The thread about the tragic farce of the “Battle of May Island,” when the Royal Navy fought itself and lost

This thread was originally written and published in December 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

Today’s reading has been inspired by this tweet, it’s the tragic and farcical tale of the “Battle of May Island”.

The term “battle” is sardonic, as there was no opposing force. It was a conspiracy of poor weather, operating at the limits of current technology, poor leadership decisions and the confusion that can easily be caused when things don’t go to plan.

Our story is set 101 years ago, January 31st 1918 to be precise, in the cold and dark waters at the mouth of the Forth estuary around the Isle of May.

May Island, Admiralty Chart of 1915. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The participants are the ships and submarines of the Royal Navy based out of Rosyth, 40 vessels in all. They are heading to the main base of the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow to take part in a huge naval exercise, Operation EC1.

There were 3 battleships from the 5th Battle Squadron, these were of the “Queen Elizabeth” class, the cream of the Royal Navy’s battleships; the biggest, the fastest, the most heavily armed and protected. They would take no part in the “Battle”. There were 4 battlecruisers from the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron. These ships were designed to be armed like battleships, but to be much faster (at the expense of being much less well protected).

HMS "Inflexible" of the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron. The other 3 ships were similar.
HMS “Inflexible” of the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron. The other 3 ships were similar.

And there were the requisite accompaniment of escort vessels; cruisers (intermediate sized ships to accompany, scout for and protect battleships or to lead smaller vessels) and destroyers (the smallest class of ships capable of accompanying the main fleet, fast protective escorts, scouts and a roaming attack unit).

So far, all pretty usual for the time. But then we come to the last 2 main groups of vessels, the 12th and the 13th submarine flotillas. To understand the scenario better we have to take a little detour into naval thinking and engineering of the time.

When HMS Dreadnought introduced steam turbines into the battle fleet in 1907 she precipitated a naval revolution; she was a good 15% faster than any battleship before her and much heavier armed. The main thing was, you could run a turbine at high speed for a long time and not knacker it, so the speed of the battlefleet jumped right up. They could go faster and they could keep up that speed.

HMS Dreadnought in 1906-1907, a US Naval Historical Centre photo

The battlecruisers of the 2nd Squardron present at May Island were contemporaries of Dreadnought and even faster, good for 25 knots or 20% faster than the former. Even though they weren’t the latest generation, these were hitherto unheard of speeds for a 20,000 ton capital ship.

Naval technology was evolving at an unprecedented rate, and the Queen Elizabeths which came just 5 years after the battlecruisers were 50% bigger but could make pretty much the same speed. So what I’m getting at here is that the big ships of the navy had rapidly got faster. Much faster.

For quite a few years, the Royal Navy had planned that the coming war in Europe would basically be fought at sea between the battle fleets of it and the German Hochseeflotte. The Royal Navy inevitably would win, Britannia would rule the waves and that would be that, consensus would be restored.

But the Royal Navy wasn’t content to rest on its conventional strength and didn’t have too many qualms about making the best use of new and unconventional strategy to ensure that decisive victory. So they evolved an idea (which would develop into something of an obsession) that if you could have submarines that were fast enough to move with the battlefleet, you wouldn’t just deal your enemy a blow in a slugging match, you could ambush it and send much of it to the bottom of the North Sea before it was even in range of your guns.

To do this you would need a fast submarine, a very fast submarine. Your typical Royal Navy submarine of the time could make about 9 knots underwater and 15 on the surface, but couldn’t maintain those speeds in any sort of weather or for any sort of distance. No, something faster than that was needed.

HM Submarine E1. A typical Royal Navy submarine of the the time and of a sort suited to the North Sea.
HM Submarine E1. A typical Royal Navy submarine of the the time and of a sort suited to the North Sea.

To make a very fast submarine it’s quite simple on paper; you need very powerful engines. To make very powerful engines you need very big engines and to have very big engines you need a very big submarine. And that would be good because a very big submarine would better be able to maintain surface speed with the fleet in poor weather and big submarines can carry lots of fuel, and fuel means range.

So the Royal Navy ordered what was then its biggest and fastest submarine, HMS Nautilus. Designed for 20 knots, unfortunately she couldn’t make this. So it was back to the drawing board . Her two diesel engines gave her 3,700bhp but she could only make 17 knots on the surface on a good day. She took until 1917 to complete and spent the rest of the war as a floating generator, charging the batteries of other submarines.

