Otranto article Ileach Oct 17
THE WRECK OF THE OTRANTO: 6th October 1918
On the 6 October 1918, in a fierce storm off the west coast, the HMS Otranto, an armed merchant vessel, was involved in a collision with another ship in the same convoy, SS Kashmir. The picture of HMS Otranto shows her when she was with the Orient Line Service in 1909. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
In the considerable Oban Times coverage of the sinking, a significant element of the tragedy was not mentioned. It was the incredible rescue of 611 men from extreme danger by a British Naval commander named Lt. Frances Craven, with his crew on the destroyer, HMS Mounsey.
Following the collision with the Kashmir, the Otranto was fatally damaged and was sinking. It had lost all power and was drifting helplessly in massive seas when the Mounsey arrived from Belfast on convoy escort duty.
There then followed an episode which ranks among the finest in British naval history.
Craven approached the stricken Otranto and signalled to her captain that he was coming in to help. He signalled, “I am coming alongside to take off the American troops.”
The Otranto’s captain, Ernest Davidson, replied, “Steer clear, or you will lose your crew and your ship.”
Craven responded, “I am coming alongside, if we go down, we go down together.”
The difficulties facing Craven and his crew were immense. His ship was considerably smaller than the Otranto. There was a grave danger that he could fatally damage the Mounsey by colliding with the Otranto. The waves were massive, some estimates had the height at between 12 and 15 metres.
Craven brought his ship alongside the Otranto. As the waves raised his smaller ship, almost to the level of the deck on the Otranto, the US troops were to jump for their lives. This was easier said than done. Most of the US troops on board the Otranto were from inland Georgia. For many of the men aboard the Otranto, the first time they had seen the sea, was when the Otranto had left New York six days before. They had to time their jump from a heaving deck onto the deck of a ship that was sometimes almost level and at other times was 15 metres below them. Sadly, many men did not make it.
A number fell between the two ships and were drowned with some being crushed. Others succeeded in reaching the deck of the Mounsey only to be immediately washed back into the sea by giant waves. Others were seriously injured as they fell, breaking legs or other bones. One unfortunate mis-timed his jump and fell to his death down one of Mounsey’s funnels. The crew of the Mounsey did what they could in appalling circumstances to get the successful jumpers below decks. The Mounsey was in danger of becoming top-heavy with all these men on the deck. Many of the survivors were in a state of shock and were reluctant to go below. Eventually they were ordered below deck at gunpoint.
The Otranto’s British crew were marginally more successful at timing their jumps as were most of the crew of a French trawler who had been rammed by the Otranto a couple of nights earlier. The captain of the trawler had a large faithful dog which had been rescued from the trawler with the crew. The trawler captain fell into the sea between the boats and his dog jumped into the sea with him. Both were killed.
Craven made two successful passes alongside the Otranto. The port side of the destroyer had become crumpled by frequent contact with the Otranto. Water was pouring in and the Mounsey’s crew were seriously worried that their ship would founder. Reluctantly Craven left the Otranto and set sail for Belfast. His seamanship during the rescue had been outstanding. His seamanship to get his badly damaged, overloaded and leaking ship to Belfast in huge angry seas was something else. All the time he was on the bridge, Craven stayed calm and looked as though he was relishing the challenge. He met another destroyer on the way and asked them to warn Belfast that he was on his way with many badly injured men. His own radio mast had been a casualty of the rescue. The rescued men on the Mounsey then endured several hours of unremitting misery as they sat up to their knees in seawater. They were awash with vomit from seasickness. Traumatised, cold and terrified, it was only after the Mounsey finally reached Belfast and they were helped onshore and given food and warm dry clothing that they finally began to feel their ordeal was over. Sadly, twelve men were to die in Belfast from their injuries. The Mounsey needed such massive repairs that it did not go out on active service again.
Those left onboard the Otranto knew they were doomed. Within 30 minutes of the Mounsey’s departure the Otranto grounded on ‘Old Woman’s Reef’ about 400 metres off the entrance to Machir Bay. At once the ship began to break up. The order was given, ‘Every man for himself’.
Watching all this were a few local people onshore. More help was sent for and farmers and fishermen from Portnahaven, Port Wemyss and Kilchiaran arrived on the scene. Unfortunately there was very little they could do. Of the roughly 490 men who had been left behind on the Otranto only 21 survived. Sadly, two were to die later.
The report of the disaster written by Police Sgt MacNeill a month later spelt out the bravery of Islay people who were the first on the scene. At some considerable risk to themselves men waded out into the wild sea and helped survivors ashore. David McTaggart, a farmer from Kilchiaran, was joined by Donald McLachlan, a ploughman from Machrie. Together they managed to rescue three men from the waves. Two brothers, John and Donald McPhee from Kilchoman, dashed into the surf to pull out injured and drowning American soldiers. Two soldiers from Port Charlotte, home on leave, Pte Archibald Torrie and Pte Donald McIndeor, bravely jumped across a gully to save an American who had been washed up onto a rock by a huge wave. The handful who survived the catastrophe were taken into the homes of Kilchoman and Kilchiaran people where they were fed, clothed and revived. All attention was now devoted to recovering the bodies – a very difficult task given the amount of wreckage about on the shore and in the gullies.
The Funerals Begin
By the 11th October, 230 bodies had been gathered. Kilchoman Parish Church and graveyard was used to store them. Coffins were made in batches at Bruichladdich Distillery and sent to Kilchoman. Islay men scoured the coastline going through tons of wreckage looking for bodies. Sgt MacNeill was called upon again to identify the bodies. He also was the point of contact for the many anguished relatives of the victims, desperate for news of the last hours of their loved ones.
The number of dead
Establishing exactly how many died on the Otranto is not straightforward. Spanish flu was reported to have taken some of those on board before the collision. In addition, the exact number of men on board is unclear with different authorities giving different figures. In his excellent book of the sinking, Professor Scott came to a figure of 470 for total loss of life. This included 106 British Crew and 6 French fishermen who had been picked up earlier in the voyage when their ship had sunk. Many bodies were never recovered.
“As other bodies were found, they, too, were brought to the churchyard, examined, and taken to the growing cemetery for burial. Reverend Grant officiated at all of the funerals, sometimes conducting services for six or eight, then three of four, and later for only one at a time, until –– in the end –– 315 American soldiers had found a resting place in the rocky soil of Islay.”
R. NEIL SCOTT Many Were Held by the Sea