The steel armoured cruiser Natal was launched from the yard of Vickers Maxim of Barrow in Furness on 30th September 1905. She measured 505.4′ x 73.5′ x 27.5′ and displaced 13,550 tons. Her twin 4 cylinder triple expansion steam engines delivered 23,650 ihp. Her armament consisted of 6 @ 19.2 inch Mrk X guns, 4 @ 17.5 inch Mk II guns, 26 @ Vickers quick fire 3 pounder guns. 3 @ submerged 18 in torpedo tubes.
The first decade of the 20th century saw an unprecedented build up of the fleets of Britain and Germany as both nations vied for dominance of the seas around Europe. Britain built 27 battleships, 3 battlecruisers, 35 cruisers, 65 destroyers and 56 submarines in this period. One of these ships was the cruiser HMS Natal. She was the first Royal Navy ship to carry this name, named after the province of Natal in South Africa and officials of the province were present on 30th September when she was launched by the Duchess of Devonshire. She had cost the British taxpayer £1,163,203 to build and a further £55,080 was spent on her array of guns. Her twin four cylinder inverted vertical triple expansion engines were designed to reach a speed of 22 knots. In fact, on her speed trials in August 1906, she reached 23 knots – she was a fine ship.
In January 1907, after extensive acceptance trials under the command of Captain Stuart Nicolson RN, she joined Fifth Cruiser Squadron based at Chatham. In 1909 she transferred to Second Cruiser Squadron and for the next five years she served the Navy well amid the growing tensions between Britain and Germany until, on June 18th 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo and the continent quickly fell into a state of war. On 29th July Second Cruiser Squadron was dispatched to Rosyth. A few days later, at midnight on 4th August, war was declared. Before the end of the year a major disaster befell the Royal Navy which was to prove a frightening portent for the Natal – on 26th November HMS Bulwark blew up while moored at Sheerness. Over 700 British Sailors were killed in an incident which was never fully explained despite a wide ranging investigations by the Navy.
November 1915 found the Natal in Birkenhead for a refit. In December, under command of Captain Eric Back, she headed north again, bound for Scapa Flow. Three technicians remained on board to finish a few last repairs. Within weeks of arriving at Scapa Flow and rejoining her squadron, she was sent to the Navy’s other major Scottish base in the Firth of Cromarty. As they steamed into the pleasant Scottish estuary Captain Back slowed his ship and manoeuvred into her assigned position – last in the line of ships of the Second Squadron about one and a half miles from the village of Cromarty. There she anchored in 8 fathoms.
Life aboard ship while in Cromarty was certainly more pleasant than when they were moored in the bleak anchorage at Scapa. Regular trips ashore were allowed and, in an amazing breach of wartime restrictions, many men managed to get messages to their families to meet them there. The Navy even seemed to condone this as it improved the men’s morale and relieved the tedium of waiting for the German fleet to venture out and face the British. After a pleasant Christmas at Cromarty the crew readied themselves for the New Year celebrations although, understandably, the atmosphere was somewhat muted as they considered another year of war. Thursday 30th December dawned – a beautiful, clear, cold winter’s day. It would end as a day remembered forever in Cromarty. Teams of sailors were shuttling back and forward from the Natal to play in a football tournament between the various parts of the ship. In the morning the quarterdeckmen had played the marines and the two teams and their supporters chatted happily as they climbed back aboard their ship and greeted the officer of the watch – Lieutenant Denis Fildes. Captain Back had arranged a lunch party for his family and a few friends which was to be followed by a film show later in the afternoon. Three nursing sisters from the hospital ship Drina, which was moored nearby, also came aboard as they had been invited to watch the film.
As Lieutenant Fildes strolled around the deck chatting to some of the sailors working on the ship, he could hear the muted strains of the Royal Marine band playing below for the captain and his guests. This quiet scene was shattered at 3:25pm when a massive explosion ripped through the Natal. Huge tongues of flame erupted through every opening at the rear of the ship and within seconds a series of further explosions rocked the ship. The aft end of the cruiser was wrecked, instantly killing anyone in that part of the vessel. From other parts of the ship men began pouring out on deck a rather shaken Lieutenant Fildes took charge as the huge ship began to list to port and to sink by the stern. It was obvious that she would not stay afloat for long. Ninety seconds after the initial blast the quarterdeck was below water and thirty seconds later the list had reached twenty deck machinery and fittings breaking loose and careering to the port side of the ship. As he wandered dazed among the devastation on the deck Fildes helped organise the escaping sailors to abandon ship. The foremast snapped off above his head and crashed into the sea amid a tangle of wires and metal supports.
By this time men were jumping into the water or sliding down the increasingly exposed starboard side of the ship. On the port side a dockyard launch had been tied alongside the Natal and was quickly filling with escaping sailors. However, their escape was to be cruelly thwarted as the Natal rolled over on top of the unfortunate men and smashed the little launch. The men were thrown into the water and most were sucked beneath the surface as the cruiser finally turned turtle. She had sunk within five minutes of the initial explosion and settled on the seabed with about two hundred feet of her hull showing above water. In these terrible five minutes more than 350 men and women plus the captain’s children had lost their lives. The disaster was witnessed by many from the shore. Later they were to testify that a huge pillar of yellow flame shot upwards from the after part of the ship then the sound of a deep rumbling explosion drifted across the anchorage. This sound was quickly followed by a series of sharper smaller explosions. A host of small craft appeared from all around the fleet and the shore and sped towards the scene. 270 officers and ratings were rescued from the cold waters of the Cromarty Firth.