HM Submarine Nautilus in dry dock.
HM Submarine Nautilus in dry dock. Big for the time, the figures for scale show she wasn’t really *that* large.

The problem was, diesel engines of the time weren’t mature enough to deliver the sort of power required. Unwilling to let the concept drop and hunting about for an alternative, attention quickly focussed on the steam turbine. If it had worked for making battleships fast, why not submarines? And so HMS Swordfish was built to test the idea

The steam-powered Swordfish on the River Clyde.
The steam-powered “Swordfish” on the River Clyde. Note the funnel on the conning tower.

Now modern nuclear submarines use steam turbines, but what we’re talking about here are turbines driven by steam from an oil-burning boiler, which of course you can do when surfaced. Swordfish was just to test the concept; she seemed to work but something bigger and faster still was needed .

To deliver the Royal Navy what it desired the naval designers really pushed the envelope of technology and engineering, indeed pushed it to its limits and beyond. What they came up with was the enormous and frankly absurd K-class submarines.

HM Submarine K3. The figures allow a comparison of size with Nautilus in the picture above.
HM Submarine K3. The figures allow a comparison of size with Nautilus in the picture above.

Yes, that’s right, it’s got 2 funnels and masts. You see these were submarines that were to spend most of their time at high speed on the surface accompanying the main fleet. They would only really need to go underwater when it came to battle, at which point they could magically become submarines again.

However it should be quite obvious that a submarine that was so large, so ungainly and so slow under the surface would be little more than an ambush predator. No problem though, they would just get behind the German fleet, wait around and then, fire off their torpedoes when it retreated over them. They could then could flee at high speed when the coast was clear.

These submarines were about twice as long and 2-3x greater displacement than their contemporaries, and they had 10,000 horsepower compared to the usual 1 or 2 thousand, so they could make 24 knots. They were longer, displaced almost 90% more and had almost 4 times the operational range than the Royal Navy’s most modern destroyers. They truly were bonkers in all dimensions.

Builders drawings for K3 etc. CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 RMG
Builders drawings for K3 etc. CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 RMG

Of course you’re way ahead of me on this. How do you get a submarine with funnels to go under the water? Well of course you have to fold them away. You have to seal off the flues, you also have to close and seal the ventilators for the boilers (and fold them down). You have to vent off the steam pressure and extinguish the boiler fires. You have to fold away the masts.

K22 demonstrating the procedure for getting ready to dive.

That’s a lot of folding, sealing and double checking everything. In normal conditions, that whole process took 30 minutes! In an emergency it could be done in 5 tops. Although that wasn’t seen as too much of a limitation as they would spend most of their time on the surface and weren’t popping up and down all the time like other submarines.

Being big, very long and fast, their turning circle was terrible. While they were about the size of a nimble destroyer, they turned like a battleship. There were other, more pressing problems too. For a start their maximum diving depth was 200 feet, but they were 340 feet long. This meant that being even a few degrees out of trim from the level and you’d find a significant part of your ship below the diving depth and the hull could collapse.

Their long, fine bows also caused problems at high speed in anything but flat calm weather. They would bury their noses into the water causing a rough ride and a big loss of speed. Later ships had a big “swan bow” to try and correct this behaviour.

K15 with her “swan bow”.

The “K”s rapidly gained a very poor reputation. The unfortunately named K13 had sank in the Gareloch on trials a year before when her boiler room openings hadn’t closed properly before a dive. A heroic rescue effort released 48 men, but 32 lost their lives.

On trials, K4 had run aground on Walney island, resulting in an embarassing spectacle. Two months before the Battle of May Island she had collided with K1 during an operation off the Danish coast and the latter had to be scuttled to prevent capture. The submarines were never named, but sailors took the K to stand for Kalamity.

The unhappy K4 high and dry on Walney Island
The unhappy K4 high and dry on Walney Island

Compounding the technological and engineering problems was how the Royal Navy tried to operate these vessels. As they were fleet vessels, they were organised as such and were to sail in squadrons and be led by a cruiser. The close order manoeuvring that this entailed was something they were just far too big and ungainly to pull off.

So back to our main story, we have the 12th and 13th Submarine Flotillas ready to head out of the Firth of Forth and into the dark.

