Otranto Boom

REPORT ON THE RAID BY THE AUSTRIAN NAVY ON THE R.N. DRIFTERS OPERATING THE OTRANTO BOOM DEFENCE IN THE ADRIATIC SEA.

by

SKIPPER GEORGE MCKAY OF MACDUFF.  H.M. DRIFTER “HELENORA.”

          On the morning of the 15th. May 1917 we were lying stem on to our nets according to previous orders in position (8) on our confidential chart, when about 3.30 a.m., I, having the off-duty watch was aroused by the Mate.  I immediately went on deck and heard a lot of gun-fire in an easterly direction from us.  I looked for a minute or two and distinctly saw the flashes of guns in action with some crafts about fifteen miles right under the Albanian land.   About five or ten minutes afterwards, one or two of the vessels went in flames.  I did not know for certain at the time, but since then, I have learned that it was three transports and one destroyer being sunk by three Austrian destroyers.

The morning was fine and calm, but a slight haze hanging over the land prevented me from seeing very clearly.  According to my sailing orders I hung on to the nets.

About one hour afterwards I heard and saw the report and flashing of guns right to the westwards of us.  It was now beginning to make daylight, and shortly afterwards I saw the vessel that was firing, steaming right along the drifter line, steering about E.N.E.  There was a line of drifters from the most southerly point of Italy across the Adriatic in a line east and west.

 

Otranto Boom Defence

Otranto Boom Defence

Being certain now that it was enemy ships I gave orders to slip our nets, which was done making fast two buffs to the end of our warp, we started steaming full speed towards Fano Island along with the rest of our section which numbered eight.   The “O” group were also making for Fano about one mile south of us.  (The drifters were made up in groups or sections numbered and lettered from “A” to “Z” with eight ships in a group and one officer in charge of each group.

After we had been under way ten or fifteen minutes I saw a cruiser about south four of five miles from us steering about west.  Thinking it was a French ship out from Corfu I kept my ship on the same course as did the others.  All at once the cruiser altered her course and came steaming towards us.  Seeing her alter her course I began to get suspicious of her manoeuvres.   Keeping my glasses fixed on her, I made out that she was flying the Austrian colours.   By this time she was within a mile of us and close to the leading “O” drifter, who had hoisted his colours.  Time 4.50 a.m.

Immediately, the cruiser opened fire on the “O” group sinking the two leading drifters almost at once.  I had been steering about E.S.E. up to this time and getting within very close range of the cruiser, but directly the cruiser opened fire I altered my course to W.N.W., the cruiser meanwhile steaming right through the heart of the drifters in a northerly direction.   At the same time I gave orders to my gun crew to open fire which they did at about two hundred yards range.  After we opened fire the enemy’s shells began to fall all around us.   I kept my ship still going on a westerly course for two or three minutes longer when I saw that the other cruiser was making straight for the drifters also from the westward.   I saw now that it was impossible to save my ship so I gave orders to my crew to make ready the small boat and launch her.   At the same time I stopped my ship, got hold of all my confidential books and papers and threw them overboard.  Being lead covered they soon sank.   The cruiser coming from the southward was now only about fifty yards from us.  I gave orders to the crew to get into the small boat and doing so we pulled away from the drifter which was still going through the water at about three miles an hour.

We had only got about ten yards clear of the drifter when the cruiser put three shells into her port side in quick succession.  We were the most northerly drifter in our section at this time except for our flagship which was about two miles in a north-east direction from us.  Directly the cruiser had hit our ship and saw us take to the small boat she altered course and went back south again firing at two of the “O” group that were still afloat.

By this time three of the “O” group had sunk, and also three of the “S” group (“S” being our letter) namely “Avendale,” “Craignoon” and “Serene.”   I could not be certain of the other ships at the time.

My crew and I in the small boat were still rowing for the shore when the cruiser turned round and came towards us again.  I may mention here that my ship , the “Helenora,” was still afloat but gradually going down by the port side, also a lot of smoke and steam was issuing from her funnel and about her casing above the engines, caused I supposed by the water reaching the furnaces putting out the fires.

