Lest we Forget, 100 years on

Remembering HMS Opal and HMS Narborough 1918

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The 12th January 2018 marked the Centenary Commemoration of the loss of HMS Opal and HMS Narborough, two Royal Naval Destroyers that hit the rocks off the coast of Orkney at Windwick bay where around 40 invited guests gathered on a cold and windy morning to remember the 188 souls who perished that fateful night and lay wreaths at the local memorial. There was only one survivor Able Seaman William Sissons. 

The two destroyers had been deployed from Scapa Flow to meet with HMS Boadicea on a mine sweeping expedition, but the weather deteriorated quickly and with visibility at a few hundred yards due to blizzards and heavy seas*, speed was cut to 10 knots at 16.30pm and the vessels were ordered to return to base. HMS Opal requested fog horns to be sounded, then at 21.27pm as the two destroyers were trying to find shelter in Scapa Flow, HMS Opal reported that they had run aground.  Conditions sadly prevented rescue services from being able to reach them that night and even though locals reported hearing cries from the seamen, such were the unimaginable conditions that it was the next day before ships from Scapa Bay and Invergordon could reach the scene, where apart from a washstand from HMS Narborough no other trace of either ship could be found in the seas. On land, shore parties battled on with their search and rescue missions through drifts of snow which were up to six feet.

The following day the 14th January the searches continued on land and at sea in harsh and freezing conditions, where the Destroyer HMS Peyton was to find wreckage from the two destroyers at Hesta Head, Windwick Bay off the Island of South Ronaldsay.

On the same day a trawler saw a sailor signaling from the shore and rescued the man who was to become the sole survivor.

william sissons - Orkney Library and Archive

William Sissons – Orkney Library and Archive

At today’s commemoration Tim Jackson from Gullane, East Lothian a great nephew of Lieutenant Edmond Bowly said:

“On a previous visit I’ve been to the cliffs above the rocks where the ships went aground. That was a very moving experience and it means such a lot to me to be in South Ronaldsay and have the chance to honour and remember a very brave young man from our family, who was lost in such terrible circumstances.
“Commemorating the service and sacrifice of the men who died so long ago is very important and I was determined to be here and take part.”
Lieutenant Edmond Bowly was 30 years of age and was a newly appointed  Captain of HMS Narborough, he had married his wife Elizabeth less than a year before the tragedy.
Better known to his family as Mansell which was his middle name.
Edmond Bowly

Orkney Library and Archive.

At today’s commemoration and representing the navy, Lieutenant Commander Garth Atkinson said:  “It was an honour to attend this commemoration and take a short time to remember the 188 sailors who perished in this tragedy on the night of 12 January 1918.

“It is a reminder that not all lives lost at sea during the wars were due to direct enemy action, but many were lost due to having to conduct operations in the ever changing maritime environment.
“It is true that the sea can be a cruel or harsh mistress for those who choose to work and live upon it and this fateful incident reflects this, especially in the days before the advent of electronic navigation aids such as radar and GPS, which we now take for granted.”
“I feel it is important that we as a Naval Service continue to remember the sacrifices made by our predecessors in the defence of our islands and also the communities that supported and shared in the losses with them.”

Orkney Islands Convenor Harvey Johnstone reflected: “We stood close to where the two destroyers ended up on the rocks in atrocious weather conditions and all we could hear during the minute of silent reflection was the sound of the wind and the sea.”

“It is difficult in such a peaceful place to comprehend what the men on board must have gone through. It was a terrible tragedy and it is so important that we remember their courage and their loss in the service of their country.”
Only 55 of the sailors bodies were ever recovered and they were laid to rest at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy.
After the memorial service guests were invited to the Cromarty Hall in St Margarets Hope for lunch, where a welcoming bowl of soup, sandwiches and cakes were enjoyed before a short speech with slides to accompany it was given by Brian Budge a local historian. Along with the help of Andrew Hollinrake, a local researcher, Brian has brought together the names of all the sailors that were lost that night into a Book of Remembrance. The book which has been created to mark this 100th year anniversary was today dedicated during the event at the hall.
Tim Jackson also gave a short speech in which he profusely thanked everybody involved in today’s commemoration. Videos of the speeches shall follow shortly.
Only 55 of the sailors bodies were ever recovered and they were laid to rest at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy.


*According to testimony from Mr Sissons shortly after being rescued visibility that night had been no farther than the length of the ship.


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