  • The 12th had four Ks, lead by the 3,300 ton cruiser Fearless
  • The 13th had 5 Ks, lead by the 1,600 ton destroyer Ithuriel.
The cruiser HMS Fearless of the 12th flotilla
The destroyer HMS Ithuriel of the 13th flotilla

So in the mix we have 9 of these underwater behemoths working in close proximity to eachother and the other vessels of the fleet.

The fleet began to depart Rosyth at 18:30 so it was already dark. It was commanded by Vice Admiral Evan-Thomas in HMS Courageous. Somewhat appropriately, Courageous was another ill-considered design of the time, a 20,000 ton ship that was too big, too fast, too heavily armed, too lightly armoued, too lightly built and a solution looking for a problem.

The "large light cruiser" HMS Courageous. A ship with any number of design and build flaws, rather like the K class.
The “large light cruiser” HMS Courageous. A ship with any number of design and build flaws, rather like the K class.

The fleet moved in line. Following Courageous was Ithuriel and her 5 submarines. Then there was a few miles gap after which came the 4 battlecruisers. A few more miles behind that came Fearless and her 4 submarines and behind them the 3 battleships. The whole line was about 30 miles long.

First Battlecruiser Squadron leaving Rosyth in the dark and in winter, from the North Queenferry Signal Station. Charles Pears, 1918. IWM ART 627
First Battlecruiser Squadron leaving Rosyth in the dark and in winter, from the North Queenferry Signal Station. Charles Pears, 1918. IWM ART 627

The fleet is moving at 16 knots, already reasonably fast for such an operation in the constricted waters of the Firth of Forth. Because it is wartime and there is the threat of submarines, no navigation lights are showing apart from a single pale light on the stern of each vessel, blinkered so that it could only be seen from a few degrees either side of dead astern.

As Evan-Thomas passes the Isle of May in Courageous, he orders the speed increased to 22 knots. No problemo, the Ks are good for 24. And then a little after 7PM, things start to go wrong.

Fog begins to settle just as the ships pass the Isle of May, this wasn’t too surprising as it’s frequently a foggy place, but then Ithuriel‘s 13th flotilla suddenly see the navigation lights of a ship heading straight for them out of the mist.

Ithuriel orders the flotilla hard to port to avoid the lights. But as they turn, the steering gear of K14, the 3rd in line, fails and she moves out of formation. The crew wrestle with it for a full 6 minutes before control is restored. Now out of position, K14 puts on her navigation lights, as does K12 behind her. But bringing up the rear is K22 which has lost sight of the rest of her flotilla in the fog and she too is now out of line having missed the emergency turn.

K14 tries to move back into position but suddenly the out-of-position K22, invisible to her in the fog, appears out of nowhere and slices into her, cutting off her bows and penetrating her hull.

The rest of the flotilla is oblivious and continues steaming onwards as the entangled K14 and K22 try to assess the damage. They manage to extricate themselves but it is clear K14 is sinking. K22 radios this to the leader, Ithuriel.

(Unrelated to the unfolding calamity but K22 is actually the unlucky K13. She was raised from the bed of the Gareloch, recommissioned, and wisely given a new number. But this has helped cement the reputation of the K-class as Kalamity or even Killer.)

K22 stands by K14 to assist the rescue but within a matter of minutes the battlecruisers, who have been following behind at high speed, arrive on the scene. K22 fires a red flare to warn them off, the first 3 manage to avoid her but K22 is hit by the 20,000 ton battlecruiser Inflexible.

Invincible-class battlecruisers, by William Lionel Wyllie. CC-BY-NC 3.0 RMG
Invincible-class battlecruisers, by William Lionel Wyllie. CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 RMG

The battlecruisers disappear into the night leaving K22 settling fast. Soon only her conning tower is showing above the water. Meantimes Ithuriel, leader of the stricken submarines, has decoded K22‘s radio signal and turns around to assist its stricken charges. Ithuriel radios the battlecruisers her intentions and leads her 3 remaining submarines back towards the Isle of May. They are now moving in the opposite direction from the main fleet and directly towards the battlecruisers.

The battlecruisers have not yet recieved the message – would take a full 40 minutes to encode, transmit, receive and decrypt – and very nearly run down Ithuriel and the submarines. Another disaster was avoided very narrowly though emergency manoeuvres. This slows up Ithuriel and the 3 submarines which take time to get back into formation, but they are soon nearing the Isle of May to assist K14 and K22.

