The kiwi Q-Ship capt. A.D. Blair

A DigitalNZ Story by Harley Couper

The unusual life at sea of a Dunedin boy. A.D. Blair, Q-ship Commander

World War I (1914-1919), Royal Naval Reserve, Q-ships, U-boats, Easter Rising, Order of Medjidie

Andrew Dougall Blair was born into an immigrant family of moderate means in Dunedin, Otago New Zealand in 1872. 

His life intersects with  numerous 20th Century events, including:

  • Indentured Service 
  • Shipwrecks
  • The waning of the Ottoman Empire
  • The Italian Turkish War of 1911/1912
  • The First World War naval conflict with Germany (chiefly mines and U-boats)
  • The NZ Naval Victoria Cross recipient,  W.E. Sanders
  • The Irish Easter Rising (1916)
  • The British Occupation of the Rhine after WWI

Liut A.D. Blair R.N.R.

First World War portrait

AD Blair (1872-1955) Lieut RNR WWI 15-003

Tauranga City Libraries


 At the time of Andrew's birth, Dunedin was just 22 years old, and 11 years into the gold rush that would see a tenfold increase in its population. Between the ages of six and nine, this was New Zealand's largest urban centre. During these childhood years the city built:

  • The Otago Museum (1876-77)
  • The University of Otago (1878)
  • Council Chambers (1878-80)
  • St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral (1886)
  • First Presbyterian Church (1873)
  • Knox Presbyterian Church (1876)
  • Otago Boys' High (1884)
  • Trinity Methodist Church (1870) and
  • The Dunedin Public Art Gallery (1884) Source: Te Ara
[Dunedin panorama]

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Off to sea

 At just 17 years, Andrew Blair went to sea, entering into a four-year Covenant of Indenture with Peter James Hughes of Dunedin, paid for by his father. Mr. Hughes was a servant of Henry Guthrie, the registered ship owner of the barque Laira (pictured sunk beside the Dunedin wharf due to a collision with S.S. WAKATIPU in 1898).

"It was a hard life and he told of men falling from the rigging when servicing the sails in bad weather. He was splattered by the brains of one poor fellow." (From a 1991 compilation prepared for a family reunion).

The Covenant of Indenture was handwritten, signed and witnessed on 14 January 1889. 

At the very close of his indenture period, on September 1 1892, Captain Peter James Hughes was killed in Perth when a load of falling timber crushed him. The Laira had arrived from Hobart where the ship needed extensive repairs after enduring extreme weather (Auckland Star, Volume XXIII, Issue 211, 5 September 1892, Page 3). Both the ship's owner and her master were obliged to add to the Covenant a sworn statement affirming that Blair had completed the full term of his Indenture under Gordon MacKinnon, the ship's master and later captain. 

That same year...

"When he was 20 he contracted yellow fever and for many days was between life and death. Finally he pulled through, but all his hair fell out and never grew as strongly again, so that in old age he had not much left. He said the fee he paid the barber each time was for searching! (From a 1991 compilation prepared for a family reunion).

Early work life

Blair began working for the Clan Line, a growing line of steamers which would soon become the dominant company carrying passengers and cargo around the Persian Gulf and North America. This likely included commanding ships in and out of Aden, something he first began in 1906 and finished in 1928 (Otago Daily Times obituary). In 1907 he is photographed with a cousin at the launching of the Lusitania in Glasgow. The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line and probably represented the competition to Clan Line in an already overcrowded North Atlantic trade.  

Aden town Fortified.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira


In 1908 at the age of 36, Blair crewed aboard the two year old refrigerated steamer Star of Japan, which was on route from London to Australia and then New Zealand. The Steamer ran aground off the West African Coast and the majority of the crew rescued by passing ships. Blair and a few others stood by the ship to support the Captain, Mate, and Chief Engineer as it gradually founded on rocks. The account made the papers (Poverty Bay Herald, 1908, May 30) and a later report of the incident resulted in the Captain being disciplined.

The Order of Medjidie in the Middle East - 1911

In July 1911, Blair in assisting the struggling Ottoman Empire during it's fading years was awarded the Order of Medjidie (4th Class), one of the last of the 3000 to ever receive it. It was not the only time he would be caught up in the Empire's death throes. The Poverty Bay Herald recalled the event the following year.

