The steel ‘M Class’ destroyer HMS Narborough was launched from the Clydebank yard of John Brown in March 1916. She measured 271.5′ x 26.7′ x 10.2′ and her tonnage was 1010 displacement tons. She was powered by three steam turbines driving triple shafts delivering 2500 shaft horse power giving her a top speed of over 34 knots. She was armed with three quick firing 4 inch Mark IV guns, three single quick firing 2 pounder pom-pom Mark II guns and had two twin 21 inch torpedo tubes. Her sister ship Opal also joined the 12th Flotilla after her launch and fit out in 1916.
The double loss of these two destroyers remains a unique tragedy in the history of the modern Royal Navy. On Saturday, 12th January, 1918 the two ships were acting as protective screen for HMS Boadicea on Dark Night Patrol in the Pentland Firth. In the early evening the weather was fine with calm seas and a gentle north east breeze. However, the forecast indicated that the weather would deteriorate badly and, as a result, Opal and Narborough were ordered to return to Scapa Flow. Around 8:00pm the first snowflakes began to fall and soon it became very thick reducing visibility dramatically. The fog signals on the Pentland Skerries, Duncansby Head and on Copinsay were all started to assist any ships caught in the blizzard.
It is not absolutely clear why the two ships lost their way so badly although the weather conditions were obviously deteriorating minute by minute. Ashore there was little indication from Opal’s radio signals that the commander doubted his position. At 6:40pm he signalled for the lights to be shown to lead them to Scapa and at 6:53pm he signalled his position, course and speed as 58° 55’N, 01° 46’W, speed 13 knots. At 7:05pm he signalled that he expected to arrive at Scapa at 10:00pm. Nothing more was heard until 9:17pm when a dramatic short message was received “ Urgent – have run aground.” This was followed by a position stating they were at 58° 55’N, 02° 41’W. It was later stated that the actual position was 58° 46′ 30″N, 02° 55′ 30″W – clearly the two ships had become hopelessly lost in the blinding snow. The last message from the ships was a garbled, unintelligible radio message which the men ashore could barely understand – the operator later said that he thought the first word was “Pentland.”
The details of the ships’ grounding was given by the incident’s sole survivor, Able Seaman William Sissons of HMS Opal, when he was picked up the next day. He described the onset of the heavy snow which soon became a blizzard reducing visibility to almost zero. This was compounded by a heavy following sea. The captain and sub-lieutenant were on Opal’s bridge straining into the darkness to see ahead and anxiously watching the depth sounder. At around 9:30pm, without any warning, Opal struck heavily, first once, then two times more. The huge swell then pooped the ship which suddenly rolled over breaking her masts and smashing her funnel – she quickly began to slip back into deeper water and sink. As she slid back the forepart of the ship, from the forecastle forward, broke off and the stern section sank – it was only fifteen minutes after she went aground. The men had managed to free some Carley floats but the other boats were useless in the swell. Even the floats were being tossed around so violently that it was impossible for the men to stay on them for any length of time. When she struck Opal blew three blasts on her siren to warn Narborough which were answered by the other ship but before Narborough could react she steamed past Opal on her port quarter and she too went ashore – she also quickly keeled over in the swell and sank. Sissons managed to swim ashore and scramble onto a protected ledge to wait for rescue.
The search for the wreck site was severely hampered by the continuing heavy snow and the inaccurate position stated by the Opal before she went aground. At 7:00am the following morning a small fleet of ships left Scapa and began a search of the area including the Orkney coast, the Pentland Skerries and the mainland around Duncansby Head. It was not until 9:20am on the 14th that HMS Peyton steamed into Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay and sighted the wreckage of the two ships. Her commanding officer, C Crichton, lowered the whaler and carefully moved towards the shore – there was still a heavy swell making examination of the wreckage difficult and dangerous. They then spotted Sissons ashore. By now three trawlers had arrived on the scene and a boat from one of them, the M Maloney, reached the shore and rescued the seaman who by now was suffering badly from exposure.
The wreckage of the two ships was sold for salvage on 18th August, 1932 but some scattered wreckage is still reported at the site which is just south of the Clett of Crura in Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay in position 58° 46.225’N, 002° 55.896’W.