We were rowing towards the land in our small boat, also the crews of the “Avondale,” “Craignoon” and “Serene” were in three small boats as I have mentioned before.  These three ships had sunk and we were so close to them that I would like to mention here how they went down.

The first one was the “Avondale.”  She had been hit somewhere about the engine-room, and she went down quickly stern first, the fore end of her rising all the time out of the water until I could see seven or eight feet of her keel.   The next to do down was the “Craignoon” or I ought rather to say “to go up.”   She got two shells into her boiler in quick succession and in less time that it takes me to say she went up in the air in a thousand pieces, the debris was falling from her, all around us.   Since I went on duty in the Adriatic I had seen many good ships blown up by mines, and to have seen the “Craignoon” go up in the air, the way she did, any one would have actually thought she had struck a mine.   This also proves to me how most of the drifter “Beneficients’s” crew were killed when she was shelled by one of the three enemy destroyers about twelve months before this time.   The “Serene” was the last of the three to sink.  She had been hit somewhere about the wheelhouse and she gradually settled down by the head, her stern meanwhile rising, so that I saw nearly half her keel.

It was a very dangerous position that the four boats crews were in, the debris from the sinking drifters and a lot of shrapnel was falling down pretty thick around us, and some shells from the cruisers were whizzing over our heads and falling quite near us.  I do not mean to say that the cruisers were actually firing at us in the small boats, it might have been some stray shots.  It was a very trying position to be in, and one that I would not like to go through again.

All this time the cruiser was steaming towards us.  She stopped alongside the “Serene’s” boat, took the crew aboard and came on towards us.  She came down so close to us that I thought her Captain meant to run us down, but no, when he was about on top of us he put his helm to port and came up between us and the other two boats ; at the same time calling on us, in English, to get alongside and come aboard.  Meantime he came astern  with his engines and with the way he had on his ship, my boat fell astern of him and got into the backwash of his propellers which sent us twenty or thirty yards away from him.   Thinking he might not waste time picking us up I tried to waste as much time as possible by keeping my boat in the backwash but he kept his boat coming astern until we were abreast so there was nothing else to do but row alongside  and get aboard, which we did.

When we got aboard the cruiser, which proved to be the “Novara” the Captain who was standing on the quarter deck asked if we were English and I answering in the affirmative, were taken forrard and put below in the second deck where I found the crews of the “Avondale,” “Craignoon” and “Serene” except the Mate of the “Serene” who jumped overboard when the crew took to the small boat.  He was afterwards picked up and landed at Taranto, none the worse.

I will mention here that before I left the deck of the “Navara” to go below, I saw that the “Helenora” was still afloat but getting very low in the water.   Time 5.15 a.m.

When we had been aboard the “Navaro” about five or six minutes we heard the report of one of his port  guns as we were heading north to where I had last seen our Flagship the “British Crown.”   I naturally thought it was at her that he had fired and was expecting him to stop and pick up the crew, but he kept on going at full speed so I went over to the port-hole which was open  and saw that he had been joined by two other enemy cruisers on our port side, one of them I took to be the one I had seen steaming towards us before I was picked up by the “Navara” which I learned afterwards to be the case.  They proved to be the “Sadie” and the “Heligoland” both the same type of ships as the “Novara” but not having so much speed.

About half an hour afterwards one of the crew of the “Novara,” I think it was one of the stokers, who could speak very good English, took down all our names and addresses, and was very civil to us.   He told us that three of the drifter’s shells had hit the cruiser but doing no damage further than dimpling her plate.  He told us this, laughing all the time, as were the rest of the crew at the absurdity, as they termed it, of the drifters firing their pop guns at an armour plated first class cruiser.