But things are about to get worse, not better. By this time, Fearless and the 12th submarine flotilla are also approaching the Isle of May at high speed only to find two ships of the 13th flotilla across their path and sinking and the remainder heading the wrong way, back towards them out of the mist!

Fearless orders full speed astern and sounds her emergency siren, but it’s too late and she ploughs straight through K17, sending her rapidly to the bottom. Most of the crew were able to jump overboard but tragically only 12 of her 29 crew are rescued from the cold, dark water.

Fearless is temporarily dead in the water, and although badly damaged, the crew are able to shore up the internal bulkheads to prevent a total collapse. She will later make it gingerly back to Rosyth.

HMS Fearless in drydock at Rosyth, showing the sort of damage hitting a 2,000 ton object at high speed will do.
HMS Fearless in drydock at Rosyth, showing the sort of damage hitting a 2,000 ton object at high speed will do.

K4, following behind Fearless, hears the warning siren and also orders an emergency stop. K3 is behind her and does not: she manages to take avoiding action at the last second and misses her, coming to a stop 3 cables (3/10ths of a nautical mile) beyond.

The next submarine in line, K6, is not so lucky and ploughs straight into K4 despite going full astern. K4 is near enough sliced in half and rapidly begins to sink. As if that wasn’t enough, the last submarine in line, K7, also collides with her minutes later. All hands are lost on K4.

At that point you would hope that it couldn’t have got much worse, but we still have the battleships of the 5th Squadron to come. In the darkness, the destroyers accompanying the battleships run down the men of K17 still struggling in the water.

In little over an hour, two of the Royal Navy’s biggest and newest submarines have been sunk. Four more are badly damaged, as is the cruiser Fearless and 104 men have lost their lives in the calamity.

K4 went down with all hands, hit by 2 of her sisters. K17 lost 47 men, most had made it out but died in the water from exposure or when the destroyers sailed through them. K14 is miraculously saved and loses only 2 hands. She is towed back to Rosyth by the destroyer Venetia .

The V & W-class destroyer HMS Venetia.

The wrecks of K4 and K17 lie on the seabed some 13 nautical miles east of the Isle of May. They were discovered and charted by the survey ship HMS Scott in 1962. Scott was being employed in the 1960s in mapping the seabed for wartime wrecks in advance of the coming of larger oil tankers .

The wrecks are a designated protected place and have recently been surveyed by divers associated with offshore windfarm development. There’s a haunting video on youtube showing the wreck of K4, the part in the image below is the distinctive conning tower.

Diving footage of K4
  • K6 (who had hit K4) was repaired and survived the war, she was scrapped in 1926.
  • K14, almost sunk by K22, was also scrapped in 1926.
  • K7 (who had also hit K4) was scrapped in 1921 at the tender age of 4.
  • The unfortunate K22, (ex-K13) which had hit K14, was also scrapped in 1926.
  • Fearless, leader of the 12th flotilla, was repaired and returned to service, she was sold for scrap in 1921.
  • Ithuriel, leader of the unlucky 13th, survived the war and was scrapped in 1921

The subsequent court of enquiry tried to pin the blame on Commander Leir of HMS Ithuriel, who had turned back against the flow of the fleet. He was cleared in the subsequent court martial, and would go on to attain the rank of Rear Admiral before retiring in 1931.

The court of enquiry and courts martial were hushed up at the time. The whole episode, as tragic as it was, was deeply embarrassing to the Royal Navy. The files were sealed and much of the information did not come out until the 1990s, after all involved had passed away.

A memorial was unveiled in Anstruther by Fife Council in 2002.

Battle of Ma Island memorial, CC-BY-SA 4.0 John

The whole sorry state of affairs, which happened not many miles off the coast, is not one that is well known about. I happened to know about it because as a teenager I took this book out the library as my light holiday reading for some reason.

“Few Surprised” by Edwyn Gray

While that may be the end of that story, but not of the “spectacularly misconceived” K class submarines. Such was the Navy’s faith in them that they had ordered a whole 21. By 1918, 4 had been lost in accidents (K13 was returned as K22)

K5 was lost with all hands in the Bay of Biscay in 1921. It is thought that due to problems trimming her, she exceeded her diving depth (remember, these vessels were hard to handle and were much longer than their safe diving depth was deep).

