Centenary of Opal and Narborough disaster commemorated
Lives lost a century ago will be remembered in Orkney during commemorative events marking the night when two warships ran ashore in a snowstorm.
The tragedy occurred in atrocious weather conditions on 12 January 1918.
The destroyers HMS Opal and HMS Narborough were wrecked on the rocks where they went aground. In all, 188 men perished and just a single survivor was found alive.
On Friday 12 January 2018, a wreath will be laid at the Opal and Narborough memorial at Windwick Bay in South Ronaldsay. With very limited parking in the area, only a small number of invited guests will be involved in this part of the commemoration.
The main commemorative event will then take place at the Cromarty Hall, St Margaret’s Hope, where all are welcome to attend a community lunch from 12 noon.
A small information display and a short presentation by local historian Brian Budge will tell the story of the ships and their crews.
Orkney Islands Council Convener Harvey Johnston said: “There was terrible loss of life when the two warships were wrecked on that fateful night close to Windwick, where we will lay a wreath in memory of those who perished.
“As with the commemorative events marking the Battle of Jutland and the loss of HMS Hampshire and HMS Vanguard, we will again remember the enormous sacrifice of those who served in our local waters during the First World War.”
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 weather conditions worsened, the Opal and Narborough were in danger of being swamped and were ordered to return to Scapa Flow. As a blizzard set in, and with visibility near zero, they ran on to rocks off the east coast of South Ronaldsay.
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.
Many of those who died were never recovered. The graves of 55 of the men who perished in the disaster can be found at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness.
Captain Chris Smith, Royal Navy Regional Commander for Scotland and Northern Ireland, said: "The tragedy that claimed the lives of the crews of HMS Opal and HMS Narborough is a reminder that the sea can be a dangerous place and not just with the threat of enemy action.
“The link between the Royal Navy and the Orcadians has been a long one and we are once again grateful to see that our collective history is being recognised, especially noting the effort that many people on the islands have put into the commemorations of the last few years.
“We will once more be joining them in solemnly paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during the night of 12 January 1918 and ensuring the names of all 188 men are remembered appropriately."
The Opal and Narborough were broken up by the sea in the weeks that followed their grounding and little of the ships can be seen today.
In 1993, to mark the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, the people of South Ronaldsay created a memorial at Windwick.
It reads: In memory of the 188 men who perished here when HMS Narborough and HMS Opal were lost on the rocks of Hesta during the snowstorm of 12 Jan. 1918.
Their names and stories have been meticulously researched over many years by local historian Brian Budge.
With invaluable assistance from another Orkney-based researcher, Andrew Hollinrake, this has resulted in a new Book of Remembrance, which includes the names of all the sailors who lost their lives, and has been created to mark the 100th anniversary.
Remarkably, a gold ring was found in 2007 by a diver exploring the wreck site. An inscription inside the ring reads ‘To Stanley from Flo – 6 March 1916’. It had been given as an engagement present to Stanley Cubiss, who served in the engine room aboard HMS Opal, saw action at the Battle of Jutland and had been married for less than a year when he lost his life on 12 January 1918.
Stanley’s nephew, Brigadier Malcolm Cubiss, donated the ring to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which is currently closed for major restoration and development works ahead of commemorative events to mark the century of the scuttling of the German High Sea’s Fleet in June 2019.
In February 2018, a temporary exhibition of objects from HMS Narborough and HMS Opal, including the ring, will go on display at the Orkney Museum.