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Naval disasters especially in wartime are sadly a common occurrence, for example, The RMS Lusitania, HMS Cressy,  HMS Indefatigable, HMS Black Prince,  to name but a few.

History With Flynn

This tale from October 1918 is particularly poignant because the War had only one more month to run before peace was declared and sanity would once again prevail, sadly it would be too late for 470 American soldiers aboard the HMS Otranto.

The HMS Otranto was  was an armed merchant cruiser which later became a troopship, however the ship was considered by superstitious mates to be cursed.

When launched in in 1909 the tallow used to grease the slipway froze and it took a further four days before it could be launched, an early omen, perhaps?

During World War 1 the ship had been deployed off the coast of South America on patrol duties looking for German shipping.

Fast forward to 1st October, 1918 and the HMS Otranto was sailing from New York to England laden with American soldiers.

She accidentally collided with a French fishing boat off Newfoundland which was laden with cod, the crew of 36 were taken on board the HMS Otranto and then oddly enough the decision was made to sink the fishing schooner as a safety measure.

The "curse" struck again the next day when one of the crew died from Influenza, this was at the start of the Spanish influenza pandemic which would kill 50 to 100 million people, worldwide.

As the ship approached the coast of Scotland it was battered by mountainous sea's and heavy gales which measured Force 11 on the Beaufort Scale.

The HMS Kashmir  was moored alongside the HMS Otranto when a calamitous error was made, the Kashmir accidentally rammed into the Otranto, hitting it on the port side, punching a hole some 20 feet deep and 16 feet wide, flooding the bulkheads and killing many crew members trapped below the waterline.

The collision caused the Otranto to drift towards to the cliffs of Islay and certain death for most of the crew members.

A rescue ship the HMS Mounsey managed to save 500 men also the rather unlucky 36 French fishermen, who lets be fair had, had quite an eventful trip to say the least.

Large waves threw the Otranto onto "Old Woman's Reef" some three quarter of a mile from shore, 21 men were able to to swim ashore to safety, including a young man from Salford, the rest were doomed.


By the following morning the Otranto had been completely destroyed and the grim spectacle of 100's of bodies, in piles up to 15 feet high were washed ashore was witnessed by horrified rescuers and locals who had rushed to help in any way they could..

A total of 316 American soldiers were drowned in several hours, their remains were recovered and buried on Islay on the nearby Island of Muck.

As I mentioned earlier a Salford man, 25 year old, Albert Tilbrook an Engineer on the Otranto was one of the lucky survivors, he was washed up ashore after being in the water for five hours.

Albert lived in Rudman Street, off Regent Road, Salford and he wrote home to his parents from Islay to tell them that he had survived.

In his letter he is incredibly modest and stated that he abandoned the stricken ship to swim to rocks about two and a half miles away, where he was eventually picked up.

"I am not hurt beyond one or two bruises, cold and exposure, I am being well cared for and so don't worry about me, I am safe sound and sound, love to all the family"

We learn that Albert had attended St Bartholomew's school and have been  known locally as a strong swimmer, attending Regent Road swimming baths.

I would love to know if Albert received a medal or any form of recognition for this outstanding bravery and surviving the horrendous ordeal, he sounds a remarkable man.

A stone tower was built by the on the Mull of Oa by The American Red Cross to commemorate the the brave men who were lost aboard from the Otranto. a fitting tribute to what is a tragic story.

Tony Flynn

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