Battle of the Otranto Straits 15th/16th June 1917

                                                         Unsung Fishermen Heroes

 

 

May 15th/16th is the centenary of the Battle of the Otranto Straits which became known as the Jutland of the Mediterranean. To summarise, a squadron of Austrian light cruisers with a destroyer escort were dispatched to smash a group of 47 requisitioned herring drifters with crews of reservists who were mainly fishermen. The drifters were manning a line of anti-submarine nets designed to stop the Austrian submarines breaking out into the Mediterranean and disrupting the UK's supply lines from the Middle and Far East.

The drifter crews rather than falling back or abandoning their boats as instructed by the Austrians largely held position and a number tried to shoot it out with the Austrian cruisers (with 3pdr and 6pdr guns !!) Their losses were inevitably heavy. 14 drifters were sunk and several others seriously damaged.

Thankfully only nine British sailors were killed and seventy two taken prisoner. Apparently the Austrians were under instruction to destroy the drifters with the least possible loss of life.

The bravery of the men was acknowledged through to Joseph Watt of Gardenstown, skipper of the Broch drifter Gowanlea, winning the VC and his gunner Frederick Lamb also a fishermen, a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for continuing to try to fire his gun after a direct hit on him and his gun and to his severe injury.

The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to five drifter skippers:

William Bruce of BCK 181 Quarry Knowe

Robert Stephen of FR 212 Taits

William Farquhar of BCK 203 Admirable

Robert Cowe of FR 566 Coral Haven

Dennis Nichols of YH 973 Floandi

Fourteen drifters were sunk:

BCK 203 Admirable (2284)

BF 311 Avondale (2114)

FR 566 Coral Haven (2112)

KY 279 Craignoon (2271)

BCK 75 Felicitas (1399)

LT 276 Girl Gracie (1869)

YH 786 Girl Rose (2714)

BF 662 Helenora (2274)

BCK 181 Quarry Knowe (2414)

PD 123 Selby (2711)

BCK 74 Serene (2186)

FR 212 Taits (2155)

BF 497 Transit (2434)

LT 1174 Young Linnett. (1916)

Damaged, Some Very Badly:

BF 545 British Crown (2115)

YH 973 Floandi (748)

LT 395 Garrigil (1924)

FR 105 Gowanlea (2102)

FR 238 Jean (2490)

BF 722 Union (2159)

Others known to have been involved:

LT 109 Bon Espoir (1156)

PD 356 Endeavour (2701)

BCK 68 Frigate Bird (2276)

BCK 102 Mill o' Buckie (2272)

KY 128 Morning Star 11 (2127)

LT 765 Xmas Daisy (1836)


The service of the fishermen and the boats in two World Wars is largely and shamefully an untold story.

At a personal level, my grandfather and his two brothers and six cousins were temporary skippers of drifters on minesweeping duties in WW I and Jo Watt VC was the in the crew of a Macduff drifter with my grandfather in the 1930's. My Grandfather described him as a very pleasant and humble man.

If you want further information on the events or the boats please contact me through the website email address.

Appendix A

Full List of Honours Awarded

Source: naval-history.net and London Gazette

30258 - 28 AUGUST 1917

Admiralty, 29th August, 1917.

Honours for Service in the Action in the Straits of Otranto on the 15th May, 1917.

 The KING (is) pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officer:

Skipper Joseph Watt, R.N.R., 1206 W.S.A. For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of the ]5th May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the "Gowan Lea," Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter's gun. The gun's crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the "Gowan Lea" alongside the badly-damaged drifter "Floandi" and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

_____

Chancery of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George,

The KING (is) pleased to give directions for the following appointment to the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George:

To be an Additional Member of the Third Class, or Companions, of the said Most Distinguished Order:

Capt. Albert Percy Addison, R.N. In recognition of his services in command of H.M.S. "Dartmouth" during the pursuit of and running fight with Austrian cruisers, which had attacked the Allied drifter line in the Straits of Otranto on the 15th May, 1917, and especially for his excellent judgment and work in bringing his ship safely into port, when she had been torpedoed by an enemy submarine on. her passage back, after the cruiser action was over.

________

Admiralty, 29th August, 1917.

The KING has further been graciously pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Distinguished Service Order and for the award of the decorations and medals specified below to the undermentioned officers and men in recognition of their services in the action in the Straits of Otranto on the 15th May, 1917:

To be Companions of the Distinguished Service Order:

Capt. George James Todd, R.N. For his services in command of H.M.S. "Bristol" during the action.

Engr. Cdr. Frank Rheuben Goodwin, R.N. For exceptional work under very trying conditions in bringing H.M.S. "Dartmouth " to port after she was torpedoed.

To receive the Distinguished Service Cross:

Skipper William Bruce, R.N.R., 1486 W.S.A. He remained at his post with his crew when under the fire of a very superior force until his ship, H.M. Drifter "Quarry Knowe," blew up.

Skipper Robert Stephen, R.N.R., 1384 W.S.A. He remained at his post, although under heavy fire from a very superior force, until his ship, H.M. Drifter "Taits," was badly damaged and in a sinking condition.

