The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto

Many Were Held by the Sea - A Book Review by Ileach editor Carl Reavey

It is difficult for my generation to appreciate just how awful life must have been on Islay during 1918. Around two hundred men from the island had gone off to fight and been killed in the First World War. Hundreds more would have been wounded, to return home maimed, shell-shocked and traumatised by the carnage they experienced. Others were simply missing, absent, perhaps alive, perhaps not. Every day, the papers would have delivered the casualty lists to families exhausted by the worry, drained by the privation, and anything but certain that the world would ever return to its senses.

To make matters worse, in February that year, HMS Tuscania, one of the first troopships to carry the raw American recruits across the Atlantic to provide fresh cannon fodder for Flanders Fields had been torpedoed in the North Channel, and hundreds of men had washed up dead or barely alive against the cliffs of the Oa. Islay men and women had gathered their bodies, fed and clothed the survivors, laid the dead as best they could into carts, brought them home and then buried hundreds with all the dignity they could muster.

That was February. Living in our cossetted world, it is difficult to imagine that things could get worse, but they did. Much worse. Into this Dante-esque inferno marched Spanish influenza. The statistics are scary. Around a quarter of the entire world population was infected, and somewhere between three and ten percent of all human beings on the planet died of the disease, which seemed to afflict healthy young men in particular. Men kept in close quarters with their fellows, in trenches, barracks and troopships. Continue reading....

Somehow, despite these brutal events, the world kept functioning and the Great War, the war to end all wars, continued to be fed with human lives. Unbelievably, Islay was to be subjected to the consequences of a second terrible maritime tragedy, in October 1918, the loss of a second troopship carrying more young American soldiers. This second sinking was of the ‘HMS Otranto’, another commercial liner pressed into military service, and the story of this ship and the men who sailed in her is brilliantly told in a new book by a quietly spoken American professor at the University of Tennessee called Neil Scott.

Scott has a remarkable talent for telling a story, for illuminating historical facts with a human touch, successfully marrying academic rigour to a pacy, dramatic narrative. The story he tells is almost relentlessly awful. The Otranto is involved in the 1914 battle of Coronel in the South Atlantic, which was the biggest defeat the Royal Navy had suffered in over 100 years. Escaping that, the ship led a charmed life until she joined convoy HX50 out of New York bound for England in October 1918. On board her were over 2,000 raw recruits, mostly from the state of Georgia. The research is meticulous, their stories very moving. The voyage was horrible, punctuated by dreadful weather, accident and disease. Finally, racked with influenza, dreadfully seasick and hopelessly disoriented by the kind of storm that is almost routine off the west coast of Islay, the ship collides with another troopship, SS Kashmir, and mortally wounded.

HMS Otranto

What happens next ought to defy description, but Scott somehow pulls together an account that is factual and heart rending, yet uplifting. Somehow, out of the mountainous seas appears a tiny Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Mounsey, captained by the sort of hero that usually only populates paperback fiction. To read what this extraordinary sailor and his incredible crew then do is frankly difficult, but the book is impossible to put down. So vivid is the account that you are forced to keep reminding yourself that these events actually happened. Eventually, the tiny destroyer turns away, filled with around 1,800 souls, so many men that her very buoyancy is threatened. She is forced to leave more than 400 aboard the stricken liner, which starts to break up off Kilchoman. Those that are left have no choice but to attempt to swim ashore.

A very few made it alive. There are more incredible heroics from the men and women of Islay who suddenly found themselves faced with a storm tossed tide of bodies and mountains of wreckage. The police sergeant from Bowmore, Malcolm MacNeill, once again has to take charge of the most harrowing recovery operation, meticulously recording a description of each body in his notebook and patiently communicating with the grief stricken relatives. The process took weeks and months. The condition of some, battered and exposed to long periods in the water, does not bear thinking about.

The people of Islay have a central role to play in this important tale. There are folk here still whose relatives faced those terrible days, who pulled the bodies from the water, baked the scones for the terrified survivors and buried the dead. The elegantly written foreword is provided by the Rt. Hon Lord George Islay MacNeill Robertson of Port Ellen, proud grandson of the decorated police sergeant who so stoically and methodically did his duty.

Scott makes it clear that the fog of war makes some of the facts difficult to verify. It is known that some died of the Spanish Flu during the crossing, but not how many. Scott calculates that 358 American soldiers, 106 British sailors and 6 French fishermen died on the Otranto. It was the worst American maritime disaster of the war.

This is a book we should all read, if only as a non-too-gentle reminder of just how comfortable our modern lives have become. Sadly, Neil Scott, the meticulous professor who contacted the Museum of Islay Life for assistance in the production of this book did not live to see it published. He passed away suddenly last year, leaving a worthy memorial to the many who made the ultimate sacrifice ninety four years ago.

The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto is available via C&E Roy in Bowmore and via Amazon

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