HMS Curacoa Tragedy, 1942

The story of the light cruiser that was sliced in half by the colossal Queen Mary transatlantic liner.

It was late 1942 and the Battle of the Atlantic – the struggle to ferry millions of tonnes of equipment, war materials and men through a deadly gauntlet of U-Boat submarines – was in full flow.

When 10,000 men of the US 29th Division were needed across the Atlantic it was the RMS Queen Mary (QM) that was chosen for the task – a huge ship but also the fastest passenger liner of its age, holding the record for fastest Atlantic crossing from 1946 to 1952.

If that ship were to be torpedoed and sunk, the loss of all those men would be an absolute catastrophe, so the Queen Mary’s orders were to sail full speed ahead and in a ‘Zig-Zag’ formation to make it extremely hard for any submarine to sink her. This wasn’t just an operating procedure, naval regulations forbade her to slow down under any circumstances.

On the 2nd of October, she rendezvoused with an escort, HMS Curacoa, off the Irish coast and there a calamitous misunderstanding occurred. Each captain had different interpretations of ‘The Rule of the Road’, believing his ship had the right of way.

As the QM continued to zig-zag her officer of the watch saw that she and the Curacoa were getting too close for comfort and took evasive action. Yet the QM’s captain then intervened; disastrously he told his officer to: “Carry on with the zig-zag. These chaps are used to escorting; they will keep out of your way and won’t interfere with you.

QM started to turn starboard; Curacoa’s captain saw what was happening but by then it was too late; QM struck Curacoa amidships at full speed and sliced the cruiser in two ‘like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch (15.2cm) armoured plating’.

The fatal moment of impact (

The rear end sank almost immediately, but the rest of the ship stayed on the surface a few minutes longer. 

To imagine the mood on the QM’s bridge in the minutes after; the captain’s dismay and taut figures at station.

Acting under orders not to stop due to the risk of U-boat attacks, QM steamed onward with a damaged bow. She radioed the other warships of her escort and reported the collision.

101 survivors, including the captain, were eventually picked up yet 239 officers and men went down with their ship.

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