Collision Course – Eighty kilometres off the northern coast of Ireland the Queen Mary, the most famous liner in the world, carrying 10,000 American and Canadian troops to Britain, rams and sinks her escort ship, HMS Curacoa. The British cruiser Curacoa is sliced in two and takes just six minutes to sink. 338 of her crew die as the giant liner does not stop to pick up survivors. The story becomes one of the 2nd World War ‘s best-kept secrets.
Who is to blame for the sinking? For the first time an extreme dive expedition searches for evidence from the wreck itself which lies in deep Atlantic waters, 125 metres below.
Royal Navy crewmen of the Curacoa who survived tell their tale. Personnel aboard the Queen Mary also share their memories. US Army Air Corps veterans witnessed the horror of the sinking. Their moving stories, together with dramatic reconstructions of the events leading up to the tragedy, paint an accurate picture of an important and largely untold wartime story.
The 4,500-ton HMS Curacoa was a light cruiser that had seen service in the First World War. She was past her prime, but had been converted for an air defence role. As the Queen Mary entered British coastal waters Curacoa’s job was to protect her from German aircraft.
The 81,000-ton Queen Mary had travelled across the Atlantic from New York. Camouflaged to escape detection, she sailed fast and zigzagged. No German U-boat could keep up with her; her twists and turns made it hard for a submarine to aim torpedoes. Her ability to evade the enemy led her to become known as the ‘grey ghost’.
In order to provide effective anti-aircraft cover the Curacoa needed to stay close to the Queen Mary. On October 2nd 1942 she was too close. Did Curacoa steer a fatal course towards the Queen Mary or was the Queen Mary to blame? What will the dive to the wreck reveal?
HMS Curacoa was a "Ceres" Class vessel and a "C "class cruiser, pennant number D 41. Before she was destroyed in the collision with the Queen Mary she took part in the action against the Germans in North Norway in 1940. Together with other "C" class cruisers she was sent to give anti-aircraft cover to British forces fighting there. A raid by Heinkel Bombers badly damaged the ship. 45 men were killed and a further 36 injured. There were a total of 28 "C" class cruisers built during World War 1. Another famous "Ceres" class cruiser was HMS Cardiff. She led the defeated German High Seas fleet into the Firth of Forth in 1918. Another was HMS Caradoc. She was a "Caledon" class cruiser. The Six vessels of the "Caroline" Class were also "C" Class cruisers. One of them, HMS Caroline, is the last "C" class cruiser still in existence, she is a Battle of Jutland veteran and second oldest commissioned ship in the Royal Navy (the oldest is HMS Victory).
Curacoa or Curacao? The ship which was rammed and sunk by the Queen Mary was the HMS Curacoa pronounced 'CURASOWER'. She was the fourth ship in the Royal Navy to bear this name. She was named after the Caribbean Island Curacao. Originally "discovered" by the Spanish, the island has been Dutch since 1634. Along with Bonaire the island is part of the Netherlands Antilles. Although the island is more commonly spelt Curacao, the Royal Navy always used the alternative spelling Curacoa.
The wreck of the Curacoa is not easy to see. Lying in the Atlantic Ocean about 50 miles of the north west coast of Ireland. The ship is on the seabed in two pieces. The larger part (300 feet/ 91 metres) the bow, is upside down and is about 1,600 feet/500 metres away from smaller stern section (150 feet/45 metres), which is upright. At a depth of around 400 ft/126 metres, divers had just 12 minutes filming time at the bottom. Before they could return to the surface they had to pass another four hours in decompression.
The main armament on the HMS Curacoa were the HA/LA (high angle low angle) four inch guns. Fitted in pairs in four turrets they were designed to deal with enemy aircraft. HMS Curacoa was built in the First World War, but just before the start of the second, she had the anti aircraft guns fitted in place of her older guns.
Until the Queens were built it was usual for Cunard liners to have names ending in the letters 'ia', for example "Mauretania" , "Berengaria" and "Carpathia". It is rumoured that The Queen Mary was going to named after the longest reigning British Monarch 1837 - 1901 Queen Victoria, but that when an official from the Cunard Company told the then King George V that they intended to name their new ship after "our greatest Queen", he replied, "Oh my wife will be pleased". So they had to change to Mary!
The Queen Mary very nearly did not get built at all. She was under construction at John Brown's yard on the Clyde in the 1930s. Then just known as "Hull 534", worked stopped on her because of the Great Depression in December 1931. The UK Government stepped in with new funding and work got going again. One of the conditions of the Government money was that the two famous lines Cunard and White Star should merge. This happened in 1934. The Queen Mary was finally launched on 26 September 1934 for the Cunard White Star Line.
Following her launch, on 26 September 1934, the Queen Mary stayed on the river Clyde in Scotland for fitting out. On the 24th March 1936 she was moved to the port of Gourock at the mouth of the river. Despite prior dredging and without 20 of her lifeboats onboard she still ran aground twice en route. She was finally handed over to the Cunard White Star Line on 12th May 1936 and made her maiden voyage on 27th May of that year.
After the collision with the Curacoa on October 2nd 1942 the Queen Mary did not stop to pick up survivors. she sailed on towards Scotland because she was under instructions not to stop under any circumstances, but her captain at the time, Cyril G. Illingworth, ordered a rescue operation from destroyers nearby. The Queen Mary had suffered serious damage to her bow but fortunately (possibly as a consequence of the Titanic disaster) she was reinforced in this area. Because of the risk of german air raids (and Adolf Hitler had offered a prize to any U-Boat captain who could sink her) it was considered too dangerous to have her properly repaired in Britain. She was only patched up in Scotland. There they filled in the hole with concrete and metal to make her safe and then she sailed across to USA again and was fully restored in a yard in Boston Massachusetts.
