During World War I, the British navy disguised some of its warships as civilian cargo ships, known as Q Ships, in order to fool the Germans. German U-boat commander Capt. Von Haag spots one... See full summary »
Q-ships were used in both World Wars by the Special Service branch of the Royal Navy. These were anti-submarine vessels disguised as merchant vessels, with the dangerous job of serving as decoys to attract German U-boats and to draw torpedo fire. Various civilian vessels (including cargo steamers, trawlers, schooners and convoy sloops) were refitted with heavy artillery and crewed by able seamen and naval officers disguised as merchant mariners.
"Q Ships" is an exciting film, made more exciting because it is not a straightforward documentary. It uses the framework of a fictional plot to give a dramatic but bracingly accurate depiction of the routine (and the dangers routinely faced) by a fictional crew aboard a fictional Q-ship. Many of the fictional seamen and naval officers in this film are portrayed by actual Q-ship crewmen and officers.
We see the Q-crew and officers aboard their ship in the North Sea, attending to shipboard routine while pretending the ship is a merchant vessel. The film intercuts to scenes aboard a German submarine: these scenes are more obviously a staged enactment. The German U-boat stalks the "civilian" ship, then attacks it. We see the Q-ship throw off its disguise as the men defend themselves and their vessel. The ship is damaged by a torpedo attack, and we see the crew and officers evacuate to the lifeboats in an orderly fashion... as orderly as the rules of war permit.
There is some plausible comic relief here. The ship's mascot is a black cat, brought aboard by a Cornish crewman. (In Cornwall, black cats are considered **good** luck.) A black seaman is shown, without the usual "cowardly Negro" stereotypes, although there is an unpleasant attempt to compare the black man and the black cat. (Contrast this with the very popular British war film "The Dam Busters", which includes among its (real-life) characters a black dog whose name was a racial epithet.) During the torpedo attack, the black crewman's face is splattered with white paint: I think this was meant to be a joke.
John Gielgud's brother Val gives a good performance in this movie. In real life, Val Gielgud was a very successful theatre impresario. I'll rate "Q Ships" 8 points out of 10. Good show, lads!