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The First World War: Submarine Catastrophe off Scotland. Kept Secret.
Submarine Disaster off Scottish Coast.
On the evening of 31st January 1918, a convoy of 40 vessels left Rosyth in Scotland. They were heading into the North Sea en route for Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. This battle group consisted of 4 Battle Cruisers and 3 Battle Ships both with Destroyer Escorts. Two flotillas of K Class Submarines, led by 2 Light Cruisers, these were HMS. Fearless and HMS. Ithuriel, the total number of submarines was 9. There were also other ships of various types within the group.
It was a passage of approximately 20 miles towards the Isle of May, at this point there would be a change of course. By now darkness was falling all vessels were without lights and maintaining radio silence. Two trawlers which had been converted for minesweeping duties headed towards the battle group, they were going about their own duties and were not connected to the group in any way. All the submarines were on the surface to maintain there place in the convoy.
A forced change of course - Disaster.
Due to the arrival of the minesweepers the first 2 submarines had to make a slight change of course as they were to pass the minesweepers. The K Class Submarines were slow and cumbersome to manoeuvre and were not well liked within the service. It is here that disaster struck. As the first two subs changed course, they forced the third sub K14 to move to starboard to avoid a collision, the rudder jammed and K14 was out of position. She was rammed by the last sub in the group K22. Immediately after this, the two submarines were passed by the 3 of the four Battle Cruisers with their Destroyer escorts. Remember here that night had now fallen, no lights were showing and Radio silence was being maintained. The last of the 4 Battle cruisers HMS. Inflexible rammed into K22. By now several ships were out of position and the situation was becoming chaotic.
The leading ships became aware of the disaster unfolding, they were turned round and went back to render assistance. Incredibly this action made the situation worse. One of the Light Cruisers HMS. Fearless, rammed into another submarine K17, this caused her to sink within 10 minutes with many sailors trapped below. By now the the situation was a tragedy, with more to follow. There was a further collision between 2 submarines K4 and K6. As control of the situation was being restored, a destroyer steamed into the suvivors of K17. Many were killed by this action. The submarine K4 was lost along with its full compliment of 59 men. In total 270 men lost their lives. K4 and K13 were lost, 3 more subs were damaged, along with damage to HMS.Fearless. The incident became known as 'The Battle of May Island'.
The Royal Navy kept the tragedy quiet trying not to effect moral. Needless to say news of the tragedy did get out, however it was sixty years before a commemorative plaque was commissioned. This can be found in the village of Anstruther which is the nearest coastal village to the scene of the disaster.
© 2012 Graham Lee