THE OTRANTO DISASTER 1918
The Tragic Story of a WWI Sea Disaster –
And the Dare Devil Rescue that Saved 600 Lives
Scottish TV Company CALEDONIA TV is making a film for the BBC and US TV to mark the 100th anniversary of the Otranto Disaster. CALEDONIA TV is seeking descendants and families of the men who died and the survivors to tell their stories on screen.
If you are a descendant or know of someone please contact Donald Campbell at Caledonia TV:
0044 141 564 9100
HMS Otranto Disaster
A troopship, crammed with more than a thousand men, suffered a catastrophic collision off the storm-lashed coast of the Scottish Hebrides. This is the story of the tragic Otranto, the 470 American soldiers and British sailors who were lost on her, and of how hundreds of others were snatched from the jaws of death.
The end of the Great War was just weeks away when former P&O luxury liner, the Otranto, crossed the Atlantic, laden with young American soldiers. Just a few months before, she had made the same trip with Private Buster Keaton on board. To defy German submarines, the Otranto sailed in a convoy, protected by a ring of British warships.
But, appalling weather prevented accurate navigation and the convoy was forced to rely on dead reckoning. When dawn broke, on the 6th of October 1918, a treacherous rocky coast was sighted. Most ships correctly identified it as Scotland, but not the Otranto. Her officers thought they were off Ireland. The Otranto turned north – and another troopship, the Kashmir, sliced into her, breaking her back.
An extraordinary rescue mission ensued. British destroyer HMS Mounsey saved 596 men but 489 were left behind. Only 21 men – 17 of them Americans – managed to swim to the coast of the island of Islay, where they were dragged from the sea by islanders – mostly boys and old men not called-up to the army.
But it was mostly bodies that the Islay people dragged ashore. The following morning the coast was strewn with scores of them. In a remarkable display of public sympathy, local people scoured beaches, and men roped themselves together to climb down cliffs to retrieve bodies.
Kilchoman Church became a morgue. 100 bodies were stretched out on the pews. When the church got full, they laid another 100 of the dead outside among the gravestones. The islanders buried these dead strangers in a moving and dignified ceremony.
In America, the sense of shock was palpable. The New York Times, broke the story in page after page of horrific detail. Nowhere was the shock more profoundly felt than Berrien County, Georgia. A disproportionate number of men came from the area, and of the 60 names carved on Nashville, GA’s war memorial, 28 are those of Otranto victims.
Otranto Stories in Ray City History
|ROLL CALL OF THE OTRANTO DEAD FROM BERRIEN COUNTY, GEORGIA
Kilchoman Cemetery on Islay is a haunting place, perched on a promontory overlooking the sea. Although the identified American dead were later reinterred in US cemeteries, there are still seventy graves at Kilchoman – the Otranto’s Captain and crew, and 43 un-identified Americans.
A century on, they lie close to the sea which proved to be more deadly than the foe they were sent to fight. Their loss is not forgotten. Half a mile out at sea, and 40 feet below the waves, lies the storm battered hulk of the Otranto.