Q-Ship Vala

Q-Ship Vala

In February 1925 the Shetland Times ran a short obituary of James Johnson, Delting. He had lost two sons in the Great War. Henry, the second eldest, had been a Royal Naval Reserve Lieutenant

While he was engaged in Naval duty…he encountered a large enemy ship. He fought gallantly to the end, when the ship and all hands went down with the British colours flying.

Perhaps the writer had hold of the wrong end of the stick, or more likely the secrecy surrounding what Lieutenant Henderson did allowed another narrative to develop. He had been part of an ingenious approach to anti-U-Boat warfare - Special Service ships, decoys later known as Q-Ships.

Defending against U-Boats was a persistent problem for the Royal Navy throughout World War One. Various types of Q-Ship were used, but the classic ones were small freighters. Slow vessels, they had to be small enough to require a U-boat to use gunfire, rather than an expensive torpedo. When the U-boat surfaced, concealed guns were revealed and, ideally, the submarine was sunk.

Henry Johnson was born at Sandgarth, Delting, in 1881. He had gone to sea, risen in the ranks, and settled in Leith. In 1914 he commanded ss Vala, out of Grangemouth, owned by J T Salvesen. A Norwegian, Johan Theodor, had been the first Salvesen to run a firm out of Scotland. His younger brother, Christiani, who worked with him for a time, had gone on to found the more famous firm in Leith. Salvesen of Grangemouth employed a number of Shetlanders as officers and crew.

The Vala, built in 1894, was just over 1,000 gross tons and could sail at about eight knots. A 1915 crew list shows four Shetlanders on board, including the master. One, S Gray, an older man of 59, was the bosun. The vessel was taken over by the Royal Navy on 7 August 1915, and became HMS Vala, Q8. Henry Johnson got his temporary commission on that date, although he seems to have relinquished actual command. Later on another Shetlander, Lieutenant Samuel Gray joined him on board. He had been mate on another Salvesen vessel, the Embla. His father, also Samuel Gray may have been the S Gray who had previously sailed as bosun on the Vala. Using this kind of merchant navy officer made sense in the context. If the ships were to emulate civilian procedure, someone on board had to be familiar with it.

The Vala initially operated out of Orkney, and later transferred to Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, under Q-Ship advocate Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly. The western approaches to Britain were rich in U-Boats. The commander of the Vala at this time was Leopold Bernays, a former naval officer who had rejoined. Edward Keble Chatterton writing in Q-Ships and their Story, remarked of him:

There was no coaxing in his voice; every syllable was a challenge to a fight.

He found challenges. The Vala had a number of encounters with U-boats, not sinking any, but damaging some. Henry Johnson evidently did well on board. The Edinburgh Gazette has him gaining a Distinguished Service Cross on 17 August 1917. On 20 August the Vala was torpedoed and sunk about 120 miles south-west of the Scilly Isles by UB-54, Commander Egon Von Warner. UB-54's war diary indicates survivors made it to the boats. It seems they were lost in the weather conditions following. Apart from Lieutenant Johnson, none of the original crew seem to have been with the vessel at that time.

Although estimates vary, Q-Ships sank about 14 U-boats in the course of their campaign. They damaged a number, and generally degraded the U-boat efforts, forcing them to use their limited supply of torpedoes rather than gunfire. By August 1917, however, the U-boat commanders had adapted to the Q-Ship ruse, and the Vala’s crew paid the ultimate penalty.


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Lieut. Henry Johnson's DSC
Lieutenant Henry Johnson's DSC. Courtesy of Rognvald Johnson.
Samuel Gray Memorial
Samuel Gray's Memorial, Grangemouth.