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Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto

Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto


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At 8:43 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, October 6, 1918, HMS Kashmir rammed HMS Otranto off Islay, Scotland. Both ships were former British passenger liners from the P&O Steamship Company that had been pulled into the war to ferry American soldiers between New York and various British ports. On this stormy morning, however, they were part of Convoy HX-50 carrying troops to Liverpool. On board were 372 British officers and sailors and 701 American soldiers. The Americans were mostly Southern farm boys from Fort Screven in Savannah under the command of Lt. Sam Levy, a Georgia Tech graduate from Atlanta.
The Kashmir managed to back away and follow the harsh wartime order that required her to ignore any maritime disasters that might befall her sister ships and to continue on her prescribed course rather than stop and take on survivors. Thus it was that—with winds blowing at 70 to 75 mph and waves at more than 60 feet—the severely damaged Otranto was left dead in the water with more than a thousand souls aboard.
Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto, tells the story of what happened during that voyage—mostly from the perspective of the American soldiers—and builds to the disastrous conclusion. The narrative details the courage of the young men on board, men who, for the most part, had never seen the ocean or learned to swim. It tells of the anguish from the home front, as family members had to wait weeks to learn the fate of their relatives. In addition, Scott’s narrative tells the personal story of Lieutenant Craven of the Royal Navy, serving as Commander of the rescue ship, who was forced to gamble with the lives of those on both ships in order to save the maximum number of passengers.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781442213425
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 06/18/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 958,871
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

R. Neil Scott was professor and user services librarian at Middle Tennessee State University until his death in 2012. His prior publications include Flannery O’Connor: An Annotated Reference Guide to Criticism (a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2002) and Flannery O’Connor: The Contemporary Reviews, as well as numerous scholarly articles.

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The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto
By R. Neil Scott


Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1342-5

Chapter One



The Otranto was scheduled for launch in the Workman, Clark & Co. shipyards of Belfast, Ireland, on March 23, 1909, but on that day, because frost had hardened the lubricated tallow along the ramp, she refused to conform to expectations and slid only twenty feet down the launch way, then stopped. She was a stubborn piece of work. Laborers tried using hydraulic jacks to move the six-thousand-ton hull, but she was stuck and refused to move. Shipyard engineers then tried a variety of other strategies, but in the end, left with no other choice, they had to rebuild portions of the launch way so that laborers could use jacks to manually push and pull the recalcitrant ship the rest of the way down. It took the shipyard laborers, "putting their backs to the task over and again," four days to get the Otranto into the water.

She was a beauty, though, and took her romantic-sounding name from the Otranto Straits that separate Italy and Albania. Built for the Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigation Company to help them fulfill the terms of a twelve-year contract with the Australian government, she and her sister ships—the Ophir, Orsova, Otway, Osterley, Orvieto, and Orama—were all designed to carry mail and passengers back and forth between England and Australia.

Capable of carrying 235 first-class, 186 second-class, and 696 third-class passengers, the sleek, twin-screw, twelve-thousand-ton Otranto was 535 feet long, 64 feet wide, and 38.5 feet deep. She was a coal burner with permanent bunker space to load 1,600 tons and a reserve of 680 tons. Part of her cargo area was insulated, and she had five holds with hatches. Her deck gear included two cranes and twelve derricks. In short, she was state of the art.

After her launch on March 27, the Otranto spent three months being fitted for sea trials. Then, on June 29, 1909, she headed out from Belfast to be inspected. First, ship's officers checked her speed: 18.975 knots; then, her coal consumption: 127 tons while traveling 409 miles at seventeen knots. Item by item, they went down their checklists, testing her equipment and vital systems. She performed impressively. Powered by two sets of quadruple-expansion engines with eight cylinders, each with a stroke of sixty inches driving two three-bladed propellers, her boiler pressure of 215 pounds per square inch produced 1,947 horsepower, enough to push her through the water at a cruising speed of eighteen knots.

After acknowledging that her test results met all required standards and specifications, the P&O Steam Navigation Company agreed to complete the purchase. They accepted the Otranto for delivery in July 1909.

Their newest addition was a luxurious and beautiful ship. She had a black hull; her upper decks and works were painted white, and she had two yellow funnels. Higher and wider than some of her counterparts leaving Glasgow's Clyde River shipyards, her schooner rig gave her a yacht-like appearance, and all considered her a handsome addition to the P&O fleet.