Captain A. D. Blair, son of Mr John Blair, Abbotsford, has received from the Turkish Government the decoration of the fourth order of Medjidie. The order was instituted in 1852, and conferred after the Crimean war to a considerable extent on British officers. The service rendered by Captain Blair was the following: On July last he took in his ship 1000 Turkish troops with guns, etc, from Kamaran to a place called Loheiza, which was surrounded by Bedouins, who had captured the wells, and the Turkish, garrison were dying with thirst. Captain Blair happened to have 100 tons of fresh water ballast in his tanks and with the aid of the condenser augmented this supply, which he landed with the reinforcements. For five days he supplied the troops with water, when the wells were recaptured, and thus earned the gratitude of the Turks.

Poverty Bay Herald Volume xxxix, issue 12708, 11 March 1912, p2.

"In a surprise move he ran the Arabs' gauntlet of fire in his unarmed ship and reached his destination safely." From an unpublished compilation prepared for a family reunion (1991). 

Italo-Turkish War of September 1911 to October 1912

Before WWI Italy had aspirations to expand its then Kingdom into an empire. Perceiving the Ottoman Empire to be weak, it captured the northern Libyan provinces under Ottoman control and during the conflict seriously degraded the Ottoman Navy. It was inevitable that Blair, who was operating commercially in the region, would be caught up in the conflict at some point. A small newspaper clipping within his photo album reads:

The Tripoli War, British Steamer Seized by Italians.The Italian destroyer Granatiere, after a hard chase, has overtaken the British steamer Tuna, trading in the Gulf of Aden, 15 miles north of Perim, and has taken her back for inspection to Sheikh Said. "

The same album shows images of Blair aboard his Steamer in the Red Sea with notes on the reverse of each photo such as "Italian cruiser on board Tuna _with search party capture the _Tuna _running contraband for the Turks" (top left image) and "Italian Destroyer i??? ?? returning after boarding _Tuna" (top centre). Family lore had it that Blair spent part of his life as a gun runner around the Middle East. Perhaps during this period he was assisting the Ottoman Empire by transporting munitions for its troops under the noses of the Italians? 

AD Blair Album Page 03 13-1366

Tauranga City Libraries

Early World War I

Months after the outbreak of war in 1914 Blair signed up for service and was commissioned at the rank of Lieutenant (December 10). By this time he was already 41 years old, a decorated and seasoned Merchant Navy captain experienced with tall sailing ships as well as the modern steam engines of the era. This breadth of experience would later stand him in good stead for a covert form of resistance needed to counter the threat of modern submarine warfare. His first order of business, however, was to serve as Lieutenant aboard H.M.S. Defiance, a torpedo and wireless school ship. After going through the sweeping course he was appointed leader of a unit of six patrol trawlers, including the Trawlers "Urania" and "Pearl" based at Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven in the SW part of England. He led the unit from January 1915 to October 1916. At the conclusion of this service Vice Admiral Charles H. Dare wrote that he had "conducted himself to my satisfaction - a zealous and efficient officer as leader of a unit of trawlers". 

It wasn't all smooth sailing for Blair. In March on 1915 he was reprimanded for grounding "Urania" and warned by the Commander in Chief to be more careful (Military Record). On June the 28th he was reported to be suffering from acute alcoholism and temporarily discharged from the R.N.R. for misconduct (Military Record). His commission was returned to him in September, just prior to or after his marriage to a young Lillian Harvey (1915). 



On April 24, 1916, 12, 000 Irish volunteers and Citizen Army members attempted to take over key locations in Dublin from British rule in order to effect an overthrow. The rebels failed to secure Dublin Port or (the then) Kingstown Port, and as a result the British were able to pour in the troops required to quell what became known as the Easter Rising

What Blair did during this time warranted commendation from Vice Admiral Charles H. Dare for "the arrangements he made to defend the town and munition factory during the Sinn Fein rising" (from a newspaper fragment within an envelope attached to A.D Blair's photograph album). According to A History of the Irish Rebellion by Wells and Marlow (1916), on the 27th of April, as soon as troops became available, a detachment was sent by sea from Kingstown south to the port of Arklow to reinforce the garrison at Kynoch's Explosive Works

Blair's Military Record shows that he "carried out charge of naval operations for protection of Arklow during Irish Rebellion with marked ability & promptitude". Vice Admiral of Old Milford Naval Base noted

"I have a very high opinion of this Officer".

