Battle of the Isle of May (part III)


The damage caused to HMS Fearless after hitting a K-boat


One of the K-boat submarines involved

Wednesday 31st January comments: (Isle of May) Part Three: 100 years ago today, the ‘Battle of the Isle of May’ commenced. At 18:30 the secret navy exercise known as EC1 involving the 13th Submarine Division (known a K-boats) and a number of Destroyers, Battleships and Light Cruisers had sailed from nearby Rosyth.

The fleet of boats and submarines had sailed with only dim stern lights and maintained radio silence due to the sighting of a German submarine in the area earlier that day. The fleet were not helped by misty conditions whilst travelling under the cover of darkness. An unlucky mishap with the helm of submarine K-14 had resulted in a collision with K-22. However worse was to follow…

The huge battlecruiser HMS Australia narrowly missed the stricken K-boats and disaster had been averted. But not for long. Communication eventually reached the lead Light Cruiser HMS Ithuriel about the original collision and the captain of the ship decided to turn around and head back to the two K-boats which had struck each other. Alongside the Light cruiser, the other K-boats also followed her back but communication was poor and unfortunately the boats and submarines further back, lead by HMS Fearless were unaware of the accident ahead and ran straight into their sister flotilla.

Over the following minutes, disaster struck as HMS Fearless rammed K-17, and the submarine sank with the loss of all life in a matter of minutes. Submarines K-6 hit K-4, and nearly cut her in half but locked together but had K-7 fast approaching. Spotting K-6, she just managed to avoid her, but was totally unaware of K-4 lying across her path, and a further collision ensued. The second hit proved fatal for K-4, and she sank. Only nine men were pulled from the water, and one of these died before he could receive medical treatment.

That evening a total of 104 men lost their lives as two submarines were sunk, four submarines were damaged along with the light cruiser HMS Fearless. Despite it being remembered (black humour) as the ‘Battle of the Isle of May’, there were actually no enemy warships involved and only a combination of bad luck and human error resulted in such a great loss of life. The terrible events of that night took place just 1.5 miles off the north end of the Isle of May.

To be continued…

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