Battle Of The May Isle - The Kingdom Of Fife

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Battle Of The May Isle

History Zone > Fife History

In the evening of January,1918, and amid war time, the Royal Navy chose to conduct an exercise codenamed ECI and which started from the navy base at Rosyth located in Southern Fife. The plan involved sailing a number of battleships, cruisers and destroyers in two groups sailing out towards the North Sea.

Nine K-class submarines were included in the plan and when the whole fleet was at sea, it would stretch out over twenty miles. U-Boat activity was suspected in the area so orders had been issued to conceal external lights while maintaining radio silence. It should have been a fairly routine training exercise but it didn't turn out that way. Operation ECI took place in an era in which the normally solitary role of the submarine had yet to be defined and where the innovation of the automotive torpedo by Scottish engineer Robert Whitehead and former Austrian captain Giovanni de Luppis had yet to redefine the notion that battleships represented the ultimate projection of sea power. The first submarine to incorporate torpedo launch tubes was built by Swedish inventor, Thorston Nordenfeldt, in 1885 albeit without resolving the crucial issue of how to power a submerged vessel. It was French engineers who largely resolved the problem by building an electrically powered submarine in 1893, just two years before an American engineer, named John Holland, reached the same conclusion. British research followed a similar pattern but conventional thought of the period still favoured the battleship and where any lesser ship was expected to sail in company with the battle fleet. As such, the surface speed demanded for British submarines was far in excess of what was actually needed or possible at the time without reverting to steam engines.

The age of the 'K' Class steam powered submarine, originally designed in 1913, had arrived and would gain notoriety in waters close to the coastline of Fife. Elsewhere, it was known as the 'Kalamity' class on account of many accidents and large loss of life. Of the eighteen boats built and commissioned; none were lost as a result of enemy actions with six lost in accidents. Only one ever engaged an enemy vessel and where it rammed a U-Boat after a torpedo had failed to explode.

In terms of performance, diving a 'K' class submarine was a complex process and where the funnels had to be retracted and the boilers extinguished. About sixteen different hatches needed to be secured before diving was a real and safe possibility and typically taking about five minutes or more to achieve. During Operation ECI and close to the May Isle in the Forth Estuary, every drawback of the design was revealed, and many lives were lost without a single shot being fired in anger or defence. It was an event concealed from public scrutiny for many years and referred to as the 'Battle of the May Island' but in truth, the enemy was never involved.

The K-class submarine were large on account of their boilers and need to carry coal. They were about 320 feet long and as the first flotilla of K-boats approached the mouth of the estuary, near the May Island, they became aware of a group of minesweepers ahead of them. The Captain of K11, sailing with this first group, spotted several small minesweepers sailing out from the Fife port of Anstruther as fog descended and ordered a reduction in speed and a turn to port. K17 did likewise but K14 only became aware of the danger when two of the minesweepers emerged from fog and were seen to be heading across his bow. Only then did the captain of the K14 realise that K17 had turned and in order to avoid a collision and he ordered full right rudder. This action took the vessel clear of both minesweepers and the nearby K12 but, as luck would have it, the helm of K14 then jammed in the full right rudder condition. K14 was thus forced into the path of K22 which was still running ahead at 22 knots. Collision was unavoidable and K22 sliced into K14 just aft of the forward torpedo room.

Immediate disaster was averted by the rapid closure of watertight doors but both vessels were now locked together and stationary in the path of the following warships and which, although unseen, were now bearing down on them. Navigation lights were quickly switched on and flares fired. The radio silence order was ignored and requests for help sent out.

Three large battlecruisers sailed safely past, their near proximity creating a wash which rocked the stricken submarines violently. HMS Inflexible, however was sailing closely behind and rode over the stricken K22, her weight pushing the submarine underneath her hull. As Inflexible continued on her way and faded into the mist, K22 resurfaced with thirty feet of her already damaged bow now twisted at right angles to the remainder of the hull and one of her ballast tanks completely sheared off.

Cries for help were acted on by other ships of the first flotilla with several reversing course and heading back into the Firth of Forth. In doing so, their actions created a new hazard in that ships from the first flotilla were now heading westwards on a collision course with ships from the second flotilla sailing eastwards.

The leading ship of the second flotilla was HMS Fearless. She had passed clear of the May Island at 7.54pm and her captain, judging from initial radio reports, estimated the position of the crash as just one and a half miles from the island. He decided that he was passed the danger area and ordered an increase in speed to twenty-one knots. He remained ignorant and unaware that ships from the first group had reversed course and were headed directly towards the second group. Both fleets met head-on at a point some thirteen miles east of the May Island at 8.32pm and where HMS Fearless collided with K17, the bows neatly slicing into the submarine's hull just forward of the conning tower. K17 began to sink and the crew abandoned her. Eight minutes later, K17 submerged for the last time.

Under normal circumstances, the crew had every chance of being rescued since they were surrounded by many ships but things were far from normal. K4, which had been sailing closely behind HMS Fearless, now turned to port with a view to picking up survivors. K3, sailing just behind K4 attempted to emulate this manoeuvre, turned to port and stopped some distance further on.

