The Gunner and the U-Boat

©J. David Perkins, 1999

The story of the U-boat war against Allied merchant shipping during The Great War is one of enormous tragedy, incredible human suffering, sacrifice and bravery. Destruction of lives and ships on such a massive scale and by such an unusual means had never before happened in the history of the seafaring world. Once the potential inherent in the U-boats had been tested, the German Admiralstab did its utmost to isolate Great Britain from outside support, first with a U-boat blockade of the British Isles and later, through the wholesale destruction of her sea-bourne trade on the high seas far from war-torn Europe. The German objective was to bring Britannia to her knees through starvation thus putting an end to the war on their terms. They came alarmingly close to succeeding.

During 1915, when the U-boat arm began its first concerted campaign and shipping losses started to rise, the Royal Navy found itself completely unprepared to deal with the submersible marauders. Both the Admiralty and the mercantile community cast about for solutions to the problem. Convoy, a defensive tactic that had been employed with success in sailing ship days, was not favoured by either group. The Admiralty did not have the escort ships and the steamship captains did not want to give up their independence. Other means of protecting the merchant fleet were sought.

The first countermeasure to be tried was the containment of the U-boats using minefields, nets and patrols. This was continued throughout the course of the war and ultimately mines destroyed more U-boats than any other single means. Another idea, and that best liked by the mercantile community, was to arm merchant ships so that by a combination of speed, manoeuvre and gunfire they could fight it out with their adversaries. This worked fairly well for the large, fast, modern ships when the U-boat co-operated by surfacing first, and many a steamer was actually saved by these tactics. Mounting a gun on a merchantman, however, had its drawbacks for it gave the U-boat captain the excuse he needed to sink the ship without warning. For the multitude of slow steamers, older ships and sailing vessels there was no real safety and they paid heavily. The best that could be done was to provide them with wireless sets so that ships in distress could at least call for help within the limited range of the early instruments.

Another solution was the creation of the now-famous Q-ships, an assortment of converted merchant vessels and small warships built to resemble merchant ships, manned by naval crews and armed with concealed guns, depth charges and even torpedo tubes. These ships plied the trade routes like any other innocent merchantmen, sometimes under neutral colours, in the hopes of being challenged by German submarines, much like bait in a mobile trap. When a U-boat's periscope was sighted, or one surfaced nearby and ordered them to heave-to, a "panic party" dressed as merchant seamen would tumble into the lifeboats and abandon ship while the gun crews stayed under cover at their hidden guns. Once the U-boat came within easy range the white ensign was run up, the shields were dropped and the guns opened fire to destroy the submarine before it could dive out of danger.

At least, that was the idea. Sometimes it worked very well, sometimes not. Occasionally the U-boat would torpedo the Q-ship without ever revealing herself. On a number of occasions better armed German submarines stood-off and shelled the Q-ship either forcing her to open fire prematurely to save herself or reducing the "trap-ship" to a sinking condition before she could bring her guns into action. There were some very lively actions between decoy ships and submarines with casualties aplenty on both sides.

Q-ships came in all shapes and sizes but one of the earliest, and most humble, must have been the converted fishing vessel known as His Majesty's Armed Smack Inverlyon.(1) She was based at Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast. Like dozens of her ilk Inverlyon was a bluff bowed, flush decked, two masted, fore-and-aft rigged, little vessel sporting a stubby bowsprit. She had no engine and relied entirely on a suit of patched, brown, canvas sails and the skill of her crew for mobility. For armament Inverlyon was fitted with a single 3-pounder (47 mm) quick-firer, a pop-gun by anybody's standards but about all that could be carried in such a small vessel.

The little Q-ship was manned by her fishing skipper, a man named Phillips, and three fishermen, all of whom were temporarily enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section). Inverlyon was commanded by Mr Ernest Martin Jehan, Gunner, Royal Navy(2). Gunner Jehan had been promoted from the lower deck in 1905. In 1910 he was in the crew that brought the light cruiser HMCS Rainbow out to Canada and remained aboard the Canadian cruiser at Esquimalt, British Columbia, until posted back to England in 1913. Just prior to the outbreak of war he was posted aboard HMS Dryad, a one-time torpedo gunboat converted into a minesweeper. From Dryad he was sent to the Inverlyon as commanding officer. What Ernest Jehan thought of his position is not recorded. Being in command of a tiny, wooden, sail-powered fishing boat armed with a 3-pounder gun must have been a far cry from anything that a graduate of HMS Excellent (3) would ever have conceived for himself, but he did not let that dampen his professionalism as a naval officer nor as a gunner. Four regular Royal Navy seamen, also from Dryad, were carried to man the gun.

