The Battle of May Island continues to resonate with and be remembered by those who respect naval personnel and the sea. In addition to the annual memorial service held in the summertime at the Anstruther harbourfront as part of the harbour festival, a service was held last week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this submarine tragedy.
Rev. Arthur Christie performed this, his last church service, as he has now retired from the St. Ayles, Kilrenny and Cellardyke churches. The Battle of May Island was not so much a battle between combatants as it was a tragedy for the 104 men who lost their lives in the Forth, not far from the East Neuk coast.
On the night of January 31, 1918, some 40 Royal Navy vessels left the port of Rosyth, heading towards Orkney, to participate in Operation E.C.1, an undercover military exercise. A combination of battleships, destroyers, cruisers and submarines departed under a cover of thick fog, but a submarine had to take evasive action to avoid an incoming minesweeper. Subsequent collisions followed, with two submarines sinking, four others suffering serious damage, and a cruiser, the HMS Fearless, also being damaged. All of this took place within a window of about 90 minutes. Men were thrown into the water, and other ships in the flotilla sailed through the floundering men, not realising they were in the icy waters of the Forth.
The lives of 104 men were lost that night, desperately needed warships were damaged and needing time-consuming repairs, and the accident was covered up, possibly for reasons of morale, while any court-martials were kept quiet.
The name, “Battle of May Island” is sadly inaccurate as the only “battle” that night was by the sailors fighting to survive the disastrous series of events. Thankfully, they are still remembered.
(With thanks to Jonathan Watson, The Courier)