Anniversary of wartime tragedy in Cromarty Firth when HMS Natal blew up

The sun had almost set on the Cromarty Firth on the penultimate day of 1915.

The natural harbour proved a key anchorage for the Grand Fleet in its bitter struggle with its foe across the North Sea, an important base between the Navy’s wartime home in Scapa Flow and Rosyth, from where the fast battle-cruisers of Admiral Beatty patrolled.

This festive period, the second of the Great War, the firth was filled with ships at anchor, ships such as the finest battleships, like HMS Benbow, through armoured cruisers Achilles and Natal to destroyers Oak and Mindful.

Crews of the anchored ships had, for a few days, put the war to the back of their minds. Aboard Natal, some of the officers were enjoying a film show; the cruiser’s commanding officer, Captain Eric Back, had invited wives and children aboard for the occasion. Most of the crew were either tending to harbour duties or resting in messes. Some had gone ashore to watch – or take part in – a football match against local soldiers.

The ten-year-old warship had led a mostly uneventful life so far, save for escorting George V to India so he could attend the Delhi Durbar and be crowned Emperor. Her wartime service with the 2nd Cruiser Squadron had helped to throttle Germany’s supply lines, but it was monotonous work.

But shortly before 3.30pm this Thursday, the ship flashed a terse signal, out of the blue: Ship on fire.

I saw a flame coming up the after hatchway which caught me, threw me in the air and rolled along the upper deck

AB Michael Fogarty

The response around the Firth was almost immediate: Send fire engines to Natal immediately.

They never had a chance. Just one minute later, the cruiser Shannon reported: Natal has turned over and has bilge keel showing.

The fire had detonated either her main or secondary aft magazines – the ship’s rear section was torn apart in an instant and the cruiser heeled to port and sank within five minutes.

AB Michael Fogarty was next to a ventilator by the funnels. “The next I heard was a rumbling noise and I saw a flame coming up the after hatchway which caught me, threw me in the air and rolled along the upper deck,” he recalled.

A jet of flame shot up – higher than Natal’s masthead – before successive explosions doomed the cruiser.

Amazingly, given the cataclysmic explosion, Fogarty was one of more than 300 men who survived, almost all of them ratings, rapidly plucked out of the water by crews of tugs and warships which gathered around the wreck.

Capt Back and his guests were all killed; among the victims were the entire Dods family, including patriarch John Henry, a former Scottish rugby international. They were just about to depart Natal by launch when disaster struck.

The death toll is estimated between 390 and 421, including more than 60 Royal Marines plus the ship’s cat Rudolph, with the recovered bodies interred in the churchyard at Rosskeen.

After initial fears of a U-boat attack were ruled out, the Admiralty concluded that Natal was probably the victim of a cordite fire which spread to the magazine. A near identical explosion had ripped apart HMS Bulwark at Sheerness in 1914 and would vaporise battleship HMS Vanguard at Scapa Flow in 1917.

Natal's upturned hull was left for the remainder of the war before half a century of salvage and recovery attempts were made until the late 1970s. Today the wreck site is marked by a buoy.