HM SUBMARINES K-4 and K-17
It is unlikely that any class of ship in any navy worldwide was so ill conceived and destined for such controversy and disaster as the steam powered ‘K’ class submarines of the British Navy. In 1915, after years of under investment in submarines, much of it due to an attitude that submarine warfare was in some way more distasteful than other kinds of war, and awakened by the early successes of the German U-boat fleets, the Admiralty ordered the construction of a new, secret class of submarines – the ‘K’ class. They would be the largest and heaviest submarines in the world. Indeed they would achieve speeds that were not even matched by later 2nd World War vessels but the penalty for this speed was that they had to be steam, rather than diesel powered. In turn this led to the need for retractable funnels – a recipe for disaster. However, the strange fate of the 27 ships launched between 1916 and 1918 was not only as a result of this somewhat incongruous design. 16 of the ships were involved in major accidents and six were ultimately lost. Only one ship ever engaged the enemy and only one torpedo was fired in anger – it failed to explode! The ships would also be involved in one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of the Royal Navy – an incident that became known as the Battle of May Island.
In this infamous incident two submarines, HMS K-4 and HMS K-17, were lost and 103 British seamen lost their lives. The two submarines were built at the Vickers Sons and Maxim Ltd, Barrow-in-Furness and launched on 28.6.1915 and 10.04.1917 respectively. The submarines measured 339.0’x 26.5’x 20.9’ and weighed 2010 displacement tons (surface) 2607 displacement tons(submerged). They were powered by 2 @ Brown-Curtis or Parsons geared steam turbines delivering 10,500 shp with 2 Yarrow boilers driving 2 x 3-blade 7 ft 6 inch diameter screws . For underwater propulsion they had 4 x 1,440 hp electric motors and had an 800 hp Vickers diesel generator for charging batteries on the surface. Armed with 4 x 18 inch torpedo tubes (forward), 4 x 18 inch torpedo tubes (beam), 2 x 4 inch deck guns and 1 x 3 inch deck gun they were, at least in theory, powerful additions to the British Navy fleet.
In December 1917, 12th and 13th Submarine Flotillas were based at Rosyth. The role of the K class ships in the Royal Navy was to act as “fleet submarines” sailing with the fleet of surface ships and acting in concert with them in battle. This idea was controversial and required incredible co-ordination between the surface and submerged ships. In January 1918 a huge exercise – codenamed EC1 – was ordered to give another chance for the ships to practice manoeuvres together. A huge fleet of 26 battleships, 9 cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 9 ‘K’ Class submarines and a number of smaller escort ships and destroyers was to take part.
The orders were sent out on 28th January and, at 6:30pm on 1st February, the operation began. The flagship, HMS Courageous, steamed out of Rosyth and was followed by a fifteen mile long line of ships. 13th Submarine Flotilla which consisted of five ‘K’ Class ships with their escort HMS Ithuriel was next then the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron, 12th Submarine Flotilla and finally 5th Battle Squadron. The ships were only allowed to show one light astern due to blackout restrictions. By 6:45pm the front ships were passing through the boom at Fidra Gap and at 7.06 Courageous passed May Island with Ithuriel four minutes behind. The fleet was steaming at around twenty knots.
Ahead, in the darkness, an unsuspecting fleet of eight armed trawlers was sweeping the channel for mines. Incredibly they did not know that Operation EC1 was in progress and that a fleet of huge ships was bearing down on them at top speed. Aboard K-14, third in line in 13th Flotilla, Commander Thomas C B Harbottle noticed K-11 and K-17 ahead slowing and turning to port and then two silhouettes appeared through the misty night. He ordered an immediate turn to port and narrowly avoided the two trawlers but the series of events that would lead to disaster had been set in motion. The helm of K-14 jammed and his slowing ship crept across the path of the oncoming K-22. On board K-22 Lieutenant Laurence Dickinson had lost sight of the tail light of the ship ahead and they changed course. As he peered through the dark and mist to re-establsih contact K-14 appeared out of the night lying straight across his path. K-22 crashed in to K-14 on the port side behind the torpedo department. Although both ships were badly damaged all watertight doors aboard were quickly closed making them safe – at least for the moment.
