Remembering HMS Opal and HMS Narborough 1918
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.
At today’s commemoration Tim Jackson from Gullane, East Lothian a great nephew of Lieutenant Edmond Bowly said:
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.
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.”
*According to testimony from Mr Sissons shortly after being rescued visibility that night had been no farther than the length of the ship.