Poole decoy ships fooled the U-boats - Benjamin Pond - Longshoreman

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Poole decoy ships fooled the U-boats

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Bournemouth Times and Poole Herald 14th November 1968
A reproduction of the original article by Benjamin B. Pond

At the start of this century a thing called a motor-car might have actually been seen on Poole Quay. Not too near the water, mind, because brakes were not very reliable in those times.
Such the car might bear the registration letters EL, which indicated it had come all the way from Bournemouth, or it might have had the letters FX for our county, Dorset.
None of these cars had more than three figures after the two letters. In fact one day a car appeared with just one registration letter, A. I believe it was A 625 and was owned by a Southampton man who was captain of one of the ships of Coast Lines, a company whose ships had been regularly calling at Poole since those days, and still do so.
The ships of Coast Lines are some of the finest coasters ever to be seen in our port, and bring mixed cargoes from Liverpool, calling at other ports en route such as Bristol and Plymouth, before reaching Poole, then on to Southampton and the East Coast.

Frequent visits
Sometimes there were a few passengers. If one wanted to go all the way back again” the voyage took about 10 days.
Previous to 1914 the Coast Line steamship “Suffolk Coast” came frequently to Poole, then when the First World war came she was one of the first ships to be taken over by our Royal Navy and used as a decoy merchantman.
She became what was then known as a Q boat, or “mystery” ship, and hidden beneath her forward hatch was a powerful naval gun. To all intents and purposes she was just a harmless trader. Similar types of ships were also equipped with hidden weapons, like the “Suffolk Coast.” They cruised along our coasts on the lookout for German submarines.

Suffolk Coast - 1913 (MV Suffolk Coast)
A 780 ton cargo vessel built in 1913
by W Harkess & Sons of Middlebrough, the Suffolk Coast was owned by Coast Lines Ltd of Liverpool. She was sunk by the German u-boat UC-17, off Cape Barfleur, Normandy  on 7th November 1916.

Suffolk Coast  (HMS Suffolk Coast) - 1917
After the sinking of the previous Suffolk Coast in 1916, a new
cargo ship of the same name was built in 1917. In August 1918 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty & became HMS Suffolk Coast; being used as a Q-ship & collier for the rest of the First World War (a Q-ship was a decoy ship disguised as a tramp steamer or other lone vessel, but actually heavily armed to lure U-boats within firing range). After the war she was moored at St Katherine's Dock in London and open to the public during late 1918 & early 1919. She returned to her peacetime duties as a cargo vessel in July 1919.

U-boats often lurked off The Needles and to the south of the Isle of Wight, also near the entrance to our harbour and on westwards to Portland Bill.
Usually when the U-boat saw one of these decoy ships it would fire a shell across its bows, signalling it to stop. It would then come closer to get the “victim’s” name, then a planned panic scheme was adopted. Down came the flag and a party would get into the lifeboat and row - This encouraged the U-boat to come nearer.

Gun raised
Suddenly the whole scene would change. The hidden gun would be raised by the men left onboard, and shells aimed straight at the conning tower of the submarine. Many a sub met its end by this method, although some of the decoy vessels also suffered a similar fate. They did not all return safely, but the good old “Suffolk Coast” survived her engagements and was back on her regular service to Poole by the end of 1920.
The smaller class of U-boats would risk coming into very shallow water. One came nearly up to Parkstone Shoal, then finding nothing to sink, made for the open sea.

Back in October, 1917, I was fishing not far from Swanage Bay, Peveril Point in fact, when a small submarine surfaced about 200 yards seawards of my boat. Two men emerged fro the conning tower, waved to me and I naturally waved back, then they moved nearer and I could just read either U-43 or U-48 on the hull.
It was late afternoon and visibility was bad, due to mist. Soon the two men disappeared from view and the sub very slowly submerged.
I must have seemed very small fry to them, I suppose.

WW1 Uboat Type U 43
Ocean-going diesel-powered torpedo attack boats class
8 boats commissioned U 43 - U 50

The very day on which the first world war started, August 1, 1914, the German topsail schooner “Else,” 250 tons, lay anchored opposite the windmill on Brownsea Island.
That same night she slipped out of our harbour, intending to get back to Humburg. When only a few miles on her way she was captured by one of our naval ships and eventually she became a decoy ship, destroying U-boats which had come from country to which she had once belonged.

Coastal trade
A notable ship to survive the U-boat menace was the British barquentine “Waterwitch” on which many Trinity House pilots qualified in their sail training. She was built at Poole as long ago as 1871 and was still on coastal trade up to a few years ago.
By August 1916, we had got together a fleet of 600 motor launches. Most of them came over from the United States in sections and were assembled in this country. In length they were either 84 or 90 feet, and two powerful engines, and amidships their draught was only 5½ feet, so they could operate in shallow waters.
A flotilla of these craft were based in Poole Harbour and it is interesting to recall that after the war several of these motor launches were bought by local people to serve as houseboats.
Six of them were moored in Stoke’s Lake, Sandbanks. One of them, M.L.161, was owned by Captain Dyce, a retired Cunard officer. She was called “Dun-er-bit”, because she had a notable war
Another was called “Oomalah” and was moored in Sou’ Deep for many years. She was brought in by a commander who served with her in his squadron.
When the order came that all houseboats had to move from Stoke’s Lake most of them went to Christchurch Harbour. Two, M.L. “Melisande” and M.L. “Wolf,” have since become wrecks.
Almost all ships coming to Poole these days have finished with bunkering and been converted to oil fuel. Coast Lines have a number of smart modern ships, such as “Dorset Coast,” 1,200 tons, “Cheshire Coast,” 1,450 tons, and “Lancashire Coast,” 1, 380 tons.
It is not an easy
job to take an unladen ship away to sea, as both the propeller and rudder are partially out of the water and in traversing the narrow channels with strong cross currents from Poole to the bar our local pilots have a complicated job, there being very little “sea-room.”
A pilot’s work is made more difficult by hundreds of small craft. The owners of some of these have no idea of the rules of navigation and are a constant source of concern to vessels of deep draught when under-way.

Long service
Poole has two outstanding families who have served as pilots for three generations, the Browns and the Wills. One member, “Jo-Jo” Brown, recently retired after 40 years’ in service.
Each group consists of three qualified men and a boatman. Now and again either of the two families may not be able to supply its quota, so the number is made up from Trinity House.
Despite the new quay, better leading-in lights and increased depth of water on the bar, the size of ships coming to the harbour has tended to fall in tonnage. Trade has been let slip away to Shoreham and Falmouth, yet Poole is favourably placed for coastal business, both imports and exports.
Southampton seems to have a continuous supply of timber coming in. This is loaded on to railway trucks and lorries and conveyed to all parts of the southern counties.

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