HMS Otranto

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HMS Otranto during WWI
HMS Otranto during WWI
Career
Name: SS Otranto
Namesake: Otranto
Owner: Orient Steam Navigation Company
Port of registry: London
Builder: Workman Clark & Co., Belfast
Yard number: 278
Laid down: 1908?
Launched: 27 March 1909
Maiden voyage: 1 October 1909
Identification: Official number : 124675
Signal letters : HPKD
Fate: Requisitioned by the Admiralty, 4 August 1914
Career
Name: HMS Otranto
Acquired: 4 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 (163.17 m)
Beam: 64 ft (20 m)
Depth: 38 ft 8 in (11.79 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.

Construction and service[edit]

Passenger ship[edit]

SS Otranto in Orient Line service, 1909

Otranto was built in 1908–09 by the Belfast yard of Workman Clark for the Orient Steam Navigation Company. It took two attempts – on 23 March and again on 27 March 1909 – to launch Otranto. She left London on her maiden voyage to Australia on 1 October 1909. Otranto was present at King George V's Coronation Naval Review on 26 June 1911.

Auxiliary cruiser[edit]

The day that Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Otranto was requisitioned by the Admiralty for conversion to an armed merchant cruiser, having eight 4.7 in (120 mm) guns fitted. She was sent to the South Atlantic to join Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock's West Indies squadron. 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 the light cruiser 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.

Sinking[edit]

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.

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