K12 now entered the arena. She had been part of the first flotilla and which had reversed course and, at one point in time, had narrowly averted collision with the outbound cruiser Australia. In fact, the vessels had passed so closely that crewmen on the larger vessel had been able to look down into the submarine's funnels and see the fires glowing below! Her sudden appearance near to the collision zone immediately caused alarm on board K6 and which was still heading eastward as part of the second group. K6 swerved to avoid colliding with K12 but collided with K4 instead and almost sliced her in half.

K6 was impaled and stuck firm on the rapidly sinking wreck of K4 and it seemed that K6 would be dragged down by K4. Mercifully, the application of engines running full astern caused the vessels to separate just a few seconds before K4 rolled over and sank. Submarine K7 arrived at that moment and stopped nearby with her deck crew already stripped down and ready to engage in rescue efforts. There were no survivors from K4.

While all this was happening, the destroyers and escorts of the second flotilla were still rushing past and maintaining speeds of twenty-one knots. Two of these vessels narrowly missed K3 but their wash spread outwards and swept across the casing of K7 and where would-be rescuers were suddenly washed into the sea. Worse still, some ships were passing over the spot where K17 had sunk and where crewmen were struggling in the water. Many were pushed under and drowned while others were chopped up by propellers. Only nine men from K17 were picked up and one of these, picked up by K7, died later.

Exercise ECI concluded with the loss of two K-Boats and left three more in a crippled condition. One light cruiser had been damaged. Over one hundred lives were lost. Despite this, the wartime navy strove to conceal the entire matter from public scrutiny and the truth emerged long after the war was over.

The death toll aboard K class submarines had now risen to two hundred and seventy men without a single shot ever being fired at the enemy. As a result, most K class vessels were decommissioned and consigned to scrap yards. K18, K19, K20 and K21 were withdrawn to Portsmouth where they received extensive modifications and were redesignated as 'M' class submarines.

Despite this, they found little favour with their crews who dubbed them 'Mutton Boats'.

Despite this calamity, the Navy ordered a further six K-Boats in June 1918, but upon conclusion of the war, most contracts were cancelled on November 26th 1918 and only K26 was ever ever completed and to a very much improved specification in June 1923. On the surface, she was slightly slower than the other K boats on account of new hydroplanes and changes to the bow. The modified design now sported six 21 inch torpedo tubes in the bow in place of the four 18 inch ones in previous models and the four 18 inch beam toperpdo tubes were retained in this design. Older K class boats had often suffered problems when, during bad weather, sea water was apt to spill down the funnel and dowse the boiler flames but this problem had been largely overcome in the new K26 design. K26 was twelve feet longer than the older models but had an increased fuel capacity rising from the 197 tons of the older models to nearly 300 tons and greatly increasing her range as a consequence. Improved ballast tank controls and other features reduced the diving time to just over three minutes and her rated maximum depth of dive was improved to 250 feet.

In 1924, K26 sailed with much publicity on a long voyage via Gibraltar, Malta, Suez Canal, Colombo and Singapore and then back again without major incident and had a successful career. She was eventually withdrawn from service in April 1931 because her displacement exceeded the limits for submarine displacement set out by London Naval Treaty of 1930, and broken up soon afterward.

While many existing K-Boats were scrapped soon after the war was over, some were still being built and were hastily modified to become the new M class submarine powered by diesel engines rather than steam. Even before the end of conflict, K18 became M1 and was fitted with a large twelve inch gun in the belief that if the unreliable torpedoes of the period failed then the engagement might be successfully concluded by means of a big gun. There remained serious doubt as regards whether such a plan was practical, however, and she was sent to the Mediterranean during the remainder of the war where she was less likely to encounter the enemy. She was last seen diving on the 12th November 1925 near Start Point but failed to re-surface. According to best available evidence, it seems likely she had been struck by the Swedish ship Vidar while semi-submerged.

K19 and K20 became M2 and M3 with the latter becoming a minelayer while M2 underwent further modification in that the large gun was replaced by a seaplane hanger and possibly on account of French naval plans for the famous and ill-fated submarine named Surcouf. In this design, M2 was capable of storing a specially built aircraft in a watertight hanger and and able to launch it via a catapult within a few minutes of resurfacing whenever weather permitted it. The seaplane, equipped with floats could land on water and where a crane aboard M2 was able to retreive it. The new strategic thinking concerning such vessels was now centred on them being deployed ahead of the fleet and capable of providing considerable amounts of information about enemy deployment and much more. The ability to get close before launching an aircraft was deemed a significant advancement in terms of military intelligence.

On the 26th January 1932, off Portland, the M2 reported that she was preparing to dive then silence. Some time later, the captain of the coaster 'Tynesider' docking at Portland, reported seeing a submarine which had dived stern first. From his eye-witness acount, the wreck was soon located and the evidence seemed to suggest that doors had been opened too quickly upon their return to the surface. Sixty lives were lost.

From 9 May to 15 May 1926, the M3 was used to generate electricity for the docklands area of London during a general strike and was eventually scrapped in April, 1932 and less than a year after K26 had been scrapped.

K26 thus became the last steam-powered submarine built anywhere in the World until the USS Nautilus was launched in 1954. Nuclear reactors replaced the coal bunkers and boilers of former designs and where, even today, the role of steam power has not been entirely superceded within the designs of modern submarines or high performance naval ships.

Photographs from wartime archives.
Text by Alandon.

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