Relatives mark anniversary of Royal Navy's worst wartime accident

Relatives of those killed in the Royal Navy's worst wartime accident have marked its centenary at commemorative events.

Monday, 10th July 2017, 2:28 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:47 am
A Royal Navy diver at the wreck of HMS Vanguard

Relatives of those killed in the Royal Navy's worst wartime accident have marked its centenary at commemorative events.

HMS Vanguard sank following an accidental explosion in Scapa Flow off Orkney on July 9 1917, with the loss of 843 lives. Only two of the 845 men on board survived.

Forty descendants took part in a wreath-laying service over the wreck site on Sunday.

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HMS Vanguard

Divers from the Royal Navy's Northern Diving Unit took a single wreath to the seabed to place on the wreck.

They had earlier recovered a White Ensign, laid on the wreckage of the Vanguard in 2009, and replaced it with a new flag.

Relatives said it meant a lot to attend the ceremony.

Among the victims was Lieutenant Evelyn Dunbar-Dunbar-Rivers, known to his family as Evie, who joined theVanguard in November 1913.

HMS Vanguard

He was 26 on the night the ship went down and his portrait hangs in the hallway of the family home.

His great-nephew Duncan Dunbar-Nasmith, of Glen of Rothes, Moray, was among the descendants at the ceremony.

He said: "I've grown up with the painting. You come in through the front door and there's great-uncle Evie on the wall, his naval cap at a jaunty angle, and his face full of character.

"To be in Scapa Flow, on the waters above the ship, our links with him feel so much more substantial - we feel closer to a man whose life came to a sudden end at such a young age so long ago.

"It has been wonderful for us to be among so many descendants of relatives who served aboard Vanguard. None of us will forget the sacrifice they made."

As a child, Paula Smith, from Ipswich, remembers her grandmother talking with sorrow and affection of her younger brother Henry Metcalf, a 19-year-old Royal Marine who had served aboard Vanguard for just two months when he died in the disaster.

She said: "She had a large photograph of Henry on the wall of her home.

"They never found him and she never made it to Scapa Flow. I'm doing this in her memory as well as his."

The wreath-laying ceremony was followed by a service of commemoration at Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery in Hoy, where 41 of the ship's crew were buried.

Five-year-old Harry Remers, from Midhurst in West Sussex, laid a wreath on behalf of all the descendants.

His great-great-uncle, Lieutenant Reginald (Rex) Elgood, was among those who died.

The day culminates with a special night watch service at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, timed to mark the moment the Vanguard went down - 11.20pm.

Naval Regional Commander Scotland and Northern Ireland Captain Chris Smith said: "The history of the Royal Navy and Scapa Flow are tightly entwined.

"The devastating explosion, completely accidental rather than a result of enemy action, was a shock when it happened and the tragic loss of more than 840 lives is still felt through their descendants and those in Orkney who feel passionately that we should mark the centenary in appropriate fashion.

"I am very happy to be joined by the ship's companies of HMS Dasher and HMS Pursuer as well as the Northern Diving Group and personnel from the current HMS Vanguard as we support the welcome efforts of Orcadians in commemorating the loss of this great battleship and all but two of her crew."

Although the cause of the explosion has not been proven, the accepted explanation is that a fire started in a fuel compartment next to one of Vanguard's armaments magazines.

The intense heat ignited cordite in the magazine, triggering explosions that blew the ship apart.