Monday, October 5, 2020

HMS Otranto (Oct. 6, 1918)- "Many Were Held By The Sea"

 


Here is a story for you...and it is a true story...but I am so incredibly moved by it that it might be hard to give you all the facts. 



If you were to go to a listing of the Maritime Disasters of World War I, this is how it is described in Wikipedia:


"HMS Otranto- a passenger liner rebuilt as a troopship. On 6 October 1918, while sailing in poor visibility in rough seas, she collided with another liner turned troopship, the Kashmir.  Otranto then struck and was grounded. With heavy seas pounding her against the rocks she eventually broke up and sank, killing 431 people."


Yes, those are the facts but there is so much more to the story! HMS Otranto was a British ship with a British crew and it was filled with American troops. You can see from the year that I have given you, this would have been the last days of World War I.  Also on board the ship, there were French fishermen. (Why was that so?  On the journey over, the Otranto struck a French fishing boat, they didn't see it, they had no lights due to the danger of German submarines. This is how the French came to be on board the ship along with the American soldiers and the British crew.)

It was a terrible, terrible storm that the HMS Otranto encountered in the early morning hours of Oct. 6, 1918. The ship was in the North Channel, traveling with other ships in a convoy. (The North Channel...between the very top of Ireland and the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland.) Because the seas were so very rough and the visibility so poor, three of the ships were forced out of formation and were nowhere to be seen.  The waves were running up to 60 feet and the winds were 80 and 90 miles per hour. It was a terrible night.

Just after 8:00 in the morning, the mist lifted enough that land was sighted three or four miles to the east...was it the western coast of Scotland or the eastern coast of Ireland? The officers aboard the Kashmir correctly guessed the western coast of Scotland but those on the Otranto thought it was the coast of Ireland. In this great confusion and the storm still raging, one ship turned one way and the other turned directly into its path.  The Kashmir rammed the Otranto midship.  Then, the Kashmir reversed and was able to sail away...

The Otranto was left badly damaged but still afloat...

About 30 or 40 minutes after the collision, the men saw a ship on the horizon. It was the British destroyer, HMS Mounsey coming to their aid.  It must have seemed like a miracle to them. Here is what Pvt. Edgar Sheperd wrote of it years later, "Now we got a close up view of the commander of the destroyer. A trim athletic officer who began waving two flags. Knowing the semaphore code, I read the message to the commander of the Otranto: I am coming alongside to take off the American troops.'

The reply to the destroyer Mounsey from the Captain of the Otranto was: Steer clear as you will lose your crew and your ship.

The reply to the Captain of the Otranto: I am coming alongside. If we go down, we shall all go down together."

There, if that does not bring tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat!  The Captain of the HMS Mounsey was Captain Francis W. Craven.  He brought the ship aside and was able to rescue many of the men from the Otranto. Some were able to jump from one ship to the other. However, as the storm was still raging with very high waves, many men were crushed between the ships and many were injured upon landing on the deck. (What is more, the waves were so fierce that even for some of the men who made the jump, they were then washed overboard.) It truly was an act of great heroism. According to the lists published in the Naval War Notes, Captain Craven and his crew saved 597 men that day: 300 American soldiers, 266 officers and crewman of the Otranto, 1 American "YMCA man" and 30 French fishermen.

I was astonished as I read this account... it brought to mind the story of the Leopoldville which was sunk by a German torpedo in the English channel in WW2.  I have written about it before on my blog.  I met a survivor from that ship, Mr. W. S. Connor. There was also a ship that came alongside his and he saw some of his buddies jump...but they didn't make it, so he decided to stay on the ship. He was on the ship as it went down. He had tied duffelbags together and he said he had never kicked so hard in his life. He came to the surface and was rescued. (How long were you in the water? I remember asking him and he said that they were told they could only survive in the cold water for 30 minutes...so, he guessed it had to have been 30 minutes but it seemed like longer...)

Okay, let's go back to the sinking of HMS Otranto now...

Remember I told you that they sighted land and that the Kashmir correctly identified it as the western coast of Scotland? It was the island of Islay, in the Hebrides. (Islay is pronounced "EYE-la".)

When we are speaking of heroes, we need to remember the people from Islay.  On Oct. 7, the morning after the disaster, there was no sign of the Otranto, she had been torn to pieces. Debris was piled more than 15 feet high along the rocks and the islanders searched for injured men but they found only bodies, hundreds of them. (For the few who made it alive to the island, there was a very warm welcome for them. Many giving food and even their own beds.)The great care and respect given to the dead by the people of Islay is truly remarkable. Police Sergeant Malcom MacNeill, recorded the description of each body, made notes of any tattoos and put each man's personal effects in a small bag made by local volunteers. His descriptions are in a 81 page notebook.  This notebook is in a Museum of Islay Life, along with his letters to family members in the USA and England who lost loved ones on the Otranto. (These were later donated to the museum from the grateful families.)  There was a funeral service for the men on the island. They sang "The Star Spangled Banner".  There was no American flag on the island of Islay, so the islanders sewed a flag themselves.   (For years, this flag was in the Smithsonian but it was sent to the island for the remembrance  service in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.  I think I have read that the flag is still there on the island, in the museum I told you about. I think it should remain there, don't you think so too?)  You may see the flag and read more about it just here.


The island of Islay experienced another disaster that same year of 1918.  The SS Tuscania had been sunk by a German U-boat on Feb. 5, 1918 while transporting American troops to Europe with the loss of 210 Americans, many of them washing ashore on Islay.

One can only imagine what this must have been like for this tiny island and its people.  "The Scottish Island that buried America's dead" is one way I have heard it described for the year of 1918.

Now, most of the Americans were eventually brought back to their US home cemeteries and buried near their families.  A great number of the Americans were from my home state of Georgia. In fact, one of my relations was one of those who died on the Otranto. 

