Battle of May Island

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Battle of May Island
Black and white photo of a ship in dry dock
The bow of the drydocked cruiser HMS Fearless after colliding with the submarine K17
Date January 31 – February 1, 1918 (1918-01-31 – 1918-02-01)
Location Waters off the Isle of May
Coordinates Coordinates: 56°11′9″N 2°33′27″W / 56.18583°N 2.55750°W / 56.18583; -2.55750
Cause Weather, ship mechanical failure, human error
Participants  Royal Navy
  • Total deaths: 104
  • 2 subs sunk
  • 4 subs damaged
  • 1 Scout cruiser damaged
  • K4 with 55 dead
  • K17 with 47 dead
  • K14 with 2 dead
Property damage

The Battle of May Island is the name given to the series of accidents that occurred during Operation E.C.1 in 1918. Named after the Isle of May, an island in the Firth of Forth, close by, it was a disastrous series of accidents amongst Royal Navy ships on their way from Rosyth in Scotland to fleet exercises in the North Sea. On the misty night of 31 January to 1 February 1918, five collisions occurred between eight vessels. Two submarines were lost and three other submarines and a light cruiser were damaged. 104 men died, all of them Royal Navy.


Although it took place during the First World War it was an entirely accidental tragedy and no enemy forces were present. It was therefore not a Battle and was only referred to as such with black humour.

Operation E.C.1[edit]

Around 40 naval vessels left Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, Scotland on the afternoon bound for Scapa Flow in Orkney where the exercise, EC1, involving the entire Grand Fleet would take place the following day.[1]

The vessels included the 5th Battle Squadron of three battleships with their destroyer escorts, the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron of four battlecruisers and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines each led by a light cruiser. The K class submarines were specially designed to operate with a battle fleet. They were large boats for their time, at 339 feet (103 m) long and were powered by steam turbines to allow them to travel at 24 knots on the surface, to keep up with the fleet.

The two flotillas were the 12th Submarine Flotilla, consisting of K3 , K4 , K6 and K7 led by HMS Fearless and the 13th Submarine Flotilla, led by HMS Ithuriel composed of K11 , K12 , K14 , K17 and K22 .


At 18:30 the vessels weighed anchor and the entire fleet steamed in a single line nearly 30 miles (48 km) long. At the head of the line were the two cruisers Courageous and Ithuriel followed by the rest of the 13th Submarine Flotilla. These were followed by the battlecruiser squadron, HMAS Australia, HMS New Zealand, Indomitable and Inflexible with their destroyers. After these came the 12th Submarine Flotilla and finally the battleships.

To avoid attracting German U-boats, particularly as one was suspected to be in the area, after dark each vessel showed only a dim stern light to the following vessel and they all maintained radio silence. As each group passed the Isle of May at the mouth of the firth, they altered course and increased speed to 20 knots.

As the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed the island, a pair of lights (possibly minesweeping naval trawlers) were seen approaching the line of submarines. The flotilla altered course sharply to port to avoid them but K14's helm jammed and she veered out of line. Both K14 and the boat behind her, K12 turned on their navigation lights and eventually K14s helm was freed and she tried to return to her position in the line. The next submarine in line, K22 had lost sight of the rest of the flotilla in the mist and veered off the line with the result that she hit K14. Both submarines stopped whilst the rest of the flotilla, unaware of what had happened continued out to sea. K22 radioed in code to the cruiser leading the flotilla to say that she could reach port but that K14 was crippled and sinking.[2]

About fifteen minutes later, the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron passed the island and the two submarines, but the battlecruiser Inflexible hit K22 causing further damage. The battlecruiser bent the first 30 feet (9.1 m) of K22's bows at right angles and wrecked the ballast and fuel tanks. She settled by the bow until only the conning tower showed.

Meanwhile, Leir, captain of Ithuriel, had received and decoded the message about the first collision between the two submarines and turned back to help them. As the submarines behind her turned to follow her, the 2nd Battle Squadron passed through the line and it was only through emergency turns by both groups of vessels that further accidents were narrowly avoided.

As the 13th Flotilla reached the Isle of May, they encountered the outbound 12th Submarine Flotilla. The leader of the 12th Flotilla, Fearless loomed out of the mist and collided with K17 which sank within a few minutes, although most of her crew were able to jump overboard.

As the submarines following Fearless turned to avoid their now stationary flotilla leader, the battlecruiser Australia narrowly missed K12, which turned to get out of the way, putting her on a collision path with K6. K6 tried to avoid her but in doing so hit K4, nearly cutting the latter in half. The seriously damaged K4 sank with all of her crew, during which she was hit by K7.

At this point the 5th Battle Squadron of three battleships and their destroyers passed through the area unaware of what had happened, some of the destroyers cutting down the survivors of K17 struggling in the water. Only nine of the 56 men originally on board the submarine survived and one of these died of his injuries shortly afterwards.[3]

Within 75 minutes, the submarines K17 and K4 had been sunk, and K6, K7, K14, K22 and Fearless had been damaged.[4]


The casualty numbers for the "Battle of May Island" were 104. This includes men from K4 with 55 dead, K17 with 47 dead, and 2 dead from K14.

The subsequent investigation and court martial were kept quiet, with much of the information not released until the 1990s. A memorial cairn was finally erected 84 years later, on 31 January 2002 at Anstruther harbour opposite the Isle of May.


In 2011, surveyors conducting a detailed preparatory survey of the sea floor for the Neart Na Gaoithe offshore wind farm, published sonar images of the wrecks of the two submarines, K-4 and K-17 sunk during the accident. [5]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Bates 2011
  2. ^ Hutchinson 2001, pp. 64–67
  3. ^ Gray 1996, p. 246
  4. ^ Nash 2009, p. 72
  5. ^ Macdonell 2011