Skipper William Farquhar, R.N.R, 1310 W.S.A. He remained at his post with his crew, although under the fire of a very superior force, only leaving his ship, H.M. Drifter "Admirable," as she was sinking.

Skipper Robert Cowe, R.N.R., 1774 W.S.A. Although under fire from a very superior force, he remained at his post, keeping his ship, H.M. Drifter "Coral Haven," heading for the enemy, and encouraging his crew to fight their small gun. Four rounds were fired, and he and his crew only escaped from their ship when she was on fire and in a sinking condition.

Skipper Dennis John Nichols, R.N.R., 834 W.S.A. He remained at his post in the wheel house, steering his ship, H.M. Drifter "Floandi," and although wounded himself, assisted in removing the more severely wounded members of his crew. Later he went in a small boat, plugging the holes in ship's side, thereby enabling her to reach port.

To receive a Bar to the Distinguished Service Cross.

Lieut. Robert Henry Baunton, D.S.C., R.N.R. He was in charge of the patrol line, and did extremely good work in rallying the Drifters and reorganising the various groups.

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Dkhnd. Frederick Hawley Lamb. R.N.R., O.N. 1491 TS. Though severely wounded in the leg by the explosion of a box of ammunition on H.M. Drifter "Gowan Lea," he stuck to his gun endeavouring to make it work.

Engmn. Charles Mobbs, R.N.R., O.N. 1760 ES. He remained at his post until the main steam pipe was shot away, when he was forced to leave the engine-room, but as soon as possible he returned and put out the fires. He also went in a small boat and assisted to plug holes in the ship's side, thus enabling her to reach port safely.

2nd Hnd. John Turner, R.N.R., O.N. 5098 DA. He displayed great coolness whilst under fire. Seeing that the enemy were endeavouring to destroy the W/T apparatus, Turner went aloft to strike the topmast, quite regardless of the fact that shells were passing between the mast and funnel.

Engmn. Walter Watt, R.N.R., O.N. 2089 TS. The crew were taken prisoners, but on their way to the Austrian cruiser Watt jumped overboard. He was recaptured, and when alongside the cruiser he again jumped overboard and escaped. He was picked up by another drifter 1 1/2 hours later.

2nd Hnd. Joseph Hendry, R.N.R., O.N. 1959 SA. His ship being in a sinking condition, the remainder of the crew left her in a small boat and were taken prisoners, but Hendry refused to leave. His ship eventually sank under him, and he was in the water for some hours until picked up by another drifter.

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

Dkhand. Robert McKenzie, R.N.R., O.N. 4142 DA.

Engmn. William Noble, R.N.R., O.N. 1838 ES.

Engmn. James Dowie, R.N.R., O.N. 2113 TS.

Dkhnd. William Francis Painter, R.N.R., O.N. 11219 DA.

Ldg. Dkhnd. Alexander Magill, R.N.R., O.N. 223 SD.

Engmn. William Herne Fowler, R.N.R., O.N. 2439 ES.

2nd Hnd. John Pirie, R.N.R, O.N. 991 SA.

Dkhnd. George Olive, R.N.R., O.N. 3296 SD.

Ord. Teleg. William Holmes Wadsworth, R.N.V.R., O.N. Z/1230 (Mersey).

Ch. Yeo. Sigs. Tom Smith, O.N. 185978 (Dev.).

E.R.A., 2nd Cl., George Hownam, O.N. 271439 (Dev.).

Ch. Sto. Thomas Phillips, O.N. 285849 (Dev.).

P.O. George James William Bower, O.N. 227848 (Dev.).

C.P.O. Albert Edward Stones, O,N. 192314 (Po.).

P.O. James Maloney, O.N. 236647 (Po.). Act.

C.E.R.A., 2nd Cl., George Herbert, O.N. 272273 (Po.).

Ch. Sto. Thomas Mann, O.N. 295386 (Po.).

To receive a Bar to the Distinguished Service Medal.

Dkhnd. Edward Ernest Godbold, R.N.R., O.N. 3321 D.A.

The following officers and men were mentioned in Despatches:

Cdr. DouglasWilliam O'Bryen Forsyth, R.N.

Cdr. Robert Gerald Fane, R.N. (killed in action).

Engr. Cdr. Ernest Edward Bartlett, R.N.

Lieut. George Reuben Barling, R.N.R. (killed in action).

Chief Skipper Harold John Goldspink, D.S.C, R.N.R., 1937 W.S.A.

Skipper Walter Henry Chaney, R.N.R., 1242 S.A.

Skipper Frank Hutchings, R.N.R., 1305 W.S.A.

Skipper George Thain, R.N.R., 1074 W.S.A.

Skipper Ephraim Elijah Snowling, R.N.R., 1962 W.S.A.

Ord. Teleg. Douglas Morris Harris, R.N.V.R., O.N. Z9359 (Bristol) (killed in action).

2nd Hnd. Adam Gordon, R.N.R., 3945 DA. (killed in action).

Trmr. George Craig, R.N.R., O.N. 3018 TS. (killed in action).

