De­stroyed De­stroy­ers


SCOTS Heritage Magazine - - Naval Disaster In Orkney -

The mid­win­ter sun had al­ready set when the two de­stroy­ers, HMS Opal and HMS Nar­bor­ough, sailed from the se­cu­rity of Scapa Flow through the boom de­fence nets and out into the North Sea. It was 16:00 on Satur­day 12th Jan­uary 1918. The de­stroy­ers had or­ders to ren­dezvous with the cruiser HMS Boadicea to carry out a ‘Dark Night Pa­trol’ to the east of the Orkney Is­lands. These pa­trols took place on moon­less nights to pre­vent Ger­man minelay­ers from sow­ing a deadly string of mines near the en­trance of Scapa Flow. By 17:45 the wind was rag­ing and a snow­storm en­gulfed the ships. Huge waves lashed the de­stroy­ers mer­ci­lessly. Vis­i­bil­ity was al­most zero. At 18:30 the cruiser or­dered the de­stroy­ers to re­turn to base, as they were un­able to keep up with the larger ves­sel. The Opal took the lead, us­ing a search­light as a stern light to keep vis­ual con­tact with the Nar­bor­ough.

At his gun post on the up­per deck, Able Sea­man Wil­liam Sis­sons could hear the crewmem­ber who manned the sound­ing ma­chines shout­ing out the wa­ter depth of 33 fath­oms. Then he felt the col­li­sion, and over the scream­ing wind came the ter­ri­fy­ing grat­ing as the ship ran aground on the is­land of South Ron­ald­say. The Opal’s crew im­me­di­ately threw her en­gines into re­verse, but it was no use. She was stuck fast. They gave three blasts on the ship’s siren as a warn­ing to the Nar­bor­ough to turn away. The Nar­bor­ough re­sponded, re­peat­ing the sig­nal, but the warn­ing had come too late. Sis­sons watched her strike the rocks, turn­ing over and break­ing up as she sank in deeper wa­ter. An in­com­plete mes­sage, ‘Have run aground’ was re­ceived in Scapa Flow at 21:21, then noth­ing more from either ship.

Though the warn­ing sirens were heard by lo­cal peo­ple in­side their houses, the bl­iz­zard was so se­vere that it would have been sui­cide to ven­ture out to in­ves­ti­gate. The sit­u­a­tion was hope­less. When the or­der to aban­don ship came, Sis­sons cut his way into a rack of lifebelts, dis­tribut­ing them to the men who sat on a Carly raft be­tween two of the fun­nels as the sea crashed over the

Then he felt the col­li­sion, and over the scream­ing wind came the ter­ri­fy­ing grat­ing as the ship ran aground on the is­land of South Ron­ald­say

stern, fill­ing the ship with wa­ter. Sis­sons was knocked down by a wave. When he pulled him­self to his feet he saw that the Carly raft and all the men on it had been swept away.

Hor­ror-stricken, shak­ing with the pierc­ing cold, Sis­sons slipped his lifebelt on and clam­bered up the amid­ships fun­nel, land­ing on the grat­ing in­side to hud­dle with an­other four or five men who were shel­ter­ing there. Wa­ter spilled over the fun­nels, caus­ing the fore and aft struc­tures to crash into the sea. Twenty min­utes later the amid­ships fun­nel also fell, pitch­ing Sis­sons into the icy wa­ter. The doomed de­stroyer was break­ing in two.

Sis­sons could see the cliffs tow­er­ing over him, about 100 yards away. He tried to swim through the surg­ing, oily waves but, suf­fer­ing from ex­haus­tion and cold, he was un­able to climb onto the rocks. He lost con­scious­ness, and woke later to find him­self ly­ing on a rock, cov­ered with snow. He tried to climb up the cliff and had nearly reached the top when his numbed hands lost their grip and he tum­bled back­wards. Sis­sons was desperate and in shock, but still had the where­withal to cob­ble some wooden wreck­age to­gether, cre­at­ing a makeshift shel­ter for

The dis­as­ter seems to have been caused by HMS Opal’s newly ap­pointed cap­tain who, with no ex­pe­ri­ence of the area, may have turned west too soon

him­self on a ledge above the sea.

