“Cruiser Afire!” – The loss of HMS Natal

HMS Natal. IWM Q 39678

Cruiser Afire!” Commander Gregory Gonville Cuff Wood-Martin was crossing just in front of the X turret of the Battleship, HMS Superb, when he heard the boat signalman’s shout. He immediately rushed to the port rail and could see two columns of smoke and fire rising from HMS Natal. The Superb’s boats were hoisted out to help but all too quickly Wood-Martin heard the cry, “She’s gone”.

30 December 2017 marks 102 years since this incident, in which many hundreds of people lost their lives. In this guest blog post, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Trevor Torkington tells the story of HMS Natal and those who were caught up in the tragedy.

 

  • HMS Natal

HMS Natal was a Warrior-class armoured cruiser and on that fateful day was at anchor in the Cromarty Firth. Her Captain, Eric Percy Coventry Back, had allowed a number of the ship’s crew to take shore leave – many of them to watch, and play, in an inter-ship football match.

For some of his officers however, Captain Back had invited them and their wives to a film show on board. He had also invited a family friend, John Henry Dods – a former Scottish International rugby player – his wife Annie and their children Dorothy, Marcus and John.  Captain Back’s wife (their own children were ill) and three nurses from the nearby hospital ship HMS Drina (including Caroline Maud Edwards, pictured below), completed the party.

IWM WWC H21-32-1

At around 3.20 pm the Natal was rocked by an explosion, followed by a further three blasts in short succession. Flames shot throughout the ship but the true seriousness of the situation wasn’t fully appreciated, with injured seaman were being sent to sickbay to have their burns dressed. Orders to flood the magazines couldn’t be carried out and although hoses were rigged no water was obtainable through the fire main system. Within three minutes of the first explosion the ship started to list heavily to port and after another two minutes, she had completely settled down with the forward end of the starboard bilge keel clear of the water.

422 men, women and children lost their lives in this disaster – this Lives of the First World War Community pays tribute to them.

 

Obituary in Kent Messenger, 29 January 1916. Photograph uploaded by Stephen Morris

 

  • Notifying Next of Kin

The loss of the ship was soon announced to the press. Various photographs of the Natal, her crew and the ship’s cat (with the caption “Rudolph, it is feared, was on board at the time”) appeared on the front page of the Daily Sketch two days running. And although they attempted to notify next of kin as quickly as possible, the Admiralty was inundated with letters from family members of the crew, desperate for news. One such example was from Mrs Bush of Latham Road, East Ham who sought information about her nephew:

The suspense is making me ill so if you could possibly give me any information I should be very thankful

“Will it be asking you too much for information about Wilfred Albert Trim Roberts… I am his aunt I took him when 3 years of age when his mother died so of course feel anxious…… the suspense is making me ill so if you could possibly give me any information I should be very thankful…..Trusting I am not giving you too much trouble

Sadly, Wilfred, a Boy Servant, was not among the survivors. He was seventeen when he died.

There were also cases of next of kin being told about deaths incorrectly. Mrs Nelson of Belfast was just one who later received a telegram stating that her son was in fact safe along with the sentiment that “any distress which the receipt of the official intimation that he was lost may have caused you is regretted”. Mrs Nelson responded:

“I received your letters alright and I assure you they caused me no anxiety whatever, my son sent me a telegram to say he was alright on Friday last and he has just arrived home”

 

  • Court Martial

Although not immediately ruled out, the idea of a submarine attack was soon dismissed. In order to carry out a torpedo attack, a U-boat would have needed to have passed two other ships: another cruiser and an even more tempting target – the battleship Emperor of India. Having talked to survivors personally, and from divers reports, Vice-Admiral Jellicoe was of the opinion that the foundering of the Natal was due to an internal explosion.

As was traditional in the loss of a Royal Navy ship, a Court Martial into the loss of the Natal was held at Chatham between 18th and 20th January 1916. As the highest surviving officer, Lieutenant Commander John Spencer Tyndall was the first to give evidence. He was in the Mail Office under the after shelter deck at the time of the explosion, and in the immediate aftermath directed the crew to rig fire hoses. His testimony, along with that of others, in particular the divers William Russell and Charles Lambert, confirmed the opinion that the loss of Natal was due to an internal explosion caused by faulty ammunition. (The divers reported that the explosion had blown both sides of the ship bodily outwards). A similar conclusion was found for the loss of HMS Bulwark in 1914 and would again be the conclusion for the loss of HMS Vanguard in 1917. The Court Martial confirmed that the loss was not due to the design, carelessness or the negligence of officers and men.

 

  • Alternative Theory

Because of his severe injuries, only written evidence was taken from the Officer of the Watch at the time, Lieutenant Denis Quintin Fildes, son of the artist and illustrator Sir Luke Fildes.

According to the account given in ‘They Called it Accident’ by A. Cecil Hampshire, lying in his hospital bed Fildes had some anxiety about an incident which occurred on the afternoon of the accident. He’d heard a strange sound emanating from a ventilator shaft and had sent one of the crew to investigate. Fildes began to wonder whether the noise he had heard was in fact caused by a fire in the magazine. After the sinking Fildes became more inclined that the explosion had been caused by an incendiary device. He was more convinced this was the case when he attended a book tour by a former German officer Kapitan Lieutenant Franz von Rintelen who gave a lecture on the various acts of sabotage he had carried out, including sinking ships through the means of incendiaries.

 

Chatham Naval Memorial. Photograph uploaded by Vincent Stuart

  • Legacy

Today, a buoy marks the spot where Natal sank – the remains of the wreck designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Many of those who died are remembered on the naval memorials at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. Of the bodies recovered only 17 were identified and were buried in the local cemeteries of Cromarty and Rosskeen. More than 100 years later her memory lives on in the local community, with a garden created in her honour at Invergordan, museums in Cromarty and Invergordan remembering the sinking and a memorial in Durban erected in 1927.

 

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