Officers, HMCS Rainbow, Esquimalt 1912
[RCN Officers] Mr Jehan is second from the left, wearing the gaiters. Another photograph, dated 1910 may be found here.
(DND Photo - click for an enlarged view)

In August, 1915, Inverlyon was assigned to "fishing" in the vicinity of Smith's Knoll Buoy about 20 nautical miles east of the port of Great Yarmouth. To maintain the deception the trawl was actually streamed. No doubt the fisherman crew would have been pleased with a profitable catch of haddock or plaice but they were after bigger, much more dangerous, game. The area had a reputation for U-boats, several having been encountered during the preceding weeks, one only two days before Inverlyon was to sail.

As there were small Q-ships so there were small U-boats. For inshore work the Kriegsmarine had built a number of diminutive submarines known as the UB-1 type. These single screw boats were 92 feet in length, displaced 140 tons when dived, carried two 18-inch torpedoes, a single 8 mm machine-gun and a crew of one officer and 13 men. Such a boat was the UB-4 commanded by Leutenant zur See Karl Gross.

UB 1 Type U-Boat
[UB 1 type] A typical UB1 type boat, very similar to UB 4 (JD Perkins collection)

Based at Zeebrugge she was the first of her kind to score a victory when she torpedoed the British steamer Harpalyce without warning on the 10th of April, 1915, near the North Hinder lightship midway between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Harpalyce, engaged in Belgian Relief work, was on her way from Rotterdam to Norfolk, Virginia, in ballast, under a safe conduct pass from the German authorities. She had large white patches on her sides with "Belgian Relief" written on them in big black letters and was flying a large white flag similarly marked. Nevertheless, Gross torpedoed her and the 5,940 ton ship went down so quickly there was no time to get the boats away and 15 of her crew of 44 were lost.

Four months later UB-4 left her base in Flanders headed for an area off Yarmouth to the northeast of where she had sunk the Harpalyce. Two days later, on Sunday, the 16th of August at around 8:20 p.m., Gross was on the surface when he spotted what appeared to be a typical British fishing smack and steered a course to intercept her. The smack was much too small for a torpedo and he probably intended to put men aboard to sink her with a small demolition charge or set her alight, a common fate for small wooden vessels.

Aboard the Inverlyon the gun's crew waited tensely at their concealed weapon, the gunlayer and a loader on the gun itself, a third sailor below to pass up ammunition. Two of the crew, armed with repeating rifles, had taken cover behind the bulwarks while Skipper Philips manned the helm and the remaining seaman "lounged" about the deck for appearances sake. All eyes were on Ernest Jehan who was leaning casually against the starboard bulwark watching the approaching U-boat. He was playing a spine chilling waiting game, judging just the right moment to open fire. Too early or too late would certainly mean failure and probably seal their own fate for, once alerted, the enemy had most of the advantages in this deadly game.

The U-boat drew slowly to within thirty yards of the starboard side, the wavy lines of her camouflage clearly visible in the fading light, her captain standing abaft the open conning tower hatch directing his ship, the German naval ensign fluttering on its short staff behind him. There was no machine gun mounted on the tripod on the foredeck nor anyone else topside.

Drawing within hailing distance the German officer was heard to shout at them in such a way that Mr Jehan and the crew assumed they were being ordered to heave-to and the "loungers" moved towards the rigging as if to comply. The German submariner obviously expected to be obeyed and they obliged him.

The U-boat was almost stopped when Mr Jehan gave the order to hoist the white ensign. Then, raising his revolver he took careful aim at the man on the tower and fired. At the same time he shouted the order "Open Fire"!

Up went the white ensign, down came the shroud around the 3-pounder and almost instantly the gunlayer squeezed the trigger to send the first round into the target. Three shots cracked out in rapid succession. The first and third hit UB-4's conning tower and were seen to burst inside, undoubtedly with murderous effect in such a confined space. The second shell blew away the after part of the bridge structure throwing Gross and the ensign staff into the water. The submarine, now drifting on the tide, crossed under Inverlyon's stern and as the stricken vessel passed cries of "Stop, stop", could be heard coming from inside. As the slowly settling U-boat cleared the smack's port quarter, the little 3-pounder opened a devastating fire at point-blank range. The gunners got six rounds away as fast as they could load, aim and fire. The first hit the tower, two went over while the remainder hulled the U-boat. All the while the men with rifles maintained a rapid fire emptying their magazines as quickly as they could chamber the rounds and pull the trigger. During the brief action Gunner Jehan alone emptied four revolvers and a repeater into the U-boat. Once it was obvious the submarine was sinking they ceased fire.

