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Society For Nautical Research - The Mariner's Mirror
A précis of the article by K.D. McBride in the The Mariner's Mirror, vol 85 1999 - published by the Society for Nautical Research.
From early in the First World War, the British Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow and the Battle-Cruiser force based in the Firth of Forth maintained 'Dark Night Patrols' or DNP's on every moonless night. Their purpose was to deter enemy fast surface minelayers. They were carried out by a group of one light cruiser and two destroyers patrolling an assigned area. As far as is known none of them ever actually encountered the enemy, but only one German surface minelayer succeeded in laying mines at the entrance to a British base (the Berlin off Lough Swilly in 1914).On 12 January 1918 the M class destroyers Opal and Narborough of the 12th Flotilla left Scapa Flow to join the light cruiser Boadicea at sea to carry out a DNP. Opal commanded by Lt. Cdr Charles de Malan was the senior of the two destroyers, was new to the area. Narborough s captain was Lt. Edmund Bowly. The pair rendezvoused with the cruiser at 15.35 off the Pentland Skerries. At this time the weather was good, the barometer steady. As the patrol made their way eastwards the weather deteriorated, and by 17.05 speed was reduced to 12 knots. At 18.30 in position 58.55N 01.48W the Boadicea detached the destroyers ordering them to return to base. Heavy snow squalls were occurring and visibility was cut to a few hundred yards. At 18.40 Opal radioed a request that shore lights at different positions be turned on between 2030-2230 and 2100-2300. She was heard several more times - at 19.05 she advised that her ETA was 2200 and at 1955 requested fog signals be sounded, adding 'blinding snow." Other ships in the area also reported trouble in the storm, the destroyer Ophelia radioed that she was at Switha boom but could not see it; two convoys were forced to seek shelter. At 22.17 the Opal reported that she had run aground, but with only a partial position, after which several garbled radio reports came in, one apparently from the Narborough. Meanwhile the Boadicea had continued patrolling until 20.00 when she turned back, and was forced to anchor off Copinsay light, in bad visibility and driving snow. At 23.42 the Admiral commanding the First Battle Squadron (senior officer at Scapa) reported that tugs and destroyers would sail to find Opal as soon as the weather cleared, nothing further having been heard. The weather clearing the next morning, ships sailed at 0910 to search, with four sloops, plus trawlers, drifters and shore parties. The weather remained poor, with shore search parties hampered by 6ft snow drifts. More ships joined the search during the 13th, but with no sign of the missing destroyers, until late in the day when a washstand marked 'Sub Lt HMS Narborough' was picked up half a mile south of the Pentland Skerries.The weather remained poor, with blizzards, strong winds and deep frosts. Not until the morning of 14 January did the searching destroyer Peyton see the wreckage of the destroyers, and a man, on the shore at the Clett of Crura. The man was AB William Sissons of the Opal who semaphored the ships; a boat from the trawler Michael Maloney picked him up. Despite his condition he gave intelligent answers to all questions put to him. He stated that he was on duty at no. 2 gun between the funnels. The weather was bad, with visibility 'about a destroyers length." The snow cleared momentarily; a cliff was close ahead. The Opal struck heavily and came to a stop. The Narborough came up on her starboard quarter before striking the shore and then went over onto her starboard side and started breaking up. The Opal slid back into deeper water, her hull broke at the foc'sle, her funnels and masts were carried away. Life rafts were launched but were carried away and the boats and davits unusable. Sissons said he clung to a funnel until swimming to the shore. He covered himself with driftwood and survived the next day on shellfish. He passed his second night bitterly cold and starving. The wrecks were found to be submerged to the tops of their torpedo tubes, with everything above deck flattened. The enquiry found that the disaster was due to poor seamanship and lack of judgement in trying to enter harbour under such conditions. Sissons testified that normal routine was in progress and the ships were steaming at 13 knots. Visibility was poor; Lt. Cdr de Malan had probably not allowed for the northerly set of the tide.
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