A Brief History
On October 2, 1942, the Royal Navy teamed up with the Cunard White Star Line to pull off yet another of Naval History’s great “Oops” moments. In this incident, the giant luxury liner, RMS Queen Mary, collided with her own escort, the HMS Curacoa, an anti-aircraft cruiser, sinking the hapless cruiser.
Back on July 3, 2014, History and Headlines featured a list of 10 “Oops” Moments in Naval History. Today, we have another tale to add to this pantheon of blunders at sea.
The RMS Queen Mary had been converted to use as a troop ship for World War II, and was carrying the US 29th Division, 10,000 troops, to England from the US. The Queen was being escorted by the World War I era (commissioned 1918) HMS Curacoa, a light cruiser 450 feet long, 43.6 feet wide and of about 4190 tons. The Curacoa was manned with a crew of 338 as she sailed with the Queen Mary, the Queen making a zig-zag course to foil U-Boat torpedo attacks.
In normal rules of the sea, an overtaking ship must yield to the ship it is overtaking, but apparently the haughty Captain of the Queen Mary did not think wartime was normal. The Queen, all 1019 feet and 81,961 tons of her, turned into the path of the Curacoa. Despite watch officers on both ships advising their captains of the imminent collision, no corrective action was taken and the Queen Mary struck the Curacoa amidships at an unstoppable 28 knots, slicing the cruiser in half and sinking her. As per procedure, the Queen Mary continued on her course without rendering assistance and safely made her intended port in England.
The crew of the Curacoa was rescued only several hours later by other Royal Navy warships, but of the 338 men, only 99 were recovered alive. In what has become typical government fashion, the incident was completely covered up and kept from the public until after the war.
The Irate Royal Navy pressed charges against the owners of the Queen Mary after the war, and an investigation by the High Court of Justice found the Royal Navy to be 2/3 at fault, and the Cunard White Star Line responsible for 1/3 of the fault. Of course, such a finding had tremendous effect on the civilian lawsuits that followed, and the Admiralty was so miffed by the ruling that an order was passed that passenger liners pressed into service would not be escorted.
As long as ships go to sea, there will be mistakes made, and some of those will be relegated to the history of naval “oops” moments, left for us to tell you about. Question for students (and subscribers): What other such incidents would you like to know more about? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Holmes, Patrick and David Arthur Thomas. Queen Mary and the Cruiser: The Curacoa Disaster. Naval Institute Press, 1997.