Originally developed during WW1 to counter the U Boats of the Kaiserliche Marine the Q-ships were a secretive branch of the Royal Navy based out of Queenstown in Ulster (hence the "Q"). They took command of requisitioned merchantmen (generally tramp cargo steamers) and re-fitted them with concealed gun and armour and packed the holds and bilges with soft wood to improve boyancy. The re-fitted ships then cruised in areas where there were known to be active U-boats or trailed convoys pretending to be a straggler - ideally the U-boat would sight them and surface to engage with the deck cannon rather than waste a torpedo. Once their attacker had committed himself, the Q-ship crew would then exchange thier merchant ensign for a navy battle ensign, unmask their guns and open fire. Even if the German skipper decided to risk a torpedo the highly buoyant 'cargo' would usually mean that the Q-ship failed to sink, thus encouraging him to surface and 'finish off' with the gun.
Since then the term has been applied to any ship operating in a similar role and, by various forms of analogy to the same role in other media - for example armoured courier vans that actually contain armed police officers rather than cash to foil armed robbery.
Game and Story Use
- Pretending to be a merchantman to bait enemy commerce raiders has quite a history - if not one as specific as that of the Q-ship. This was quite effective in the days in which limited amounts of maritime specialisation meant that a warship and a merchant could be hard to tell apart.
- The auxiliary cruiser was a similar, but less specialised - and usually less covert - beast.