The largest gun that any of the drifters had was a six pound Italian fifty metre, which ought to have been in the scrap heap twenty years ago, instead of making a lot of simple fishermen think that their ships were armed and ready, as we were told to tackle anything that was above and under the sea, but we were not allowed to say anything, we were thought to be fools, and as fools we were severely kept from knowing anything but forming fours or doubling when an officer in the Base thought fit to give the order.

About three quarters of an hour after this some of the Austrian sailors brought down some hot tea mixed with some sort of sweet wine, also some black bread and also kept us well supplied with cigarettes, which we were very thankful for.  On the whole we were very well treated all the time we were aboard the “Novara.”

At about 8.0 a.m. the alarm bell rang to close all portholes and enquiring what was the matter I was told that two French destroyers were in pursuit of us.  The engagement did not last long as one of the French ships were seen to be in difficulties.

Nearly all the way up the Adriatic from the time my companions and I were taken on board the “Novara” we were engaged by French and Italian airships who dropped a lot of bombs on the cruisers but failed to hit any of them.

Just shortly after the engagement with the French destroyers, the portholes were again opened and as it was very close and warm I went across to one of them to get a breath of fresh air.  Just as I had put my head out, a bomb fell from one of the aircraft whom we were engaged with at the time, landing in the water about two yards from the ship’s side.   I thought it was a narrow shave but I suppose there had been a good few dropped as near, although I did not see them.

We were all strictly kept below when in action with either aircraft or watercraft.  Everything was going on pleasant enough amongst our drifter men considering the position we were in.  The crew of the cruiser were very good to us and they all appeared to be very cool and collected through all the engagements we were in up to the present.

About 9.0 a.m. the alarm bells rang again.  At the same time one of the Austrian sailors told us they sighted three British cruisers of the Liverpool type.  The crew now all seemed to get excited and kept whispering one to the other the name “Liverpool” as if they had a dread of her.  Five or ten minutes later the ships on both sides got into action.  Where I and my companions were we could not see anything that was happening as we were kept below with three or four sentries with loaded revolvers keeping guard.

As the engagement went on all we could hear was the report of the guns and shells from the British ships striking the “Novara” and also the cries of the wounded men.  It was a trying position to be in, for every minute we were expecting a shell to come through on us and then we would have been like rats in a trap.

The fight went on, the Austrians working up for their base all the time. The French and the Italian airships had been driven back by some Austrian ones that had come out of Cattero to meet the cruisers.  (Cattero was one of their most important naval bases on the Adriatic).

From 9.0 a.m. until about noon the fight went on, when all at once we felt the “Novara” slow down and then stop.  We could easily tell that this was happening by the vibration of the ship.

As we were told afterwards by one of the crew the “Novara” had been hit by a shell from one of the British cruisers, the shell going through her condenser so that she had to stop and blow down all her boilers, just leaving one for keeping her electric lights going, also they had to put down a diver to patch her up as she was hit below the water line.

While all these operations were going on  the fight was at its  hottest, the other Austrian cruisers steaming round and round the “Novara” using every gun they had, the “Novara” doing the same, doing all they could to keep off the British cruisers.

The British had fairly got the upper hand now as the Austrian sailors admitted to us later and I suppose my companions and I would have soon been in Davie Jones locker aboard the Austrian cruiser”Novara” but just at the critical time one of  the Austrian’s latest battleships came out of Cattero and drove the British away after a few more shots were exchanged by both sides.

The  casualties on board the “Novara” were fifteen killed and twenty-five wounded, the Commander being killed and the Captain having his leg blown off.

We were now taken in tow by the cruiser “Heligoland” and towed into Cattero where we arrived at 7.0 p.m.  All the time we were being towed we were escorted by the battleship that came out to our assistance, the “Sadie” and a few small destroyers also some aeroplanes who had by this time come out to us.

As we were only making about eight or ten miles an hour while being towed we were expecting every minute to get a torpedo into us from some allied submarines that might have been lurking about, but nothing happened.

