Queen Mary and the Cruiser by David A. Thomas and Patrick Holmes (Naval Institute Press, 1997)

“Had the forenoon watch and after eating went out onto the fo'c'sle. Just arrived at the top of the ladder by the PO's heads when the wave hit me---waist high---and knocked me over. Looking astern---through the bulkhead door which was open, saw the stern of a ship sticking up out of the water . . . then looked down and realised it was the stern of our ship which now had nothing abaft B gun. Very frightened. We were listing to starboard about 30 to 40 dgrees. Clambered (too steep to walk) p the port side fo'c'sle and stood by the guardrail for perhaps thirty seconds.” (p. 103)

And then Able Seaman (Radar) Norman Blundell was dumped into the North Sea and prayed to be rescued from the sinking of the HM cruiser Curacoa, which had been sliced in half by the great Cunard liner, Queen Mary, on October 2, 1942. 338 men died in the tragedy and fewer than 100 lived to tell the harrowing story of how the noble Curacoa, built between 1916 and 1918, through a series of miscalculations and grievous mistakes, was torn apart by the ship it was her duty to escort during World War II.

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This fascinating, though little known story, was reconstructed as the fruit of the labors of naval historian, David A. Thomas, and one of the Curacoa survivors, Patrick Holmes. Through meticulous research, the two authors reconstructed an authentic account of how the incident occurred, including detailed accounts by eye-witnesses on the Queen Mary as well as survivors of the Curacoa.

At the time of the tragedy, the Queen Mary was steaming toward Britain with over 10,000 American soldiers aboard, as well as 900 crewmen. Due to the fact that the British were at war already with Germany, there was a huge concern over the possibility of U-boats being in the area. Both the Queen Mary and the Curacoa were travelling in zigzag paths to make it more difficult for the U-boats to find their massive British target. However, when two ships are zigging and zagging, and the seas are tumultuous and high, it is not difficult to understand how they got in each other's way.

As the behemoth and the small cruiser came closer to each other, Leading Signalman Donald Eaton was on the bridge. He called to his friend Telegraphist Allin Martin over the voicepipe. Martin recalls, “Shortly afterwards, the upper bridge speaking tube clanged my “opp” indicated that any camera was to hand a particularly good view of the Queen Mary was available. Unclipping the bulkhead door, I stepped outside, where to my horror, I saw the enormous bulk of the Queen Mary bearing down onn our port quarter at about fifty yards range.” (p. 90)

The collision, which tore the cruiser in two, was barely felt as a bump on the huge liner. Men onboard the Curacoa immediately jumped overboard into the icy waters, many of them drowning immediately from the oil drenched water. Unfortunately for the sailors aboard the cruiser, the Queen Mary had strict orders not to stop no matter what happened, so she kept chugging toward the coast of Ireland, and quickly called for other ships in the area to rescue the men who had been dumped into the sea.

There is no simple explanation as to what caused the disaster, and it took years of wrangling with maritime law to figure out what had actually occurred, as the captain of each ship, Captain C.G. Illinworth of the Queen Mary and Captain John Wilfred Boutwood of the Curacoa each had his own perspective on the other's culpability in the fatal accident.

The Queen Mary and the Cruiser is a fascinating read, which I recommend, particularly if naval history intrigues you.

The young sailor quoted at the beginning of this review, Norman Blundell, managed to survive the sinking of his ship by laying across the seat of a motor boat which he found bobbing in the water. Although he was very frightened, seasick, and found the fuel oil particularly nasty (“He tasted it for months afterwards and remembers its taste to this day” p. 104) did survive and is actually the reason that I was aware of the story of the Curacoa.

Norman Blundell was my son-in-law's maternal grandfather, and the tale of his miraculous survival has continued to astonish our family each time we have heard the details. It was Ros, Blundell's daughter, who informed me of the existence of the Queen Mary and the Cruiser and I purchased it on Amazon as a holiday gift for my son-in-law. This thrilling gem of a book is a wonderful testiment to the brave men who gave their lives on that frigid October day in 1942.