Behind then in the darkness the four huge ships of 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron were bearing down on them at full speed. Meanwhile Ithuriel, K-11, K-17 and K-12 were steaming ahead unaware of the problem behind them. It would be another 15 minutes before Commander Leir on Ithuriel realised there was something wrong and made the fateful decision to turn round, with his submarines following, and return to the scene of the collision to assist. By this time 2nd Squadron was streaking through the area where K-22 and K-14 lay motionless and helpless. Despite seeing the warning flares the huge ships could not alter course and raced through as the horrified crews on the submarines watched in awe. One destroyer passed within ten feet of K-22’s bows but amazingly no further collision took place.
By now Ithuriel had turned and she, and her following submarine flotilla, steamed across the course of the oncoming cruiser squadron. Again amazingly the eight ships managed to pass each other in the darkness and confusion without serious incident. However, by this time 12th Flotilla, led by HMS Fearless, was also reaching the area. They knew that there was trouble ahead as they could hear the now almost continual radio traffic between the various ships crossing back and forth in front of them but, despite this, the first ship Commander ‘Tiny’ Little saw appear out of the haze was K-17 lying at right angles across his path. Fearless slammed into K-17 forward of the conning tower causing the submarine to roll over onto her side before righting herself and drifting off into the darkness. Fearless too was badly damaged but safe after all her forward watertight doors were closed. Immediately K-17 began sinking by the bows and within eight minutes her stern pointed to the sky and she disappeared.
Behind Fearless 12th Flotilla steamed into the area. K-4 was next in line. Commander Stocks saw and heard Fearless‘ attempt to avoid K-17 and he too slowed and turned narrowly missing the stern of Fearless. K-3 was next in line and she too managed to turn and stop before causing any further problems but for K-7 the chaos that appeared out of the night was too much to handle. As Commander Geoffrey Layton surveyed the scene in front of him there was nowhere for him to turn. Despite engines full astern his ship ploughed into the side of K-4 and was immediately in danger of being pulled under by the sinking submarine before her thrashing propellers caught hold and pulled her free. Within four minutes K-4 and all her crew were gone.
The final scene of the disaster passed without further incident as the huge battleships of 5th Squadron sped past the devastation on into the North Sea. Operation EC1 proceeded as planned without the two submarine flotillas. The subsequent enquiry took five full days and although the findings were published they resulted in much controversy as the incident was blamed on the failings of a few of the commanders of the ships involved but many thought that the real culprit was in fact the concept of fleet submarines itself. It was surely not good tactics or practice to have large high speed surface and submerged ships operating at close quarters. Perhaps the truth of the incident is better revealed by the fact that this concept was later discredited leaving submarines to operate in their more conventional role of hunter killers.
The Wreck Today
The wrecks of K-4 and K-17 lie close to each other in 50 metres of water in positions 56°15.512’N, 02°11.533’W and 56°15.453’N, 02°11.593’W respectively. Another mark has been found lying to SW of K-17 in position 56°15.335’N, 02°11.764’W this is thought to be the bow section of K-17.
K-4 lies oriented 040°/220° and is almost complete. She sits upright with propellers almost completely buried in seabed in 50 metres rising 6 metres from the seabed.. The huge rent in the hull aft of the rear gun mount caused by the impact of K-7 is clearly visible. The conning tower leans to starboard with its damaged periscope.
K17 Dive slideshow
K-17 lies upright with a slight list to port oriented 130°/310° in 50 metres. Her stern section is still relatively in tact with aft gun, open vents and funnels visible. The conning tower has detached from the main section of the wreck and lies on the seabed on the starboard side of the hull. The forward section of the ship has been sliced off and lies close by.
As a part of a geophysical survey undertaken in 2009 by EMU Limited for Mainstream Renewable Power, the exact locations of the two submarines had to be established and detailed due to their proximity to the proposed site for the Neart na Gaoithe offshore wind farm. The wrecks and a surrounding buffer zone possess legal protection preventing any activities which may disturb them. Follow the link below to a short video presentation of the Multibeam sonar survey.