6th October 1918

500 killed as ships collide off Islay

HMS Otranto sank when it was pushed into rocks off the coast of Islay. She had been sailing in a storm for 11 gale and poor visibility. Onboard were more than 1000 American soldiers, on their way to do battle in Europe. Most of them would never arrive.

Otranto’s route from New York had already seen her collide with a French fishing boat. She’d picked up almost 40 crew from that vessel, who could never have guessed that they were destined to experience a far more serious collision just a few days later, onboard the Otranto itself.

Otranto and Kashmir collide

The storm was so ferocious that the usual navigation tools were all but useless. This forced Otranto’s crew to calculate where they were – and where they were going – by comparing what they believed to be their current position with their last, and from that working out how far they’d moved. This is an imprecise art at the best of times, and more so in the conditions under which she was sailing.

Thus, when the sun came up on 6 October and the crew saw a coastline ahead, they were unsure whether it was Scotland or Ireland. It was Scotland, but Otranto’s captain plumped for Ireland, and turned north when turning south would have been safer. This brought her directly in line with HMS Kashmir – and the two soon collided.

Kashmir punched a hole in Otranto, below the waterline, and the sea quickly rushed in. Soon, Otranto was leaning to one side as her compartments flooded. She had already lost several of her lifeboats in the collision with the French trawler, and she had lost more in the collision with HMS Kashmir, so there was no longer sufficient to take all the crew to safety. Worse, even if there had been sufficient, the storm was still too fierce to lower them safely. As was seen with the messy evacuation of SS Norge a decade earlier, lowering lifeboats in rough seas can result in them being overcome by waves or smashed to pieces against the hull of their mother ship.

Daring rescue

Salvation – for some – came in the shape of HMS Mounsey and its captain, Lieutenant Francis Craven, who came alongside Otranto so those onboard the stricken vessel could jump across to relative safety. This was a dangerous operation in which HMS Mounsey herself sustained serious damage, including a smashed bridge. It resulted in the rescue of almost 600 men, including 30 from the French trawler. Those who had been saved were eventually landed in Belfast.

But, that was still only a little more than half of those who had been aboard Otranto. Close to 500 had not made it across and, when Otranto eventually ran aground on a reef off Islay, most were killed as the storm tore to pieces what was left of the ship. Only 21 men made it safely to shore, two of whom would later die. In all, around 470 were killed in the collision and its aftermath. Hundreds of dead American soldiers washed up on beaches on Islay and Muck. Most of them were initially buried on Islay, only to be exhumed and repatriated after the war.

Awards for bravery

On 18 February the following year, Commander Viscount Francis Curzon, the MP for Battersea South, asked his first question in the House of Commons, and the subject was the Otranto and the bravery of captain Craven of HMS Mounsey. Addressing Thomas MacNamara, MP for Camberwell North West and then Parliamentary Secretary, he asked “what steps have been taken to recognise the bravery and seamanship of the officer in command of His Majesty’s ship Mounsey… and also the services of the officers and men [aboard]”

MacNamara replied that “the King has been pleased to approve of the appointment of Lieutenant Francis W. Craven to be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order, and that he has received a letter expressing the high appreciation of the Admiralty. He has also been directed to submit the names of any officers and men considered deserving of awards.”



Other events that occured in October

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.