Home - Boats - On This Day


On This Day - January 31

1918Battle of May Island A tragic series of accidents during a night exercise in the First World War cost the lives of over 100 Royal Navy submariners. The tragedy centred on the K-class of submarines.

The First World War had quickly proved the potential of the submarine as a weapon of war, with both Royal Navy submarines and German U-boats enjoying particular success. But the early submarines were very slow compared to surface warships. Admirals were keen to have their battle fleets supported by the new weapon; it seemed logical to have submarines accompany the fleet on the surface, diving to attack the enemy fleet when it was spotted. But diesel engines of the period simply could not provide enough speed on the surface for a submarine to keep up even with battleships. The K-class was the Royal Navy's answer - huge (for the time) submarines, with powerful steam-driven propulsion on the surface, normal electric motors whilst submerged.

From the start, the K-boats were plagued with misfortune. Built with great haste during wartime, and pushing submarine technology to the limits, they had a poor reputation for mechanical reliability. The steam-propulsion, complete with funnels, took a long time to prepare for a dive. One, K-13, fulfilled the worst fears of the superstitious by sinking on her maiden dive on 29 January 1917 with the loss of thirty lives. But they were fast on the surface, and the Royal Navy determined to use them for Fleet work, including K-13, salvaged and renamed K-22.

On 31 January, Admiral Beatty took to sea the Grand Fleet for an intensive exercise - EC1 - to ensure the fleet remained at full efficiency whilst waiting for the German High Seas Fleet to risk battle again, after its experience at Jutland in 1916. Nine K-boats sailed from Rosyth that evening, along with the battlecruiser squadrons. A U-boat was thought to be in the area, so all ships increased speed as they approached May Island, to offer a more difficult target.

In the dark, two small patrol boats wandered into the path of the K-boats of 13th Flotilla. Turning to avoid them, the rudder of K-14 jammed. She ended up broadside on to the unlucky K-22, which saw her too late in the dark to avoid her and a serious collision left both submarines dead in the water, with lights only showing dimly and their very silhouettes almost impossible to spot. They were nearly run over and sunk by the huge battlecruiser HMS Australia, but were narrowly missed. It seemed as if a disaster had been averted.

However, the light cruiser Ithuriel and the other three K-boats of 13th Flotilla had turned back to help. Unfortunately, the 12th Flotilla K-boats, led by the light cruiser HMS Fearless, were unaware of the accident ahead and ran straight into their sister Flotilla. HMS Fearless rammed K-17, and the submarine sank with all hands in a matter of minutes. K-6 hit K-4, and nearly cut her in half. The two submarines sat locked together, but K-7 was approaching fast astern. 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.

Over 100 men were lost that night. Two submarines had been sunk, and four damaged, along with a light cruiser. 84 years on, a cairn has been erected in their memory at Anstruther on the Forth shore opposite May Island, and was unveiled on 31 January 2002 by members of Fife Council and representatives of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.
1918K4HMS K4 left harbour bound for a North Sea exercise. In what became known as the Battle of May Island a number of submarines were lost. Several collisions occurred, including K6 colliding with K4. So great was the collision that K4 was cut almost in two and sank immediately with the loss of all onboard.
1918K17Whilst taking part in exercises off May Island, K17 was astern of HMS Courageous when the latter changed course to avoid two trawlers, which were spotted ahead. K17 turned but K22 and K14 were involved in a collision. Meanwhile HMS Fearless was steaming at 21 knots towards the area oblivious of the accident. Suddenly the Fearless appeared over the horizon and ploughed into K17, water gushed into the boat through the pierced pressure hull. The order to abandon ship was quickly given. Within 8 minutes K17 had disappeared. The survivors were now in the water and the other submarines attempted to pick them up. Sadly the destroyers were unaware of the location of the accident and ploughed through the survivors.
1918K14During Operation E.C.1, which took place overnight in the Firth of Forth. K22 collided with K14 . The bow of K22 cut into the port side of the crew space of K14 flooding the compartment and drowning two members of the crew.

They were L/Sea Alexander Scott and AB W J Bowell
19201905 - 1947: Cyclops (F31)Reduced to reserve at Sheerness
1940Seal (N37)HMS Seal ended her 7th war patrol at Rosyth.
1941Rorqual (N74)HMS Rorqual attacked the tug Ursus and a floating battery in the Adriatic north west of Dubrovnik. After completing an operation to lay mines off Fiume the submarine came across an unusual target she sighted a floating battery of two 5-inch guns and an anti-aircraft gun, mounted on a lighter which was being towed by an armed tug.

The lighter could hardly be torpedoed, as she was of too shallow draft for the normal depth setting of the torpedoes, and the only other weapon the Rorqual had was a single 4-inch gun. Undeterred by the odds against him, Dewhurst surfaced at about 500 yards range. She hit the Ursus with her first shot and set it on fire, then shifted her fire to the battery. Again she hit, starting a blaze amidships, but the Italians in the tug were gallant men and ignoring the fire in their small vessel, they manned their guns and opened fire on the Rorqual.

She was forced to shift her fire from the battery and engage the Ursus again. This time she made certain of her. She was ablaze for and aft and those of her crew who had not been killed were forced to abandon her. But the men manning the floating battery were no less gallant than their companions in the Ursus.

Although their own craft was on fire amidships, they manned the two guns and by their accurate fire forced the Rorqual to dive. Dewhurst then set a torpedo to run on the surface and carried out a submerged attack, only to find that the torpedo developed a gyro failure and was returning on its own tracks. Rorqual had to dive deep to avoid it. When last seen, the Ursus was in the act of sinking and the battery still heavily on fire. The battery however did not sink she was later towed to Dubrovnik.
1942Uther (P62)Laid Down
1943Unruffled (P46)HMS Unruffled torpedoes and sinks the German merchant Lisboa about 5 nautical miles north of Sousse, Tunisia.
1944Torbay (N79)HMS Torbay sinks a Greek sailing vessel with gunfire south of Lemnos Island, Greece.
1944Untiring (P59)HMS Untiring sinks the German Jean Suzon/FP 352 and St. Antoine/FP 358 with gunfire south-east of Cape Drammont, southern France.
1945Tantalus (P318)HMS Tantalus sinks a Japanese vessel with gunfire in the southern part of the South China Sea.
2001Astute (S119)Laid Down

LossesSubmarine Badges