Today was a prominent day in Islay’s history. The 5th of February marked 100 years since the sinking of the US troop ship, the SS Tuscania.
Destined for Liverpool, the passenger ship was travelling between Rathlin and Islay with over 2000 men on board. They were to join the ongoing war effort when the ship was hit by a torpedo, released by a German U-boat. The boat began to sink. Three destroyers came to assist, but most men were forced to lifeboats, to take their chances against the sea and the cliffs of Islay’s south coast.
An Ileach, Duncan McDonald, was aware of the dangerous coastline and elected to keep his lifeboat out at sea. He knew there would be a greater chance of reaching safety during daylight hours. They arrived into Port Ellen the next day.
For many of those aboard the Tuscanian, it was their first time at sea. Lacking knowledge of the terrain, their boats crashed against the rocky beaches surrounding the Oa. A few scrambled to raise the alarm with local families. What followed was nothing short of heroic.
Whilst many men were washed ashore, dead or dying, the islanders searched for survivors. There are reports of men who waded into the sea to rescue those stranded on rocks, or freed those who were trapped on cliffs. The on-shore effort was fronted by women baking, using the last of their short supplies. Small houses were crammed full, soldiers were clothed, and nothing was expected in return.
Many of those who hosted the US soldiers, had brothers, husbands and sons away fighting. The event was said to ‘bring the war to Islay’s doorstep’.
For days, the coast of Islay was littered with men being washed ashore. At least 210 lives were lost. Many were unaccounted for.