Posted 20 September 2018
A SALUTE TO HMS OTRANTO
More than two million US service personnel were successfully transported across the Atlantic to England and France during World War One, and for the USA the sinking of HMS Otranto was the worst troop-transport disaster of that conflict. PETER KENDRICK reports on the recent Otranto 100 expedition to the wreck, which lies off Scotland near Islay
Posted 20 September 2018
More than two million US service personnel were successfully transported across the Atlantic to England and France during World War One, and for the USA the sinking of HMS Otranto was the worst troop-transport disaster of that conflict. PETER KENDRICK reports on the recent Otranto 100 expedition to the wreck, which lies off Scotland near Islay
A SALUTE TO HMS OTRANTO

THE PLAN FOR EXPEDITION OTRANTO was conceived by nine members of St Helens Underwater Group (SHUG) members a year ago. Six days’ diving off Islay, southernmost of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, were planned for this June, giving each diver the chance to remember and honour casualties and survivors of the sinking of HMS?Otranto, on 6 October, 1918.

A century on, the idea was to fly British and American flags from the barrel of the forward gun throughout the week, to survey the wreck and to video it for the first time. We called ourselves Badlads Diving, because with our accumulated age of 459 the mainly male senior members of SHUG were all Basic Air Divers!

Several of our number had been diving Islay wrecks including Otranto since the early 1980s. In those days the Port Charlotte Hotel had offered bunkhouse accommodation and air-fills, and Islay Dive Centre had also offered full-board accommodation ,and a RIB.

When these businesses had closed in the 1990s, diving from Islay became possible only for self-sufficient divers.

This time round we secured accommodation in Ju at Port Charlotte, and booked a ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Port Askaig with Caledonia Macbrayne. We took two 5.4m club RIBs towed by 4x4s and a long-wheelbase van for the gear, including two portable petrol compressors and everything else we would need for an intensive week’s diving.

The passenger liner Otranto was built in 1908 to sail between Britain and Australia, but at the outbreak of WW1 the Royal Navy requisitioned her and converted her into an armed merchant cruiser.

Used mainly to hunt German commerce raiders, she played a part in the Battle of Coronel in November 1914. In early 1918 she became a troopship.

On 25 September she left New York as flagship for Convoy HX-50, carrying US troops to Europe.

But storms were whipping up in the Atlantic during the crossing, and were eventually reported as Force 11, with mountainous seas. With accurate navigation impossible, the convoy could proceed only by dead reckoning.

A rocky coastline faced the convoy 3-4 miles to the east when morning broke on 6 October. Most of the crews thought, correctly, that this was the Scottish coast, and turned south, but Otranto’s officer of the watch read it as the northern Irish coast – and turned north.

This placed her on collision course with HMS Kashmir, another liner turned troopship, about a half mile north. Attempts by the vessels to avoid collision cancelled each other out, and Kashmir rammed Otranto on her port side amidships. A deep hole was punched in Otranto, below the waterline and directly between boiler-rooms, both of which instantly flooded, killing most of the crew in those spaces.

When the engine-room flooded shortly afterwards, Otranto lost all electrical power and began drifting towards the rocky coast of Islay, a few miles away.

The water pressure caused bulkheads to collapse, quickly flooding other spaces below the waterline and giving the ship a massive list to starboard.

The high winds and heavy seas prevented the launching of lifeboats, and Captain Davidson decided to postpone abandoning ship in the faint hope that some passengers and crew might be able to swim ashore once the ship got closer.




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