There is one curious thing I would like to mention here.  After we were taken in tow and the ship cleaned up a bit we were allowed to go on deck, so I took the opportunity.  As I was emerging from the companion-way two Austrian sailors were coming along the deck, one of them very badly wounded.  He had one arm in a sling, his head was bandaged and also one of his legs.  In fact he could hardly walk without the aid of his companion.  When he saw me he held out his uninjured hand for me to shake, at the same time saying “English men good.”   I thought it strange that after fighting for four hours with his enemy and getting nearly killed in the course of it, he should want to shake hands so friendly with one of them.

While I was on deck, which was only for a minute or two I could see the “Novara’s” bridge and funnels all battered and broken and her decks all strewn with wreckage.  One of the sailors told me later that it would be four months  before she would be ready for sea again.

When I went below some of the sailors had brought down soup and bully and bread for us, but I dont think there was much eaten, for we were all pretty down-hearted at the prospect of being prisoners of war for an indefinite period.

As we came towards the harbour we were not allowed on deck and all portholes  were closed so that we could not see anything but as we went up the harbour we could hear the people on shore cheering and from every ship we passed came the same wild shouting and cheering until we dropped anchor and I think all our boys were glad when they heard the chain running through the hawse, for it had been a very exciting day for us since 3.30 a.m. until 7.0 p.m., being under fire nearly the whole time.

After we had been at anchor about an hour we were served with a ship’s biscuit each, and told to muster on the quarter deck.  We were all standing on the deck for about five minutes so we had a chance of seeing the state the “Novara” was in.   The crew had had the time to clear away some of the wreckage but we could see that she was in a pretty bad state with shell holes and shrapnel all over her decks and bridge.    As we marched aft from the mess deck all that was left of her crew were standing at attention in double file along her deck so that we had to pass between the two lines of men.   We were then put aboard two motor launches, the four skippers in one, and the crews in the other, along with an armed guard and an officer in charge.   We were then taken further up the harbour, and put aboard a merchant vessel that they had been using as a store ship and barracks.   There we found the crews of the drifters “Young Linnet,” “Quarry Knowe,”  “Felicitas,” and “Girl Gracie,” all four being captured that same morning by the cruisers “Sadie” and “Heligoland.”    It being very dark when coming up the harbour in the motor launch, I was unable to see anything that was going on, or where we were going.

We had been aboard this vessel for about an hour, and we were all lying down in the deck, some trying to sleep and some talking, thinking we were going to be left for the night, when we were told to get up and get aboard an old tug that had come alongside. We all got aboard and had been steaming up the harbour for about an hour when we arrived at some pier where the tug got alongside and we landed.  An armed escort of soldiers awaited us, we were then mustered on the pier, got into double file, and marched up the hill for about an hour and a half until we came to an old Montenegrian fortress where we were put into an old shed amongst some straw and after being cautioned by an officer, not to try and escape, we were left for the night, or rather morning, as it was now going on for one o’clock in the morning.

And there I spent my first night as a prisoner of war.  Owing to the very warm weather we had been experiencing while patrolling in the Adriatic we were not wearing a lot of clothes so that when we were captured we did not get time to put on anything extra, resulting in most of the crews just having on a pair of trousers and a shirt.  Some had no boots, some had only one boot and no cap, and some had not even a pair of trousers.   I had nothing but a pair of trousers, a pair of old canvass shoes, a cap but no jacket.  By good luck I had a pipe in my pocket, but no tobacco or money.

While we were marching up to the fortress we would have made a fine picture had it been daylight.  The boys were again in good spirits and although they were at a disadvantage concerning their boots and clothing and feeling rather cold, a run of chaff was kept up the whole time.

While we were on board the merchant ship where we met the other crews of the cruisers, and after we had been given plenty to eat and smoke, one of the officers of the “Sadie” remarked to one of the drifter’s skippers what he thought of their morning’s work concerning the sinking of the drifters.  “It was dutiful not beautiful” he said and he went on to say that he was sorry to have any Englishmen on board his ship as prisoners.

