William Sissons: A People’s Hero

William Sissons 1 family

William Sissons, photo courtesy of his family

The untold story of a remarkable man

History books, films and TV programmes are full of the stories of Kings, Queens, the rich and powerful. Too often we see our past through the eyes of a handful of people who were very often far removed from the consequences of their decisions.

The story of William Sissons is one of the man next door: the family man, someone you would pass by in the street with perhaps a nod of hello but  ne’er a thought to the exceptional character that he was.

It is thanks to his family, his father and son,  that I am able to tell his story in The Orkney News.

It begins during an horrendous winter storm in World War I. Able Seaman William Sissons was a gunner serving aboard HMS Opal, an M class Destroyer in the Royal Navy. It was based with the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow having taken part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

The weather and sea conditions were so bad on 12th January 1918 that HMS Opal and HMS Narborough who had been out searching for German mine laying activities were ordered to return to Scapa Flow.

Both ships were wrecked on rocks before reaching the safety of the sheltered anchorage.

No rescue vessels were able to be sent out until the following morning and it was yet another day before William Sissons, who was to be the only survivor, was found. 188 men and boys died in the disaster.

william sissons - Orkney Library and Archive

William Sissons – Orkney Library and Archive

When the Opal foundered on rocks William Sissons ended up in one of the ship’s funnels. Later on he wrote down what he could remember.

He 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.”

William Sissons 2 family letter

Letter from William Sissons written whilst on board the hospital ship, courtesy of his family. It is only now we know the actual number of those who died

And now  his grandson, Paul Sissons can continue to tell his story:

“Following the sinking of HMS Opal he was picked up after 36 hours by a trawler who then transferred him to a destroyer (we believe it to be HMS Peyton).He was brought back to Portsmouth by hospital ship and spent three months in Haslar Military Hospital recovering from frostbite and exposure.

Following his discharge from hospital he was shore based at Victory 1 depot and the gunnery school at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth. He was shore based until January 1919 when he returned to duty on board several ships.

Before leaving naval service in 1934 he was offered six months training to prepare for civilian life. He worked on Whale Island Portsmouth caring for pigs and he kept this job for the following five years. Although he left the navy in 1934 he was still a naval reservist.

He was recalled in 1939 prior to the beginning of WW2. He went into the merchant navy aboard defensively armed merchant ships (DEMS) as an able seaman gun layer. He was based in Greenock, Scotland and served on several ships working between the UK and Beunos Aires. They brought back meat supplies from Argentina to supply the country.

Later in the war he was given promotion and was based on shore at Greenock training seamen to work the guns on DEMS.

Following the end of WW2 he wished to return to Portsmouth. His naval career ended and he got a job in Portsmouth dockyard as a 1st mate and then skipper aboard dredgers.

He did this until he retired in 1960 when he worked part time for my father ( his son) who was the manager of a plant cleaning and processing milk bottles. He did this until his sudden death from a heart attack.

He passed away on 11th December 1963 aged sixty eight years.”

William Sisson 3 family group

William Sissons with his wife and 4 children, photo taken during WW2, photo courtesy of his family

William Sissons was a remarkable man. A man who survived against all the odds, not boastful or bragging, but just got on with his life which included serving in two World Wars. Seemingly ordinary from the outside but truly extraordinary  on the inside. A real hero.

A wreath laying ceremony will take place in Orkney on Friday 12th January at Windwick to mark the sacrifice of the 188 men and boys who died on that dreadful day in 1918. It will be followed by a further commemoration at 12 noon  in the Cromarty Hall, St Margaret’s Hope where you can hear from local historian Brian Budge who has done so much over the years to update the records of those who were lost that day. Brian Budge and Andrew Hollinrake have extensively researched the tragedy and  a new book of remembrance has been opened with the addition of names missing from the previous one.

In February 2018, a temporary exhibition of objects from HMS Narborough and HMS Opal will go on display at the Orkney Museum.

Related stories:

A Remarkable Find in a Cormorant’s Nest

We Will Remember Them

And you can find out more at : The loss of HMS Opal and HMS Narborough January 12th, 1918. In memory of Frederick James Rotchell Ordinary Seaman J/63769,  H.M.S. Opal

poppy“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


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5 replies »

  1. Good. This is a tale which needed telling. Not just the drama of the sinking of the ships, but the tale of the one survivor, and his life, and the family he produced. People, getting on with their lives.

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