ONE DARK NIGHT TWO NAVAL SHIPS AND 188 CREW WERE LOST IN SCAPA FLOW WITH ONLY ONE SURVIVOR
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.