The Wearside sailor who died in an explosion which killed 843 crew

One of the saddest Wearside stories to emerge from the First World War was that of Stanley Simpson.

Thursday, 22nd March 2018, 10:35 am
Updated Thursday, 22nd March 2018, 10:35 am
Chatham Naval Memorial where Stanley Simpson is remembered with honour. Photograph courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Ironically, he survived the famous Battle of Jutland in 1916. He was 22 at the time and had been in the midst of the action which saw the Royal Navy clash head on with the German fleet.

It was a battle in which 250 ships were directly engaged – and Leading Seaman Stanley Simpson survived it all.

Kevin Dance.

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Yet a year later, he and 843 men out of 845 on board HMS Vanguard died in the most unusual circumstances imaginable.

Researcher and former South Hetton man Kevin Dance explains more.

HMS Vanguard had played a valiant role at Jutland.

The St Vincent class battleship was part of IV Battle Squadron during Jutland in May 1916, and despite being involved throughout the action, she was not damaged and suffered no casualties.

Kevin Dance.

It was great news for the crew yet disaster soon struck.

“Beyond the Battle of Jutland the ship was involved in very little significant action,” said Kevin.

But on July 9, 1917, Vanguard was anchored in Scapa Flow. “Nothing seemed amiss,” said Kevin.

But at 11.20pm, the entire ship was destroyed in an instant by an internal explosion. Neighbouring ships were showered with wreckage.

Out of 845 men on board, only three survived the explosion. They were Lieutenant Commander ACH Duke, Marine J Williams and Stoker 1st Class FW Cox. But Lieutenant Commander Duke later died of his injuries.

Perhaps it was a blessing that a number of the officers were at a concert on another ship when disaster struck.

The tragedy led to a Court of Inquiry which attributed the cause to faulty cordite in the ammunition storage area.

Decades later, in 1975, the Royal Navy’s Command Clearance Diving Team carried out a detailed investigation which showed that the original explosion destroyed virtually all the explosive ordnance on board and blew the ship apart.

Kevin added: “The bodies that could be recovered now lie in Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery, Hoy, where there is also a memorial.”

As to the wreck itself, it lies in more than 40ft of water to the north of the island of Flotta and to the west of Calf of Flotta.

And Stanley is remembered with honour at Chatham Naval Memorial.

It was a sad end to Stanley’s promising life.

He was a mere lad of 17 when he enlisted.

He was the son of locomotive driver William Simpson and Margaret Simpson from South Hetton. His mother died by the time he was 12 and he became a putter in a coal mine just before he enlisted.

But then his life changed forever when he joined up.

On June 11, 1911, Stanley Simpson had officially become a Boy Sailor 2nd Class and soon progressed through Boy Sailor 1st Class to become an Ordinary Seaman on his 18th birthday.

Twelve years of Royal Navy service seemed set for the 5ft 4ins 18-year-old and it all started well at first.

Kevin explained: “Stanley was based on several shore-based training ships before being posted to HMS Africa, which sailed as part of the Mediterranean Fleet, at this time Stanley is promoted from Ordinary Seaman to Able Seaman. He spends 18 months serving on HMS Africa.

“Stanley then undertakes further training on HMS Actaeon and in July 1914 becomes an Acting Seaman Torpedo Man. He then spends a few months on HMS Intrepid, which acts as a Minelayer at Dover.

“Stanley is promoted to Seaman Torpedo Man in October 1914 and spends the next couple of years moving from ship to ship before finally joining HMS Vanguard in May 1916 and is promoted to Leading Seaman in October of the same year.”

Later that year, his life seemed so happy when he married Mary A Weatherby in December 1916.

But tragedy struck and took yet another brave man of South Hetton.