1 December 2004
Six: Chief Petty Officer T. A. MacLaren, Royal Navy, accidentally killed when H.M.S. Curacoa was run down by the liner Queen Mary in October 1942
British War and Victory Medals (J.94539 Boy 1., R.N.); 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star; War Medal; Royal Navy L.S. & G.C., G.V.R. (J.94539 P.O., H.M.S. Ardent); together with Exmouth Training Ship Medal, in silver, reverse inscribed ‘Training Ship Exmouth presented to T. McLaren for special good conduct and ability, June 10th, 1918’, the B.W.M. and Victory Medals, and the L.S. & G.C. Medals polished and with edge bruising, therefore about fine, otherwise nearly extremely fine (7) £200-250
Thomas Arthur MacLaren was serving aboard the cruiser Curacoa, leading the special Royal Naval task force of six destroyers whose job was to escort the giant Cunarder Queen Mary, carrying 10,000 American troops, on the final leg of her journey to Gourock on the Clyde. In these dangerous waters the Queen Mary’s only defence against the omnipresent threat from attack by submarines was her speed, combined with her zig-zag course. Every few minutes, to a pre-set but secret schedule, she changed her heading, sometimes to port, sometimes to starboard, sometimes by 25 degrees, sometimes by 50, confusing any submarine commander who might find himself briefly within range, yet always making good her course for Britain.
The main problem for Captain John Boutwood in the Curacoa, was that his aged Great War cruiser was marginally slower than the Queen Mary. An even greater problem lay with the other six destroyers in his force; they could only muster 20 knots, 5 less than the Curacoa herself. In order to give the Queen Mary his maximum possible protection he decided to take up station ahead of her, and then, before she overtook him, to increase to maximum speed, staying as close as he could for as long as possible. By these means he would be able to offer reasonable protection until she came within the cover of shore-based fighters.
At 14.04 on Friday 2nd October 1942, the Queen Mary made her scheduled change of course, of 25 degrees to starboard, and to some of those officers on board it seemed that the Curacoa had been holding a roughly parallel course for some time, also zig-zagging in order to hold her position with the giant liner. This was not in fact the case and the ships were actually converging on a collision course. Thus, twenty miles off the Irish coast, in bright sunshine and perfect visibility, two ships that had been in company and in regular contact by signal for many hours, with no enemy forces threatening, and with nothing else in sight except the masts of friendly destroyers, seemed about to annihilate each other.
Both Captains believed that they had right of way and that the other vessel would be the ‘give-way’ ship. Captain Illingworth understood that it was an escort’s duty to keep clear of the escorted vessel and not to add to her hazards by getting in the way. Article 21 of the Collision Regulations made that abundantly clear. Captain Boutwood, for his part, knew that the Queen Mary, as the overtaking ship, was under an obligation to keep clear of him. Article 24 of the Collision Regulations made that abundantly clear. Thus the captains of the two ships, in their separate ways, both had marine law on their side.
After some doubts and hesitation on the part of both captains, each believing that the other was about to alter course, it suddenly became abundantly clear to each of them that collision was inevitable. With the two ships just 150 yards apart, Robinson, the officer of the watch, ordered the Queen Mary ‘Hard a-port!’, but such a large ship would not respond in the short time available. On board Curacoa, Captain Boutwood’s only chance seemed to be to steady his helm and even to port at the last in the hope that the Queen Mary might miss him astern. Several seconds before the impact he saw the impossibility of escaping. Not until the last five seconds did the Queen Mary appear to steady up and begin her swing to port. Then, towering above the cruiser like a leviathan, she crashed into her at an acute angle just forward of her after-director, about two thirds of the way down her port side. With 81,000 tons opposed to a mere 4,500, the bows of the Queen Mary pushed the cruiser round to make an angle of 90 degrees, then rode straight over the top of her, and within seconds those knife-edged bows had cut right through. The two halves of the Curacoa, writhing like some severed worm, were separated by the vast bulk of the Queen Mary as she bulldozed inexorably on.
Whatever the effect might be on the Queen Mary, the Curacoa was surely doomed. The forepart lay on her beam ends, the stern turned turtle, baring her screws to the sky. Clouds of smoke enveloped both sections and the hiss of escaping steam was deafening. When the Queen Mary finally passed through the gap, the two sections were separated by over a hundred yards. Of the Curacoa’s complement of 430 men, some were already dead, others were dying, others were drowning, many were trapped. But the vast majority of them were clinging tenaciously but precariously to life. Any hope of immediate rescue, before exposure in the icy seas began to claim its victims, lay with the Queen Mary.
But Captain Illingworth was faced with an appalling choice. Either he turned back to pick up survivors, deliberately hazarding his ship with its many thousands of passengers, or he steamed on, leaving hundreds of men to their fate. In the end his choice was inevitable. Seamanship must come first, humanity second, The safety of his 10,000 passengers, and of his ship, must be his only consideration. Even though it would be several hours before they could reach the area against the heavy seas, Illingworth gave orders for the escorting destroyers to move in and pick up survivors. Thus, he had virtually passed sentence of death on scores of men who might otherwise have survived. The wake of the Queen Mary did not deviate as she sailed straight on for the Clyde.
The total loss of life amounted to 329 officers and men, including Captain John Cole. There were 101 survivors in all, including two officers, one of whom was John Boutwood. The survivors were ordered to say nothing of the incident and they kept their word so well that the sinking of the Curacoa became one of the best-kept secrets of the war. It was not until 1945 that the loss was revealed and the Admiralty initiated action against Cunard for damages. If the Admiralty won their case, the relatives could also sue Cunard for damages. It was a highly publicized and emotional case that dragged on for many months but eventually, on 21 January 1947, Mr Justice Pilcher delivered his judgement. He found Curacoa entirely to blame.