31st January 1918

More than 100 sailors killed in the Battle of May Island

More than 100 sailors were killed in a series of collisions between seven Royal Navy ships and submarines. The vessels were on a training exercise and heading from Rosyth to the Isle of May, at the mouth of the Forth, to join the rest of the 160-vessel Grand Fleet. No enemy vessels or aircraft were involved in the disaster.

Sailing at high speed

However, the fleet had to take great care not to be spotted by any enemy craft. The ships and submarines therefore sailed in single file, at relatively high speed, and in almost complete darkness. They also maintained radio silence – at least until one of the submarines, K14, veered off course and was struck by K22 from behind. K14 started to sink, two of its crew were killed, and K22 radioed a situation report.

Around 40 minutes later, HMS Inflexible crashed into K22, wrecking the submarine’s ballast tanks and putting a ninety-degree kink in her superstructure. Somehow, she limped back to port.

Head-on collisions

But the worst was yet to come. Word of the accidents had reached the ships at the head of the flotilla, and they turned back so that they could help. They were now sailing directly towards the oncoming submarines and battleships.

HMS Fearless crashed into submarine K17. Many of her crew were able to abandon ship before she sank, but still many lost their lives. Fearless sounded her distress signal and, upon hearing it, the captain of submarine K4 brought his vessel to a halt. K6, which was a couple of slots behind K4, rammed K4 from behind, and K4 was struck again – by K7 – as she sank. Fifty-five crewmen lost their lives on K4.

Survivors killed in the water

Some of the crew that had survived the sinking of K17 were still in the water, but they weren’t safe yet. The 5th Battle Squadron was heading straight towards them and, unaware of the accidents, passed straight through, killing many of the survivors in the water. In total, 47 crew members from K17 lost their lives either in then or in the initial collision and sinking.

Wartime restrictions on the dissemination of news meant that the relatives of the dead men were told only that the men had been lost on active service.



Other events that occured in January

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.