IT was in this week of 1918 that one of the worst maritime disasters in Scottish history occurred off the inner Hebridean island of Islay.

The sinking of the Iolaire outside Stornoway harbour in the early hours of January 1, 1919, rightly preoccupies Scottish minds when we consider the shipping catastrophes associated with World War I, but in strictly numerical terms, the sinking of HMS Otranto was worse – 205 died on the Iolaire, while an estimated 470 people, the majority of them American soldiers, died in the sea off Islay on that fateful day of October 6, 1918, 103 years ago on Wednesday.

On February 5 that year, the troopship SS Tuscania had been torpedoed by a German U-boat seven miles off the south-west coast of Islay and some 220 lives were lost, mostly American servicemen who had been on their way to join the Allied forces on the Western Front. Many of the bodies washed up on the shores of Islay and there would have been many more casualties had it not been for the skill and bravery of the crews of three Royal Navy escort destroyers and several fishing boats from Islay and elsewhere who managed to save almost 2000 lives.

Survivors who made it to Islay were cared for by the island’s people, who also buried the drowned men, though their remains were later repatriated by the US Government.

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Just a few months later the appalling scenes on the shores of Islay were to be repeated, this time with the Otranto disaster. Built in Belfast, the Otranto had started its working life in 1909 as a London-registered liner sailing between the UK and Australia for the Orient Steam Navigation Company. She was able to carry more than 1000 passengers and her powerful steam engines gave her a top speed of 18 knots. Otranto was requisitioned by the Admiralty on the first day of the war on August 4, 1914, and redesignated HMS. It took 10 days to convert her into an armed merchant cruiser. She briefly took part in the Battle of Coronel and then spent most of the war on patrol in the southern Atlantic.

HMS Otranto was fitted out as a troopship in July, 1918, and she made her maiden voyage in her new guise from New York to Liverpool in August. She went back across the Atlantic and on September 25 she was designated the flagship of the Convoy HX50 and set out from New York.

It was to be a very unlucky voyage. Six days out from New York off the coast of Newfoundland, HMS Otranto accidentally collided with the French fishing schooner Croisine though all of its 37 crew members were saved and taken aboard Otranto. Convoy commodore Captain Ernest Davidson realised the French vessel was a danger to shipping and ordered her sunk by the Otranto’s guns.

Even as the ship headed for the Irish Sea, a soldier on board died from influenza, the first and probably the only victim of the pandemic aboard the Otranto.

On the morning of October 4, HMS Otranto entered a stormy area and the weather duly worsened. By the early hours of October 6, the winds had reached Force 11 on the Beaufort Scale, classed as a violent storm and only just short of a hurricane.

Escorts were unable to rendezvous with the Otranto which proceeded cautiously, and as dawn broke the coast of Islay was sighted – except that in the confusion overnight, the ship’s officers thought they were off Ireland and turned north. That put them on a direct collision course with HMS Kashmir, another troopship, which duly struck Otranto on the port side, punching a huge hole in Otranto’s side from below the waterline to the main deck. Water rushed in, killing many of the crew in the ship’s boiler rooms.

Having lost power, Otranto began to drift towards Islay, at which point the destroyer HMS Mounsey arrived and began an audacious rescue operation, its captain Lieutenant Francis Craven manoeuvring his ship alongside Otranto to rescue more than 300 of the American troops, 266 of the crew and 30 of the French fishermen. His bravery and skill earned Craven the Distinguished Service Order and the US Navy Cross.

Otranto had continued to drift and she soon smashed onto rocks at Machir Bay. The heavy seas pounded Otranto mercilessly and she began to break up and sank quite quickly with the majority of those left on board perishing in the freezing waters. Among them was Capt Davidson who was last seen on the deck of his ship trying to organise an evacuation. Only 21 of the estimated 490 men aboard Otranto as she sank were able to make it to safety.

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Once again the people of Islay rallied to the aid of the few who had survived and attended to the bodies which had piled up on the shore. All the bodies were buried on Islay at first, though most of the American dead were either repatriated or re-buried at the Brookwood American Cemetery and Memorial in Surrey. A memorial stone tower funded by the American Red Cross was erected on the Mull of Oa on Islay to commemorate the dead of the Tuscania and Otranto.

The islanders were deeply affected by the losses. Former Nato general secretary George Robertson’s maternal grandfather Malcolm MacNeill was the police sergeant in Bowmore. Robertson has written movingly about the sinkings, especially the Otranto for which Sgt MacNeill provided a written report to his superiors.

Robertson recalled: “In the report which he filed on the wreck, my grandfather went out of his way to commend the ordinary folk who, though they had so little, gave so much to help those who were wrecked on their shores.”

People across America wrote to MacNeill. Robertson explained: “My grandfather, in an extraordinary example of compassionate public service, replied to each letter, providing what information he could. Often, sadly, there was little information that he could pass on.”