Orkney Islands Council
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Remembering those who died when HMS Vanguard went down

Remembering those who died when HMS Vanguard went down
29 May 2017

Commemorations will be held this summer to mark the huge loss of life when a Royal Navy battleship was blown apart while at anchor at Scapa Flow in Orkney.

A series of internal explosions destroyed HMS Vanguard in an instant on the night of 9 July 1917. Just two of the 845 men on board survived.

The catastrophic loss of Vanguard, a 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.

The many hundreds of casualties will be remembered later this year on the centenary of the sinking.

Survivors from HMS Vanguard. Images courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

Relatives of some of those who died will be among those taking part in a series of commemorative events on 9 July 2017.
These will be preceded by a musical concert in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall on the evening of 8 July, performed by an ensemble and Corps of Drums from the band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines.

On July 9, a wreath laying service involving two modern-day Royal Navy vessels will take place above the wreck of the Vanguard, which lies in 34 metres of water to the north of the island of Flotta.

This will be followed by a service of commemoration at the Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery in Hoy, where 41 of the ship’s crew were buried.

Later in the day there will then be a watch night service at St Magnus Cathedral. Starting at 23:00, it will mark the moment when the ship went down.

“These will be very poignant events,” said Brian Archibald, Head of Marine Services, Engineering and Transportation with Orkney Islands Council. “They offer the opportunity to remember the sinking of HMS Vanguard and the terrible loss of life in Scapa Flow on that July day 100 years ago.

“We are very pleased that descendants of men who served aboard the ship will take part in the commemorations. There will be limited space aboard the vessels involved in the laying of wreaths above the wreck, and so priority will be given to relatives who have travelled to Orkney for the occasion.

“Many other people from our community will want play their part in commemorating the loss of the Vanguard and her crew, and all are welcome at the services at Lyness Cemetery and back in the Cathedral on 9 July.”

More detailed information about the Vanguard commemorations will be published in the weeks ahead.

HMS Vanguard was a St Vincent Class battleship built in Barrow-in-Furness and launched in February 1909. The ship was involved in action throughout the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 and survived without damage or casualties.

On the night of 9 July 1917, Vanguard was anchored in Scapa Flow. At 23:20, and without warning, the entire ship was destroyed in an instant by the on-board explosions.

Just three of the 845 men on board were recovered alive. One later died of his injuries. The survivors were two ratings, Stoker Cox and Royal Marine Private Williams.

At the time of the explosions, 16 of the ship’s officers were attending a concert aboard another vessel. Eight ratings had just left Vanguard in a picket boat to collect them and also survived.

Although the exact cause has not been proven, the accepted explanation is that the fire started in a fuel compartment adjacent to an armaments magazine. The intense heat ignited cordite in the magazine, triggering the explosions that blew the ship apart.
The wreck of HMS Vanguard has statutory protection as a designated war grave.

The Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness is cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.