We numbered seventy-two, half English half Scottish, and one Irishman and mostly all fishermen.

The first and second engineman of the “Quarry Knowe” had been killed.  She was hit several times before the crew got time to leave her, one shell going through the engineroom and wounding the first engineman, the latter managing to get on deck without help.  When the crew left the drifter they had to lift him into the small boat and then on board the cruiser where he died about two hours later.  He was taken into Cattero and buried along with the Austrian sailors that had been killed that day.  The skipper and mate of the drifter were allowed to go to the funeral to see him buried.

There were no other casualties among the drifter men except the mate of the “Serene” who, as I mentioned before had jumped overboard when the crew took to the small boat.  We did not know if he had escaped but learned later that he had.

Next morning, the 16th., at 6.0 a.m. we were roused by the sentries for breakfast, which consisted of black coffee, no sugar or milk and no bread.  After we had our coffee they gave us the privilege of a wash but forgetting to give us any soap or a towel.  We were then marched into a backyard for exercise which consisted of lying or standing about until 11.0 a.m. when we were given a portion of bread, half maize, weighing about ¾ lb. to each man. Half an hour later we were lined up for dinner, which consisted of some sort of soup made with sour cabbage and something like dried grass.   We were told that we were getting the same rations as their own soldiers and we found this to be true.  For as bad as the food was, I have seen more than once, soldiers going to the drain and gathering up and eating what our fellows had thrown away.  The country was in a terrible state of starvation.

About an hour after we had our dinner we were all lying or standing about the courtyard when an officer came in, all excited, saying something about an air-raid.  We were all marched into an old tower sort of place that was quite round and the walls about four or five feet thick.  The whole time we could hear the A.A. guns in action all round the fort we were in, but I don’t think the invading planes did any damage of much importance.

The place we were then camped in is about six or seven miles from where we dropped anchor in the “Novara” as far as I could learn.  it was an old fortress at one time belonging to the Montenegrains and situated about one mile from the town of Castlenova.  It is a very old and ancient place and only used for soldier barracks.

After the aeroplanes had gone away we were taken out and got leave to roam about the courtyard just as we pleased until 6.0 p.m. when we were served with more black coffee for our supper.  At 7.0 p.m. we were put into the same shed as we were in the first night, amongst the straw, but we were now all given a blanket each, that we could easily have read a paper through, but for all that, the boys made themselves quite happy singing and joking until the soldiers made them stop.   It was a hard bed but we did manage to get a little sleep.

Next morning, the 17th., at 6.0 a.m. the same routine.  Black coffee for breakfast and bread if we had any left from yesterday, which was not likely, so we had to do without.  After breakfast we were marched into the courtyard at 11.0 a.m. , received a ration of bread and then dinner of sour cabbage.

At 2.0 p.m. three or four Naval officers came into the camp and separated each crew from one another and took each man into an office by himself to try and get information as to how the submarine nets were being worked.   I do not think they got much information out of the boys, as we had expected such a thing would happen, so we put them all on their guard to spin the same yarn.

The Austrian officers were very civil and to my mind proper gentlemen.  They did not press any of us too much to say anything.   As for my part I thought that they were very well  informed of everything that was going on in the Adriatic without any statement from us.  I asked one of the officers if we could get a letter written  to our people to inform them that we were well and where we were but was told that we could not write home until we arrived at our camp.  We would be leaving for our camp in a couple of days, but in the meantime he would take our addresses and try to get word to England through the Red Cross in France. (It was nine weeks from the time we were captured until our people got our first letter).             When the officers had finished questioning us, which lasted some time, we had our supper of black coffee and then turned in for the night amongst the straw.  We also had plenty of company of the crawling kind that kept us awake a good while each night.

On the 18th., the same routine as the two previous days.

Again the same routine on the 19th. up to 4.0 p.m. when we were all marched down to the town of Castlenova where we went to the bath-house, had a shower of cold water, then a haircut and had every part of our body shaven.  It was a very humiliating experience, but we had no choice, also we had our clothes fumigated.  We were then marched back to the camp for the night, received our coffee and turned in.

