Hms Natal a Cruisers Story 1905 1915

H.M.S. “Natal”
A Cruiser’s Story

H.M.S. “Natal”, like H.M.S. “Good Hope” (which was lost in action off the coast of Chile during the early stages of the First World War), was presented to the Royal Navy by South Africa, and like her “compatriot”, would suffer an ignominious fate, succumbing, on the 30 December 1915, to what was believed to be an internal explosion, at Cromarty Firth, in Scotland. The Cruiser, H.M.S. “Natal”, was bequeathed to the Royal Navy by the people of Natal (as her name suggests), and was launched at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, in late September 1905. The “Natal” upon commencement of her service with the Royal Navy, received a ship’s bell, a silver cup, a silver record plate, and a silver centre-piece and candelabra, from the people of Natal.

It is of interest to elaborate upon the centerpiece and candelabra presented to H.M.S. “Natal”, as it was quite spectacular. The bowl of the centerpiece “represented the prow of an ancient ship conventionally treated. In the centre panel there was an enamelled portrait of the late King Edward VII. [who was the reigning British Monarch at the time H.M.S. “Natal” was built], and on the reverse side one of Admiral Lord Nelson, with naval crown above, and supported on either side by sprays of oak and laurel, the emblems of Strength and Victory; whilst the body was decorated with various symbols of a naval and nautical character, the centerpiece bore the inscription: “This service of plate was presented by the people of Natal as a token of their interest in His Majesty’s Navy, and of their goodwill towards the ship bearing the name of the Colony.”

H.M.S. “Natal” was also presented with a splendid shooting trophy, the trophy inscribed with the names of the winning teams. The shooting trophy consisted of “a large antique silver cup, standing on a plinth made of fumed oak”, and bore the same inscription as was engraved upon the centerpiece; the latter as mentioned above, also having been presented to H.M.S. “Natal”. H.M.S. “Natal” was well-known for her marksmanship, and had a reputation as one of the Royal Navy’s crack gunnery ships. This is not surprising considering that of her six captains, no-less than five were gunnery or torpedo officers!

The first of these officer’s was Captain Stuart Nicholson, who later became Assistant Director of Torpedoes at the Admiralty, and who was mentioned in dispatches for services at the Dardanelles, having, in the interim, been promoted to Rear-Admiral. It was while under the command of Captains’ F.C.A. Ogilvy, and W.R. Hall, that the “Natal” in “successive years eclipsed all records”. Captain Clement Greatorex, continued the tradition, and it was under this officer, that the “Natal” formed “part of the escort when the King and Queen went to India for the Durbar”.
It fell to Captain J.F.E. Green, to command the cruiser during the initial period of the First World War, whereupon Captain Eric P. Back, then succeeded him as commanding-officer of the “Natal”. It was under Captain Eric P.C. Back, Royal Navy, that H.M.S. “Natal” was lost. Captain Back was a distinguished officer, having served during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), with the Naval Brigade, which he joined at Bloemfontein, in the Orange River Colony, having initially served aboard H.M.S. “Monarch”.

What transpired aboard H.M.S. “Natal” all those years back, and brought about her sad demise, has remained a mystery ever since, and is still open to speculation. The Admiralty announced the loss of the Cruiser thus: “His Majesty’s Ship Natal (Captain Eric P. Back, R.N.) (armoured cruiser) sank yesterday afternoon while in harbour as the result of an internal explosion. About 400 survivors are reported [approximately 14 officers and 373 men were saved, making a total of 387 survivors], and their names are being communicated to the press as soon as possible.” Contemporary estimates stated that the losses suffered amounted to approximately “380 officers and men out of the 704 in the full ship’s company”. Walter Greenacre, a South African parliamentarian and president of the Natal branch of the Navy League, as well as a member of a distinguished Natal family, sent a telegram asking that “profound sympathy” be conveyed to the Admiralty on the loss of H.M.S. “Natal”, and that a special fund for the dependants of victims be proposed , and whether such a proposal was acceptable. Whether this proposal ever came about, or was sanctioned in any way, is not known to the author of this article.

It is interesting to relate that H.M.S. “Natal”, was a cruiser of the “Warrior” Class, and that less than six-months after her demise, South African-born, Captain (Later Rear-Admiral) Vincent Barkly Molteno, would command H.M.S. “Warrior” during the Battle of Jutland, the “Warrior” also succumbing to the ocean’s depths!
Although the official statement at the time did not reveal the place where the misfortune occurred, it later came to light that “Natal” had suffered her ill-starred fate at Cromarty Firth, in Scotland. The rusting hulk of H.M.S. “Natal” is still visible today, a lasting reminder to a valiant ship and crew, and the vagaries of war!