That evening, the first urgent enquiries into the disaster began aboard the hospital ship Drina. Vice Admiral Sturdee toured round the injured men and other survivors chatting to them. His line of questioning betrayed his obvious concern that a German U-boat might have crept through the outer defences and sunk the ship. News of the tragedy also started to filter down to Chatham. Here families and friends wandered the rain soaked streets huddling in small groups desperate for news. The next day he Admiralty issued a statement: ” The Secretary of the Admiralty announces that the armoured cruiser HMS Natal (Captain E P C Back) blew up and sank yesterday afternoon while in harbour as the result of an internal explosion – about 400 survivors are reported and their names are being communicated to the press as soon as possible.” On the 5th the list of dead and missing was published – it did not mention the women or children who had been aboard.
After the memorial service at Cromarty on 1st January, attended by Admiral Jellicoe himself, the Navy’s attention turned to the causes of the explosion which had sunk the ship. On 1st and 2nd divers were sent down to examine the hull for signs of torpedo or mine damage. They reported that there was huge rip in the hull near the 9.2″ shellroom. The plating was clearly blown outwards indicating an internal explosion – they could find no damage that was consistent with an external attack whether by mine or torpedo. They further reported that the ship was lying on her port side with a 135 degree list and her starboard bilge keel vertical. She was lying on a muddy seabed with her stern at 8.5 fathoms and her bow in 9 fathoms. Her back was broken and her sternpost badly twisted. Almost immediately the rumours began to circulate that the initial explosion was in fact the work of a saboteur.
The official court martial took place in the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham on 18th and 20th January. Rear Admiral Cecil Dampier was President of the Court. The general evidence of the witnesses called was consistent. The first explosion took place at 3:25pm and was immediately followed by a series of smaller explosions and then, finally, by another, large explosion. It was all over in four seconds, then flames raced through the stricken ship which almost immediately began to list to port. Five minutes later she rolled over and sank. The cause of the first explosion was never established for certain. The enquiry followed a number of possibilities including sabotage but, interestingly, these particular investigations were somewhat half hearted and vague. Instead the court followed in great detail the course of three batches of potentially defective cordite that could have found their way into the ammunition stored on the Natal. Although this line of enquiry was short of conclusive evidence and that no reason was established for the outbreak of fire that would have caused the ignition of the unstable cordite, in the end it was concluded that a fire of unknown origin had ignited the ammunition causing a series of explosion and the ultimate loss of the ship . The most intriguing aspect of all, which of course could not be known at the time, was that one of the workmen who had stayed aboard from Birkenhead would also be aboard the battleship HMS Vanguard a few years later shortly before she was lost in a similar explosion. Although the workmen were interviewed, no suspicion fell on them at the time.
The final chapters in the story of the Natal surround the various attempts at salvage over the subsequent thirty years. The first salvage contract was awarded to the Stanlee Shipbreaking and Salvage Company of Dover in 1920 but they never started work on the wreck. The first actual work began towards the end of 1925 when the Upnor Shipbbreaking Company was awarded a new contract. However, this attempt was to stop in the wake of the General Strike of 1926 during which the company went into liquidation. The jinx over the salvage of the ship continued when a third company took over. This time the Middlesbrough Salvage Company of Stockton on Tees commenced work on the wreck in February 1930 but they too were to go bankrupt in the Great Depression of 1931. The final disaster to attend the sunken ship happened in 1940. A fourth company – the South Stockton Shipbuilding Company – had taken over the work in 1937 and had proceeded successfully, removing most of her internal machinery until 14th April , 1940. That night their salvage ship Disperser was lost with all hands in a storm which swept the east coast of Scotland. The wreck was then abandoned leaving the jagged remains of her hull visible above water as a poignant reminder of the tragedy. Years of action by the sea gradually saw her crumble beneath the surface and she disappeared from view.
In 1970 a survey of the wreck by Metal Recoveries (Orkney) Ltd reported the wreckage to be completely demolished except for her massive boilers which stood 12 metres above the seabed. There were large quantities of munitions spreading over a wide area so the decision was taken to clear the area with explosives and this was carried out by March 1971 although the desired clearance of 40 feet was not achieved. Over the next 15 years a number of additional clearance efforts were carried out with varying degrees of success before the wreck was finally declared safe in 1986. The remains of Natal today lie in position 57°41.243’N, 004°05.310’W in a depth of 15 metres. Due to the extensive efforts to clear the area, wreckage is spread over a wide area approximately 170 metres x 60 metres and little that is recognisable remains. In 2002 the wreck and an area of 100 metre radius around the position above was designated as a protected military wreck.