2nd Hnd. John Stephen, R.N.R., O.N. 3685 DA.

2nd Hnd. Alexander Findlay, R.N.R., O.N. 5184 DA

Dkhnd. James Christopher John Taylor, R.N.R., O.N. 8912 DA.

Dkhnd. William Henry Adams, R.N.R., O.N. 3652 SD.

Engmn. John Sim, R.N.R., O.N. 3378 ES.

Dknnd. James Boulton, R.N.R., O.N. 15230 DA.

Engmn. John Edwin Cooper, R.N.R., O.N. 871 DA.

Engmn. Thomas Anderson, R.N.R., O.N. 2178 ES.

Trmr. Thomas Leggat, R.N.R., O.N. 4288 TS.

2nd Hnd. Alexander Smith, R.N.R., O.N. 1857 SA.

Dkhnd. Edwin Goldsmith Hitter, R.N.R., O.N. 8077 DA.

Sto. P.O. Arthur Egglishaw, O.N. 295126 (R.F.R., Ch,/B6423).

Ch. Shipwt. George Henry Sly, O.N. 342641 (Dev.).

A.B. Thomas Richardson, O.N. J12188 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Albert Hargreaves, O.N. 232134 (Dev.).

Shipwt., 1st Cl., Edwy John Forse, O.N. 344049 (Po.).

Sto. P.O. William Joyce, O.N. 311080 (Po.).

Sto., 1st Cl., James Ewart Maplesden, O.N. K23040 (Po.).

Lce.-Corpl. Alfred Gee, R.M.L.I., No. Po. 14933.

_____

Appendix B

Other Net Drifters based at Taranto as at April 12th 1917

A number of these must have been on station on the night of the battle but are not named in the records I have seen.

0158 YH 2   Sedulous                                                       1888 YH 665 Fred Salmon                                              

1010 LT 11 Welcome                                                       1892   LT 1160 Forerunner                                      

1037 LT 1188 Hastings Castle                                            1893 LT 1145 Silver Herring                        

1055 LT 316 Meg II                                                         1894 LT 859 Orient II      

1061 LT 763 Foresight                                                     1898 LT 1079 Playmates

1125 A 363 Royal Bank                                                    1904 YH 999 Provider    

1141 A 258 Holly Bank                                                     1909 LT 1177 Ploughboy

1147 YH 157 Boy Eddie                                                   1920 YH 757 Violet and Rose  

1161 YH 817 Speranza                                                     1922 YH 7 King Herring

1411 YH 117 Selina                                                          1923 LT 469 DHS

1413 YH 680 Pamela                                                        1924 LT 395 Garrigill

1451 YH 558 Eleven                                                         1925 LT 345 Primevere

1473 SN 350 Nelly                                                            1926 LT 277 Dulcie Doris              

1477 SN 343 Ursula II                                                        1927 LT 441 Boy George III

1484 YH 562 Twelve                                                         1927 LT 1119 Sarah Marian                                                  

1485 YH 596 Sixteen                                                         1930 LT 1122 Heather Bloom

1821 LT 456 Clara and Alice                                                2013 BF 866 Clyde II

1823 LT 203 Qui Sait                                                         2022 ME 244 North Esk II

1836 LT 765 Xmas Daisy                                                     2119 FR 81 St Combs Haven

1837 LT 540 Maud Evelyn                                                  2127 KY 128 Morning Star II

2131 KY 189 Evening Star                                                 2496 BCK 50 Craigbo

2135 INS 158 Ben Bui                                                       2501 BF 262 Lively II

2151 BCK 156 Prestige                                                      2508 Oberon II

2159 BF 722 Union                                                           2570 INS 75 Mayflower

2160 BF 649 Prosperity II                                                  2702 Racer II

2162 BF 424 Maggie                                                         2710 INS 174 Caledonia

2164 BCK 148 Exuberant                                                  2711 Selby

2166 BF 1465 Burd                                                          2713 LT 77 Fisher Girl

2173 BF 1002 Jeannie                                                      2715 YH 702 Doris Maud

2184 INS 47 Britannia IV                                                   2723 DE 31 Capella

2185 BF 167 Sunnyside                                                    2725 INS 120 Carol and Dorothy

2187 BCK 137 Bramble II                                                  2726 LY 872 Finross

2188 FR 557 Verdure                                                       2728 LY 852 Calistoga

2196 INS 249 Unicorn                                                      2729 BF 968 Viola III

2200 ME 156 Mare                                                           3155 BF 484 Uberty

2204 BCK 25 Floreat

2206 LT 492 Our Allies

2215 BCK 152 Clach na Cudin

2219 LT 103 Norfolk County

2267 BF 330 Tea Rose

2270 BF 93 Craigneen

2276 BCK 68 Frigate Bird

2289 BCK 185 Prime

2291 INS 254 Broch Head

2306 LT 461 Pearl III

2364 FR 104 Ocean Pride

2374 PD 148 Violet Flower

2391 FR 270 Daisy II

2434 BF 497 Transit

2469 BF 654 Lovedale

2471 BCK 173 Economy

2482 BCK 178 Laurel bank

2490 FR 238 Jean