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The First World War: Submarine Catastrophe off Scotland. Kept Secret.

Updated on October 5, 2017
HMS Fearless involved in the battle of May Island.
HMS Fearless involved in the battle of May Island. | Source

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.

Radio Silence.

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 Aftermath.

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.


Womens Rights: Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragettes.

© 2012 Graham Lee

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    • old albion profile image
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      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      snowdrops. Yes it is indeed a tragic story. Radio silence being observed was the main reason for this disaster.

      Graham.

    • snowdrops profile image

      snowdrops 5 years ago from The Second Star to the Right

      Very interesting hub Graham. So many tragic stories, wars, etc... Very sad though.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Absolutely right Kieran. The needless loss of life is disgraceful. Regarding the minesweepers, everything was on a need to know only basis in those days. If they had known presumably all would have been well. Thank you for your comments.

      Graham.

    • profile image

      Kieran Gracie 5 years ago

      In wartime it always seems that more people and machines are lost through 'friendly fire' and training accidents than in actual combat. Now your interesting story throws up other types of loss - incompetent leadership and poor contingency planning. In hindsight radio silence should have been broken as soon as the pending disaster began to emerge, and the minesweepers should have been briefed about the convoy.

      Unfortunately this dreadful story is only one of many avoidable accidents that have happened in both war and peace.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi aethelthryth. Thank you for your very interesting comments. We never really get to know what goes on do we.

      Graham.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Sad but interesting. Seems to me things of this sort are common during wartime because safety cannot be first in war. Victory has to be first when the whole point of fighting is to keep your country safe from the enemy.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi JamaGenee. Thank you for visiting and commenting. Yes radio silence was the main reason for the development of the tragedy.

      Graham.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Ironic that the radio silence intended to prevent being detected, damaged or sunk by one or more enemy ships was actually the main cause of this avoidable disaster....

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Academicviews. I think you are probably right.

      Graham.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi billy. Thanks for visiting. Your comments are welcome and always valued.

      Graham.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi always exploring. Thank you for your visit and your welcome comments.

      Graham.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hello Judi Bee. Thank you for your welcome comments. Yes this particular K Class Submarine was slow and cumbersome. Only 18 were ever built, non were lost in action but 6 were lost in accidents. They were disliked by submariners.

      Thank you for your votes.

      Graham.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I always enjoy your hubs, Graham, but I am guilty of not getting over here often enough. I see several I need to read today. Great account, and as a history teacher I appreciate your accounts as I always learn something. Well done my friend!

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hello GoodLady. Thank you for your welcome visit. Yes war at any time or of anykind is abhorrent. Unfortunately I feel that man will never learn. At the end of it all they have to talk. As I have remarked elswhere, Winston C hurchill said. 'Jaw Jaw not War War' Thank you for your votes.

      Graham.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi UH. Thank you for your most welcome comments. The truth should always come out. Good, Bad or Ugly.

      Thank you for the votes.

      Graham.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi sis. thank you for your visit. I'm sure there are lots of things we are unaware of. That's the way it is. We only know what we are told - simple as that. Thanks for the vote.

      Graham.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Interesting article. Thank's for sharing..

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Submarines must have been pretty crude by our standards and yet rather complex by early 20th Century standards. Tragic, but not surprising, that things went wrong. Very interesting story, thanks for writing about it. Voted up, of course!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      What a dreadful story, and what an awful War tragedy and a super Hub, thank you. Voting. Sharing

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Old Albion, this is why I love HubPages. It's incidents like this, which I had never heard of, that get published here. Historic truth on all sides needs to have an outlet-- whether it's good, bad, tragic or uplifting. Otherwise, history is propaganda. What a horrific night. Voted up and interesting.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

      old albion -- first I've ever heard about this disaster -- and it's so very tragic. Can't imagine how it was kept quiet for so long -- but then we, as the general public, are often treated like mushrooms: we're kept in the dark and fed poo-poo! Excellent and interesting Hub - voted up! Best/Sis

    • Academicviews profile image

      Academicviews 5 years ago from Scotland

      Its probably too easy for the establishment to justify keeping things "quiet" these days. No doubt for our "own good" and with the "best interests of the country at heart"..... nudge nudge wink wink

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Academicviews. thank you for your welcome comments. So much is kept quiet these days, more I think than used to be the case.

      Thanks for following.

      Graham.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hello Pavlo. Thank you for commenting on this hub. I appreciate your visit. I did not know about the Komsomolets in 1988, but I am aware of the Kursk disaster, which was as you know world news at the time.

      Graham.

    • Academicviews profile image

      Academicviews 5 years ago from Scotland

      This was a very interesting article. There are so many tragic stories associated with WW1 or any conflict actually. At least the truth came out eventually.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      All armies tend not to reveal facts of their incompetence. Just remember a situation with soviet submarine Komsomolets in 1988, when the fire killed around 50 people, or Kursk with all personnel dead. They tried to do all possible to conceal these events. I am sure what we come to know eventually is just a part of hidden truth.

    • old albion profile image
      Author

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Jools. Thank you for your comments. Yes it's interesting what must go on that we never hear about. Probably a good thing sometimes, but not others.

      Graham.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      OldAlbion, I didn't know anything at all about this disaster; I can understand why the MOD keep these things quiet during wartime. I worked with a guy once who was working on a sub which had a collision in the Channel and had to come to the surface. It was towed to shore covered in huge sheets of tarpaulin so that satellites and those on shore could not see the damage.

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