A Brief History
On January 31, 1918, Britain’s Royal Navy “fought” a battle with itself in the Scottish Firth of Forth near the Isle of May, a series of naval accidents in the dark and the mist that led to the loss of 104 British sailors killed. A total of 8 Royal Navy submarines and ships were involved in 5 collisions, resulting in the loss of 2 submarines and damage to another 4 submarines and a light cruiser. Our retelling of tale after tale of Naval “Oops” Moments (we have many articles in addition to the one in this link, just search our site using key words such as “Naval Oops Moment,” Naval, Maritime or the like) that consist of an incredible number of unfortunate, sometimes sad and sometimes almost funny, maritime blunders continues.
As we have pointed out repeatedly over the years, the British Royal Navy is a highly professional organization steeped in glory and success, but they have suffered their share of Naval Oops Moments. This time around, 40 British ships were sailing from Rosyth to the North Sea and Scapa Flow to conduct naval exercises. Among the 40 vessels involved were 9 “K” type submarines, a large (339 feet long) class of sea going subs designed to work in conjunction with the fleet. The K-class subs had a submerged displacement of 2566 tons and carried a crew of 6 officers and 53 men. Other ships participating in the movement included battleships, battlecruisers, and destroyers, as well as a light cruiser.
The fleet of ships left Rosyth in a single file line led by the cruiser HMS Courageous, the flag ship, a line stretching about 30 miles long. Courageous established a speed of 16 knots for the fleet until passing the Isle of May when the speed was increased to 22 knots (just over 25 mph). To guard against possible attack from German submarines, especially as it was believed a U-boat was in the general area, the ships sailed at a high speed, in line, and not showing lights other than a dim blue light at the stern of each ship that was further obscured by blackout shields to each side of the light. Radio silence was ordered as another security measure. The moonless night was quite dark, and as the ships passed the Isle of May a bank of mist settled over the fleet, degrading the already minimal visibility considerably.
As the ships sped through the darkness, some oncoming lights from other vessels, possibly a pair of minesweeping ships, caused one of the 2 flotillas of submarines to alter their course. While the subs turned hard to port, the rudder of submarine K14 jammed and took several minutes to clear. K14 and the sub behind her turned on their navigation lights. Aboard K22, behind the 2 subs that were now lit up, some confusion about what was going on resulted in a collision between K22 and K14, resulting in the death of 2 sailors. The damaged subs stopped to extract themselves from each other and pull out of the line of ships. The other ships continued on their course, unaware of what had just happened. In spite of radio silence, K22 radioed Courageous that K22 was damaged and returning to port, and that K14 was damaged and sinking.
As the line of ships behind the stricken submarines sailed past, the captain of K22 ordered a flare to be fired to warn the oncoming ships of the danger of hitting the damaged submarines. A battlecruiser apparently did not understand the flare, and hit K22, wrecking the sub which settled with only its conning tower above water. A destroyer turned back to assist the stricken submarines and radioed a coded message about the accident. The Admiral in charge did not get the message in a timely manner due to the ponderous procedures in place for receiving and decoding radio messages. The message may have prevented further damage and loss of life, but alas, it came too late.
The flotilla of submarines being led by the destroyer that turned back to assist the damaged subs dutifully continued to follow their leader, turning back to head back to the subs in peril. The ships now sailing back into the oncoming other vessels created a dangerous situation in which ships were now maneuvering violently to avoid collisions. The cruiser, HMS Fearless, leading the other flotilla of submarines realized the danger too late, and despite making a course change to emergency hard astern, struck K17 and sunk the unlucky sub, although most of the crew managed to jump off the doomed submarine. Trailing Fearless, K4 made an emergency stop to avoid striking the damaged cruiser, but was struck by K6, damaging K4 so severely the sub was doomed. Although sinking, K4 was struck once again, this time by K7. Meanwhile, with many men in the water, the oncoming battleships and battlecruisers were oblivious to the course of events and continued to sail straight ahead, running over many of the survivors in the water!
The tally for the horrific series of events off the Isle of May included the sinking of submarines K4 and K17, and the damaging of submarines K6, K7, K14 and K22 as well as the cruiser Fearless. Sadly, 104 sailors died due to the collisions that night. Investigators blamed the accidents on the skippers of 4 of the submarines and the skipper of the Destroyer HMS Ithuriel, the destroyer that had turned back to assist the first 2 subs damaged. Captain Leir of the Ithuriel was exonerated at court martial.
In the usual manner of governments lying to the people of their own country, the British government kept the incident secret until revealing the event in 1994, after every one of the sailors involved in the Naval Oops Moment had died. Not until 2002 was a memorial to the sailors that lost their lives that night in 1918 erected across from the Isle of May at Anstruther harbor.
As we have repeatedly pointed out, going to sea is not without its dangers, and sometimes those dangers are self-inflicted. We honor the bravery and dedication of all the men and women that go to sea in ships to serve their respective countries.
Questions for Students (and others): Have you previously heard of the Battle of May Island? Do you believe governments should be truthful about disasters in a timely manner? Have you ever sailed on an ocean?
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For more information, please see…
Evans, A.S. Beneath the Waves: A History of HM Submarine Losses 1904 – 1971. Pen and Sword, 2010.
Everitt, Don. K Boats: Steam-Powered Submarines in World War I. Naval Institute Press, 1999.
Farquharson-Roberts, Mike. A History of the Royal Navy: World War I. I.B.Tauris, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the bow of the drydocked cruiser HMS Fearless after colliding with the submarine K17, 31 January 1918, from http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205306108, is in the public domain because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymous. This applies to the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of 70 years after the work was made available to the public and the author never disclosed their identity.