ONE of the UK’s worst naval disasters, which saw more than 420 people killed when a warship was blown up by its own ammunition, is remembered today.
HMS Natal capsized in the Cromarty Firth off the Scottish Highlands 100 years ago after an explosion which occurred during a film show for officers and their visiting families.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is encouraging people who live locally to pay their respects by visiting the graves of those who lost their lives.
The majority of the crew are commemorated at naval memorials at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, but nine men who served on HMS Natal are buried in Rosskeen Parish Churchyard in Alness and a further eight at Cromarty Cemetery.
The armoured cruiser had anchored after sailing from Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
On the afternoon of December 30 1915, captain Eric Back had organised a Christmas film show for onboard guests – including seven officers’ wives, three children, one civilian and nurses from the nearby ship, Drina.
After the explosion survivors were pulled from the freezing waters, but darkness made rescue difficult and at least 414 sailors drowned, their bodies washed ashore. The youngest crew members to die were aged 16 and the eldest was 53.
One of the survivors was the ship’s cat, saved by Leading Stoker Thomas Robinson.
The CWGC said: ‘It was first thought that the ship had been torpedoed by German U-Boats, but on further inspection, it was discovered that the ship’s ammunition had ignited – possibly due to faulty cordite (a shell propellant).
‘The only remnant of HMS Natal was its hull bursting out of the icy water. This soon became a focal point of respect for many years for Royal Navy crews, who would salute the ship’s hull whenever they entered or departed the Cromarty Firth.
‘By the time the Second World War began, the vast majority of the ship’s steel had been salvaged and in the 1970s, the rest of the vessel was blown up to prevent it becoming a danger for navigating ships.’
The Commission added: ‘The CWGC is encouraging people who live nearby to pay their respects by visiting the graves.
‘Those who wish to visit can find out more information on the individuals who died on HMS Natal by using our online database found at www.cwgc.org.’
A Royal Navy spokesman said: ‘As we approach the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, which will see a number of commemorative events in Scotland, we welcome this initiative by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to encourage people to pay their respects to victims of the tragic events on HMS Natal a hundred years ago.’