Tragedy at Sea: The ‘Battle’ of May Island, 1918

Battle of May Island
HMS Fearless sustained significant damage during the Battle of May Island.

The Firth of Forth is home to a number of islands. From Inchkeith to Inchmickery, these islands vary in size and are dotted throughout the estuary.

The furthest east of these is the Isle of May. A remote island which often feels the ferocious wrath of the North Sea.

While the island is now uninhabited – save for a few thousand seafaring birds – its history is far from mundane. Indeed, the Isle is home to one of the earliest Christian sites in Scotland and has witnessed much activity – and bloodshed – over the centuries.

Notably, it was in the waters surrounding the isle that the ‘Battle’ of May Island unfolded in early 1918, one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the Royal Navy.

The Battle of May Island

Although commonly referred to as a ‘battle’, the incident was actually a series of accidents that occurred during a naval exercise.

On 31st January 1918, Royal Navy vessels sailing from Rosyth meandered their way through thick fog toward the North Sea. While the battlegroup passed the island, five disastrous collisions occurred which sank two British submarines and caused damage to three more.

In total, 105 service personnel were killed in the series of incidents – so what happened?

Pending disaster

Leaving Rosyth, some 40 vessels made their way to the mouth of the Forth, bound for Scapa Flow in Orkney.

At the head of the fleet was the battlecruiser, HMS Courageous, supported by a host of other battlecruisers, battleships and destroyer escorts. Additionally, two flotillas of K-class submarines accompanied the fleet.

The 12th Submarine Flotilla, comprising vessels K3, K4, K6 and K7 was commanded by Captain Charles Little aboard the light cruiser escort, HMS Fearless.

The second flotilla, the 13th, consisted of an additional five K-class submarines – K11, K12, K14, K17 and K22 – and a destroyer escort, HMS Ithuriel, led by Commander Ernest William Leir.

Battle of May Island
HMS Courageous pictured shortly after completion in 1916.

Sailing out of the Forth in a single line formation, Courageous was trailed by Ithuriel and the 13th submarine flotilla, followed thereafter by a battlecruiser squadron comprised of HMAS Australia, HMS New Zealand, Indomitable and Inflexible alongside destroyer escorts.

Passing the Isle of May, the 13th flotilla was forced to swiftly change course due to inbound vessels, which are believed to have been minesweepers patrolling the waters of the Forth. Disruption and confusion ensued, forcing two vessels to turn on their navigation lights as the flotilla attempted to return to formation.

It was here that disaster began to unfold.

K22, which had veered off-course, crashed into K14. This caused serious damage to the bow and breached the forward mess deck. Two sailors were killed in this initial collision, which forced both vessels to stop and pull themselves apart.

The remaining vessels in the flotilla continued onward, out into the misty north sea. K22 radioed HMS Ithuriel, informing the lead vessel that it could reach port but warning that K14 was badly damaged and beginning to sink.

Battle of May Island
HMS K12, pictured in 1924.

Around a quarter of an hour passed before the second battle cruiser squadron began approaching the two vessels. K22 crewmembers signalled the approaching squadron, firing a warning flare which allowed three battlecruisers to avoid the beleaguered vessels.

The fourth, HMS Inflexible, was unable to avoid colliding with the pair and struck K22. The impact is believed to have severely damaged the vessel’s bow, destroying the ballast and fuel tanks.

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Upon receiving word of the initial collision, HMS Ithuriel under Leir’s command turned course with hopes of supporting the damaged vessels.

Limitations to communications technology at the time meant that Leir’s message to vessels approaching from the rear were delayed, however. Submarines following Ithuriel turned to support the lead vessel and nearly collided with the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron.

Thereafter, upon their approach to K14 and K22, the vessels encountered the eastbound 12th submarine flotilla. It is here that carnage ensued.

HMS Fearless, the lead vessel of the 12th flotilla rammed K17, damaging its own bow and sinking the submarine along with its 48-man crew. Although Fearless stopped immediately and issued warning sirens, the trailing vessels failed to react in time.

Battle of May Island
The badly damaged bow of HMS Fearless after colliding with K17.

The K3 submarine narrowly avoided K4, while K6 cascaded into K4 at speed, cutting the submarine in half. As K4 and its crew began to sink, the vessel was struck again by K7.

With carnage unfolding the 5th Battle Squadron, consisting of three battleships and destroyer escorts, began sailing through the area completely unaware of the situation. These vessels are believed to have cut down sailors adrift in the water.

The Aftermath

In the space of little more than an hour, two submarines had been sunk, three were badly damaged and dozens of sailors had been killed.

A subsequent inquiry into the incident blamed Commander Leir and four officers on the K-class submarines. The results of the inquiry were not released until 1994.

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