About the British Armoured Cruiser Hms Natal

HMS Natal was a British Royal Navy armoured cruiser of the Duke of Edinburgh class, launched in 1905. Her lifetime in service was a tragically brief decade, cut short in 1915 when her magazine exploded and she sunk, taking several hundred of her crew with her into Cromarty Firth.

– Design and Construction –

The Duke of Edinburgh class was a group of six armoured cruisers ordered by the Royal Navy just after the turn of the century. Armoured cruisers were a contrived set of ships of the period, which included armour belts (hence the name) but were not large enough or well-armed enough to be battleships. In this case, the Duke of Edinburgh-class ships were 480 feet long, cruised at 23 knots, and carried an armament of six 9 inch guns, with an armour belt six inches thick. The last four of the class, which included HMS Natal, were built to slightly modified specifications and sometimes referred to by a separate class designation, Warrior.

Natal was laid down at Barrow and launched in September 1905, and then completed and commissioned two years later. The name was given in deference to the colony of South Africa, which supplied the funding necessary to build the ship.

– World War I Service and Sinking –

HMS Natal entered Royal Navy service in the years prior to the First World War and engaged in a variety of minor duties, including escorting the king’s yacht. Tragically, she never reached the Battle of Jutland (the principal naval engagement of World War I, in which two of Natal’s sister ships were struck and sunk by the German High Seas Fleet). Instead, on December 30, 1915, on the verge of New Year’s Eve, HMS Natal was stationed at Invergordon and anchored in the Cromarty Firth when, in the late afternoon, a sudden and unexpected explosion consumed the ship.

The damage was catastrophic and the ship’s sinking was frighteningly rapid. Within five minutes, HMS Natal had capsized in the river. About four hundred of her crew lost their lives in the explosion and the resulting fire. Because the ship capsized in shallow waters (indeed, the bottom of its hull remained visible above the water as the ship settled upside-down into its final resting place), many of the dead were recovered and buried on land.

No cause for the explosion was ever conclusively identified. At the time, under the pressures of wartime, speculation understandably turned to a covert infiltration of the anchorage by a German U-boat submarine. However, investigators concluded that the explosion had blown outwards from somewhere within the ship, rather than inwards, as would be expected from a U-boat torpedo strike. This did not rule out the possibility of German covert sabotage (another regular fear during the war), but no evidence for such sabotage was ever uncovered. It is at least equally possible that the explosion was simply due to faulty explosives in Natal’s magazine. Similar fears were raised after the sudden explosion of the St Vincent-class battleship HMS Vanguard in 1917, but Vanguard’s explosion was attributed to a fire heating nearby cordite to the point of detonation. In that tragedy, 800 men lost their lives.

The wreckage was left in place by the Royal Navy, just visible above the water, for most of the 20th century, and navy ships traditionally called sailors to attention as they passed. In the 1970s, the Natal was finally destroyed in a controlled explosion to avoid any risk to the increasing civilian shipping in the area.