A few months after the Easter Rising, Blair was transferred into the Special Service and aboard "Sabrina II" (June/July 1916) preparing to take command of Helgoland.   

WWI Special Service - Q ship or Mystery ship operations.

Since 1914 Germany had been using submarines to attack naval ships as well as merchant vessels, the later according to agreed Cruiser Rules, but in February of 1915 it declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone and allied ships in the area could be sunk without warning. Even when armed, commercial vessels had little chance of a good defense.To see an interactive map showing u-boat sinkings of ships, click here.The Lusitania, whose launching Blair had attended back in 1907 was sunk off the coast of Ireland in 1915 by U-20 with the loss of 1,959 passengers. The British response to this kind sort of submarine menace is described by Vice- Admiral Gordon Campbell, VC, DSO in his book My Mystery Ships.

The idea was therefore conceived of fitting merchant ships as men-of-war, with a specially trained crew aboard and a concealed armament strong enough to destroy a submarine if encountered. To all intents and purposes they would look like ordinary innocent merchant ships, and would therefore entice the submarine to them.This class of ship went under various titles. Their real function was decoying, and the proper title would, therefore, appear to be " decoy ships," but it was not secret enough. The Admiralty in the early days referred to them as "special service vessels," and the ships themselves were known in the dockyards and so on as S.S.-- The fact that a number of people in and about the dock-yards and naval ports knew that the Master of S.S. -- was a naval officer, that special guns and gadgets were being fitted, and that no one except on duty was allowed on board, naturally gave ground for them being referred to as "Mystery Ships," and I don't think for quite a long while that many people knew what duty these vessels were really employed on, although of course some must have suspected. Towards the latter part of 1916 the Admiralty gave them all "Q" numbers, and they became Q-ships.

Eighteen months after the sinking of the Lusitania by U-20 Blair began preparations to be one of the first Q-ship operators of the First World War. Built in 1895 by Martenshoek of Holland, the "Helgoland", (also known throughout her life as "Horley/Harley" "Brig 10", and "Q-17") measured 122.75 x 23.25 x 8 ft., and grossed 310 tons. He took over the ship and sailed her to Falmouth where he oversaw her refit for work as a Q-ship. Lieutenant Sanders later joined him in Falmouth. She had no engine and no wireless. More about the pre and post war life of Q17 can be read here

Now in his mid-40s, Blair was a man comfortable with both the modern steam-driven ships and the older square-rigged sailing ships. Younger men of his time were less likely to have had such a breadth of experience, although it was still widely held that the best seamen were those trained under sail. Nine years Blair's junior, Sanders had begun his career with steams-ships but prior to the war had worked for Craig Line under sail and gained his mate's certificates. Together they were the right men for the silent wind driven Q-ships designed to lure to the surface German submarines looking for an easy kill. After serving together Blair and Sanders corresponded until Sanders was killed in action on August 13, 1917. He had been awarded but not yet received the Victoria Cross, and had written to Blair after hearing the news just 21 days before his death. He never personally received the Victoria Cross.

Speaking in Auckland at the beginning of his retirement, Blair recounted his time in command of Q17. A journalist present wrote up the evening's stories and that article was found folded within an envelope attached to the photograph album that has been handed down through the family. The clipping does not reveal the paper or the author.On September 7 1916, 17 Ships were attacked by U boats, and 15 sunk. UB39 alone sunk British steamer Heathdene, French sailing vessels Alcyon and Marguerite, and Italian steamer Messicano all within the vicinity of the account below, between the SW tip of France and the South of England. 