On the way to and from the baths we got a fine view of the country which was very picturesque, also the harbour of Cattero.  We saw a lot of Italian prisoners and other nationalities that we did not know, all pretty hard at work.

The same bill of fare on the 20th., bread, coffee and sour cabbage.  We were told that we were leaving for Graz in the morning and nobody was sorry about that.  The boys were all cheerful, but hungry. In the afternoon those of us who had not got much clothing were served with some, most of us being half naked when captured, so they issued us with white calico shirts and pants, their soldier’s old boots and jackets and trousers and caps.  In fact some of the boys had the whole Austrian uniform, from boots to cap.  Whatever we got from them in the way of clothes, if it was a shirt we had to return an old one of ours.    The same with slippers, if we had slippers and we wanted boots.  I had a pair of canvass slippers when captured  so I thought they were a mighty lot better than the boots they were supplying, so I kept them for the time being.  When we were all rigged out it would have made our old Commander J. Hatcher scratch his head and wonder who we were.  I don’t think our own people would have known us.

On the 21st. all hands mustered at 4.30 a.m. and marched down to the station and at 5.30 a.m. took the train for Graz.   Here I will explain how the Austrians made a mistake as to our ratings.  The cruiser that captured the crews of the “Avondale,” “Craignoon,” “Serene” and “Helenora” was the “Novara.”   When we got on board we explained to the officer who questioned us, what our ratings were.   The Skippers were Warrant Officers.  The Mate, the 1st. Engineman and 2nd. Engineman were rated as Petty Officers with the Mate the next in turn to take charge.  When we went to Castlenova the officer told us that the four Skippers and the four 1st. Enginemen would be sent to a different camp to the crew, meaning an officer’s camp.  He said, as for the other two officers from each ship they would have to go along with the crews.  We four Skippers with our 1st. Enginemen travelled in second class carriages, whilst the rest of the men all travelled in cattle trucks, twenty-five to thirty men in a truck.   The rest of us were allowed four kronen per day and we had received sixteen kronen per man for the four days we had been in Castlenova but a kronen and a half had been deducted off for each day’s of food.   We also received sixteen kronen in advance for the four days we would be travelling to Graz, so that when we left Castlenova we had twenty-six kronen given us which none of us was looking for.

We were made to understand that we would be able to buy food at any of the station restaurants along the line.  The first stop we had we went into the station restaurant and had dinner.  Since we had become prisoners we had not been getting much food, and what we did get, did not go down very well so we thought we would make up for what we had lost.  And we did, not thinking at the time how dear food was in that country.  It cost us eight kroner each, and at the next stop at 6.0 p.m it cost us four kronen each, so that made it 12 kronen for the first day.  We began to see, however, that if we carried on at that rate we would have to go hungry for two days as the journey was to last four days.

There was very little of any importance to be seen all the way up to Graz, our crews got two or three good feeds on the way at soldier’s camps, and everybody was very civil to us.  As for the eight of us that were travelling in second class carriages, we were treated to the best of everything, this is, if we paid for it.  It was laughable to us going into first class restaurants with our old clothes, some with their shirt sleeves rolled up, no jacket and very old torn trousers.  The Enginemen were just as they came out of their ship’s stoke-holds.  I don’t know what the Austrian people thought about us sitting around their tables with the white table cloths and napkins.   I know we were heartily ashamed of ourselves and would far rather have been sitting outside on the grass for when we took our caps off we looked more like convicts going to a settlement with our shaven heads.  However, all along the line, whenever we stopped, when the people knew we were British, they treated us very well, giving us cigarettes and tobacco.

As it was a goods train we were travelling in, with us the only passengers, it travelled very slowly and had some very long stops.

