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K Boat Catastrophe

EIGHT SHIPS AND FIVE COLLISIONS: The full story of the 'Battle' of the Isle of May

N.S. Nash

2009, Pen and Sword
ISBN 1844159841
Hardcover, 224 pages


This fascinating book covers the much hated British K boats of WWI and the incredible series of collisions that took place on 31 Jan 1918. The British fleet was assembling at Scapa Flow for a major exercise called EC1 – and a large part of the fleet sailed from Rosinth on the west coast of Scotland. Sailing east out the Firth of Forth north of the Isle of May 5 collisions involving 8 ships took place within 75 minutes. 104 officers and men lost their lives in this series of avoidable mishaps. The “Battle of the Isle of May” was suppressed by British Author and was only declassified in 1994 when all the principals involved were deceased.

The K boats were steam powered and the fastest submarines during WWI, intended to sail with the Grand Fleet and support it in battle. Steam power was controversial and its instigator, Lord Fisher, had himself said that steam power newer should be put in submarine. The boats also proved wet, sometimes drowning the steam engines in heavy weather. None of the 18 K boats were lost to enemy action but several to accidents.

While sailing out from Rosinth the K-14 turned to port to avoid oncoming lights. This should not have caused any problems but at that moment the steering jammed and the boat continued its turn to port (left). Doing so steered her into path of the out-of position K-22 that should have followed K-14 further back. Although the officers tried to avoid collision the poor handling of the K class resulted in K-22 ramming the K-14 almost bow to bow holing both boats.

Upon learning of this Cdr. Ernest Leir, commanding the 13th Submarine Squadron, felt he had to turn back to help two of his boats (submarines at the time rarely survived collisions). In doing so further chain of events took place that resulted in 4 more collisions and the loss of K-4 and K-17 and 104 officers and men.

The very speedy Court of Inquiry (5 days) of the involved and its conclusions on 9 Feb 1918 is covered in detail. Then the book describes the Court Martial of Cdr. Leir on 22 March 1918. The reading material is mostly from official long-suppressed records and give a good overview of the complexities of the incident. The navigational issues are complex and shown in several maps to help the reader - the maps being prepared for the Court Martial by two experienced Navigational Officers. Even with the maps the scenario is hard to understand and was so, at time, even for the judges of the Court. The maps were deemed "best guess" and that helped explain the collisions; some ships were not in position and the visibility was poor.

The post-incident careers of all the major principals are covered at the end of the book. Many of them served in some capacity through World War Two.

Finally there is a chapter covering the names and memorials of all the 104 men who died from the 3 K boats (all 55 men from K-4, 47 men from K-17 and 2 men from K-14). The listing gives personal details of all of the men and is very touching.

Highly recommended book.

Disclosure: uboat.net was provided with a free review copy.

Review written by Guðmundur Helgason.

Published on 21 Oct 2009.

This title is highly recommended.

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