On Saturday, July 28 at noon-time, the Scottish Submariners Association commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of May Isle, in which 104 men lost their lives as two submarines sank and five ships were seriously damaged on the night of January 31, 1918. The service takes place along the harbourfront — which has a clear view of the Forth to the Isle of May — across from the Stuart Barton Physiotherapy building.
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. The Admiralty subsequently denied the disaster because the K-class submarines were still on the top secret list, so the bodies of 104 men still lie on the bottom of the Forth, and it is them, and others who have perished on the seas in service to their country, who are being remembered and honoured.
The carnage began on the night of Jan 31, 1918, during a top secret manoeuvre when a flotilla of nine submarines and a convoy of battleships steamed at full speed from Rosyth naval base. The vessels were ordered not to use navigation lights and maintain radio silence as they ploughed through the dark and mist. Disaster struck when the rudder of submarine K22 jammed, sending it round in circles at high speed. The out-of-control craft rammed another submarine, K14, slicing its bow and killing two crew members instantly. K14’s lieutenant saved the lives of his crew when he single-handedly shut the watertight door against a torrent of sea water flooding the forward compartments.
As surface ironclads bore down upon them, the Inflexible hit K22 at 30 knots, sheering off her ballast tank and bending her bows round to an angle of 90 degrees. Despite this, K22 was able to limp off westwards to Rosyth and safety. Then Fearless struck K17 just forward of her conning tower. The crew managed to evacuate but were run down as they swam to the surface. Only nine survived. Worse was to come when another submarine, K6, taking evasive action, ploughed into K4, sending it to the bottom upside down, with any escape impossible.
(With thanks to The Telegraph, which carried a detailed news story which this piece is based on)