Fyne Pioneer, Loch Fyne

Site Name: Otranto - Islay & Jura


The Otranto was a 12,124gt steel steamship, built by Workman Clark & Co, Belfast, and launched in March 1909. She enjoyed only a five year career as an Orient Steam Navigation Co passenger liner on the Australia run before the outbreak of the First World War and her requisitioning by the British Government. She was then converted into an armed merchant cruiser equipped with several 6 inch deck guns and served throughout the war. Later her role changed again to that of a troop carrier. 


On 24th September 1918 she set sail on her final voyage from New York bound for Glasgow and Liverpool. She sailed in convoy HX.50 escorted by the US cruisers Louisiana and St Louis and the destroyer USS Dorsey. Captain Ernest W G Davidson and his 362 crew had 665 American troops aboard. On 1st October this compliment was supplemented by the unlucky crew of the French sailing ship Croisine, run down by the Otranto as the convoy, with lights out, sailed straight through a fleet of French fishing vessels. The convoy of thirteen ships, with a total of almost 20,000 troops aboard bound for the battlefield of Flanders, sailed in six columns, each column 3 cables from the next. The Otranto was the leading ship in column 3. Column 4 to the north was led by the SS Kashmir, an 8,985 ton liner of the P&O line.


The voyage across the North Atlantic went well until, as they approached the North Channel, they encountered a violent gale which built up enormous waves and shipped the sea into streaks of white foam and spray. The convoy had been navigating for some days by dead reckoning as the visibility had not allowed any sightings to be taken. On the morning of the 6th October, through the murk, the officers aboard both vessels spotted land. The master of the Kashmir rightly identified the land and the breakers that were less than two miles of his port bow, as the coast of Islay. The officer of the Watch aboard the Otranto thought that the land he could see, little over a mile of his starboard bow, was Inishtrahull. Both ships’ helms were put hard over and their inside screws stopped to steer away from the danger seen, the Kashmir to starboard, the Otranto to port, tragically turning them towards each other. The Kashmir turned quickly but the Otranto laboured in the huge seas. At 8:45am the two ships collided, the Kashmir striking the Otranto amidships on her port side almost at right angles despite the attempts by both crews to avoid the collision by reversing rudders and engines. The two ships, both badly damaged, quickly drifted apart and lost each other in the haze. The Kashmir limped on, apparently oblivious to the mortal damage that had been inflicted upon the Otranto. 


The Kashmir survived but the Otranto was doomed. Water poured through a huge hole in her side soon extinguishing her fires and, despite letting go her huge anchors, she drifted helplessly in the direction of the rocky Islay coast. HMS Mounsey, commanded by Lt F W Craven, was the first ship to answer the desperate SOS calls from the Otranto and by 10.00am she was in sight of the stricken ship. It is difficult to imagine the scene during the rescue which followed. The massive liner dwarfing the destroyer with both rearing and plunging in the enormous swell and the disciplined lines of US troops waiting for their chance to jump onto the heaving deck of the Mounsey. Despite the mountainous seas, Lt Craven made repeated attempts to bring the small naval vessel alongside the Otranto. The ships came together successfully four times, the Mounsey smashing against the Otranto’s sides. Each time wave after wave of men jumped for their lives from the stricken liner down onto the heaving decks of the small destroyer below. Many fell between the ships’ sides and were crushed or drowned while many others were killed or badly injured as they crashed onto the destroyer’s deck. Others however landed safely and clung desperately to the small ship. The Mounsey then sailed for Belfast with 596 men aboard and in great danger of sinking herself due to the overcrowding. This left around 400 still aboard the now rapidly sinking Otranto.


She had hit bottom less than a half mile from the shore and, as she was in danger of breaking up, Captain Davidson gave the order to abandon ship. Men desperately swam through the stormy water for the shore; only 16 were to survive this ordeal. For days afterwards the bodies of the victims, including Captain Davidson, were washed ashore upon the beaches and rocky shores of the west coast of the island. Most of them were mutilated beyond recognition by the cruel combination of rocks and surge. The bodies were dutifully collected and buried in a special burial ground above Machir Bay, overlooking the site of the loss of their ship. In total some 431 men died, making this tragedy the worst convoy accident of the First World War. HMS Mounsey arrived safely back in Belfast with her precious cargo of survivors. Lt Craven was subsequently decorated for the gallantry he had displayed in commanding his ship in the rescue effort. When the war ended some two months later, Francis Craven DSO DSC DSM resigned from the Royal Navy and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary where he rapidly rose to the rank of Divisional Inspector. DI Craven’s life as a police officer however was to prove to be a short one as he was killed on the 2nd February 1921 in an IRA roadside ambush.


The people of Islay rushed to the aid of the young men who were washed up on their shore, helping survivors out of the water and providing food, clothing and accommodation while the men were nursed back to health. Survivor Dave Roberts described how he was saved from the water: 'The waves carried me away from the ship, then one about as high as a house came over me and whirled me around like paper in a whirlwind. I went under. A Scotch lad got hold of a sailor and me and took us to a cottage. All I had left on was my underwear, pants and shirt - one sock. When we got to the shore, they put us to bed. It sure was fine, two pair of woollen blankets. The people there could not have treated us any better.'


Malcolm MacNeill, as the police sergeant in Bowmore, reported what had happened, and undertook the distressing job of logging the bodies. He recorded descriptions of the bodies washed ashore, savagely battered by the rocks. Many were identifiable only by their tattoos or the military tags they wore. When the bodies were finally buried, Sgt Macneill corresponded with the families in the United States, who were desperate for news of their loved ones. At the end of the war he was awarded the MBE for his actions on those terrible nights.


It was the worst convoy disaster in the whole of the war. At the subsequent inquiry both ships were found equally to blame for the incident.

Dive Site Info

The wreck of the Otranto lies today where she foundered and broke up, some 500 metres off the shore of the west coast of Islay. 


Despite the large area of broken wreckage (approx 100 sq metres) spread either side of the reef on which she ran aground, it is still a difficult wreck to locate in a large bay, as apart from her boilers, most of the remaining wreckage has been flattened to the seabed. The remains of anchor chain, steel plates, plus one of her large deck guns are still present. The deepest part of the wreckage is at about 16 metres. Her six huge boilers are the highest part coming to within 9 metres of the surface, rising 5 metres from the seabed in two parallel lines. These have begun to break up in the last decade. The site is littered with live shells.


Items reported to the Receiver of Wreck include portholes, brass nuts, iron nuts and bolts, shell casings, a telephone, and the handguard of a sword. In the past, items of her original cargo including motor bikes, army vehicles and locomotives, have been reported as still present on the site.


The real interest in this wreck perhaps lies in her history and the tragic tale of her sinking.


When to dive

This site is subject to minimal tidal streams but is very exposed to Atlantic swell which can make diving difficult in other than ideal weather conditions.

Otranto - Islay & Jura - Fyne Pioneer

Photographer unknown.

HMS Otranto in WW1. Photo in public domain as part of IWM collections.

Otranto - Islay & Jura - Fyne Pioneer

The Otranto before she was requisitioned.

Otranto - Islay & Jura - Fyne Pioneer

Report detailing the find of Capt Davidson's body, 2nd Nov 1918.