A wartime story of how a British mystery ship lay becalmed while three enemy submarines pounded her with shells was told yesterday by Captain A.D. Blair, of Dunedin, who is visiting Auckland. The ship was the brigantine Heligoland and Captain Blair, then a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, was in command. His navigator was the late Lieutenant Commander (then sub-lieutenant) W. E. Sanders, the Aucklander who subsequently won the Victoria Cross and whose exploits when in charge of the mystery ship Prize won him undying fame.Captain Blair said he took over the Helgoland at Liverpool about the middle of 1916. The ship was a brigantine of about 200 tons. She carried no engines or wireless. They proceeded to Falmouth, where the vessel was fitted for its work as a Q-ship. It was at Falmouth the Lieutenant (sic) Sanders joined her, and the two New Zealanders met for the first time in unusual circumstances. Beside being the navigator, Lieutenant (sic) Sanders was in charge of the forward guns. Hidden Armaments All the ship's armaments were concealed so that she looked like a little inoffensive sailing ship. In a deckhouse aft, which had been in the captain's quarters, were hidden two 12-pounder guns mounted and ready for use. Access was gained through a trapdoor in the floor. When the need arose bolts on the inside were drawn by hand and the sides of the deckhouse fell away, leaving the guns exposed for instant action.In each bow was small deckhouse containing a concealed 12-pounder gun, making four in all of guns of this calibre. In addition two machine-guns were carried as well as rifles for the crew. The complement was two officers and 25 men, but in the daytime only four men at a time were allowed on deck, this being the normal number to work a watch on a ship of this size. to have had a large number of men visible at one time would have been to invite suspicion.The first trip out was an eventful one, said Captain Blair. On September 7, 1916, the Helgoland found herself becalmed 10 miles south of Lizard. She had not even steerage way. About one o'clock in the afternoon a submarine was sighted on surface abaft the beam on the starboarrd side. It started to draw near, opening fire as it came. One of the first shots carried away the Helgoland's ensign halyards whereupon one of the men got another ensign and climbed with it to the cross trees where he made it fast. Q-Ship Opens Fire When the submarine drew closer the screens round the Helgoland's hidden guns were lowered and the brigantine, her identity revealed, answered shot for shot. The man in the crosstrees asked permission to stay where he was to spot for the gunners, and in this exposed position he remained. Then, while the combat was proceeding, he reported the presence of another submarine on the port beam and a drifter astern. The second submarine soon opened fire.A shot from the Q-boat appeared to strike the gun pedestal of the submarine to starboard, for a moment after it had burst this gun jerked upwards and there was no sign of the crew. The man in the cross-trees then called out that the drifter was in reality a third submarine disguised with a sail. The damaged submarine was seen to dive, and was followed, shortly afterwards by the submarine to port.Then the submarine astern opened fire, and when the Helgoland tried to reply it was found that the after guns would not bear round far enough, owing to part of the deckhouse structure being immovable. The ship could not be manoeuvred as she was lying without a breath of wind in her sails. Axes were brought into play and the obstructing wall was chopped down. Even then the guns could not be trained in properly because of the wheel aft. After firing a number of rounds, however, the third submarine submerged. Fright For Ship's Dog The whole action had lasted for more than two hours. Four of the Helgoland's yards were shot away, but none of the complement was killed or wounded. The only "casualty" was the ship's dog, which happened to be passing the after deckhouse when the screens fell. The bump which he received out of the blue gave him such a severe fright that when the ship reached port he bolted ashore and was never seen again.For the rest of the day the brigantine lay where she was, her crew alert at the machine-guns and expecting every moment that the attack would be renewed. Night fell and the ship was shrouded in black darkness. Then the sound of a motor was heard passing along the port side. Slowly it passed astern and then turned and completed the circle, proceeding along the starboard side. A momentary glimpse of a submarine was seen, probably one of the three encountered in the afternoon. Then it disappeared.Later a patrol trawler came along. Captain Blair hailed it and explained his predicament. Just as the trawler had passed abeam to port the wake of a torpedo appeared out of the night, but the torpedo missed the trawler and passed beneath the Q-ship. Lieutenant Sanders sprang to the port gun and fired in the direction from which the torpedo had come, but without visual result. Second Torpedo The trawler turned and came alongside to starboard, and just then a second torpedo passed under the Helgoland. A line was made fast to the trawler and the Q-ship was towed into Falmouth, where she arrived at 5 o'clock the next morning.

Article ends.

