Naval Q-Ship Atik’s Last Stand
By James Donahue
A Q-ship was a heavily armed merchant ship, with concealed guns, designed as decoys to lure German submarines to
make surface attacks. If things went right, the Q-ship had the fire power to sink the U-boat during a traditional gun battle
at sea. Q-ships were used on the North Atlantic during both the First and Second World Wars.
Q-ships were virtually sacrificial lambs during the war. Few of them lasted more than a few months. The idea was
that they would be backed up by other naval vessels during an engagement. If sunk, the other ships would come to the rescue
of the crew.
In 1942, during the early months of World War II, the 30-year-old freighter Carolyn, a veteran of the old A. K.
Bull Steamship Lines, was chosen by the navy to serve as a Q-ship. The old ship steamed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where
it was loaded with hidden main and secondary batteries and sound gear and given its official naval name, Atik. The holds were
packed with pulpwood, making them flammable but harder to sink.
Atik went into commission in March, 1942 under the command of Lt. Harry Lynnwood Hicks.
By the time Atik put to sea on March 23, all of the other available naval ships were heavily involved in either
the war against Japan in the Pacific Theater, or were on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Thus Commander Hicks and his crew
were on their own as they steamed along the Virginia coast.
It was not long before U-123, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Reinhard Hardegen, came upon the Atik. The submarine
surfaced, as predicted, since the crew was not expecting a problem . One torpedo was fired. It struck the old steamer on the
port side just under the bridge. A fire broke out and the Atik began to list. U-123 stood by to watch the vessel sink.
But to their surprise, the old steamer suddenly gathered steerage way, turned toward the U-boat, dropped her concealment
and opened fire. The big guns failed to hit the sub but a blaze of machine gun fire killed a midshipman standing watch on
Hardegen managed to get his submarine submerged and turned back for a second attack. This time a torpedo hit the
Atik’s engine room putting the ship out of commission. Then as crew members were escaping in the ship’s lifeboats,
the Atik exploded. The entire crew of 141 officers and men was lost.
If any of the Atik’s crew did get away in lifeboats, they were apparently lost in a severe gale that swept
the area just after the engagement. A naval search of the area the following day turned up no survivors.
The Carolyn was launched at Newport News in 1912. She measured 382 feet in length. The ship faithfully carried
freight and passengers between the West Indies and ports on the eastern seaboard. During World War I the ship was armed with
a battery of guns and a Navy armed guard detachment, but never saw action.