The Otranto was immediately pressed into service. She spent the rest of the summer of 1909, along with her sister ship—the Ophir—sailing back and forth between England and the fjords of Norway, stopping here and there among the northern capitals of Europe along the way.

Her first-class passengers were assigned cabins amidships on three decks. The first-class dining salon—decorated in the style of Louis XVI with oak-paneled walls bleached to a silvery grey—seated 156 passengers. And to give these wealthy passengers an even greater sense of luxury, the walls of the dining area were lined with reproductions of some of the finest paintings of the eighteenth century.

Cabins for second-class passengers, many of whom shared two-berth rooms, were situated on the upper and shelter decks. A promenade, very similar to the one provided for those in first class, was available to these middle-class passengers on the shelter deck. The second-class dining area seated 150 passengers at a time and extended the full width of the ship. It was situated just aft of the first-class dining salon. These passengers also had use of a smoking parlor, "paneled and furnished in oak and leather, with a sofa running around the room." Such high-end accommodations for second-class passengers were unusual; indeed, as one passenger remarked, "The style and finish of the berths and cabins ... is [so] similar to first class ... [that it] induces the query as to whether it is worth going first class when such accommodation is provided in the second."

Third-class cabins were located on Otranto's lower, main, and upper decks. These passengers also had access to a promenade on the aft boat deck and a ladies' lounge and a men's smoking room on the upper deck. Their dining room seated two hundred passengers at a time and was located on the lower deck. While not as plush as those for first- and second-class passengers, accommodations for third-class passengers were still far superior to those offered for passengers in the same class on other P&O Line ships.

Just forward of the decks for passengers was the flying bridge, with a chart room and accommodations for the captain and officers on duty.


On October 1, 1909, only six months after her launch, the Otranto was assigned to the route for which she was purchased—carrying passengers back and forth between England and Australia. Throughout that fall and into early January 1910, she sailed to and from Brisbane, first completing two round-trips. Then, after a seventeen-night cruise from London to various ports in the Mediterranean, she spent the rest of the year and the early part of 1911 completing three more round-trips to Australia.

The Otranto was a popular ship. Then, with the award of a contract to carry British mail and her designation as a Royal Mail Ship (RMS), she became even more sought after. One of her officers, A. B. Campbell, remembered that "she made a fine sight with her gleaming paintwork in the tropical sun" and that the small, white Royal Mail flag she flew, signifying that she was a "mail steamer," entitled her to certain benefits. This preferential treatment stemmed from a contract between the British government and Suez Canal authorities ensuring that British mail steamers were taken through the canal as quickly as possible. Indeed, one clause of the agreement stipulated that the British government would receive ?1,000 for every twenty-four hours that such ships were late getting through. The express trip through the canal took days off the long journey to and from Australia.

Then, in mid-summer 1911, RMS Otranto made the twenty-day voyage to North America where she participated in the Coronation Naval Review held in honor of King George V. Afterward, she returned home to England to her task of carrying wealthy vacationers to the Norwegian fjords until mid-September, when she was again assigned to the London-Australia run.


The Otranto remained on the London-Australia route from late 1911, through 1912, 1913, and well into 1914. Then, on August 4, 1914—the day war was declared and the same day that the British Admiralty gave the signal to begin hostile action against the German navy—her owners received the following telegram:

Admiralty to Anderson & Co. Urgent and Confidential. Otranto is requisitioned under Royal Proclamation for service as armed merchant cruiser STOP Owners required to supply coal full bunkers engine room and deck stores for four months ... and utensils for full complement STOP Admiralty [will] prepare ship but will require all assistance possible from you also in obtaining engine room complement which will be signed on from mercantile STOP Captain Hunt RN c/o P & O Tilbury appointed to superintend fitting STOP Please acknowledge STOP Letter follows.

Thus it was that on the very first day of the war, the British Admiralty requisitioned RMS Otranto for conversion into an armed merchant cruiser (AMC). To get her ready for war, she was fitted with eight 4.7-inch guns with the decks beneath the gun platforms shored up and strengthened; a range finder was placed on the bridge, and areas in the line of fire were cut away; and ammunition storage areas were fitted in the fore and aft holds. To give her a better chance of surviving a combat engagement, half-inch steel plating was attached to the steering area; cabin bulkheads and glass ventilators were removed. Then, all the furniture was removed to make space for the large mess decks presumed necessary for carrying large numbers of sailors and soldiers. Then, amidships, the most stable part of the vessel, an operating room was set up along with a large sickbay equipped with cots. This work was begun on August 4, 1914, and completed only nine days later.

