Able Seaman George Gingell, Royal Navy, drowned at sea, 12 January 1918, age 18 years
(Please note George Henry Lewin Gingell is on another page)
George Gingell was born on May 22nd 1898. Some sources give his birthplace as Wootton Bassett but it was much more likely to be Preston Lane, Preston, between Tockenham and Lyneham, where the family were living in 1891. They were still living in Preston at the time of the 1901 census. George’s father, Henry Gingell, was a farm labourer and cowman, born in Lyneham in about 1869, and his mother was Mary Jane, nee Horsell. By about 1908 the family had moved to Rodwell Lodge, Hilmarton. In 1911, when George was 12, he was only at school part time. His three older brothers, Ernest, Frank, and William Gingell, were all farm labourers, and by now George had two younger brothers, Thomas, who was at school, and Sydney, who was 2. George’s youngest sister Eliza was born in about July 1914. When she was baptised in September 1914 the family lived at Highway near Hilmarton. George, now 15 and perhaps determined that working as a farm labourer was not for him, had already left home.
George joined the Navy at the age of 15 on 30th Jan 1914 with the rank Boy 2nd Class (J/29314). Such entry was conditional on a boy’s physical height, weight, medical fitness, and evidence of ‘good character’. His parents or guardians would sign a declaration that the boy would serve in the Navy for a given period. George began his naval career at the training establishment HMS Impregnable in Devonport, where the moored training ships at the time were HMS Howe, HMS Inconstant and HMS Black Prince. Having proved his proficiency in seamanship and earned at least one good conduct badge, on August 2nd 1914 he was promoted to Boy 1st class, with an associated pay rise (slightly quicker than the usual probation of 9 months). After promotion to Boy 1st Class, George was shuffled quickly through Devonport’s shore based training units Vivid I and Victory I, moving finally, on 28th August 1914, to the shore based torpedo training school HMS Vernon.
George was posted to his first sea going ship, HMS Superb, on 1st November 1914. HMS Superb was one of a trio of Bellerophon-class dreadnought battleships, and was built for the Royal Navy in 1907. Superb was assigned to the Home and Grand Fleets, carrying out routine patrols and training in the North Sea. On January 1st 1916 George was promoted to Ordinary Seaman. On 22nd May 1916 he was reengaged for 12 years. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a 35 inch chest. The Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services tells us that he had brown hair, brown eyes, a fresh complexion, and a scar on his forehead.
Suddenly everything changed for George. A matter of days after his engagement, HMS Superb was taking part in the Battle of Jutland, which lasted from 31st May to 1st June 1916. Having truly earned his ‘sea time’, George was rapidly promoted to Able Seaman on 27th July 1916. HMS Superb later took part in the Action of 19th August 1916, an inconclusive attempt made by the German High Seas Fleet in 1916 to engage elements of the British Royal Navy. After another eight months at sea, George returned to HMS Vernon in England on 1st May 1917. On 31st October 1917 George was assigned to the destroyer depot ship HMS Diligence to await his next posting. He did not have long to wait. He was assigned to HMS Narborough, an M class destroyer, built by John Brown & Company at Clydeside, and launched on 20th November 1916. On board, George’s character and ability were described as ‘very good’.
On 12th January 1918 HMS Narborough and her sister ship HMS Opal of the 12th Flotilla left Scapa Flow to meet the light cruiser Boadicea at sea and carry out a ‘Dark Night Patrol’ or DNP. These took place on every moonless night to deter enemy fast surface minelayers. The two destroyers rendezvoused with Boadicea at 15.35 off the Pentland Skerries. At this time the weather was still good, and the barometer steady, but as the patrol cruised eastwards the weather deteriorated. By 5.05pm speed was reduced to 12 knots. Heavy snow squalls were occurring and visibility was down to a few hundred yards. At 6.30pm the Boadicea ordered the destroyers to return to base. Eventually the Opal (the lead ship of the pair) reported that she had run aground, but with only a partial position. The sole survivor, Able Seaman William Sissons, described how the snow had cleared revealing too late a cliff ahead. The Opal struck this heavily, then the Narborough beached beside her, tipped over to her right and immediately started to break up. Some of the Opal’s life rafts were launched but were carried away and the remainder unusable. Sissons clung to a funnel and eventually managed to swim to the shore.
The snow was too thick that night for tugs or destroyers to go out looking for the two destroyers. In the morning of the 13th of January a variety of ships, sloops, trawlers, drifters and shore parties set out to search for them, but the weather remained poor, and those searching on the shore had to battle through 6 foot deep snow drifts. Later that day a washstand marked ‘Sub Lt HMS Narborough’ was picked up half a mile south of the Pentland Skerries. Finally, on the morning of 14th January, the destroyer Peyton found the wreckage of the destroyers. The ships were submerged to the tops of their torpedo tubes, with everything above deck completely flattened. Able Seaman Sissons, who had been sheltering beneath driftwood and eating shellfish for two days, was picked up by a trawler at the Clett of Crura.
In all there were 95 casualties on the HMS Opal and 93 on HMS Narborough. Only eight men from the Narborough were identified and buried, and another 35 graves were buried with the inscription, ‘A Sailor of HMS Narborough, Known unto God’. George Gingell has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, panel reference 29. A small memorial also stands at Windwick Bay. It reads:
In memory of the 188 men who perished here when HMS NARBOROUGH and HMS OPAL were lost on the rocks of Hesta during the snowstorm of 12 Jan 1918.
The enquiry found that the disaster was due to poor seamanship and lack of judgement in trying to enter harbour under such poor conditions, and that the Opal’s Lt. Commander de Malan had probably not allowed for the northerly set of the tide. For more information on the loss of HMS Narborough, see http://www.kbrady.com/opal.html and http://www.gwpda.org/naval/opalnarb.htm. See also K.D. McBride in the The Mariner’s Mirror, vol 85 1999, published by the Society for Nautical Research, and the Admiralty Report on the wreck, from which sources I have quoted many details. There are artefacts from the wreck at the museum at Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, Lyness, and at the Orkney Museum. Kirkwall.
George was awarded the Victory Medal, the British War Medal, and the 1914 Star. When George’s mother was notified of his death, she had returned to Preston and was living at Bridgend Cottage.