On 2nd October 1942 about 60 km north of the coast of Ireland HMS Curacoa (D41) was escorting the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary carrying 10,000 American troops preparing to take part in the D-Day Landings, as part of Convoy AT024. At this point in the war, the Queen Mary and its sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, frequently ferried Allied troops across dangerous seas filled with the menace of German U-boats – heroic actions that would, in the opinion of Winston Churchill, eventually shorten the war by a year.

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The Queen Mary was following a zig-zag course to try and evade German U-Boats, with U407 being in the area. At 1415hrs, the Queen Mary cut across the front of the Curacoa but with insufficient clearance, given her size and speed of 28knots. The Curacoa was struck amidships by the much bigger ship ‘like a knife through butter’, and nearly cut in two. She sank in about six minutes, roughly 20 miles off the coast of Donegal on the north west coast of Ireland. The QM did not stop and assist in rescue operations due to the risk of U-boat attack and limped safely to her destination at Gourock, Inverclyde (now home to a 300 square foot Amazon warehouse!), with her badly damaged bow. Some hours later, HMS Bramham and another ship returned to the scene and rescued just 101 survivors, including Captain John Wilfred Boutwood, from the Curacoa’s crew of 439 souls. Over twenty bodies were carried North in the tidal streams and their graves are to be found at Lower Breakish in Skye, Arisaig and Morar. I understand that some of these men remain unidentified, only ‘known unto God’.

 

The incident occurred as the result of several factors. The captain of the Queen Mary made the assumption that her escort ship would track her course change and adjust accordingly. Meanwhile, Captain Boutwood on board the Curacoa assumed that the overtaking ship would yield.

 

The loss was not reported until after the war ended and the Royal Navy then sued the Queen Mary’s owners (Cunard) in the High Court which ruled that the bulk of responsibility rested with the Royal Navy. This ruling was upheld on appeal to the House of Lords. The Royal Navy responded by indefinitely suspending escorts for passenger liners.

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The Curacoa’s wreck site off Bloody Foreland on the west coast of Ireland at position 50°50’N. 08°38’W is designated a “protected place” under UK Law.

Sadly, the convoy escort itself was more regarded as a propaganda exercise for the American troops on board and their authorities rather than being in any way worthwhile.

At the time of her sinking Curacoa was painted Mountbatten Pink and was, by October 1942, probably the last ship in the RN to be so painted.

One of the men ‘Missing presumed Killed’ was my Great Uncle William LAKER, C/KX 130176, Stoker 1st Class and the subject of my next ‘Real Lives’ family history snapshot.

The HMS Curacoa incident 1942

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