Orkney Islands Council
Working together for a better Orkney

Centenary of naval tragedy remembered

Centenary of naval tragedy remembered
12 January 2018

Wreaths were laid today (Friday 12 January) in memory of the 188 men who perished when two Royal Navy destroyers hit rocks off Orkney exactly 100 years ago.

HMS Opal and HMS Narborough ran aground and were wrecked as they battled through heavy seas and a blizzard to find the shelter of Scapa Flow.

The tragedy occurred on 12 January 1918. All but one of the men on board the two warships lost their lives.

The wreaths were placed at the Opal and Narborough memorial at Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, during a commemorative service to mark the centenary of the disaster. Those involved observed a minute’s silence after Royal Marines buglers sounded the Last Post.

Orkney Islands Council convener Harvey Johnston said: “We stood close to where the two destroyers ended up on the rocks in atrocious weather conditions and all we could hear during the minute of silent reflection was the sound of the wind and the sea.

“It is difficult in such a peaceful place to comprehend what the men on board must have gone through. It was a terrible tragedy and it is so important that we remember their courage and their loss in the service of their country.”

The two destroyers were on a night patrol to the east of Orkney and on the lookout for German ships and submarines laying mines.

As conditions worsened, the Opal and Narborough were in danger of being swamped and were ordered to return to Scapa Flow. As the blizzard set in, and with visibility near zero, they ran on to rocks off the east coast of South Ronaldsay.

Lieutenant Commander Garth Atkinson, who represented the Royal Navy, said: “It was an honour to attend this commemoration and take a short time to remember the 188 sailors who perished in this tragedy on the night of 12 January 1918.

“It is a reminder that not all lives lost at sea during the wars were due to direct enemy action, but many were lost due to having to conduct operations in the ever changing maritime environment.

“It is true that the sea can be a cruel or harsh mistress for those who choose to work and live upon it and this fateful incident reflects this, especially in the days before the advent of electronic navigation aids such as radar and GPS, which we now take for granted.

“I feel it is important that we as a Naval Service continue to remember the sacrifices made by our predecessors in the defence of our islands and also the communities that supported and shared in the losses with them.”

Many of those who died were never recovered. The graves of 55 of the men can be found at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy.

Among those who perished was Lieutenant Edmond Bowly. Aged 30 and newly appointed as Captain of HMS Narborough, he had married his wife Elizabeth less than a year before the tragedy.

Better known to his family as Mansell – his middle name – he was the great uncle of Tim Jackson, from Gullane, East Lothian, who travelled to Orkney to take part in the commemorative event.

“On a previous visit I’ve been to the cliffs above the rocks where the ships went aground,” he said.

“That was a very moving experience and it means such a lot to me to be in South Ronaldsay and have the chance to honour and remember a very brave young man from our family, who was lost in such terrible circumstances.

“Commemorating the service and sacrifice of the men who died so long ago is very important and I was determined to be here and take part.”

The only crewman found alive, Able Seaman William Sissons, was rescued two days later. He was a gunner aboard the Opal and survived not only the loss of his ship but the cold and snow once he got ashore.

Following the laying of the wreath, the commemorations moved to the Cromarty Hall, St Margaret’s Hope, where there was a community lunch, an information display and a presentation by local historian Brian Budge, who told the story of the ships and their crews.

Detailed research over many years by Mr Budge, with invaluable assistance from another Orkney-based researcher, Andrew Hollinrake, has resulted in a new Book of Remembrance, which brings together the names of all the sailors who lost their lives.

Created to mark the 100th anniversary, it was dedicated today during the event at the Cromarty Hall.