Sinking of the Tuscania: February 5th 1918

The SS Tuscania was a troopship carrying American servicemen towards the Great War. The Tuscania was part of convoy HX20 bound for Liverpool. On board were over 2,000 American servicemen and a crew of 384. The convoy was headed for the North Channel when they were seen by a U-boat and shadowed until just after dark. At this point the U-boat commander, Captain Wilhelm Meyer, moved in to launch an attack. At 6.40 p.m. he fired two torpedoes at the Tuscania. The first one missed. The second one hit the Tuscania amidships. Having fired the torpedoes the submarine immediately dived to escape as escort vessels came to attack. The Tuscania was roughly half-way between Rathlin Island and Islay when it was hit.

Twenty sailors were killed almost immediately by the blast and the inrush of water into the engine room. The ship was plunged into darkness and began to list. The American troops had all done several abandon-ship exercises and began assembling at their designated spaces. Three escort destroyers, Grasshopper, Mosquito and Pigeon arrived and helped take off survivors. The remaining troops and crew then took to the lifeboats. There was quite a heavy swell running which made for some difficulties in launching the lifeboats. Several men were pitched into the sea. A couple of lifeboats made their way to safety in the north of Ireland. The others made their way north to Islay.

As the lifeboats approached the coast of Islay in the dark, the men on board the lifeboats would have heard the sound of breaking waves. An Islay man, Duncan McDonald, is reported to have been on one lifeboat and persuaded the men on it to wait until it became light. They then made their way safely into Port Ellen. Others were less fortunate and many lives were lost attempting to land in the dark. One boat landed safely near Upper Killeyan and survivors made their way to the home of the Morrison family. There they alerted the family to what had happened. Robert Morrison immediately set off to see what he could do while his brother set off to get more help. Robert saved the lives of three American soldiers, wading out in the surf to help two who were clinging to a rock. He then rescued a soldier trapped part way up a cliff. Meanwhile his sisters, Betsy and Annie had begun baking scones to feed to the exhausted and hungry men. They baked throughout the night. The Morrisons not only used up their supply of food they also gave away all their spare clothing. They refused to accept any payment for their services. As did Duncan Campbell of Stremnish who also rescued an American soldier from a cliff and accommodated fourteen survivors at his small farm.

Calls for help were answered as more and more men from across the Oa and Port Ellen began searching for survivors. They came across many injured, dead and dying. An American survivor, Everett Harpham wrote the following to a friend in America, “ Nine of us were finally washed ashore alive, some injured badly and all nearly drowned. We laid together by a large rock, in the wind, and had to listen to the moans and groans of our dying comrades till daylight. About twenty corpses washed ashore beside us when daylight came and we were rescued by a Highlander.”
Another survivor, Arthur Siplon, said some years later, “When daylight arrived a terrible sight met our eyes. Many dead bodies were washing about by the sea. A number of men were badly injured with broken arms or legs, or other injuries.”

Port-nan-Gallan today

An Islay schoolgirl, Isabella Macgilvary, wrote some years later, “That was a very distressful day for everybody….My father with his small cart conveyed some of these (bodies) to the Drill Hall in the back road. He found a small black man up at the top of the Ard and was able to carry him unaided to the cart he was so slight. That affected my father very deeply, he had to come home for a while.”

132 men made it safely to Islay although many were badly injured. The dead from the Oa were stored in the Drill Hall in Port Ellen. A further 50 bodies came ashore in Loch Indaal. Most were taken to Port Charlotte Distillery, some temporarily to Portnahaven Church and a further 2 were found at Bowmore.
The men who survived were taken into the homes of Islay folk. Local school teacher, Jetty Shanks, took seven into her home on Frederick Crescent. Two small hotels filled all their rooms with survivors. In addition many families gave up their best clothing. Many were women with husbands or sons away fighting in the war. A similar story happened at Port Charlotte.

The funerals began on the 8th February. The first interment took place at Port-nan- Gallan, Killeyan, adjoining the Mull of Oa. 28 men were buried in this remote spot in land donated by Captain Ramsay. 18 more bodies were buried in this spot on the 11th. Thereafter, Kilnaughton was used to bury the dead.

Port Charlotte held a funeral on the Saturday following the sinking. Over 400 people from Islay attended despite very heavy rain. Survivors attended also with American soldiers acting as pall-bearers The procession went through the village from the distillery to what is now Port Mor.
The temporary cemeteries on Islay held 182 bodies, 53 at Port Charlotte, 83 at Port Ellen and 46 at Port-nan-Gallan. It is estimated that 210 lives were lost. Many bodies were not recovered.

1918 would turn out to be a momentous year in the history of Islay. Another troopship, HMS Otranto, was wrecked off Kilchoman in October with even greater loss of life. The World War was coming to a very bloody conclusion. At least 210 men from Islay and Jura were killed in the war.

‘Commemorations across Scotland which mark the 100th anniversary of the war, are a chance to remember the sacrifices made and reflect on what we can, and should, learn from the war which was meant to end all wars.’ (WW100 Scotland)

Next year it will be 100 years since the Tuscania and Otranto tragedies brought the war directly on to Islay’s shores. WW100 Scotland selected Islay as one of the major centres for commemorations in 2018. Over the past 12 months the WW100 Islay group, co-ordinated by the Museum of Islay Life, has been working closely with WW100 Scotland and Argyll & Bute’s Commemorations Panel to pull together ideas involving the whole community to commemorate the loss of life and also to recognise and pay respect to the people of Islay who selflessly gave so much.