The day after work was completed, August 14, 1914, the Royal Navy commissioned RMS Otranto as one of His Majesty's Ships (HMS), and thereafter she was referred to as HMS Otranto. The Otranto was now an AMC, ready for assignment to convoy-protection and commerce-raiding missions. Unfortunately, like her German counterparts, little could be done to change her characteristic appearance, and she would always be vulnerable to severe damage when engaged in combat because she had comparatively poor fire control and far less armor than was needed for protection.

Nevertheless, on August 17, 1914, she was ordered to sea. Aboard her were many of her peacetime officers and crew who had volunteered to serve for the duration of the war. These men were, in turn, joined by officers and sailors assigned by the Admiralty from the Royal Naval Reserve.

HMS Otranto was the second AMC to leave England after hostilities began. Once at sea, her captain reached into his safe and pulled out and read their sealed orders. He was surprised to learn that HMS Otranto was ordered to cross the Atlantic and join the Royal Navy's South Atlantic Squadron operating along the Atlantic coast of Argentina.

After brief stops at Sheerness, Dover, and Portsmouth, the ship and crew headed south, stopping first at St. Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands, where they replenished their coal supply. Then, they continued onward, along a southwesterly course, until they joined the ships that comprised the South Atlantic Squadron off the coast of Brazil on August 27.

After her captain consulted with the squadron commander, HMS Otranto was ordered to join the armored cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth and the light cruiser HMS Glasgow in patrolling the waters off the southeastern coast of South America. Their mission was to sail between Montevideo, Uruguay, and Cape Virgin, Patagonia, to track down and destroy any German raiders they came upon. These enemy ships had been preying on British merchant shipping all along that coast for some time, and the Royal Navy was determined to protect this vital supply line.

Their patrols were soon expanded to include ranging around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America and cruising up along the coast of Chile and back. It was a difficult assignment, and as the weeks passed with no enemy action, their principal enemy became the weather. Depending on where they patrolled, conditions encountered ranged from the most beautiful weather one could imagine with clear skies and glassy seas to storms that had HMS Otranto pitching and rolling in high winds and heavy seas and her crew battling for their lives through sheets of icy rain and bone-chilling cold.

The officers and crew of HMS Otranto had their first scare of the war in mid-October, when—just after they had taken on coal and supplies at Port Legunas, Chile—the ship struck a rock while heading out to sea. A crewman recalled that the ship first "gave a mighty jerk, and [then] shook like a leaf."

Luckily, a diver from the HMS Monmouth was nearby and readily available. He was lowered alongside and carefully checked the hull for damage. When he returned to the surface, he reported that the damage appeared to be very slight, so the ship and crew were allowed to continue with their duties. Two weeks later, however, the monotony would end in blood, death, and horrific tragedy.

The morning of October 31, 1914, began just like any other for the men aboard HMS Otranto. They loaded coal, got the engines running, and sailed out of Port Montt, Chile. They headed north and, on the following day, caught up to and rejoined the men and ships that comprised the now somewhat worn-down South Atlantic Squadron.

The squadron was under the leadership of Adm. Sir Christopher Cradock, a seasoned veteran who had, early in his career, taken part in British campaigns in Egypt and the Sudan. During the Boxer Rebellion in China, he had commanded HMS Alacrity during the assault on the Taku Forts in July 1900 and later headed the force that relieved the Tientsin Settlement. A highly decorated veteran, Cradock had been an admiral since 1910.

It should be mentioned here that ever since HMS Otranto had joined his fleet, Admiral Cradock had been expecting more ships as reinforcements. Unfortunately, the Admiralty was short of ships, and those it had were assigned to protect the country's home ports. As a result, only the armored cruiser HMS Defence and an elderly battleship, HMS Canopus, had been dispatched to join the force, and both were unfortunately still far away.

The morning of November 1, 1914, found the admiral's ships, including HMS Otranto, sailing on a predetermined course, intending to rendezvous with HMS Glasgow. The Glasgow had sailed ahead of the main group to gather intelligence at Coronel, Chile, and was waiting for the rest of the convoy to catch up. During that afternoon, while participating in maneuvers with some of the other ships of the squadron and sailing toward HMS Glasgow, HMS Otranto lookouts reported seeing smoke from one or more unknown ships on the horizon. Then, as they closed in, they identified the ships as being from the German navy's China Fleet. The German commander, Vice Adm. Graf Maximilian von Spee, had learned that HMS Glasgow was nearby and set out with five ships of his fleet from Valparaiso, Chile, to find and sink the British vessel.


