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The Battle of May Island 31 January 1918

On 31 January 1918, two British K class submarines were sunk and four others damaged off May Island in the Firth of Forth. These losses resulted not from enemy action but from collisions during an exercise with no enemy forces present.

The K class resulted from a faulty concept, which was for a submarine able to operate with the battle fleet with speeds of 24 knots on the surface and 9.5 knots submerged. Submarines were then powered by diesel engines on the surface and battery powered electric motors submerged. This combination allowed the highly successful E Class to make 15 knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged. Erroneous intelligence reports that some German U-boats were capable of 22 knots led to the J class, whose diesel engines were supposed to give a surface speed of 19.5 knots. Problems in heavy seas needed modifications that cut this to 17 knots.[1]

In order to achieve the require speed, the K class were powered on the surface by oil fired steam turbines. They were armed with ten 18 inch torpedo tubes, 18 torpedoes, two 4 inch guns and a 3 inch anti-aircraft gun. The use of steam meant that funnels and hatches had to be closed before they could dive. This could be done in 30 seconds, but there was a risk that one would be jammed open by a small obstruction. Eighteen were built, with another nine cancelled. K13 sank on trails in the Gareloch on 29 January 1917. She was raised and repaired but renumbered K22.[2]

The K boats were really submersible destroyers. The intention was that, like destroyers, they would operate in flotillas rather individually. Each flotilla would be led by a light cruiser until they were close enough to the enemy to fire their torpedoes, after which they would retire.[3]

Rear Admiral O. W. Phillips, at one time Chief Engineer of HMS K4, later wrote that 13 openings had to be closed before diving but that the K boats ‘were a wonderful effort and no more dangerous than any other submarine – if properly handled.’[4]

The editors of Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-21 argue that the K boats were not a poor design, but were actually a ‘remarkable technical achievement.’ Their problem was not their design but the ‘faulty conception which had led them to being built.’ They were expected to operate surfaced at high speeds in close company with surface ships, often at night without lights, but their bridge facilities were not adequate to do so safely.[5]

By January 1918 two flotillas of K boats, the 12th (K3, K4, K6 and K7 led by the light cruiser HMS Fearless) and 13th (K11, K12, K14, K17 and K22 led by the flotilla leader [a large destroyer] HMS Ithuriel) were based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. On the evening of 31 January they were part of a force of 40 ships, including three battleships and four battlecruisers that sailed to join the rest of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney, in an exercise codenamed EC1.The K boats were showing only a small blue stern light. All ships increased speed as they approached May Island because a U boat was reported to be in the area.

Two of the K boats changed course to avoid two minesweeping trawlers that suddenly appeared and moved across their course. Ithuriel’s helm jammed as she changed course. K14 and K22 then collided after the former’s helm jammed and the latter was later hit by the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible.

Ithuriel and the other three boats of the 13th Flotilla turned back to give assistance. They were narrowly missed by the battlecruiser HMAS Australia but the two submarine flotillas became mixed. Fearless rammed K17, which sank, K3 just avoided K4, K6 nearly hit K12 head on but then struck K4. The two submarines became locked together. K6 escaped by running full astern but K4 was almost cut in half and sank after being struck by K7.

Over 100 men died: they are listed on naval-history.net. Some of them got into the water but were run down by destroyers that did not know what had happened. There were no survivors from K4 and only eight from K17. Two submarines were lost, with four and a light cruiser damaged despite the complete absence of enemy forces.

The subsequent court of inquiry blamed the officers of the K boats involved rather than the concept behind their design or their flawed employment.[6]

Three more K boats were lost, all accidentally. K1 collided with K4 off Denmark on 18 November 1917 and was scuttled to avoid capture. K5 failed to surface after diving during exercises in the Bay of Biscay on 20 January 1921 and was lost with all hands. K15 sank at her moorings in Portsmouth on 25 June 1921, but all the crew survived thanks to prompt action by her captain. The closest that they came to sinking an enemy ship was when K7 hit a U-boat with a torpedo that failed to explode.

As well as the books footnoted and websites linked in the text, the following websites have been used as sources:

Steam Submarines: The Navy’s Dive to Disaster by John Watts on the website of the Submariners Association Barrow-in-Furness Branch. This source says that K7 passed over K4 as she sank without hitting her, but I have taken the version of events from the MoD linked below.

Battle of May Remembered, published by the Ministry of Defence on the 84th Anniversary of the disaster, when a memorial to the dead was unveiled at Anstruther, Fife.

Battle of May Island on Wikipedia.

 

[1] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, pp. 87-90.

[2] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 91.

[3] Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 187.

[4] Quoted in Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 188.

[5] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 91.

[6] Liddle, The Sailors War, 1914-18, p. 190.

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The Loss of HMS Vanguard 9 July 2017

At about 23:20 on 9 July 1917 the dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. A flame was observed, followed by an explosion, more flames and smoke and a second explosion. The smoke completely obscured the ship, which had sunk by the time it cleared.

Only three of the 845 men on board were picked up. One of those, Lieutenant Commander Alan Duke, died in hospital two days later. The dead included Commander Ito, a Japanese observer with the Grand Fleet, and two defaulters from HMAS Sydney, who were being held in Vanguard’s cells. Some of Vanguard’s crew survived because they were attending

Previous posts in this series have dealt with the losses by accidental explosions of the old battleship HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914 and the armoured cruiser HMS Natal on 30 December 1915. HMS Princess Irene, a minelayer converted from a liner, was also lost to an accidental explosion on 27 May 1915.

