Two WW1 British submarines have been surveyed off eastern Scotland in order to ensure that they can be left undamaged if a proposed wind-farm is constructed in the area. The survey was carried out on the K-class vessels K4 and K17, which lie in some 50m of water and 100m apart, about 20 miles off Fife Ness. It was conducted by divers from the commercial marine contractor EMU Survey. The two subs were casualties of an unfortunate episode in January 1918, both being sunk accidentally by other British vessels in night-time collisions as a fleet of some 40 warships and submarines made their way from Rosyth toward Scapa Flow for a Grand Fleet exercise. In what came to be known as the Battle of May Island, the collisions involved the submarines K4, K6, K7, K14, K17, K22, the battle-cruiser HMS Inflexible and cruiser HMS Fearless.
To avoid detection by German U-boats, the fleet maintained radio silence and each vessel carried only a low-powered stern light. First off, K14¹s rudder jammed when she turned in an avoidance manoeuvre, so that she completed a full circle and was hit by K22. The Inflexible then hit K22. When other ships turned back to assist, Fearless hit K17. Then K6 ploughed into K4, practically slicing the vessel in half. K7 also hit K4, but by then K4 was already mortally damaged. All vessels involved were damaged to some degree, while K4 went down with the loss of all her crew and K17 sank with the loss of all but eight. More would have been saved had one or more surface ships not passed through the swathe of crew who had managed to evacuate into the sea as the sub filled.
In all, 270 men lost their lives during the calamitous night. The K-class subs were generally unsuccessful. They were large, at 133m long, hard to manoeuvre and, driven by oil-fired steam-turbine engines, could not keep up with surface vessels. None were lost in action but the class had the sad record of six losses by accidental collision. A dive made in 2005 on K4 can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCRyQBcI6BQ