Tuscania and Otranto Disasters on Islay in 1918

The loss of the British troopships SS Tuscania, torpedoed in the North Channel by UB-77 on 5 February 1918, and HMS Otranto, which sank near Machir Bay after a collision with HMS Kashmir on 6 October 1918, brought the Great War directly onto Islay’s shores. Each ship was carrying thousands of young American soldiers sent to fight on the battlefields of Europe towards the end of the First World War. Many were saved after heroic rescue missions, but sadly hundreds perished.

The preface to a souvenir album of the SS Tuscania Disaster, containing poignant photographs by Bowmore photographer Archibald Cameron, expresses the community’s feelings and actions: “A shudder of horror went through the hearts of our fellow islanders, as in the grey dawn of morning they found the shores strewn with the bodies of the unfortunate victims ... The bodies were tenderly collected and every means taken to procure their identity. Large crowds gathered from all parts of the island to pay their tribute of respect to the memory of the fallen.” Continue reading....

The Museum’s archive holds letters of appreciation from America thanking the inhabitants of Port Ellen, and those from further afield, for their treatment of survivors and those lost. Included is one from the Governor’s Office in Sacramento, State of California, written to Mrs Alexander Currie; “I am told that you personally treated the boys with the same sympathy and tenderness that their own mother would have used. I deeply appreciate what you did for these boys under such trying circumstances.”

Also praised in William Stevens Prince’s book, “Crusade and Pilgrimage”, telling the story of the loss of his uncle Percy Stevens, are school teacher Jetty Shanks and her sister Bella who cared for seven of the survivors. Also thanked were two farmers, Robert Morrison and Duncan Campbell, both of whom rescued men from the rocky shores and cliffs and brought them to the safety of their homes. These men were later awarded the Order of the British Empire. Duncan’s sister, Anne, is reported to have spent the night churning butter to provide the survivors with scones.

Eight months later, HMS Otranto was wrecked off the west coast of the Rhinns. In a letter from Bowmore Police Station, Sgt Malcolm McNeill, describes the active part local people took in assisting in the recovery of men from the water; “David McTaggart, farmer at Kilchearan, ... and Donald McLachlan, ploughman, Machrie ... brought three survivors out of the water with the aid of a long broom handle ... everything that was humanly possible was done for them by Mrs McTaggart and her staff.”

“Donald McPhee,18, shepherd, Kilchoman and his brother John, 17, also residing at Kilchoman, with the help of a walking stick and reaching out as far as possible on the water and on top of the drift wood were successful, at considerable risk of their own lives, in rescuing three survivors.”

Two soldiers from Port Charlotte, Pt Archd. Torrie and Donald McIndeor were described as showing “a great amount of courage, initiative and resourcefulness” in rescuing an American soldier from a rock separated from the coast by a seven foot wide chasm.

McNeill also emphasises remembering the care and nursing of the survivors carried out by Mrs Isabella McIntyre, school teacher, Mrs Margaret McPhee and her daughter, and Mrs Elizabeth Grant, of the Kilchoman Manse. As well as those who were involved with the recovery of bodies from among the wreckage for days afterwards.

One card the Museum holds sums up beautifully the sentiments held towards Islay people, written to Sgt Malcolm McNeill in December 1918, sent by Mr and Mrs DG Willis, Great Falls, Montana, USA: “Kind Friend, This is a thank you for your able administration of the work of rescuing our shipwrecked men of the Tuscania and Otranto, and for your kindness and care of them. May happiness abide, always, with you and yours.”

There must be many more stories about the loss of the two ships and the impact on Islay and its community. If you have any memories passed down in your family, it seems very appropriate that these should be recorded at this time, and perhaps included in a publication as part of the 2018 WW100 commemoration. The Museum of Islay Life (curator@islaymuseum.org) will be happy to receive any such material.

Tag: otranto tuscania ww100

published with kind permission of the ileach newspaper