HMS Natal Explosion

On 30th December 1915 Natal was lying in the Cromarty Firth with her squadron under the command of Captain Eric Back RN. Shortly after 3.20pm, and without warning, a series of violent explosions tore through the ship.

Within 5 short minutes she capsized, a blazing wreck.

390 men, more than half of the ship’s company, 11 women and children and two dockyard workers perished either from the explosions or in the freezing water of the Cromarty Firth. Those bodies which were recovered from the sea were interred in Rosskeen Churchyard, Invergordon.

There was a huge amount of speculation about the loss of the Natal. A mine laying U-boat was thought to be the cause but an underwater inspection revealed massive damage from an internal explosion. Sabotage by German agents was suspected but never proved.

Natal was one of four heavy cruisers of the Warrior class and got her name because the funds required to build her in 1905 came largely (some say completely) from the inhabitants of Natal Province in gratitude for the protection being provided by the Royal Navy in those great days of Empire.

The Natal was at anchor in the Cromarty Firth when she exploded in the afternoon on 30 December 1915 and, at the time, her Captain, Eric Back, and his wife were hosting a party on board which included nurses, civilians and children, all of whom were among the 388 who lost their lives.

After numerous failed salvage attempts, much of the ship’s interior was removed and the wreck was stripped of armament and steel. The remainder was blown up in the 1970s to level the wreck to prevent it from being a hazard to navigation for the expanding oil industry. The skeleton of Natal still lies visible in the Cromarty Firth marked by a radar buoy, and is now a government protected site. The destruction of Vanguard in Scapa Flow on 9 July 1917 in similar circumstances was linked to the loss of Natal, but the cause of the sinking of Natal has never been completely determined.

Contemporary papers about Natal, including the minutes of the court martial are in the British National Archives at Kew.

A memorial to the ship was erected in Durban in 1927, and there is a memorial plaque to Captain E. Back RN in the Officers’ Mess in HMS Excellent, Whale Island, Portsmouth. There is also a memorial plaque in Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral. The wreck itself is now designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. A garden called Natal Gardens has been created at Invergordon which contains a commemorative plaque remembering Natal.