A small deputation of brethren led by WM Phil Clements and Adrian McLoughlin, of Downshire Lodge No 594, meeting at Liverpool, recently travelled to London to attend a very special ceremony which was held at Freemasons’ Hall. Unknown to many outside of the Masonic circle, the re-built Freemasons’ Hall, formally opened in 1933 as the Masonic Peace Memorial, commemorating those Freemasons who died in the First World War.
Acknowledging this, and as part of the Tercentenary celebrations, the United Grand Lodge have laid a memorial pavement outside the buildings Tower doors containing details of all the English Freemasons awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. Among the names on the pavement is that of Bro Ronald Neil Stuart VC DSO, Downshire Lodge No 594 who was initiated on 20 December 1931, remaining a member until his death at the age of 67 in 1954.
Brother Stuart trained as a Merchant Navy officer and was shipwrecked twice whilst training, and being in the Royal Naval Reserve he was called up at the outbreak of hostilities in WW1 eventually posted to serve on a ‘Q ship.’ The Q ship, was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war, and these vessels became known by the Germans as a U-Boot-Falle (U-boat trap). A Q-ship would appear to be an easy target, often resembling a tramp steamer, but in fact carried hidden armaments. A typical Q-ship would be sailing alone in an area where a U-boat was reported to be operating, making itself look easy pickings to an unwary enemy vessel. This way it hoped to encourage the U-boat captain to make a surface attack and utilise his deck gun rather than use one of his limited number of torpedoes.
The Q-ships’ cargoes were light wood (balsa or cork) or wooden casks, so that even if torpedoed they would remain afloat, encouraging the U-boat to surface to sink them with a deck gun. The crew might even pretend to ‘abandon ship.’ Once the U-boat was vulnerable, the Q-ship’s panels would drop to reveal the deck guns, which would immediately open fire, while at the same time the White Ensign (Royal Navy flag) would be raised. With the element of surprise, a U-boat could be quickly overwhelmed. The cunning plan worked on a number of occasions.
It was for his actions during one of these episodes that Ronald Neil Stuart was awarded his Victoria Cross. His citation reads;
Action of H.M.S. “Pargust” on the 7th June 1917.
On the 7th June, 1917, while disguised as a British merchant vessel with a dummy gun mounted aft, H.M.S. “Pargust” was torpedoed at very close range. Her boiler room, engine room, and No. 5 hold were immediately flooded, and the starboard lifeboat was blown to pieces. The weather was misty at the time, fresh breeze and a choppy sea. The “Panic Party”, under the command of Lieutenant F. R. Hereford, D.S.C., R.N.R., abandoned ship, and as the last boat was shoving off, the periscope of the submarine was observed close before the port beam about 400 yards distant.
The enemy then submerged, and periscope reappeared directly astern, passing to the starboard quarter, and then round to the port beam, when it turned again towards the ship, breaking surface about 50 yards away. The lifeboat, acting as a lure, commenced to pull round the stern; submarine followed closely and Lieutenant Hereford, with complete disregard of the danger incurred from the fire of either ship or submarine (who had trained a maxim on the lifeboat), continued to decoy her to within 50 yards of the ship.
The “Pargust” then opened fire with all guns, and the submarine, with oil squirting from her side and the crew pouring out of the conning tower, steamed slowly across the bows with a heavy list. The enemy crew held up their hands in token of surrender, whereupon fire immediately ceased. The submarine then began to move away at a gradually increasing speed, apparently endeavouring to escape in the mist. Fire was reopened until she sank, one man clinging to the bow as she went down. The boats, after a severe pull to the windward, succeeded in saving one officer and one man. American Destroyers and a British sloop arrived shortly afterwards, and the “Pargust” was towed back to port. As on the previous occasions, officers and men displayed the utmost courage and confidence in their captain, and the action serves as an example of what perfect discipline, when coupled with such confidence, can achieve. (The award of the Victoria Cross to Lieut. Ronald Neil Stuart, D.S.O., R.N.R. and Seaman. William Williams, R.N.R., O.N., 6224A., was announced in The London Gazette No. 30194, dated 20th July 1917.)