100 Years On: Remembering A Naval Tragedy At Orkney

A century ago, 188 Royal Navy sailors lost their lives in waters off the Orkney Islands...

PICTURED: HMS Narborough 

A commemorative service has been held on the Orkney Islands to pay tribute to the 188 crew of two Royal Navy warships that were lost a century ago, when they smashed against rocks in bad weather.

Just one sailor survived when HMS Opal and HMS Narborough ran aground off South Ronaldsay during a patrol on January 12, 1918.

Residents of the Orkney Islands and representatives of the Royal Navy have paid their respects with a wreath-laying ceremony at the destroyers’ monument in Windwick Bay.

The islands served as the principal front-line base for the Royal Navy in both the First and Second World Wars.

The vast natural harbour at Scapa Flow provided an ideal anchorage for the Royal Navy's capital ships.

It's importance meant the Germans tried to disrupt operations there by laying mines, one of which succeeded in sinking HMS Hampshire on June 5,1916, killing the British Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener, and at least 600 crew.



HMS Opal

It therefore fell to smaller ships like HMS Opal and HMS Narborough to patrol the waters and hunt down  minelayers or submarines.

But stormy weather on January 12, 1918 called for the destroyers to be ordered back to base for fear of being swamped.

But tragically, due to near-zero visibility, they ran onto the rocks.

Some of the Opal’s crew were washed overboard, others were trapped in cabins and compartments unable to escape before the ship broke in two.

Gunner AB William Sissons managed to swim ashore and sheltered from the elements in a crevice.

He was eventually rescued by a trawler after about 36 hours, having kept himself alive on a diet of shellfish and snow.

Stanley Cubiss' recovered engagement ring.
PICTURED: Stanley Cubiss' recovered engagement ring.

HMS Narborough struck the rocks at speed and rolled over, with no survivors.

Capt Chris Smith, RN Regional Commander for Scotland and Northern Ireland, said of the commemorations:

“The tragedy that claimed the lives of the crews of HMS Opal and 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...

“We will once more be joining them in solemnly paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during the night of January 12 1918 and ensuring the names of all 188 men are remembered appropriately."

Stanley Cubiss
PICTURED: Stanley Cubiss

Many of those who died were never recovered, but 55 bodies were eventually interred at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy.

Also recovered from the wreck site was a ring bearing the inscription: 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.

Tragically, he had been married for less than a year when he lost his life.

It – and other artefacts recovered from the two ships –will be displayed in a temporary exhibition at the Orkney Museum in February.

Pictures courtesy of the Orkney Library and Archive. 

AB William Sissons
PICTURED: AB William Sissons