The “Battle” of May Island Remembered

By Clive Wakley. A project to construct a huge windfarm off the coast of Scotland has resurrected a Royal Navy disaster that claimed 270 lives, and was kept secret for over eighty years.

The incident, one of the worst Royal Navy disasters ever, occurred during the First World War on the night of the 31st January 1918.

The tragedy, known as the “Battle of May Island”, occurred some 20 miles off Fife Ness, on Scotland’s east coast.

It resulted in the loss of two submarines and serious damage to three more submarines and a battle cruiser – without a single enemy shell or torpedo being fired.

The two submarines sunk were of the notorious “K Class”.

Admiralty records show that this class of submarine proved far more lethal to its crews than to the enemy, so much so that the “K” was sarcastically said to stand for “Kalamity” by submariners.

Driven by oil-fired steam turbine engines, they were large and cumbersome, too slow to keep up with surface ships and difficult to manoeuvre.

Of the 18 that were built, none were lost in action but six were sunk in accidental collisions.

A spokesman for the Submariners Association, describing the episode, said: “It was an absolute bloody disaster from the beginning. The K Class submarines did not have a very impressive record. You can see why those who served in them were known as the suicide club.”

So embarrassing and sensitive was the disaster that despite one officer being court-martialed, the facts were concealed for decades.

During the afternoon of 31st January 1918, a fleet of some forty Royal Navy warships steamed north from Rosyth to join the main battle fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, they were accompanied by two flotillas of submarines.

The vessels steamed in line astern led by the cruisers HMS Courageous and HMS Ithurial.

After nightfall the leading two submarines in the second submarine flotilla, positioned in the mid – rear section of the line, found themselves bearing down on two minesweepers and took evasive action to avoid colliding.

The record shows that the third submarine in the flotilla, K14, veered to starboard to avoid colliding with them but performed a complete circle as its rudder jammed.

The “maneuver” brought it back into line – just in time to be rammed by the last submarine in the flotilla, K22.

A battlecruiser, HMS Inflexible, then ploughed into K22, bending it into a right-angle, and rupturing its fuel tanks.

As was to be expected the leading ships in the convoy then turned back to rescue the submarines and steamed straight into the chaos.

One cruiser, HMS Fearless, rammed K17, another of the submarines.

The K17 sank within eight minutes – allowing time for many of the crew to save themselves by diving overboard.

To make matters worse two further submarines, K4 and K6, then collided.

To complete the disaster, a destroyer then steamed through the debris zone in the darkness killing many of the survivors from K17.

The entire 59-man crew of K4 was lost and all but eight of K17’s.

From sheer embarrassment, more than for any other reason, the Admiralty subsequently ordered the incident to be hushed up.

The deceased’s’ next of kin were presumably informed that their men folk had been killed in action — although thousands of sailors knew differently having witnessed the catastrophe at first hand.

It was not until 2002 that a commemorative plaque was erected on a cairn in Anstruther, the nearest village on the coast; though even that does not refer to the cause of the loss of life.

The Submariners’ Association does, however, now hold an annual commemorative service.

The two sunken submarines rest on the seabed some 100 yards apart and 50 yards down.

Divers have recently subjected the site to survey as it forms part of the proposed Neart Na Gaoithe offshore windfarm project.

As it is a registered war grave construction plans will have to be suitably amended so as to not to disturb the site.

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