Battle of the Isle of May

Thursday 31st January comments: The Isle of May has many stories and tales to tell but 101 years ago, a fateful evening proved so costly to so many as on 31st January 1918, the ‘Battle of the Isle of May’ was about to commence.

The nation was gripped by the ravages of the Great War which was raging across much of northern Europe. The British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet had been involved in one of the deadliest and bloodiest navel battles of all time at Jutland just 20 months previous, with the loss of over 6,000 men. As a result, the Fleet Admiralty were keen to improve on ‘battle readiness’ for any further sea confrontations with the enemy which may come about as the war continued.

It was decided a navel exercise would take place out in the North Sea involving two components of the Grand Fleet; that based at Rosyth near Edinburgh which would meet up with the battle group from Scapa Flow. The exercise, known as EC1 was kept secret and involved the 13th Submarine Division (known a K-boats) and a number of Destroyers, Battleships and Light Cruisers. The K-boats were specially designed to operate with a battle fleet and soon all the waiting boats were ready to sail. The orders were simple; all boats would follow in line and sail out of the Firth of Forth, head north passing the Isle of May before eventually heading direct north to meet up with the

At the head of the line, two cruisers would lead the way; HMS Courageous and HMS Ithuriel which were backed with submarines K-11, K-12, K-14, K-17 and K-22. Then came the   battle cruisers which included HMAS Australia, HMS New Zealand, HMS Indomitable and HMS Inflexible with their destroyers. Finally HMS Fearless which was backed by submarines K3, K-4, K-6 and K7. In total with each boat sailing in a single line, it stretched for 30 miles.

At 18:30 the boats sailed from nearby Rosyth and were sailing with dimmed stern lights and were maintaining 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. Then luck changed and disaster struck. Submarine K-14 rudder jammed and the boat struck K-22 and unfortunately both boats were locked unable to break free from each other.

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. It will never be forgotten.

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