Tragic naval accident remembered 100 years on

Submariners and sailors, both serving and retired gathered yesterday to pay their respects to the loss of 104 lives in a tragic accident in the River Forth a hundred years ago.

Amongst the many battles of the First World War the ‘Battle of May Island’ is notable for two things; firstly, it wasn’t a battle, no shots were fired and secondly it was never acknowledged at the time.

By 1918 the Royal Navy had domination of the North Sea, Germany having ceded control following the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. But Germany had increased the amount of U-Boat activity as a result and on the night of 31 January 1918 Admiral Beatty took some 40 ships and submarines berthed in Rosyth and South Queensferry out on an intensive exercise.

In an era when radio communication was in its infancy and navigation was conducted without the aid of radar, manoeuvres at night with large numbers of vessels was significantly more challenging than it is today.

The K-Class submarines, designed to operate with a battle fleet rather than on their own, were large boats with a powerful steam turbine that allowed them to travel on the surface at a speed to match the ships.

In the vicinity of May Island in the Firth of Forth, two small patrol boats wandered into the path of the submarines and one, turning to avoid them found her rudder jammed and sitting broadside on to the vessels behind was rammed by another of the submarines.

Although both were dead in the water they remained on the surface but when some of the ships that had gone ahead turned back to assist there were a series of collisions that resulted in two other submarines being sunk and a further four submarines plus a ship being damaged.

A tragic accident it was deemed ‘too bad for morale’ to be publicised by the Admiralty and the incident passed without official recognition for decades. Although there was an investigation and even a court martial, no information was released until the 1990s.

However it was widely known within the Navy and through black humour acquired the title of ‘Battle of May Island’.

In 2002 the Submarine Association erected a memorial at nearby Anstruther Harbour to “the memory of those members of the submarines K4 and K17 who gave their lives in the service of their country” and they have held commemorative services there each year since.

The service held at St. Ayle Church in Cellardyke, Anstruther marked the Centenary of the tragedy and was attended by the Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock KCB OBE and his wife Lady Joanna Woodcock whose Great uncle was one of those killed in the accident.

After the service a small group of serving Submariners from HMS Victorious and Veterans moved to the nearby Memorial at the harbour, where Royal Marine Buglers played the Last Post. The Second Sea Lord laid the Naval wreath while Lady Woodcock laid a wreath along with the Royal Naval Association at the monument.

Two other descendants, Michael Hammond and Gordon Jackson were also in attendance.