HMS Otranto

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HMS Otranto during WWI
HMS Otranto during WWI
Name: SS Otranto
Namesake: Otranto
Owner: Orient Steam Navigation Company
Port of registry: London
Route: UK–Australia
Ordered: 1908?
Builder: Workman Clark & Co., Belfast
Yard number: 278
Laid down: 1908?
Launched: 27 March 1909
Completed: 20 July 1909
Maiden voyage: 1 October 1909
Identification: Official number: 124675[1]
Signal letters: HPKD
Fate: Requisitioned by the Admiralty, 4 August 1914
Name: HMS Otranto
Acquired: 4 August 1914
Commissioned: 14 August 1914
Fate: Sank after collision, 6 October 1918
General characteristics
Type: Passenger liner / armed merchant cruiser
Tonnage: 12,124 gross register tons (GRT)
7,433 net register tons (NRT)
Length: 535 ft 4 in (163.2 m)
Beam: 64 ft (19.5 m)
Depth: 38 ft 8 in (11.8 m)
Installed power: 14,000 ihp (10,000 kW)
Propulsion: 2 × screws
2 × quadruple-expansion steam engines
Speed: 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)
Capacity: Passengers:
235 1st class
186 2nd class
696 3rd class
Armament: 8 × 4.7 in (120 mm) guns

HMS Otranto was a armed merchant cruiser requisitioned by the Royal Navy when World War I began in 1914. Built before the war for the UK — Australia run as the SS Otranto, she was primarily used during the war to search for German commerce raiders. She played small roles in the Battle of Coronel in November 1914 when the German East Asia Squadron destroyed the British squadron searching for it and in the Battle of the Falklands the following month when a British squadron annihilated the Germans in turn. Aside from brief refits in the U.K., Canada and Australia, she remained on this duty until early 1918 when she became a troopship. During a severe storm off the Scottish coast in late 1918, she was rammed by another troopship and forced ashore by the storm, killing 431 passengers and crewmen.


Otranto had an overall length of 555 feet 6 inches (169.3 m), a beam of 64 feet (19.5 m), and a moulded depth of 38 feet 8 inches (11.8 m). She had tonnages of 12,124 gross register tons (GRT) and 7,433 net register tons (NRT). The ship was fitted with two 4-cylinder quadruple-expansion steam engines, each driving one propeller. The engines had a total power of 14,000 indicated horsepower (10,000 kW) and gave Otranto a top speed of 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph).[1] She had a capacity of 235 first-class, 186 second-class and 696 third-class passengers.[2]

Construction and passenger ship service[edit]

SS Otranto in Orient Line service, 1909

SS Otranto, named for the Strait of Otranto between Italy and Albania, was built by Workman Clark & Co. at their Belfast shipyard as yard number 278. She was built for the Orient Steam Navigation Company's England to Australia run. The first attempt to launch the ship failed on 23 March 1909 as the tallow used to lubricate the slipway had frozen and Otranto ground to a halt after sliding only 20 feet (6.1 m). Attempts to persuade her to resume her progress with hydraulic jacks failed and the slipway had to be partially rebuilt before she was successfully launched four days later.[2] She was completed on 20 July and departed London on her maiden voyage to Brisbane, Australia on 1 October.[3]

Otranto made two round-trips to Australia by January 1910 and then made a 17-day cruise in the Mediterranean before resuming her London–Australia runs into early 1911. That year, the company was awarded a contract to carry mail and she was redesignated as RMS Otranto, the RMS standing for Royal Mail Ship. She was present at King George V's Coronation Naval Review on 26 June and made several voyages to the Norwegian fjords before mid-September when she returned to the Australia run. There she remained until war was declared on Germany on 4 August 1914.[4]

Auxiliary cruiser[edit]

Otranto was requisitioned by the Admiralty that day for conversion to an armed merchant cruiser, having eight 4.7 in (120 mm) guns fitted. A rangefinder was installed on the bridge and her fore and aft holds were refitted as magazines. Half-inch (12.7 mm) steel plating was added to protect her steering gear and her interior cabin bulkheads and glass ventilators were removed to reduce damage from splinters. Her furniture was removed to make room for the mess decks needed to feed large numbers of troops and sailors and an operating room and sickbay were installed amidships.[5]

The work was completed on 13 August and she was commissioned as HMS Otranto the next day. The ship departed the UK on 17 August, the second armed merchant cruiser to leave England, with sealed orders that assigned her to Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock's West Indies Squadron in the South Atlantic. Otranto rendezvoused with the squadron on 27 August off the coast of Brazil. She was ordered to patrol the coast of South America between Chile and Montevideo, Uruguay, searching for German commerce raiders, together with the armoured cruisers Good Hope, Monmouth and the light cruiser Glasgow[6]

This squadron was subsequently diverted to the South-East Pacific to intercept the German East Asia Squadron under Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee which was attempting to make for Germany after the loss of its base in Tsingtao, China, to a joint Japanese-British force. It was Otranto which spotted the German squadron on 1 November 1914 off the Chilean coast. The subsequent battle, known as the Battle of Coronel, was a victory for the German squadron, but Otranto managed to escape along with Glasgow.

Following the battle, Otranto was ordered to the Falkland Islands to act as a guard ship, but returned to the UK in March 1915 after her ex-Merchant Navy crew threatened to mutiny. By May 1915, Otranto was in the Pacific patrolling the West Coast of America. She carried out four refits during her time in the Pacific: in Sydney, Australia during February 1916, in Esquimault, British Columbia, Canada in October 1916, again in Esquimault in October 1917, and finally in Sydney during April 1918. Otranto was then ordered back to Britain, and in June 1918 she became an armed troopship employed in ferrying American "doughboys" to the Western Front in Europe.


It was during one such operation on 6 October 1918 that she collided with HMS Kashmir, another liner turned troopship, in poor visibility in the rough seas between the North East coast of Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland. She was holed on the port side forward and, in the heavy swell, began to list. The stricken ship then hit rocks and became grounded. With the heavy seas pounding her continually against the rocks the ship eventually broke up and sank with the loss of 431 lives (351 American troops and 80 British crew members). A number of Americans and crew were saved by a convoy escort, HMS Mounsey, and were taken to Belfast, Ireland. Many of the survivors were hospitalised there until eventual transfer to England. Probably none of the survivors saw action in the Great War as it ended soon afterwards on 11 November 1918. Many of the dead were buried in the Belfast City Cemetery, although a number of the British crew are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery on Islay (Inner Hebrides). The American servicemen were exhumed and repatriated to the United States in 1920.


  1. ^ a b Osborne, Spong & Grover, p. 130
  2. ^ a b Scott, p. 1
  3. ^ Osborne, Spong & Grover, pp. 130–31
  4. ^ Scott, pp. 5–6
  5. ^ Scott, pp. 6–7
  6. ^ Scott, pp. 7–8