Admiral Spee's fast armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, along with three light cruisers, the Nürnberg, Leipzig, and Bremen, had been cruising south and were now directly in the path of the Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto.

Many believe that by the time the German commander spotted the British ships, the battle was already won because he held every advantage: he knew the approximate location of the British ships, he had greater firepower, he held the element of surprise, and his crews were far more competent. Indeed, whereas "most of Cradock's men were recently mobilized reservists, [who] ... through the British Admiralty's fear of wasting ammunition had not fired a shot since the opening of hostilities," the German ships had been together for two years, and their crewmen were highly trained, excellent marksmen.

Some naval historians believe that Admiral Cradock could—and should—have escaped by sailing in the fading light toward the HMS Canopus, some three hundred miles south. Instead, he made the fatal decision to maneuver his outnumbered and outgunned ships to meet the opposing force. They were just off the coast of central Chile, near Coronel, when the Monmouth, Glasgow, and Otranto met up with their flagship, the armored cruiser HMS Good Hope, and began to maneuver into position to fight.

A November 6, 1914, Washington Post report, compiled from statements by victorious German naval officers who "commended the bravery of the British in the uneven combat," describes—from the German perspective—the horrific ensuing sea battle:

The engagement was fought in the teeth of a norther that assumed almost hurricane proportions.... The heavy weather militated against the larger ships, and the Good Hope found her guns almost useless because of the ship's roll.... It was 6 o'clock Sunday night [November 1, 1914] when the Germans sighted the three British ships.

The latter attempted to alter their course, evidently with the intention to approach the coast and gain territorial waters and so avoid an unequal match. The Germans, however, headed them off and forced the battle. At the moment that the German guns were trained, the Good Hope was seen coming at full speed, and through good seamanship she managed to join the other British ships. The British had come about, and the two squadrons sailed southward in parallel lines, the Germans being nearer the coast.

Gradually the two lines came nearer to each other and the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau simultaneously let go their twelve 8-inch guns, which they concentrated on the Good Hope. The firing continued for several minutes without damage. The German shots fell short and the Good Hope had such a roll that she could not reply. The smaller cruisers were far out of range.


Excerpted from MANY WERE HELD BY THE SEA by R. Neil Scott Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Rt. Hon. Lord George Islay MacNeill Robertson of Port Ellen, [Isle of Islay, Scotland], KT, CMG, HonFRSE, PC
Chapter 1: Pride of the P&O Line
Chapter 2: America Joins the War
Chapter 3: Convoy HX-50 Leaves for England
Chapter 4: Prelude to Disaster
Chapter 5: Collision with the Kashmir
Chapter 6: The Mounsey to the Rescue
Chapter 7: The Sinking of the Otranto
Chapter 8: The Families Back Home
Chapter 9: The Aftermath
Chapter 10: The Rest of the Story
Appendix 1: HMS Otranto American Casualties
Appendix 2: HMS Otranto American Survivors
Appendix 3: Soldiers Reported AWOL (Absent without Leave) from HMS Otranto in New York Harbor
Appendix 4: HMS Otranto British Casualties

What People are Saying About This

Carl Reavey

Great naval battles, terrible privation, and mind-boggling acts of heroism flow through Scott's book, which successfully blends the characteristics of a page-turner with meticulous, scholarly research. The charmed life and tragic sinking of the troopship HMS Otranto under the cliffs of a Scottish island resulted in America's heaviest loss of life at sea during World War I, but it could have been so much worse. This was one of the terrible but ultimately uplifting tragedies from which the 'special relationship' between Britain and the United States has been forged. Scott issues a timely reminder. We must never forget.

Irwin H. Streight

Scott tells a well-researched, fast-paced story of one of the most dramatic and courageous sea rescues in modern history, tempered by the tragic loss of so many young American troops. Working with detailed firsthand accounts, historical documents, and private letters, Scott recounts a gripping and heart-rending story of heroism and horror. In the absence of public monuments to the worst maritime disaster to befall American soldiers during World War I, Many Were Held by the Sea serves as a memorial and in itself a monument to the 470 men of HMS Otranto who lost their lives on that unlucky day.

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