A remarkable discovery has helped ensure that the sacrifice of the sailors who died in a maritime tragedy in Orkney waters will never be forgotten.
All but one of the 189 men serving on HMS Opal and HMS Narborough lost their lives when the destroyers ran into rocks off South Ronaldsay during a blizzard in 1918.
Years later a very personal link with one of the Opal’s crew was found by chance in the unlikely surroundings of a nest on nearby cliffs.
The men who perished in the disaster will be remembered when commemorative events marking the centenary of the disaster take place on Friday 12 January.
Among those lost was Fred Rotchell, a cabinet maker who had recently joined the Opal, and was aged 19 when the two ships went aground at night in appalling weather conditions.
The young sailor was the great-uncle of Jane Brady, from Frodsham, near Chester, whose husband Kieran has looked into Fred’s story.
During his research he was put in touch with Willie Budge, from South Ronaldsay, who told Mr Brady:
“(The late) John George Halcro was clambering over the cliffs on one occasion and came across the nest of a cormorant. They scavenge bits of metal - lead and cordite from the wreck, to line their nests with. But in this particular nest was something glinting - it was a piece of brass. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the brass name plate from a ship's ditty box - bearing the name F. Rotchell.”
The name plate and photographs of Fred can be seen on the website Mr Brady has created in memory of his wife’s great-uncle and all the other sailors lost in the Opal-Narborough tragedy: http://www.kbrady.com/opal.html
“Fred was the older brother of my wife’s grandfather Charles,” he said. They were very close and Charles suffered more than anyone after Fred was lost.
“There’s a poignant message on the rear of a portrait of Fred in his uniform: ‘To Charlie from Mum and Dad. In Memory of Dear Brother Fred’.”
Mr Brady added: “Like most of the men, Fred was never recovered and like many of them, he was very young when he died. It is so important that they are not forgotten – I am very pleased that they will be remembered at the events taking place in Orkney to mark the centenary.”
Information about the only survivor, William Sissons, can also be found on the website. This includes a first-hand account written on Admiralty paper by Sissons himself. It was discovered by his grandson, the late Bob Sissons, who kindly passed on a copy to Mr Brady.
William Sissons describes how he found himself in one of the Opal’s funnels. When this began to tilt, as the ship broke up, he jumped for safety and found himself ‘at the mercy of the sea’.
Buffeted by wreckage and fuel oil he somehow clambered ashore and found some shelter in a small cave. He survived two bitterly cold nights, using snow for water during the day, and was finally rescued by the crew from a fishing boat.
He ends his account: “I was the sole survivor of the two destroyers and the only one that knows what the ordeal was like."
On Friday 12 January, 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.