OTDIH—World War I Troopship HMS Otranto Sank After Collision

On this day in history, 6 Oct 1918, the H.M.S. Otranto, ferrying U.S. troops from New York to Europe, went down off the coast of the Isle of Islay, Scotland, just 5 weeks before the end of World War I. 470 lives were lost. [1]

A Service of Remembrance for the loss of the Otranto is being held on the Isle of Islay today, the centennial anniversary of the disaster. [2]

Many of the troops were from rural Georgia. Berrien County, Georgia, paid a terrible toll that day—25 of its sons were lost. At least three others from Berrien County survived. [6] [8] [10]

3rd cousins Private Ralph Roswell Knight of Ray City, Berrien County, and Private Thomas Jefferson Sirmons of Nashville, Berrien County, were two of the soldiers drowned.

Ralph is the son of Walter H. and Jimmie G. Gullette Knight, and husband of Mary Effie Guthrie Knight. Thomas is the son of Moses G. and Nancy Elizabeth Knight Sirmons. Ralph was 29 years old, and Thomas was 26 years old.

A convoy of thirteen ships, including the Otranto, had departed New York for Liverpool, England, on 24 Sep with almost 20,000 U.S. troops. The Otranto carried 1,083 men—a 380-man British crew, 701 American troops, and 2 American YMCA officers.

During the evening of 1 Oct, the convoy, with lights out, sailed straight through a fleet of French fishing vessels off the coast of Newfoundland. The Otranto accidentally rammed the fishing schooner Croisine, and rescued 37 of its crew.

British Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Otranto.

When dawn broke on 6 Oct, in a Force 11 storm (on the Beaufort scale, a storm with 56-63 knot winds and 37-52 foot wave height), the convoy found itself just three to four miles off the coast of Islay. The convoy was sailing in six columns, each column three-tenths of a mile from the next. The convoy turned south, but the Otranto mistakenly turned north, placing the Otranto on a collision course with the S.S. Kashmir in the next column to the north.

At 8:43 a.m., the Kashmir rammed the Otranto on the port side amidships. The Otranto was cut nearly halfway through, listing 35 degrees to starboard, flooded through a hole punched in the hull below the waterline, and soon lost electrical power and propulsion. Many of the lifeboats were severely damaged and dangling from the side. The high seas prevented the launch of any of the other lifeboats.

About 45 minutes after the collision, the H.M.S. Mounsey arrived from Belfast, Ireland, on convoy escort duty and responded to SOS calls from the Otranto.  Several times, the Mounsey pulled alongside the Otranto despite the rough seas. Each time, men leapt from the Otranto onto the deck of the much smaller Mounsey. Some fell short and were crushed between the two ships. Some were immediately washed off the deck into the high seas.

Several times, the two ships struck, extensively damaging the Mounsey as well. At 11 a.m., the Mousney was too damaged to continue the rescue, and sailed for Belfast, where it docked about 12 hours after the collision. The Mounsey was able to rescue about 600 men, 12 men dying later in Belfast from their injuries.

After the Mounsey broke off rescue operations, there were no other ships in the vicinity to come to the aid of the Otranto. The Kashmir left Otranto immediately after the collision, and landed its troops at a Scottish port without loss of life. The remainder of the convoy had also continued on, obeying wartime convoy regulations to not stop.

About three hours after the collision, the Otranto—with roughly 489 men still aboard—drifted onto a reef near the entrance to Machir Bay and the high cliff walls of Rhinns Point on Islay, and quickly broke apart in the enormous waves. “A ship’s officer, whom many presumed to be Captain Davidson, was heard to shout, ‘Boys, we’ll have to swim for it after all.'” [5]

Only 21 were able to swim ashore, two dying later from their injuries. The rest perished in the sea or on the shore—including our Private Ralph Knight and Private Thomas Sirmons.

The best estimate of the casualty toll from the disaster is 470 men: 12 officers and 84 crewmen from the Otranto, 1 officer and 357 American enlisted men, and 6 French fishermen. Of these, the bodies of 316 Americans were recovered from the sea or shore. [1]

In additional posts, we will look at the incredible response of the people of Islay toward our troops, and meet the commander of the Mounsey.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Ray City History Blog for introducing us to the story of our family members Private Ralph Knight and Private Thomas Sirmons; and say thank you to the people of the Isle of Islay for caring for them as their own 100 years ago and remembering them still today.

PVT Ralph Roswell Knight (1889-1918) is 2nd cousin 4x removed of MKS in the Knight branch.

PVT Thomas Jefferson Simons (1892-1918) is 3rd cousin 3x removed of MKS in the Knight branch.

Note: This is post 1 of 4 today about the H.M.S. Otranto disaster.

Acknowledgement: This post is primarily based on and liberally borrowed from these excellent references. The Ray City History Blog has many more posts about the Otranto.

[1] Wikipedia, “HMS Otranto.”
[2] WW100 Islay.
[3] The Wreck of the Otranto: 6th October 1918, WW100 Islay article.
[4] The Otranto Disaster – 90 Years ago Today, Islay Blog, 6 Oct 2008.
[5] Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of the HMS Otranto, by R. Neil Scott, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 18 Jun 2012.
[6] Otranto Sunk in Collision, Ray City History Blog, 11 Oct 2010.
[7] HMS Otranto Sank Ninety-Four Years Ago, Ray City History Blog, 6 Oct 2012.
[8] Oct 12, 1918 ~ 372 U.S. Soldiers Lost in Sinking of Otranto, Ray City History Blog, 12 Oct 2016.
[9] Otranto Survivor Describes Disaster, Ray City History Blog, 6 Oct 2017.
[10] Berrien County Paid Terrible Toll on the Otranto, Ray City History Blog, 6 Oct 2016.