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Wartime Maritime Innovation

Q-Ships and Dazzle Ships

Recently published Historic England research has documented the creation of Q-Ships.

More than 200 ships – from fishing vessels and colliers, to tramp steamers and sailing vessels – were used to counter the German U-Boat threat in various ways. Among them were the ‘Q-Ships’– officially known as Secret Service Ships – which had secret armaments hidden behind what appeared to be deck cargo or superstructure and holds filled with cork or timber for extra buoyancy.

Q-Ship with gun
Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd

Their crews played the part of normal merchant sailors, but were in fact naval personnel. These ships were decoys to lure German U-Boats into a surface attack, at which point the Q-ships would drop their disguise and unleash their hidden weaponry.

On 10 November 1914 the Admiralty gave an order for certain ships to be painted with ‘razzle-dazzle’ camouflage. It was designed to break up vessels’ contours, rendering them visually confusing to U-Boats. They were known at the time as ‘Cubist’ ships and well-known avant-garde artists supervised the painting schemes.

An unidentified British steamer painted with dazzle camouflage moored in a harbour.
An unidentified British steamer painted with dazzle camouflage. The geometric patterns were thought to hamper the ability of hostile submarines to predict the range, course and speed of moving vessels. © Private collection

Concrete ships

Newly published Historic England research has revealed that concrete ships were Britain’s novel response to the need to provide additional cargo capacity as mainstream cargo vessels were diverted to replace those sunk.

Concrete ships were used principally around the coast. All their names were prefixed by Crete- in a nod to their building material; such as the Cretecable. The remains of Creterock are still visible on Whitby Beach and Cretehawser still lies half-submerged in the River Wear in Sunderland, Tyne & Wear.

Concrete ship under construction
Concrete ship under construction Warrington, Cheshire (OP01196)

Recently published Historic England research

England's Shipwreck Heritage

England's Shipwreck Heritage

Published 15 July 2013

Highly illustrated and based on extensive new research, this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in England's maritime heritage.


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Wartime Maritime Innovation

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Troop ship painted with dazzle camouflage.
  • Great Western Railway’s fast turbine steamer SS Andrew.
  • HMS President, Blackfriars Bridge, London.