Thursday 31 January 1918 We Lost 304
Operation EC1 takes place. Commander Ernest W Leir in the cruiser HMS Ithuriel leads the five ‘K’ type submarines of the Thirteenth Flotilla along the Firth of Forth, directly in the wake of the battle cruiser HMS Courageous, flying the flag of Vice Admiral ‘Sir’ Hugh Evan-Thomas. Some five miles behind him comes the four battle cruisers of the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron and behind them the cruiser HMS Fearless leading the four ‘K’ boats of the Twelfth Flotilla.
The night is clear, the sea calm, and there seems little reason to expect trouble. But a nemesis approaches in the shape of eight armed trawlers sweeping the Firth for mines. They operate out of May Island, and through a breakdown in communications, neither they, nor the officers involved in operation EC1 are aware of the others operations on this day.
A mist now descends reducing visibility so that the Ithuriel loses contact with the Courageous ahead. As Ithuriel begins to lose its way, chaos ensues among her five ‘K’ boats. Minesweeping trawlers appear out of the mist, flashing their navigational lights and baffling the ‘K’ boat commanders who are trying to follow the stern light of Ithuriel. K14 tries to go hard to starboard, but its helm jams for six minutes and its commander has to stop engines to avoid going around in circles. Suddenly, at nineteen knots, K22 (the renamed K13) comes crashing into the virtually stationary K4 (Commander David de Beauvoir Stocks DSO killed at age 34). Lights now flash out from all directions – the signalman on K14 using an Aldis lamp to call for help. Meanwhile, the four huge battle cruisers are bearing down on the scene of the collision, oblivious to the situation ahead. The Australia passes by the collision area safely, managing to detach a destroyer to investigate, but the last of the big ships, HMS Inflexible, plows straight into K22. Meanwhile Commander Leir in the Ithuriel, with his remaining ‘K’ boats, responds to the appeals for help from K14 and K22. He is now virtually at right angles to the approaching battle cruisers. Although he is able to maneuver his cruiser out of harms way, the submarines are too sluggish to move quickly in any direction. Australia and her sister ships just manage to scrape past K12 with inches to spare.
Now steaming up the Firth comes the cruiser HMS Fearless, bringing the other four ‘K’ boats at their full speed of twenty-one knots. With a horrible inevitability, they join the confusion. Fearless rams K17 (Lieutenant Commander Henry John Hearn killed at age 32), sending it straight to the bottom. As Fearless reverses its engines, Ithuriel and K11 rush back to the scene of chaos to look for survivors from K14 and K22. Even now the disasters of this night and the following morning, known later as the “Battle of May Island”, are not over. Traveling at full speed, K6 rams into K4, which, for some reason, is unlit and stationary across its path. K4 is cut in half and sinks rapidly, while K6 narrowly avoids being dragged down with it. The ‘K’ boats now face one final adversary. At the tail of the battle line are the huge battleships of the Fifth Battle Squadron, with their escorting destroyers. While frenzied efforts are made to rescue the survivors of the damaged and sinking ‘K’ boats, the destroyers escorting the battleships arrive and cut straight through the scene, washing away or cutting to pieces the survivors of K17. One hundred three submariners lose their lives this disastrous night and the following morning.
The submarine E50 (Lieutenant Ralph Edgar Snook) is lost with all 50 hands when she strikes a mine south of the Dogger Light Vessel in the North Sea.
Today’s losses include:
- The husband of the 2nd British woman to gain a Royal Aero Club aviators license
- The son-in-law of a Justice of the Peace
- A family that will lose two sons in the Great War
- The son of a member of the clergy
- The Grand Fleet Boxing Champion
Today’s highlighted casualties include:
- Commander David de Beauvoir Stocks is married to Cheridish de Bauvoir Stocks the second British woman to gain a Royal Aero Club aviators license #153 in 1911 and is the son in law of Captain Ernst DL JP.
- Lieutenant Hugo William Louis Tyrrell (K17) killed at age 26. He is the son of ‘Sir’ William and Lady Tyrrell whose younger son has been killed in action in the Coldstream Guards in 1915.
- Lieutenant Claude Michael Ashmore Wellesley (K4) is killed at age 27. His brother died at home in October 1916 after being awarded the Military Cross.
- Lieutenant Herbert Wilkins Antram (Royal Naval Reserve, K17) is killed at age 25. He is the son of the Reverend Charles Edward Potts Antram Vicar of Blean.
- Midshipman Ernest Semple Cunningham (Royal Australian Navy K17) the 1917 Grand Fleet Boxing Champion in his weight category is killed at age 27.
- Stoker 1st Class James Henry Tredgett (K4) is killed. His brother was killed on HMS Laforey in March 1917.