• Windwick - image by Fiona Annal

WW1 tragedy commemorated

The centenary of a World War One tragedy that saw the loss of 188 lives will be marked in Orkney this month.

Orkney’s role during World War One has been at the centre of a series of commemorative events across the islands in recent years.

The centenary of the Battle of Jutland and the loss of HMS Hampshire were marked here in 2016, with the sinking of HMS Vanguard also remembered last year.

On Friday 12th January 2018, another wartime tragedy that saw the loss of 188 lives will be commemorated in South Ronaldsay. Two Royal Navy destroyers, HMS Narborough and HMS Opal, were on patrol to the east of Orkney during the night of 12th January 1918. Weather conditions worsened and both ships were ordered to return to Scapa Flow.

HMS Narborough - image courtesy Orkney Library and Archive

A blizzard set in, and with visibility near zero, they ran onto rocks at Hesta, off the east coast of South Ronaldsay.

Both ships were wrecked in the atrocious conditions and only one crewman, Able Seaman William Sissons, was found alive. He was rescued two days later, surviving not only the loss of his ship but the bitterly cold winter weather too.

The cliffs of Hesta Head at Windwick Bay in South Ronaldsay, Orkney

The graves of 55 of the men who perished in the disaster can be found at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy.

The tragic tale took an unexpected twist in 2007 when a diver exploring the wreck site found a gold ring on the seabed. The inscription inside read ‘To Stanley from Flo – 6 March 1916’. It had been given as an engagement present to Stanley Cubiss, who served in the engine room aboard HMS Opal. Stanley saw action at the Battle of Jutland and had been married for less than a year when he lost his life that fateful night in 1918.

The ring belonging to Stanley Cubiss, found on the seabed in 2007

Stanley’s nephew, Brigadier Malcolm Cubiss, donated the ring to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which is currently closed for major restoration ahead of commemorative events to mark the century of the scuttling of the German High Sea’s Fleet in June 2019.

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

On Friday 12th January 2018, a wreath will be laid at the small Narborough and Opal memorial at Windwick to mark the centenary, before a commemorative event at the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret’s Hope. There will also be a community lunch from midday with all welcome.

The memorial to the men, installed above Windwick Bay by the local community

Local historian Brian Budge will also host a short presentation to tell the story of the ships and their crews. Brian has meticulously researched their stories over many years and, with invaluable assistance from another Orkney-based researcher, Andrew Hollinrake, he has created a new Book of Remembrance, including the names of all the sailors who lost their lives.

The new Book of Remembrance put together for the centenary

The events are another example of Orkney’s rich wartime heritage and the strong link islanders have with the men and women who were stationed here during both World Wars.

Find out more about Orkney's wartime past, including tours and places of interest.

The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.

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