On 24th September, 1918, as the war neared its climax, the Otranto set sail on her final voyage from New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool. She sailed in convoy HX50 escorted by the US cruisers Louisiana and St Louis and the destroyer USS Dorsey. Captain Ernest W G Davidson and his 362 crew had 665 American troops aboard. On October 1st this compliment was supplemented by the unlucky crew of the French sailing ship Croisine, run down by the Otranto as the convoy, with lights out, sailed straight through a fleet of French fishing vessels. The convoy of thirteen ships, with a total of almost 20,000 troops aboard bound for the battlefield of Flanders, sailed in six columns, each column 3 cables from the next. The Otranto was the leading ship in column 3. Column 4 to the north was led by the SS Kashmir, an 8,985 ton liner of the P&O line.
The Otranto, a steel steamship built by Workman Clark & Co Belfast.
The voyage across the North Atlantic went well until, as they approached the North Channel, they encountered a violent gale which built up enormous waves and shipped the sea into streaks of white foam and spray. The convoy had been navigating for some days by dead reckoning as the visibility had not allowed any sightings to be taken. Continue reading....On the morning of the 6th October, through the murk, the officers aboard both vessels spotted land. The master of the Kashmir rightly identified the land and the breakers that were less than two miles of his port bow, as the coast of Islay. The officer of the Watch aboard the Otranto thought that the land he could see, little over a mile of his starboard bow, was Inishtrahull. Both shipsâ€™ helms were put hard over and their inside screws stopped to steer away from the danger seen, the Kashmir to starboard, the Otranto to port, tragically turning them towards each other. The Kashmir turned quickly but the Otranto laboured in the huge seas. At 8:45am the two ships collided, the Kashmir striking the Otranto amidships on her port side almost at right angles despite the attempts by both crews to avoid the collision by reversing rudders and engines. The two ships, both badly damaged, quickly drifted apart and lost each other in the haze. The Kashmir survived but the Otranto was doomed. Water poured through a huge hole in her side soon extinguishing her fires and, despite letting go her huge anchors, she drifted helplessly in the direction of the rocky Islay coast.
HMS Mounsey, commanded by lieutenant F W Craven, was the first ship to answer the SOS calls from the Otranto and by ten oâ€™clock she was in sight of the stricken ship. It is difficult to imagine the scene during the rescue which followed. The massive liner dwarfing the destroyer with both rearing and plunging in the enormous swell and the disciplined lines of US troops waiting for their chance to jump onto the heaving deck of the Mounsey. The ships came together four times, the Mounsey smashing against the Otrantoâ€™s sides. Each time wave after wave of men jumped for their lives. Many fell between the shipsâ€™ sides and were crushed or drowned while many others were killed or badly injured as they crashed onto the destroyerâ€™s deck. The Mounsey then sailed for Belfast with 596 men aboard and in great danger of sinking herself due to the overcrowding. This left around 400 still aboard the now rapidly sinking Otranto. She had hit bottom less than a half mile from the shore and, as she was in danger of breaking up, Captain Davidson gave the order to abandon ship, only 16 were to survive the swim to the shore. The next day the bodies of the victims, including Captain Davidson, were washed ashore along the west coast of the island. They were buried in a special burial ground above Machir Bay overlooking the site of the loss of their ship. (2nd picture)
The tragedy with the Otranto is often mentioned together with a similar tragedy that took place earlier that same year with the Tuscania. The Tuscania was also a troopship that sunk in Islay's waters near the Mull of Oa in February 1918. In 1920 the famous landmark at the south west tip of the Oa was erected to remember the lives that were lost in both terrible tragedies. In the video below, which I made to commemorate the victims of both tragedies, are views of the Oa pensinsula including the American monument.
The Otranto story is published with permission from the writers of the book "Argyll Shipwrecks" by Peter Moir and Ian Crawford. More information on the book and Islay's shipwrecks is available on the Islay Shipwrecks page. Another account of the Otranto and Tuscania is written by Lord George Robertson in an article called The loss of troopships Otranto and Tuscania.