Hull and crew alike riddled by shell splinters and small arms fire, her shattered interior filling with sea water, chlorine gas, smoke from shellbursts and fused electrical equipment, the stricken submarine began to settle rapidly by the bows, the bodies of two men who had attempted to return fire jammed half in and half out of the conning tower hatch.

As UB-4's stern rose nearly vertical and she began her final plunge, three bodies floated to the surface, one of which was heard shouting for help. Skipper Phillips stripped off his sea-boots and jacket, grabbed a lifebuoy and dove after the drowning man heedless of the thick oil covering the sea's surface and the vortex created by the sinking U-boat. The German submariner was doomed, however, and sank to join his comrades before Phillips could get to him. The compassionate skipper was hauled back aboard the Inverlyon on his own lifebuoy as more oil and great bubbles of air and water welled to the surface.

Inverlyon still had way on and when she passed over the sinking U-boat her trawl fouled the wreck, effectively anchoring the smack in position and raising the possibility of salvage. Another smack, the Arthur Williams, was dispatched to the nearest steam drifter to pass a message on to base. At dawn, two pigeons were released from the Inverlyon carrying messages describing the action and requesting assistance and instructions. Ultimately it was decided to cut the trawl and allow the U-boat to finish her final plunge.

To the victor the spoils. There was an immediate cash gratuity to be shared among Inverlyon's reservist crew members.(4) All hands were also eligible for Admiralty bounty money, but that would not be forthcoming until April, 1923. Gunner Jehan was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross(5), a well deserved accolade for a surprisingly successful action in which a lot of nerve, nine rounds of 3-pounder and a few dozen rounds of small arms ammunition sank a U-boat. The Admiralty also singled out the actions and steadiness of the gun's crew and Skipper Philip's attempt to rescue the German submariner.

The End

Additional Notes

1. In Kendall MacDonald's article published in Diver Magazine, it is described how the Royal Navy's "U-boat Flying Squad" commanded by Commander G. C. C. Damant, investigated the wreck of UB-4 shortly afterwards. The diver, Warrant Shipright E. C. "Dusty" Miller, found the conning tower shut and had to blow it open with a demolition charge. Inside he found relatively little obvious damage although the hull had been holed in at least two places. He was able to recover the secret document strong box containing, among other things, the latest code books and diagrams showing the locations of two recently laid German minefields.

2. Inverlyon's career as a Q-ship was short but before returning to fishing for a living she had another crack at a U-boat three weeks later. That time her adversary got away.

3. In January, 1916, Mr. Jehan was promoted to lieutenant and posted to HMS Sarpedon, a brand new 36 knot destroyer, as first lieutenant (Executive Officer). He survived the war and after commanding HMS PC 55 during 1919-20 retired with the rank of lieutenant commander. He is thought to have died sometime during the early 1930's.


Published Sources
Admiralty, The Navy Lists. HMSO, London.

Chatterton, E. Keble. Q-Ships and Their Story, Conway Maritime Press, London, 1972.

Grant, Robert M., U-Boats Destroyed, Putnam, London, 1964.

Hocking, Charles, A Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam, 1824 - 1962, Vol.1.

MacDonald, Kendall. Dusty Miller's Secret War. Diver Magazine, September 1998 edition.

Newbolt, Sir Henry, Submarine and Anti-Submarine, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1919.

"Taffrail" (Captain Taprell Dorling, DSO, F.R. Hist. S., RN), Swept Channels, Hodder and Stroughton Limited, London, 1935

Unpublished Sources
Anonymous, The U-Boats - Activities and Losses of German U-boats, 1914-1918. An unpublished English language manuscript in the possession of the author.


1 According to Grant, one of four smacks outfitted and deployed during August 1915. (Return to text)

2 "Skipper" was a common term used to describe the master of a small vessel who did not hold Board of Trade seagoing Master's papers. It was also a Warrant Officer rank (senior to a midshipman, but junior to a sub-lieutenant) used in the naval reserve forces. Although the rank of Gunner was a parallel rank, Mr Philips was outranked by Mr Jehan by virtue of the latter being in the regular forces. (Return to text)

3 The Royal Navy's one-time pre-eminent gunnery training establishment on Whale Island in Portsmouth harbour. (Return to text)

4 Try as I might I've been unable to find a definition of this gratuity outside of the facts that it was financed by civilian organizations and awarded to the citizen-sailor manned auxiliary forces. (Return to text)

5 Gazzetted 19 November, 1915. Of several sinkings claimed during this period this was the only genuine success. (Return to text)

Last Updated: 1 August, 1999.

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