The massive loss of life when a Royal Navy battleship was blown apart at Scapa Flow in Orkney was remembered today (Sunday 9 July), exactly 100 years since disaster struck HMS Vanguard.
A series of internal explosions destroyed the ship on the night of 9 July 1917, Vanguard sinking almost immediately. Only two of the 845 men on board survived.
The catastrophic loss of the dreadnought battleship, which had seen action at the Battle of Jutland, is one of the most tragic accidents in the history of the Royal Navy.
To mark the centenary, 40 descendants of those who died took part in a poignant series of commemorative events today.
Flanked by two Royal Navy P2000 fast patrol boats, the descendants each laid wreaths from the bow of a passenger vessel stationed above the wreck, which lies in 34 metres of water to the north of the island of Flotta.
Paying their own tribute, divers from the Royal Navy’s Northern Diving Unit took a single wreath to the seabed to place on the wreck itself. They had earlier recovered a White Ensign, laid upon the wreckage of the Vanguard in 2009, and replaced it with a new flag.
Among the victims was Lieutenant Evelyn Dunbar-Dunbar-Rivers, who was known to his family as Evie, and joined the Vanguard in November 1913.
He was aged 26 on the night the ship went down. His captain had described him as “quick, intelligent and thoroughly reliable”.
Evelyn was an uncle of Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith and great-uncle of Duncan Dunbar-Nasmith, of Glen of Rothes, Morayshire, who were among the descendants taking part in the commemorations.
A portrait of Evelyn hangs in the hallway of the family home.
“I’ve grown up with the painting,” Duncan said. “You come in through the front door and there’s great-uncle Evie on the wall, his naval cap at a jaunty angle, and his face full of character.
“To be in Scapa Flow, on the waters above the ship, our links with him feel so much more substantial – we feel closer to a man whose life came to a sudden end at such a young age so long ago.
“It has been wonderful for us to be among so many descendants of relatives who served aboard Vanguard. None of us will forget the sacrifice they made.”
As a child, Paula Smith, from Ipswich, remembers her grandmother talking with sorrow and affection of her younger brother Henry Metcalf, a 19-year-old Royal Marine who had served aboard Vanguard for just two months when he died in the disaster.
“She had a large photograph of Henry on the wall of her home,” Paula said. “They never found him and she never made it to Scapa Flow. I’m doing this in her memory as well as his.
“He was so proud of being a Royal Marine – he’d been a butcher before he joined up in 1916 – and he hadn’t had the chance to live a life when he died.”
The wreath laying ceremony was followed by a service of commemoration at the Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery in Hoy, where 41 of the ship’s crew were buried.
Here, wreaths were laid at the cemetery’s Vanguard Cross. Those taking part included the Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, Bill Spence, Council Convener Harvey Johnston and Captain Chris Smith, Naval Regional Commander for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Five-year-old Harry Remers, from Midhurst in West Sussex, laid a wreath on behalf of all the descendants. His great-great uncle, Lieutenant Reginald (Rex) Elgood, was among those who perished aboard Vanguard.
Councillor Johnston said the men who had seen action aboard HMS Vanguard would have felt safe lying at anchor in Scapa Flow, surrounded by islands on a peaceful summer’s evening.
“The loss of the Vanguard was a cataclysmic tragedy for the Navy and probably the biggest single loss of life Orkney’s history,” he said. “So it is imperative that we mark the centenary of this disastrous event with all due reverence and respect.”
Captain Smith said: “The history of the Royal Navy and Scapa Flow are tightly entwined.
“The devastating explosion, completely accidental rather than a result of enemy action, was a shock when it happened and the tragic loss of more than 840 lives is still felt through their descendants and those in Orkney who feel passionately that we should mark the centenary in appropriate fashion.
“I am very happy to be joined by the ship’s companies of HMS Dasher and HMS Pursuer as well as the Northern Diving Group and personnel from the current HMS Vanguard as we support the welcome efforts of Orcadians in commemorating the loss of this great battleship and all but two of her crew.”
The White Ensign recovered by the Navy divers was due to be presented to the people of Orkney later in the day, during a special late night service at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
The service was timed to mark the exact moment the Vanguard went down – 11.20pm on 9 July 1917.
The first book of remembrance containing the names of all of those who died in the Vanguard tragedy was also to be presented at the service to the people of islands, in recognition of their role as guardians of so many of the Royal Navy’s lost ships and sailors.
The names and stories of the 843 men who lost their lives have been meticulously researched over many years by local historians Brian Budge, from Kirkwall, and Jonathan Saunders, from Kent, whose great-grandfather Oscar Cox was among those who perished aboard Vanguard.
Invaluable assistance was provided as well by another Orkney-based researcher, Andrew Hollinrake.
Mr Budge said: “Our hope is that the book will help people appreciate the enormity of the Vanguard disaster – and that that behind the names and service numbers it contains are stories of men serving their country whose future was brutally cut short.
“Most left behind families and it’s wonderful that so many descendants have made the journey to Orkney for the commemorations this weekend. They share a wish that the names of their relatives should not be forgotten – and so should we, who have benefited from their sacrifice in the freedom we enjoy.”
Although the exact cause has not been proven, the accepted explanation is that a fire started in a fuel compartment adjacent to one of Vanguard’s armaments magazines.
The intense heat ignited cordite in the magazine, triggering the explosions that blew the ship apart.
The Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness is cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.