It was one of the worst maritime disasters that have ever taken place in Scottish waters, but the tragedy of HMS Natal rarely surfaces when the history of Scotland in the First World War is discussed. That’s because the UK Government, the Admiralty and the media – under wartime rules – conspired to play down the scale of the disaster which occurred this week in 1915 in the Cromarty Firth, and it is only in recent years – with the centenary of the sinking of HMS Natal – that her awful fate was ever discussed at all.

HMS Natal was one of the Warrior class of armoured cruisers, of which only four were built for the Royal Navy.

She was launched from the Vickers yard in Barrow-in-Furness in 1905 and saw service in the Navy for 10 years in all. HMS Natal was named by the Duchess of Devonshire at the launching ceremony and was so called in recognition of the £35,000 a year raised for the Navy by the people of the Crown Colony of Natal, which would become part of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Distinguished by four funnels, HMS Natal was just over 500 feet in length and weighed 14,500 tons fully laden. Her powerful full steam engines gave her a top speed of 23 knots, making her one of the fastest cruisers afloat. She was heavily armed with 6in of armour plate all round and six 9.2in guns and four 7.5in guns in turrets, as well as three submerged torpedo tubes.

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HMS Natal carried a crew of 712, and they clearly had a sense of humour – after she carried the body of US ambassador Whitelaw Reid back to New York in 1912 they nicknamed her the Sea Hearse. How little did they know how prophetic that name would become.

At the outbreak of the war, Natal ­became part of the Grand Fleet based mainly at Scapa Flow in Orkney, but also using the Cromarty Firth as an anchorage. She was part of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron which spent much of 1915 patrolling the North Sea to keep the German Imperial Fleet in their ports.

On November 22, Natal went into Cammell Laird’s Birkenhead shipyard for a fortnight’s refit and then she sailed via Scapa Flow to Cromarty Firth where she arrived on December 17 – three ­civilian fitters were still aboard finishing snagging work. Crucially, Natal had also taken on a completely new load of ammunition.

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Apart from gunnery practice on December 20, Natal lay at anchor and her officers and crew enjoyed the Christmas break.

On the morning of Thursday, December 30, some 93 members of the crew went ashore to play in, or watch, a game of football. It was a jaunt that would save their lives.

The National:

The ship’s captain, Eric Black, ­arranged for a film showing and luncheon and had invited a local family who were his friends, as well as three officers’ wives plus a party of nurses from the hospital ship Drina that was also anchored in the Firth – seven women and three children in all.

At just after 3.20pm, a huge explosion occurred in the ammunition hold of the ship, setting off fires and other explosions throughout the ship. The first external sign of a problem was a signal sent to the anchored fleet’s Flag Officer at 3.25pm saying simply “Ship on fire” – you can see a copy of that signal and others from the fateful day in the Invergordon Naval Museum.

Within five minutes of the initial explosion, HMS Natal had capsized. Many of the crew, including the captain, his visitors and two of the fitters, perished in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, while others managed to ­survive by swimming away from the sinking ship.

A further signal to the Flag Officer from the nearby HMS Blanche timed at 3.45pm said simply: “Natal sunk.”

Those crew members who had gone ashore could only watch helplessly in the darkness as the rescue operation got under way. The people of Cromarty and Invergordon were also powerless to help.

HMS Achilles managed to rescue 126 survivors from the bitterly cold sea but a total of 421 officers, crewmen and civilians died in the disaster. Most of those who survived were on deck or at either end of the ship.

Leading stoker Thomas Robinson was lucky to survive and with great presence of mind he brought ashore another survivor – the ship’s cat.

Divers were sent down to the wreck the following morning and their reports confirmed the account of one of the surviving officers – that an internal explosion had destroyed Natal.

Though newspapers around the UK briefly reported on the disaster and the dead and survivors, the Fleet commander Admiral Jellicoe and the Admiralty suppressed the news of what was soon blamed for the explosion – faulty cordite, the propellant for the Navy’s shells.

The Admiralty also did not order any further safety measures and at the ­Battle of Jutland the following year, cordite-fuelled explosions sank two British capital ships with the loss of 2,500 men. Another reason, perhaps, to forget the Natal.

The hull of HMS Natal remained above water at low tide and it stayed there for nearly 60 years until the wreck was blown up as it was a hazard in the Cromarty Firth at the time of the oil boom.

December 30, 1915, saw the fourth ­biggest loss of life in Scottish waters in the First World War, and that’s why HMS Natal should never be forgotten.