Private John Lawrence Dean 

Entered Service Sept. 1, 1918

Attached to Coast Artillery Corps

Embarked for Overseas Service late Sept. 1918

Was drowned when transport "OTRANTO"

was sunk in a collision off Scottish coast.

Oct. 6, 1918.


(Above is on Memorial Plaque in Sylvania, GA. which was installed on Oct. 6, 2018.)

John Lawrence Dean is buried at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Clarkesville, Georgia.  Jan 5, 1897- Oct. 6, 1918

(Aged 21 at Sea.)


World War I ended on November 11, 1918.


(If you want to read more on this, there is an excellent book, "Many Were Held By The Sea" by R. Neil Scott. There is a fascinating blog that gives great details from the survivors, Ray City blog.)

There is so much more that I would like to write about this but there is only so much that I can say in a post on a blog.  Perhaps I should write a screenplay and you will see it played out upon a screen one day. We should remember the Otranto and the young men who sailed upon her. "For Those In Peril On The Sea." 



















29 comments:

  1. Very sad but typical story of the time.
    Islay, like all Islanders, understood the dangers of the sea.

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    1. From what I have read even those on the island were startled by the severity of this storm. It is has you have said though, they certainly understood the dangers of the sea. So did the British crew and the French fishermen. Many of the Americans had never seen an ocean and many of them couldn't even swim. My relation who was only 21, I can bet that when he trained on the coast of Georgia, that was his first time at seeing the ocean.

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  2. What a fascinating story, so much heroism. Thank you for sharing, and telling us about Islay as well.

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    1. It is a fascinating story but such a very sad one. I wish I could visit Islay one day and see that museum I told you about and also the monument that they have there.

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  3. I can not even begin to imagine how horrible it was. All those poor men, most of them probably more or less the same age as your relative! All those families who lost a dear son, brother, husband, father; all those friends who lost a friend.
    As if the losses caused directly by war action was not bad enough. And nowadays it is all being repeated, only this time the boats are smaller and the people on board are from other countries, trying to find better lives in Europe for themselves and their loved ones.

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    1. Every person is precious, a precious, precious life.
      And in terms of John Lawrence Dean, there is no one to remember him. (I only just learned of him from reading "Find A Grave" when I was looking something else up.)

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  4. What a good tribute to those in peril ib the sea So sad to think of the many lost.

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    1. Thanks. It is very difficult for me to write of things when I have such a strong feeling about them! There is so much more that I could have written!

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  5. Stories of hardship and perseverance like this make me even more annoyed with those who whine today about wearing a simple face mask. Sheesh, grow up!

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    1. Exactly so, after I typed this post and then watched the news...well, you understand, I am sure!

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  6. It is a heart wrenching tale. A terrible catastrophe.

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    1. It was a tragedy but it could have been even worse if not for the courage of Captain Craven. I am reminded of the pilot who was ordered not to land his plane to rescue the men that he saw in the water from the SS Indianapolis...he did it anyway and the men he rescued never, ever forgot him. His name was Adrian Marks.

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  7. The Captain of the Mounsey was amazing. I’m sure it was a horrible decision to make because he had to weigh jeopardizing his crew to save the people on the other ship. It’s so very sad.

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    1. The Mounsey stayed as long as it possibly could but when they sailed away, they were not out of danger. The survivors were ordered below decks to balance out the weight, there was a real danger the ship could go topsy turvy. As I said, there is so much more to the story. Things are much more complex than can be stated in a short blog post!

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  8. Oddly I saw a programme in which this was mentioned and some of the people involved interviewed. I was a time ago and I cannot recall which programme it might have been. We are used to maritime disasters and one of the most poignant and heartbreaking occurred at the mouth of the Stornoway harbour when HMY Iolaire struck the Beasts of Holm on 1 January 2019 and sank in another dreadful storm with the loss of 205 lives of whom 181 were Island men returning from the war.

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    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrwHNDvH7l0
      Oh Graham, that is so incredibly sad! I found that clip on YouTube above. If anyone is reading this, copy and paste and watch that! The men were indeed returning from WWI, in January 1919.

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  9. Beyond sad. A true tragedy. More than one....The people on Islay were wonderful. I wonder why people have to continue killing one another when they are capable of such goodness.

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    1. When we do encounter such goodness and courage, I think it needs to be acknowledged and remembered. Too often, the bad things are all that we hear about.

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  10. What brave and compassionate people those Scots were. And probably still are, if the need arose.

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    1. Such a difficult thing that they had to go through, the people on the island of Islay! But they rose to it with great compassion. I just wish more people knew this story!

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  11. What a sad and lovely story, Kay. It brought tears to my eyes. I'm glad the flag has been returned to where it was made. How selfless and giving those islanders were!

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    1. It is an incredible story that so few know about.

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  12. The bravery of the people involved in this tragedy! I was not familiar with this story Kay. Heartrending. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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    1. Thanks, Louise. I want to write more about it!!

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  13. True heroes and it would make an amazing movie. I believe the words: When things are the worst we are at our best. 1918 was also a pandemic of the Spanish Flu. Not a great year for many I imagine.

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    1. Many of the men were very ill with the Spanish Flu on the ship. IN Ifact, many were in the sick ward when the ship was struck.
      And the survivors had to then go and fight in World War I!
      It would have been a most terrible year.

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  14. I've been out to the memorial monument and graveyard at the Mull of Oa on Islay. A remote rugged spot high above a jagged coastline but extremely beautiful in good weather.

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    1. Oh! You have actually been there to see the memorial! I am glad you have shared that with me here. I might not ever be able to see it myself, so I am grateful that my friend in Scotland has seen it. Thank you.

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