In the First World War the Royal Navy had the misfortune to lose four of its ships in home waters from internal explosions. HMSs ‘Glatton’, ‘Vanguard’, ‘Princess Irene’ and ‘Natal’.
The ‘Natal’ was a Duke of Edinburgh class armoured cruiser with a normal complement of 704 officers and men.
She had been attached to the Grand Fleet in 1914 and in December 1915 she was lying along with her squadron in the Cromarty Firth between Cromarty and Invergordon.
The Natal had arrived in the Cromarty Firth the week before Christmas and was enjoying some respite from duty in the North Sea. Apart from her crew there were civilians on board working on repairs. As a treat for some locals a film show was organised and earlier that day a party of guests, including QARNNS nurses, and some children had also arrived on board.
At twenty past three in the afternoon there was a series of huge explosion inside the ship and within five minutes the Natal had capsized and settled in eight fathoms.
There was a terrific loss of life. No one is sure of the exact numbers because of the civilians on board but there could have been as many as 421 lives lost. Many were killed in the explosion but many more were drowned as the ship sunk, or died of exposure in the freezing winter waters of the Cromarty Firth. One of those who died was the former Scotland Rugby International John Dods.
To this day the exact cause has not been established. There was talk of a German U-boat mine or sabotage by spies but the truth is probably more mundane. A fire near one of the ship’s ammunition magazines is likely to have been the cause.
There was some attempt at salvage after the war but it was abandoned and up until the 1970s the upturned hull was still visible at low tide.
When the oil rigs came to Nigg in the seventies the ‘Natal’ needed to go and she was blown up. There are still reminders of her in the area though. In Alness next to the lifeboat pier there is a small plaque in her memory, and a buoy still marks the spot where she sank. Many of those who died on the ‘Natal’ ninety five years ago today are buried in nearby cemeteries.