When Elizabeth Scott erected a gravestone in Dundee’s Eastern Cemetery—marking the last resting place of a husband killed during the First World War, and to the memory of a son “lost on active service” during the Second, you do wonder just how much she had been told about the circumstances, and the extent to which both deaths involved submarines.
Her 25 year-old son, Robert Keays Scott, died when his ship, former fishing trawler HMS Lady Shirley, was sunk by a German U-boat during anti-submarine operations off the Straits of Gibraltar. While, nearly 24 years earlier, Elizabeth’s 29-year-old husband, Leading Seaman Alexander Scott, had “lost his life on HM Submarine K-14”.
However, did Elizabeth know that the “Battle”, in which Alexander died, took place near the Isle of May at the mouth of the Firth of Forth? That not a single enemy shot was fired? That the so-called “Battle”, on 31 January 1918, was a sequence of five avoidable collisions involving eight Royal Navy vessels, that would remain officially “Secret” until 1994?
The initial secrecy is understandable: even by January 1918, the First World War was far from won, and news of the needless deaths of 104 submariners was hardly morale-boosting. Indeed, the German Army was just a month or so away from launching the “Kaiserschlacht”, the spring offensives which, although they ultimately failed, nevertheless killed thousands and devastated British front lines across France.
Determined that the Royal Navy would play its part in final victory, in January 1918 the Commander-in-Chief of the “Grand Fleet”, Admiral Sir David Beatty, instigated a massive exercise off the coast of Norway which would bring together the large battle squadrons based at Scapa Flow and Rosyth. At least some of the subsequent decisions made by Beatty and Vice Admiral Sir Hugh Evan-Thomas, whose flagship would lead the “Light Cruiser Force” out of Rosyth, directly contributed to the “Battle”—most obviously, Evan-Thomas’s order to head out not just under cover of darkness but also at high speed.
While this was understandable—earlier in the day, an assumed enemy submarine had been sighted lurking off the Firth of Forth—Evan-Thomas made no allowance for anything going wrong. Given the darkness, reduced visibility due to sea mist, the high speeds, plus the inevitably imprecise navigation of the large number and variety of vessels involved, it’s little surprise that something did.
According to Evan-Thomas’s orders, his flagship was immediately followed by the 13th Submarine Flotilla, consisting of the destroyer HMS Ithuriel—under Commander Ernest William Leir—and five K-class Submarines. These “boats” were designed to keep up with surface vessels—relying on steam power above water and batteries once submerged—but were proving to be an engineering dead-end, with numerous failures earning them the nickname, the “Kalamatous Ks”.
Five nautical miles (9.3km) behind the 13th Submarine Flotilla were positioned four battlecruisers with attendant destroyers; a further five nautical miles back was the 12th Submarine Flotilla, consisting of HMS Fearless and four K-class submarines. A final five nautical miles, bringing up the rear, were three battleships with additional destroyers.
The “Battle” began while the 13th Submarine Flotilla was passing near the Isle of May. Two small vessels—never 100% identified, but assumed to be local trawlers on mine-sweeping duties—were sighted. Submarines K-11 and K-17 changed course immediately and avoided a collision; third-in-line K-14’s steering, however, inexplicably jammed for six minutes. While K-12 behind carried on regardless, K-14’s semi-circular course brought her straight into the path of an off-course K-22, bringing up the rear. At 7.17pm, K-22’s sharp bow sliced into K-14, severing the bow and breaching the forward mess deck, where Alexander Scott was one of two men killed.
The two stricken submarines carefully pulled themselves apart; K-22’s captain then ordered the firing of a red Very light, which ensured three of the four battlecruisers following them were able to avoid both submarines. However, HMS Inflexible, bringing up the rear, struck K-22 a glancing blow before continuing on her way; thankfully, K-22 remained afloat.
By this time Leir had been notified about the collision and opted to turn back to offer support. This meant that he was leading the 13th Submarine flotilla back towards the rest of the advancing fleet and, while they managed to avoid the oncoming battlecruisers, a straggling K-17 collided with the 12th Submarine Flotilla’s leader HMS Fearless. The damage was such that the crew of K-17 had to immediately abandon ship.
Behind HMS Fearless, submarine K-4 stopped dead, and was almost hit by K-3. And then she was hit, by the slowly turning K-6, which cut her in two halves that almost immediately sank to the bottom with the loss of all officers and crew. The final horror, however, was yet to come; while the battleships bringing up the rear of the fleet had managed to avoid the confusion, one or more of their escorting destroyers essentially drove straight over the K-17 survivors still in the water. That was when a disaster became a catastrophe.
After the surviving vessels limped back to Rosyth, the “Battle” resulted in a hastily-convened Court of Inquiry, followed by the Court Martial of Commander Leir, which found the case of negligence against him for the loss of K-17 “not proved”. No one else was reprimanded; a century on, the lessons to be learned from that night’s events are all-too-clear. Thankfully many of them were taken on board, not least when it came to the design, deployment and use of British submarines.
Nevertheless, it would be 84 years before official recognition of the disaster, when a memorial cairn was erected in 2002 at Anstruther harbour, in sight of the Isle of May. While, more recently, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission erected a new marker for Alexander Scott.
First published in The Scots Magazine, March 2018.