At one place called “Sarajevo” (the town where the war commenced) we stopped for about sixteen hours.  We arrived on the second day about noon and the eight of us were at once taken to an officer’s camp where we got a good feed.  In fact we got more than we were able to eat and had nothing to pay for it – and we also got a shave.  I don’t know whether to call it a shave or an operation for they had no soap but used monkey brand.  At any rate the soldiers got the job done, by fair means or foul.  I felt my face sore for about a week afterwards, it was a new experience getting a shave from an enemy but I would think twice before going through the same again.

It was raining and blowing a gale that night, and being very thinly clad we felt the cold very much, for we had to stay in the carriages all night, and they were not up to much, some of the windows being broken, and the rain came blowing in on us pretty heavily.  We did not see anything interesting in the country we were passing through, it was very hilly and in lots of places very broken, and not much good for cultivation.   On the third day we arrived at Bozanze on the borders of the River Danube which separates Hungary from Bosnia.  We had to change there and to do this we had to march about two miles to a town named “Brod” on the other side of the river.    Before leaving Brod we managed to get some food.  We saw a lot of Russian and Italian prisoners working, some of the Russians who were working at the station managed to get a word with us and gave us some tobacco which we were very glad of, tobacco being very dear and difficult to get.  Wherever we went we could also find someone that could speak English.

We left Brod at 4.0 p.m.    The carriages we were now in (second class) were very comfortable and to my idea nearly equalled a first class carriage back in Britain.   The remainder of the men travelled in cattle trucks as before.

The country we were now passing through was very fertile and good to look at, that is one thing I took particular notice of.  I had often heard and read about the plains of Hungary never thinking I would see them, but as luck would have it, the eight of us were in the last compartment of the train and as we looked astern we could see the railway lines for miles, without even so much as a bend in them.  We changed again at midnight arriving next day (the 24th. may) at 4.30 p.m. at Graz where two motor Red Cross vans were waiting for us.  They took us on board and drove us away through the town to our quarantine barracks, where we lived for about a month before sending us to our camp in Dutch Gabel.

All the way up from Castlenova to Graz we were being looked after by a guard of two officers and eight soldiers, one of the officers being in charge of the lads in the cattle trucks and the other in charge of us.

The officer in charge of us was a very decent fellow, he could not speak English, nor could we speak his language, but we always managed to understand each other.  After the first day’s big buster at the restaurant we explained to him that we had lost all our money, letting him see all the money we had left, so after that, when we had a chance to get food, he always ordered it, and kept a tally of what we had spent so that we did not run short until we arrived at Graz.

The day that we arrived in Graz we were standing at a station (I don’t remember its name) at about noon when a well dressed chap came up to us and spoke to the officer in charge.  He stood for five or ten minutes then went away.  As the train was going to stop a considerable time the officer signed to us to follow him across to a restaurant where we had a good dinner and a glass of wine.  We asked for the bill, but was very much surprised to be told that the gentleman who was talking to the officer had ordered it and paid for it.  We were all very grateful for his generosity towards his enemies, for as such we were to him, but it just lets us see that although two countries are at one another’s throats all the people don’t bear the same malice.  The other four Skippers with their crews were all together in the trucks, but were treated fairly well, getting food three times each day.

When we arrived at our destination in the Red Cross vans it was to see a large building with smoked windows and iron bars across them.   This was to be our prison for the time being until our quarantine was past.  The house from the outside looked like a common jail, which for us it proved to be.  It was situated at the corner of a busy part of the city, the name and the number of the street being 53 Grazback Grasse.   We were not left long standing outside.  I with my seven companions being again separated from the crews.   We were taken into a room on the ground floor where we were surprised to meet the Captains of two merchant ships that had been torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean.   While talking to the two Captains a sentry came in with our supper, and after eating it we began to look round our new lodgings.  There was not much to look at, the room was about fourteen feet square, with bare white-washed walls, a wooden floor and two windows with smoked glass and iron bars across them.  They had double shutters that were locked each night at 8.0 p.m.