The following communication was received by Captain Blair from the vice-admiral in charge at Milford Haven:

"I am commanded by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to convey to Lieutenant A. D. Blair, R.N.R., and the officers and men under his orders their lordships' appreciation of their endeavour to sink three enemy submarines on September 7, in spite of the disadvantage at which the Helgoland was placed owing to her being becalmed. The steadiness of the crew, which had only recently been commissioned, is particularly to be commended."

The following message also was received:

" Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, heartily congratulates officers and men of Helgoland on the gallant action with three enemy submarines."

Shell holes through the sails of Q.17.

This photograph is sometimes mis-attributed to H.M.S. Prize, a three masted Schooner, which does not have these sails.

Q17 damage

Tauranga City Libraries

Photograph of WWI Naval Officer and Victoria Cross winner W.E Sanders examining damage

Looking at the way Sanders' jacket folds it appears this photo was printed in reverse.

W.E. Sanders examines damage aboard Q17

Tauranga City Libraries


Letters from W.E. Sanders V.C. D.S.O.

Within Blair's photograph album was an envelope with newspaper clippings and two letters from Sanders. Portions of these letters are missing. 

The first was written on April 29, 1917 in response to a request from Blair for a photograph. Sanders fatique is plain to hear.

H.M.S Q.21 At Sea 29.4.17 Dear Blair  Many thanks for letter only received a few minutes before proceeding on this cruise so I am answering out here although we still have three weeks to go before returning.As regards that photograph I have not got the films but am sending you what prints I have already in hand.The old scow is still in commission and "Westmore" was relieved a few days ago by "Messenger" and has been returned to Devonport much to his satisfaction for the game is getting played out and so are we all too long at sea.I have been in command of this wagon since 8 February and when I met "Greensted" at Portsmouth was doing a 17 day submarine course and almost wish it had been longer for I like Portsmouth very much as a depot.(rest of letter missing)

n.b. Personal communication with his great granddaughter reveals the Westmore mentioned, to be Henry George Gardiner Westmore, whose name in the following letter was removed by the censor in reference to a posting to the Naval Consul in Boston.

The second letter was written on June 22 , 1917. Sanders had recently heard the Victoria Cross would be awarded him and is describing the other decorations won by mutual friends.Sanders would be sunk with the Prize just 21 days after writing this.

Hamilton Club Milford Haven 22.6.17 Dear Blair Thanks so much for letter received yesterday. Myself I am still in the Prize. Have had several scraps and sail again tomorrow for sea.On April 30th I was promoted to Lieut Comm and awarded the VC but so far has not been published but that may be at any minute now although as you>understand secret.Since then have had another scrap and got wounded but am now A1. nothing serious.(mising 2 lines)... is now Naval Consul in Boston U.S.A. quite a good job I should imagine.So far I have never understood why I never received anything when with Westmore but believe it was to keep me in the game in hopes of getting something.Wilkie finished with the Ledger(Lodger?) this day and he is going in charge of a Q steamer.Fulton I am pleased to say has been awarded the DSC and he honestly deserves it.Every man in my ship received a decoration the navigator DSO, both skippers DSC, and all the crew DSM as you can imagine it was some deed.We are all at the old club and having some as you will see by this in time and all(two lines missing)... in the present must say Adieu trusting you are all well and with all kindest regards to Mrs. Blair and yourself. Yours sincerely W.E. Sanders


The Post-War Occupation of the Rhineland

Blair's Military Record show that in April (22) of 1918 he was "President [?] for staff of Principal Naval Transport Officer France for duty at Calais as Spl Grade [?] Transport Officer". As Principal Naval Transport Officer in this region he was a natural choice for the British Army of the Rhine occupation in Germany. 

After the Armistice, British, French and Belgium forces occupied different parts of the German Rhineland. The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) took control of Cologne. Initially set up in March 1919, BOAR was made up of five Corps and a Cavalry Division. For the early part of this Occupation, Blair was appointed Naval Transport Officer in Cologne. 

A Leaf from Blair's photo album

Photographs in and around Cologne after the First World War

AD Blair Album Page 08 13-1370

Tauranga City Libraries


Trading in the Middle East - Leo the pet lion

Blair took his discharge from military service in June 1920 and then made his way from England by way of the Morea to East Africa to take command of a steamer (probably the S.S Safari referred to in his photo album) owned by the company he had worked for prior to the war. He worked for A. Besse operating out of Aden. 