Back in Scapa Flow con­cerns for the ships were mounting, but the bl­iz­zard was so in­tense that a rescue party couldn’t leave un­til the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Small ves­sels made a search around the east­ern coast of Orkney at first light on Sun­day 13th Jan­uary. All they found were bits of float­ing wreck­age, in­clud­ing an of­fi­cer’s wash­stand marked ‘Sub-Lieu­tenant NAR­BOR­OUGH’.

From the place where he was shel­ter­ing, Sis­sons could see the search­ing ships but he couldn’t get their at­ten­tion. He was forced to spend a sec­ond night on the cliff ledge, main­tain­ing life with raw shell­fish and snow. It wasn’t un­til the fol­low­ing morn­ing that he was at last spot­ted by a com­man­deered fish­ing boat. He was in re­mark­ably good con­di­tion for a man who had been ex­posed to the el­e­ments for thirty-six hours, but spent some time re­cov­er­ing in the hospi­tal ship HMHS China. Able Sea­man Wil­liam Sis­sons was the only sur­vivor from the two ships; 188 of his fel­low crew­men had per­ished.

The dis­as­ter seems to have been caused by HMS Opal’s newly ap­pointed

cap­tain who, with no ex­pe­ri­ence of the area, may have made a mis­cal­cu­la­tion in nav­i­ga­tion, turn­ing west too soon. Lo­cal peo­ple and troops re­ported see­ing the Opal’s tor­pe­does rolling around in­side her wreck­age. The tor­pe­does later ex­ploded, send­ing de­bris fly­ing over the cliff-top. It was said that lo­cal farm­ers who gath­ered sea­weed for fer­tiliser from Wind­wick Bay, where the wrecks lay, had to stop this prac­tise be­cause of the hu­man re­mains that washed up and mixed with the sea­weed.

The wrecks were sold for scrap in 1936, with any­thing of value hav­ing been stripped. Lit­tle now re­mains to be seen. But in July of 2007 a sports diver was vis­it­ing the site of the wrecks when he saw some­thing glint­ing be­tween the rocks. It was a gold ring, en­graved in­side, ‘To Stan­ley from Flo – 6th March 1916’. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered the story. It was an en­gage­ment ring given to Ernest Stan­ley Cu­biss of HMS Opal by his fi­ancée, Florence Ethel Foster. The cou­ple had mar­ried in June 1917. The ring, along with other mil­i­tary arte­facts re­lat­ing to Cu­biss, in­clud­ing a map of the Orkney Is­lands con­sulted by Flo in the 1920s when she made the pil­grim­age to see where her hus­band died, were do­nated by the Cu­biss fam­ily to the Scapa Flow Vis­i­tor Cen­tre and Mu­seum on the Orkney is­land of Hoy. These poignant arte­facts are now on dis­play at the Mu­seum, along with a lifebelt from the Opal, serv­ing as tragic re­minders of these nearly-for­got­ten wrecks. The lost ships, Opal and Nar­bor­ough are a mere foot­note in naval his­tory, but in Orkney their story is still re­mem­bered.

Image: HMS Opal at full speed. She and sis­ter ship HMS Nar­bor­ough both sank in a gale driven snow­storm on the night of 12th Jan­uary 1918.

Image: HMS Opal on the slip­way at Sun­der­land 1915. Photo from Tyne and Wear Archives & Mu­seum.

Right: Lieu­tenant Edmond Bowly, HMS

Above: HMS Opal. Nar­bor­ough’s Cap­tain.

Image: Able Sea­man Wil­liam Sis­sons, the sole sur­vivor of the tragedy.

Image: Me­mo­rial plaque on South Ron­ald­say over­look­ing the site of the 1918 dou­ble de­stroyer tragedy.

Above and In­set: Ernest Stan­ley Cu­biss of HMS Opal and his fi­ancée Florence Ethel Foster: the ring she gave him in 1916 was found in July 2007 by scuba diver Peter Brady.

Above right: Three medals posthu­mously awarded to Ernest Stan­ley Cu­biss.

Above: Scroll from King George V com­mem­o­rat­ing those who died in the war and bear­ing Stan­ley’s name.

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