Queen Mary was famously saved from scrapping at the end of her life in 1967 she is at Long Beach California. Her near contemporary the Queen Elizabeth was not so fortunate she was destroyed by fire in Hong Kong Harbour in 1970s. Now, the Q E 2 built in 1967 has reached retirement age too. She is destined to have a future moored in Dubai as a hotel. by contrast the one time Blue Riband holder the SS United States faces an uncertain future she is moored up in Philadelphia docks.
The Queen Mary holds the record for the most people transported on a ship ever. On one voyage she had 16,000 GIs on board (Her normal passenger compliment was less than 2,000).
The prize for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic is called the Blue Riband famously coveted by liners in their heyday the prize was held twice by the Queen Mary , lastly from 1938 to 1952. The last superliner to hold the record was the SS United States crossing at around 34 knots. The current holder of the Blue Riband is an Australian built Ocean going catamaran Cat Link V. Her crossing was at a speed of more than 40 knots.
The Queen Mary was owned by Cunard for more than 31 years. On December 11 2008 she will have been moored at Long Beach, California for 41 years, that's 10 years longer than her time spent plying the world's oceans
One of the aircraft that the crew of the anti aircraft cruiser HMS Curacoa would have been looking out for was the Focke Wulf 200 Condor. A German long range bomber operated from a base in Bordeaux Merignac against allied shipping. It started life as an airliner and flew from Berlin to New York in 1938. For the war it was converted for reconnaisance and bombing duties.
The 338 men of the Curacoa, including 25 of her 27 officers, who were killed in 1942 are remembered in a number of places around the United Kingdom. Five are buried in Northern Ireland at the Londonderry City Cemetery, 16 lie on the Isle of Skye at Ashraig Cemetery Strath, and a further three at Stronuirinish Cemetery, Portree. There are five more graves on the Scottish mainland at the Roman Catholic Cemetery at Arisaig. The names of all the men are commemorated on the War Memorial at Chatham in Kent.
The risk of attack faced by the Queen Mary was only too real. Two years before the incident with the Curacoa another great liner had been lost to enemy action in almost exactly the same place. At the end of October 1940 The 42,348 ton Empress of Britain, also serving as a troopship, was returning to the UK from Capetown when she was intercepted by a Focke Wulf Condor 200. Two bombs struck her but she did not sink and was taken under tow in an effort to bring her to land. The end came two days later when she was found by the U-32. Two torpedos sent her to the bottom at a position North West of Bloody Foreland, County Donegal. Of the 643 people on board, 45 lost their lives. The Empress of Britain was the largest ship lost by the Allies in World War 2. Like the Queen Mary she was also built by John Brown on the Clyde.
During the filming of Collision Course, Dennis Hearn the former Signalman on board HMS Curacoa told the production team about his wartime shipmate Paddy Houston. Paddy or William Houston was a baker. He was one of the cooks on board ship. As 19 year olds the two men became friends. William was from Belfast and on shore leave Dennis spent time in the city with his friend and got to know other members of his family. Dennis remembers encountering Paddy during the chaos on board HMS Curacoa after she has been rammed and split in two by the Queen Mary. Just as Dennis was trying to save himself, he came across a terrified Paddy clutching the rail of the ship. "I can't swim! I can't swim!" cried Paddy. "It doesn't matter!" shouted Dennis, "You've just go to jump. Do Doggy Paddle. You must get off the ship!" That was the last time the two men saw each other. Paddy did not survive the sinking and Dennis lost a good friend. The war passed and Dennis remembers that he always wanted to try and link up again with the family of William Houston, but time passed and he never did make that contact. Until now that is. Through UTV and the Belfast Telegraph a search was started for any members of the Houston family still living in the Belfast area. It didn't take long for the responses to come in, and 66 years after the event Dennis was able to meet up with Victor Houston now in his 80s, the younger brother of Paddy as well as more than 15 other members of the extended family.
Director of Photography
MICHAEL McVEIGH - ROSGUILL
Original Music Composed by
Post Production Assistant
Australian Production Team
Post Production Facilities
Sound Design and Mix
On Line Editor and Colourist
Visual Effects and Animation
THE STUDIO UPSTAIRS
Executive Producer for MSP
Executive Producers for Deep Sea Productions
Executive Producers for National Geographic Channel
Executive Producer for UTV
Executive Producers for Canwest Broadcasting
Executive Producer for History
JOCK GARDNER, RNHB
ERIC GROVE, UNIVERSITY OF SALFORD
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
ROB McAULEY PRODUCTIONS
With Special Thanks to
THE HOUSTON FAMILY
HMS CAROLINE, BELFAST
THE QUEEN MARY, LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
ROYAL NAVAL HISTORICAL BRANCH
UK HYDROGRAPHIC OFFICE
CLAES DROUGGE, OCEAN MODULES
Mallinson Sadler Productions
Northern Sky Entertainment
Deep Sea Productions
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL
Mallinson Sadler Productions
Northern Sky Entertainment
Deep Sea Productions
For more see www.deepwreckmysteries.co.uk