During this time he traveled throughout the Middle East and met many interesting people including the King of Arabia. Family lore has it that he met many local people who had rubbed shoulders with Lawrence of Arabia. Leo the lion was eventually sold to a zoo somewhere, my mother used to say Chicago, but I can't say for sure exactly where. 

AD-Blair-Album Page 9 13-1371

Tauranga City Libraries


Later years and retirement

Between 1928 and 1934, Blair was trading between Singapore and Christmas Island? aboard the Islander. The 1938 census records his occupation as timekeeper in Wellington East.Before the outbreak of the Second World War...

"Uncle Andrew, whose ship was based at Singapore, told us that the "Yellow Peril" (China) that people thought was coveting the empty spaces of N.Z. and Australia was not the power to fear; it was Japan. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour scruffy Japanese ships had been frequent visitors to Port Nelson - as to other N.Z. ports - to load scrap iron, and were objects of interest when we fished for herrings from the wharf. Andrew's prediction came true with the quick victories of the Japanese, and their seeming invincibility and willingness to die rather than surrender was alarming." (From a document compiled in 1991 for a Blair family reunion).

In 1946, 1949 and 1954 he is recorded as a pensioner, first in Nelson (1946) and then in Upper Hutt. In Nelson he stayed in a detached house with his brother. While in Upper Hutt he stayed with his daughter Dorothy and her family. My mother recalled as a child the neigbours ringing Dorothy to record Blair's progress home from the pub as she waited anxiously for him. She also said that Blair had sent many exotic gifts home to Dorothy while she was being raised in New Zealand, but that upon his retirement was frustrated to find no trace of these.In 1950 or 1951 he corresponded with his old employer Mr Antonin Besse of Aden and received a reply from Hilda, Antonin's wife. You can read that here

During his retirement and before moving to live with his daughter Dorothy, he lived with his brother George...

"Uncle Andrew came and lived here with Mum and Dad in an ex-army hut which we put on the section. Uncle Andrew was here for a few years before shifting to Wellington nearer his only daughter, Dorothy. While he was at Stoke he was very helpful to Mum and Dad. He used to do small jobs for them both. He made a rotary clothes-line for them from a front axle off a Model T Ford and when you wanted to load it you tilted it with a big lever. It was too hard for Mum to manage but while he was there he would do it for her. He stopped with us on a few occasions here in Motueka where we were in a small cottage. He would buy smoked fish which he would hang up in our porch so that when you wanted to enter the cottage you had to duck or hit the fish. Dad, Billy Mitchell and I flew to Wellington to his funeral at Upper Hutt." (From a 1991 compilation prepared for a Blair family reunion).

Captain Andrew Dougall Blair died on March 6, 1955. He was cremated in Karori and his ashes scattered. Three obituary clippings within his photograph album read as follows.

Captain A.D. Blair

The commanding officer of one of the Royal Navy's first mystery ships in World War I died recently at Upper Hutt. He was Captain A. D. Blair, a former resident of Nelson and a brother of Mr Geo. Blair of Ngaio Street, Stoke.Before joining the Royal Navy in 1914, Captain Blair was a merchant navy master. He first served as a lieutenant aboard H.M.S. Defiance. Later he rose to command one of the first mystery ships and had as a gunner Lieutenant W. E. Sanders of Auckland, who was to win the V.C. and D.S.O.Promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander, he led a flotilla of six patrol trawlers and was commended by the Admiralty for work against submarines.Captain Blair was also commended for his services in Ireland during the Sinn Fein rising. He was later awarded the 4th Order of Medghhigi from the Turkish Government for services during a Bedouin rising near the Persian Gulf.After the war Captain Blair returned to the merchant service and was master of a number of ships in the Middle East area. On his retirement some years ago he came to live for a time in Nelson. 

Andrew Dougall Blair

A Passport photo from 1926

A.D. Blair in 1926 15-002

Tauranga City Libraries

By Harley Couper (great grandson)

A more complete Kindle version can be found at