Reviewed by Alan M. Anderson
During World War I, over two million American servicemen were successfully transported across the Atlantic Ocean to England and France. Of the many troopships traveling eastward, German U-boats torpedoed three. The only other troopship lost, Otranto, sank on 6 October 1918, after another troopship rammed her during a terrific storm in the channel between Ireland and northern Scotland. Over 350 American soldiers lost their lives in the disaster, more than the number of Americans lost on any one of the troopships that were torpedoed. In total, 470 lives were lost when Otranto went down.
Despite its significance as the most costly loss incurred in overseas transport of American troops during World War I, the sinking of Otranto has been largely forgotten. In Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto, the late R. Neil Scott (who passed away three months before the book’s publication) illuminates the tragedy – and heroism – surrounding the ship’s loss. Scott peels away the nearly 100 years since the ship sank to tell the story of the ship and the soldiers (mostly from rural Georgia) she carried, and the heroism of the captain of a small escort destroyer who saved over 500 men. The author describes the assistance and empathy of the villagers of the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, where the ship foundered and where a few survivors and hundreds of victims’ bodies washed ashore. Scott also recounts the bureaucratic mess within the United States War Department, which resulted in news of the loss and notices to next of kin being delayed for weeks and months. Finally, Scott discusses the relative speed with which the disaster was forgotten, despite efforts by survivors in the United States to remember the tragedy. Notwithstanding the number of lives lost, “there are no statues, towers, or other notable reminders in the United States of the fathers, sons, and husbands lost on Otranto, . . . not even . . . a street, bridge, or building named for the men.” (P. 143.)
Scott’s research into the sinking of HMS Otranto began as a result of a visit with his father to a cemetery in Georgia where one of the survivors was buried. His father’s knowledge of the survivor caused Scott to begin more than ten years of research into the otherwise long-forgotten event. Based on archival research in the United States, England, and the island of Islay, as well as materials supplied by survivors’ and victims’ relatives, Many Were Held by the Sea tells the story from the perspectives of the soldiers and crewmen on board, the rescuers on HMS Mounsey, the islanders, and the next of kin back home.
Originally built in 1909 as a luxury passenger liner, the Otranto was requisitioned and converted into an armed merchant cruiser on the outbreak of World War I. Commencing in July 1918, the ship transported American soldiers from New York to Liverpool. Her first round trip voyage was uneventful. However, she would never complete her second.
On 25 September 1918, Otranto left New York City with approximately 700 troops aboard. The vessel was the command ship for a convoy of thirteen transports, carrying nearly 19,000 American soldiers. Almost immediately, the convoy hit rough seas. As it continued across the North Atlantic, toward the channel between Ireland and Scotland, the weather worsened, until the convoy was “battling a massive storm with Force 11 winds and poor visibility.” (P. 67.) Adding to the misery of the troops from seasickness, Spanish influenza developed throughout the convoy; HMS Otranto had more than one hundred cases on board.
On the morning of 6 October, with the convoy still fighting massive waves often towering more than fifty feet in height, the ship was accidentally rammed on her port side by HMS Kashmir, another troopship in the convoy. Consistent with standing orders not to linger by disabled ships, Kashmir continued on her way despite damage to her bow, and made it to port.
For Otranto, the damage was fatal. The ship lost power and began to drift toward the rocky cliffs of the island of Islay, only a few miles away. There was little the crew could do. Then HMS Mounsey, a small destroyer escort searching for the convoy came upon the stricken ship. Despite great risk to his much smaller vessel, the captain of Mounsey repeatedly brought his ship alongside HMS Otranto and encouraged soldiers and sailors to jump onto the deck of the destroyer. Some timed their leap badly and were crushed between the two ships or fell into the swirling seas. But over 500 men successfully made it to Mounsey before it had to leave the area lest she go down in its overloaded condition.
As Otranto drifted toward the rocky coastline, the remaining soldiers and crew endeavored to save themselves as best they could. The ship smashed on a reef, and only twenty-one soldiers and crewmen made it safely to shore, where two of them later died. Hundreds of bodies washed ashore and were tangled in the wreckage of the former passenger liner. The residents of Islay cared for the few survivors and carefully buried the many dead.
For the next of kin of the American soldiers lost in Otranto, the following weeks and months were characterized by slow and often inaccurate information, as the War Department struggled to determine who had been lost and who had been rescued. Some parents were told their son was safe, only to be advised days or weeks later that he had perished. The opposite occurred as well. Confusion and lack of focus engendered by inadequate records, the end of the war, and the raging influenza pandemic conspired to cause the tragedy of the loss of Otranto to soon fade from memory.
Despite being generally well written, Many Were Held by the Sea suffers from several deficiencies. Chief among them is the lack of a bibliography. Given the extensive and far-flung research Scott conducted, a bibliography would have been a great boon to later researchers. Also, the text contains troubling inconsistencies, such as when the escorts to the convoy are accurately described as cruisers, only to be called battleships twenty pages later. In addition, the author needlessly repeats points having initially made them, in some instances multiple times.
Nevertheless, Scott’s posthumously published book brings to light a long-neglected tragedy from America’s role in World War I and reveals the personal losses as well as the courageous actions of many. More importantly it should go far to ensure that the sinking of HMS Otranto is not forgotten.
Alan M. Anderson is a graduate student at King’s College, London who is writing on ”The Impact of the Laws of War on Naval Strategy in Great Britain and the United States, 1899-1909” (expected completion: 2014)