An aerieal view of K5

K15 almost sank in May 1921 when the sea got down her funnels and flooded the boilers. She finished the job a month later when the contraction on a cold night of the hydraulic oil in the apparatus for closing her boiler openings caused them to open. Fortunately all hands escaped

K16 and K12 joined the unlucky K13 at the bottom of the Gareloch during trials, but fortuitously managed to resurface after valiant efforts by their crews.

K3 lost control in a dive in the Pentland Firth and went well over her safe diving depth, but miraculously lived to tell the tale.

K3 with the Royal Navy fleet
K3 with the Royal Navy fleet

And you’d think that would be the end of the sorry story of the K class. Except it wasn’t; the Royal Navy had realised the inherent dangers of giant steam-powered submarines, but not of giant submarines in general, so it re-ordered the last 4 to have conventional diesel engines.

But it didn’t actually need giant diesel submarines, they were much to big to be of much use as actual submarines, so they came up with an even more bizarre scheme to use these as submersible “monitors”; coast bombardment vessels. The idea seemed sensible, on paper at least. They would fit the submarines with a giant gun of the sort you find on a battleship, it would surface off the enemy coast, fire a few rounds, then disappear, only to re-appear some place else and carry on.

A cross-sectional model of the gunhouse of M1, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Andy Dingley
A cross-sectional model of the gunhouse of M1, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Andy Dingley

All nice in theory, but then you’ve got the problems of trying to mate an extremely large gun with a massive recoil, designed for a 15,000+ ton battleship, with a 3,000 ton submarine. But the Navy persisted, they also thought these would be good for sinking enemy merchant ships.

The first was called M1 to distance the class from the Kalamitous Ks. M1 was lost off Start Point in Devon in 1925 with all hands when she was run down by a Swedish merchant ship at night. That her hull was still painted in wartime camouflage did not help matters.

M1 in her camouflage paint. She is heading towards the camera, with the gun barrel sticking out infront.

The whole concept was very silly and the Navy recognised this, smaller submarines with smaller guns and torpedoes were much handier and more effective than these wallowing monsters. So the Navy had to come up with another use for them.

So when M1 was lost they decided to use all that space taken up by the giant gun and its ammunition and put it to other purposes. For M2, they decided to fit a hangar and a launch catapult for a small, purpose-built, folding aircraft; the “Parnall Peto”.

M2 gets her Parnall Peto ready for launch, The catapult rails can be seen.

And what do you know? The whole crazy scheme worked. It was kind of a solution looking for a problem, but it worked. Sadly M2 was also lost with all hands a few years later in 1932 when she inexplicably opened the hangar doors while surfacing and was flooded .

The Peto takes off, note the catapult trolley on the end of its rails.

M3 was converted to a minelayer and as this did not involve any large openings in the hull, survived her trials and successfully proved the concept before being scrapped and replaced by purpose built vessels.

Fortuitously, M4 was scrapped while under construction due to the end of the war without some other silly purpose being found for her.

But the Royal Navy was not quite done with big submarines yet. They had one last shot with the bizarre giant submarines and built HMS X1 in 1923. The navy imagined she might be a “commerce raider”, capable of sinking enemy merchant ships and taking on destroyers or other small warships if required.

X1, cutting an impressive figure with her high freeboard and twin gun turrets.
X1, cutting an impressive figure with her high freeboard and twin gun turrets.

The whole scheme was as bonkers as the K class really and would probably have ended up in disaster. If the enemy hadn’t sunk her she would probably have sunk herself, but her machinery was so unreliable she spent most of her time in dock and not out at sea trying to get to the bottom. After only 2 years service she was placed in reserve and scrapped 6 years later. If I’m not mistaken, she’s the only Royal Navy warship designed and built after WW1 and scrapped before WW2. Anyway, she was technically illegal under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty so it was politically convenient to dispose of her.

The French copied the basic idea to keep up with les Joneses on the other side of the Manche and built an even bigger one called Surcouf. Not to be outdone, it had bigger guns, two motorboats, and even an aircraft. Keeping up the unhappy reputation she disappeared during WW2, probably run down by a merchant ship, with the loss of all hands while serving with the Free French Navy.

The Surcouf

I’m not sure if there is a moral to this story but it might be that giant, ill-conceived machines of war are even more dangerous to their own side than the one which they were designed to fight.

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