The Otranto was built in Belfast and launched in 1909 from the yard of Workman Clark & Company. She had been built for the Orient Steam Navigation Company to run on the route from England to Australia. Her dimensions were 535.3’x64.0’x38.6′ and had a gross tonnage of 12,124 tons.
The Otranto only managed five years service for her owners before the outbreak of the First World War. She was requisitioned by the government, converted into an armed merchant cruiser and served throughout the war. On 24th September 1918, as the war neared its climax, she set sail on her final voyage from New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool. She sailed in convoy HX50 escorted by the US cruisers Louisiana and St. Louis and the destroyer USS Dorsey. Captain Ernest W G Davidson and his 362 crew had 665 American troops aboard. On October 1st this compliment was supplemented by the unlucky crew of the French sailing ship Croisine, run down by the Otranto as the convoy, with lights out, sailed straight through a fleet of French fishing vessels. The convoy of thirteen ships, with a total of almost 20,000 troops aboard bound for the battlefields of Flanders, sailed in six columns, each column 3 cables from the next. The Otranto was the leading ship in column 3. Column 4 to the north was led by the SS Kashmir, an 8985 ton liner of the P & O Line.
The voyage across the North Atlantic went well until, as they approached the North Channel, they encountered a violent gale which built up enormous waves and whipped the sea into streaks of white foam and spray. The convoy had been navigating for some days by dead reckoning as the visibility had not allowed any sightings to be taken. On the morning of 6th October, through the murk, the officers aboard both vessels spotted land. The master of the Kashmir rightly identified the land and the breakers that were less than two miles off his port bow, as the coast of Islay. The Officer of the Watch aboard the Otranto thought that the land he could see, little over a mile from his starboard bow, was Inishtrahull. Both ships’ helms were put hard over and their inside screws stopped to steer away from the danger seen, the Kashmir to starboard, the Otranto to port, tragically turning them towards each other. The Kashmir turned quickly but the Otranto laboured in the huge seas. At 8:45am the two ships collided, the Kashmir striking the Otranto amidships on her port side almost at right angles despite the attempts by both crews to avoid the collision by reversing rudders and engines. The two ships, both badly damaged, quickly drifted apart and lost each other in the haze. The Kashmir survived but the Otranto was doomed. Water poured through a huge hole in her side soon extinguishing her fires and, despite letting go her huge anchors, she drifted helplessly in the direction of the rocky Islay coast.
HMS Mounsey, commanded by Lieutenant F W Craven, was the first ship to answer the SOS calls from the Otranto and by ten o’clock she was in sight of the stricken ship. It is difficult to imagine the scene during the rescue which followed. The massive liner dwarfing the destroyer with both rearing and plunging in the enormous swell and the disciplined lines of US troops waiting for their chance to jump onto the heaving deck of the Mounsey. The ships came together four times, the Mounsey smashing against the Otranto’s sides. Each time wave after wave of men jumped for their lives. Many fell between the ships’ sides and were crushed or drowned while many other were killed or badly injured as they crashed onto the destroyer’s deck. The Mounsey then sailed for Belfast with 596 men aboard and in grave danger of sinking herself due to the overcrowding. This left around 400 still aboard the now rapidly sinking Otranto. She had hit bottom less than a half a mile from the shore and, as she was in danger of breaking up, Captain Davidson gave the order to abandon ship – only 16 were to survive the swim to the shore. The next day the bodies of the victims, including Captain Davidson, were washed ashore along the west coast of the island. They were buried in a special burial ground above Machir Bay overlooking the site of the loss of their ship.
It was the worst convoy disaster in the whole of the war. At the subsequent inquiry both ships were found equally to blame for the incident.
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Otranto is charted and lies in position 55°45.761’N, 006°28.649’W (GPS at stern) which is at the south end of Machir Bay. The position quoted will put you in the middle of the engine room area, close to the propshafts. The wreck has been very heavily salvaged over the years but a huge amount of scattered wreckage still exists.
Most impressive are her six huge boilers that sit in two parallel lines rising 5 metres from the seabed, although when visited in 2002 some of these were beginning to break up. The depth around the wreck is between 7 and 16 metres with the remains spread over a wide area on both sides of the reef on which she ran aground. Her deck guns lie to the shore side of the main wreckage, one is still prominent at the north end of the debris field. The site is subject to minimal tidal flow but is very exposed to the inevitable Atlantic swell, which can make diving difficult in anything other than ideal weather conditions.