point is: don't let an embarassment at work derail your career.

She was repaired and continued her service throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, undergoing a conversion to an anti-aircraft cruiser in the summer of 1939. In the early days of WWII, Curacoa served in the Norweigan Campaign where she was badly damaged by a German bomb that killed eight crewmen. After repairs she was reassigned as a convoy escort in the Western Approaches of the British Isles in the fall of 1940. On the morning of October 2nd, 1942, she rendezvoused with a converted troopship on its way to Scotland carrying roughly 10,000 soldiers of the US Army’s 29th Infantry Division: the RMS Queen Mary.

RMS Queen Mary around the time of her initial launch.RMS Queen Mary around the time of her initial launch.

Launched on September 26th, 1934 the Queen Mary (or QM) was a British passenger ship of the Cunard White Star Line that, upon its debut, claimed the title of world’s largest ocean liner. It lost that distinction several weeks later when a rival ship that had undergone lengthy modifications was relaunched, but the QM set multiple records for speed in crossing the Atlantic with upwards of 2,000 passengers aboard throughout the 30’s. When war broke out, she and many of her fellow liners were converted to troopships, tasks that their large size and speed made them ideal for. With a top speed of over 30 knots, the QM could easily outrun any German submarines and that, coupled with her new navy grey paint job, earned her the nickname “The Grey Ghost.”  And with a length of over 1,000’, a beam of 118’, and displacement of 77,400 tons she easily dwarfed the naval vessels assigned to escort her, including the Curacoa and other destroyers she linked up with on that fateful October morning.

RMS Queen Mary in New York Harbor, 1945The QM as a troopship in New York Harbor during WWII.

What followed that day would be one of the more bizarre tragedies in modern naval history. Curacoa, traveling in a straight line at 25 knots to maximize her abilities to defend from aerial attacks, was slowly overtaken from astern by the faster-moving QM, despite her zig-zag course to evade potential submarine attacks. Both ship’s captains assumed he had the right of way and the other would yield as the distance between them shrank. At 13:32,  as the QM prepared to turn, the watch officer realized completing the zig would result in a collision and ordered the course changed. His commanding officer, Commodore Sir Cyril Gordon Illingworth, countermanded the order, believing the Curacoa was expecting them to continue their regular maneuvers and would evade his ship. At 14:04, as the QM made a turn to starboard, Captain John Wilfrede Boutwood of the Curacoa realized the liner was on a collision course with his cruiser and that both ships were moving too fast to stop it.

Drawing of the RMS Queen Mary colliding with the HMS CuracoaDrawing of the QM colliding with the Curacoa.

Less than ten minutes later the QM struck Curacoa amidships and sliced straight through her, cutting the smaller vessel completely in half. Her boilers exploded and her aft portion sank in moments. The forward section stayed afloat for five or so minutes before joining the rest of the ship at the bottom. Because of the ever-present danger of U-boats, the other escort ships could not stop to pick up survivors. They had no choice but to continue on to port. Two ships managed to return several hours later and save 101 men still in the water, including Captain Boutwood, but 337 perished along with the Curacoa.

Destroyer HMS Bramham, the ship that picked up the majority of the Curacoa's survivors.Destroyer HMS Bramham, the ship that picked up the majority of the Curacoa's survivors.

All witnesses to the incident were sworn to secrecy, although the British Admiralty filed a writ against Cunard White Star in the fall of 1943. When a case finally went to trial in 1945, the Admiralty Court laid the blame for the incident squarely on the officers of the Curacoa. An appeal later divided the blame, attributing 1/3rd of it to the QM.

The damaged bow of the RMS Queen Mary after her collision with the HMS Curacoa.The damaged bow of the QM after the collision.

Despite some minor damage to her bow, the QM sailed safely into the port of Greenock, Scotland. Many of those aboard her were unaware anything had happened at all. After repairs, she continued serving as a transport ship and set the still-standing record for most passengers ever transported by a vessel (16,683) during a July 25th-30th, 1943 crossing and ferrying an estimated total of around 800,000 troops throughout the course of the war.. After the war she reverted to a cruise ship. She completed her 1,000th and final Atlantic crossing on September 17th, 1967. The next month she sailed for the West Coast of the US and arrived in Long Beach, California on December 9th. The Queen Mary, converted into a hotel and museum, now sits permanently docked in Long Beach Harbor.

The QM as she is today.The QM today.



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