Several warships of other countries were also lost to internal explosions whilst in harbour during the First World War: the Italian pre-dreadnought battleship Benedetto Brin on 27 September 1915 and dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci on 2 August 1916; the Japanese battle cruiser Tsukuba on 14 January 1917 and dreadnought Kawachi on 12 July 1918; and the Russian dreadnought Imperatritza Maria on 20 October 1916. The two Italian ships were probably sabotaged by the Austrians, the Japanese and Russian ones lost to accidental explosions.[1] The old Chilean battleship Capitan Prat was damaged but not lost by an internal explosion.

A dockyard worker called John Harston had been working on Vanguard shortly before her loss. William Schleihauf says that he had also been on board Natal before she exploded, whilst a thread on the Great War Forum says that he had also worked on Bulwark and Princess Irene. The Court of Inquiry into Vanguard’s loss took evidence from Harston and his assistant Robert Williams, concluding that there was no reason to suspect them. Harston continued to work for the Admiralty, eventually retiring with a full pension.

Schleihauf points out that Vanguard, although less than 10 years old was obsolescent because of the rapid advance in naval technology. She had 12 inch guns, whilst the latest British dreadnoughts had 15 inch guns and were larger and faster. The other British ships lost to explosions in port were obsolete. Saboteurs could have found more valuable targets that were no better guarded.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that Vanguard was lost because of a magazine explosion resulting from the ignition of cordite which could have been caused by a number of reasons: an avoidable cause; abnormal deterioration in a charge because it had been abnormally treated; sabotage by the enemy; or the cordite becoming unstable. It made 13 recommendations for improvements in handling processes and storage.

Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, concluded that the loss Vanguard was ‘probably due to defective cordite.’[2] The men killed when she exploded are listed on naval-history.net.

Vanguard is now an official war grave. Her White Ensign is regularly changed by RN divers. Ceremonies were held to mark the 100th anniversary of her sinking at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, over her wreck in Scapa Flow and at the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery, where the 41 men whose bodies were recovered are buried.

In addition to the footnoted sources, this post is based on the following websites, all accessed on 11 July 2017:

BBC News, ‘Orkney service marks HMS Vanguard sinking centenary’

 

The World War I Document Archive, ‘Explosions in Warships During the War’

 

The Great War Forum, ‘Sabotage what a coincidence’

 

William Schleihauf, ‘Disaster in Harbour: The Loss of HMS Vanguard’

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 229, 233, 256, 259, 303.

[2] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, p. 42.

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The Destruction of HMS Bulwark 26 November 1914

On the morning of 26 November 1914, the pre-dreadnought HMS Bulwark blew up whilst moored near Sheerness. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, told the House of Commons later that day that:

‘I regret to say that I have bad news for the House. The “Bulwark” battleship, which was lying in Sheerness this morning, blew up at 7.53 a.m. The Vice and Rear-Admirals who were present have reported their conviction that it was an internal magazine explosion which rent the ship asunder. There was, apparently, no upheaval of water. The ship had entirely disappeared when the smoke had cleared away. An inquiry will be held to-morrow, which may possibly throw more light on this occurrence. The loss of the ship does not sensibly affect the military position; but I regret to say that the loss of life is very severe. Only twelve men are saved, and all the officers and the rest of the crew, which, I suppose, amounted to between 700 and 800 persons, have perished. I think the House would wish me to express on their behalf the deep sympathy and sorrow with which the House has heard the news, and the sympathy they feel with those who have lost their relatives and friends.’ [click here for online version of Hansard, the record of debates and statements in the British Parliament.]

Witnesses reported seeing a large sheet of flame and thick smoke, followed by an explosion. The ship had, apart from some debris, disappeared once the smoke cleared. Crockery and glassware on nearby ships was broken, buildings up to six miles away were shaken and debris was found over a wide area.

Rumours that the explosion resulted from sabotage, a U boat torpedo or a mine were dismissed by the Admiralty. Rear Admiral E. F. A. Gaunt, the President of the Admiralty Court of Enquiry told the Inquest into the 39 of the deaths that Bulwark had suffered an accidental internal explosion. It was impossible to be sure what had happened, but the court suspected that hot ashes had been piled up against the bulkhead that separated a boiler room from a magazine.

Six inch shells might also have been left in passageways after a recent exercise. This was against regulations, but Gaunt noted that a large proportion of Bulwark’s crew were reservists, who might not have properly followed the rules.

The Inquest concluded:

‘That the vessel had been destroyed by the exploding of a magazine or magazines – it was not certain which – and it was probable that some loose ammunition or cordite may have been detonated by some means that caused the explosion. There was no evidence of any external cause and the burns and multiple injures was the cause of death in almost all of the cases heard so far. The findings of the Court of Enquiry were satisfactory and endorsed that cause of death was by accident”. The jury agreed and returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ in the thirty-nine cases.’ [quoted on the website of the Wessex Branch of the Western Front Association, which also includes a number of statements from witnesses and survivors.]

Churchill stated that there were 12 survivors, but there were actually 15 or 16 men alive when he spoke, of whom nine lived. However, he was speaking shortly after the event, so probably had incomplete information. Naval-history.net lists the dead and 16 survivors, of whom one died the same day, one on each of the next three days, two on 30 November and one on 18 January 1915.

Bulwark was an old ship and Churchill was correct that, even from a military rather than a human point of view,  the loss of the men was a more severe blow than the loss of the ship.

 

 

 

 

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