There was a small place that led out of this room with a wash sink in it but we were not allowed any soap unless we bought it ourselves.  There was one thing we were very grateful for and that was the beds, instead of a lair of straw above a stone floor, which we had at Castlenova.   We had iron beds, one each with spring mattresses, a hair mattress and pillow, two white sheets and two blankets.

Next morning, the 25th. May, we were turned out at 7.0 a.m., had our coffee, one breakfast cup and no bread.  We walked about the room until 9.0 a.m. when we were taken into a back courtyard for exercise which consisted of walking about for an hour and then back to our room.  At twelve noon our dinner was taken in to us from a restaurant across the street.  The food was good, what we got of it, but I am not exaggerating when I say that one man could have eaten the whole eight dinners.  After dinner we tried to pass the time as best we could until 2.0 p.m. when we were again taken out for another hour’s walk in the courtyard.  We got our supper at six or sometimes seven o’clock at night then turned in, the sentry coming around 9.0 p.m. locking the windows and doors and bidding us good night, speaking German.   This was our daily routine for the twenty-five days we were in Graz. We were still receiving our four kronen per day for food.

When we arrived at Graz we were informed we would have thirty days to put in, but to our relief we were told on the twenty-fifth day that we were going away that night to an officer’s camp at a place called Salzibad, so that on the 18th. June at 4.30 p.m. we all marched out of jail into the street along with our crews.   I spoke to some of our men and they told me that they thought they were going to Germany.  However just as they were moving down the street an officer came with an order that the whole lot, including us, were to go to the same camp and we understood it to be in Germany.  We were then marched to the station.

We arrived at the station about 5.30 p.m. bundled into cattle trucks, twenty-five to thirty men in a truck, no distinction being made this time and immediately left for our prisoner-of-war camp.  We were now told that we were going to a camp called “Deutch Gabel” in Bohmen, Austria, about three miles from the German frontier where we arrived about noon on the 21st. June 1917.

When we arrived at Deutch Gabel we were welcomed by one of our own drifter’s crew who had been taken prisoner about nine months before us and right glad he was to see us.

We remained in this P.O.W. Camp for the duration of the War being sent home when the Armistice was signed by Austria.  We were prisoners of war for nearly nineteen months.

____________________

Notes :-

Amongst the many medals awarded for bravery during this action, Skipper Joseph Watt of Fraserburgh, of the drifter “Gowan Lea” received the V.C.

Skipper McKay states in his report that the Mate of the “Serene” escaped capture by jumping overboard when the crew took to the small boat.   However the London Gazette of the 29th August 1917 states that the escapee was an engineman viz :-

Award of the Conspicious Gallantry Medal  -  Engineman Walter Watt, R.N.R..  O.N.2089TS -  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 1½ hours later.

LIST OF DRIFTERS FROM N.E. SCOTLAND SUNK BY ENEMY ACTION

Name                                      Home Port.                             Skipper

Admirable                              Portgordon                             William Farquhar

Avondale                                Macduff                                 William Lyall

Craignoon                               Portgordon

Coral Haven                           Pennan                                    Robert Cowe

Felicitas                                  Buckie

Girl Gracie                              Buckie

Girl Rose                                Fraserburgh                            James Stephen

Selby                                      Peterhead

Helenora                                 Macduff                                 George McKay

Quarry Knowe                       Buckie                                    William Bruce

Taits                                        Fraserburgh                            Robert Stephen

Serene                                     Fraserburgh

Transit                                    Findochty

Young Linnet                         Findochty

 

A total of 48 drifters were engaged in operating the Boom.

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2 Responses to Otranto Boom

  1. John N. Stephen

    My uncle Alexander Stephen (Baden) from Inverallochy was on the Girl Rose and was awarded the D.S.M. for his part in the battle. He died in 1962. His daughter still lives in Inverallochy.

  2. Alison Humphries

    I have come across memoirs by my great uncle’s which include his time time on the Steam Drifter Craignoon. He was on board when it was blown up on 15/5/17

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