History on 31st January

Battle of May Island

Fife The 31st of January 1918 AD

In wartime deaths from friendly fire and accident are more numerous than we would like to think. The Slapton Sands Disaster in April 1944 followed the pattern established for such events – poor communication, chaos, and cover-up. Such too was the nature of the events off May Island in the Firth of Forth on January 31st 1918.

Some 40 naval vessels, including nine K-class submarines (these ships at this period still not worthy of names in the Royal Navy’s mind it should be noted) left Rosyth in the afternoon of January 31st to move northwards to take part in exercises near Scapa Flow. The convoy formed covered about 30 miles, steaming in misty conditions (though it had been clear initially), under radio silence and with just stern lights (for fear of U-Boats).

The sighting of lights that are thought to have belonged to minesweeping trawlers caused ships to divert from their intended course, the starting point in a concatenation of events that ended with the loss of two submarines and more than 100 men. A jammed helm on one submarine threw in an additional element of chaos. Over several hours at least five collisions occurred in the poor visibility, some ships turning to help their stricken comrades not only adding to the number of these collisions, but tragically in one case cutting through the men of K-17 who had jumped to all too brief safety from their sinking vessel. Perhaps 50 had been in the water, and only nine made it to rescue ships, one too badly injured to survive long. None of the 56 sailors aboard K4 survived, that submarine sinking in minutes after K6 had rammed her amidships.

Inevitably the disaster and subsequent courts martial were kept quiet for fear of handing the Germans a propaganda coup, giving away military intelligence (as well as the two subs sunk, four more had been damaged along with the cruiser HMS Fearless), and doubtless from the harm it would have done to morale in the Royal Navy and the civilian population. It was not until 2002 that a plaque was placed in Anstruther harbour commemorating what became known ironically (as no enemy action had been involved) as The Battle of May Island.

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