Just before midnight on Sunday, July 9th, 1917, disaster struck the Dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard as she lay at anchor in Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. An internal explosion ripped through the vessel, which sank almost immediately.
More than 840 men lost their lives, including three with families in Luton - Engine Room Artificer Herbert Stanley Pestell, Petty Office Stoker Francis Harold Armitage, and Able Seaman Charles Johnson (pictured left to right, above). A fourth Lutonian - Stoker Horace Stanley Bingham (pictured below) - was fortunate enough to have been given leave and was not on board the ill-fated ship at the time.
The Luton lads were real chums, said The Luton News (July 19th, 1917) and a pathetic circumstance is that they were accustomed to spend their leave together and, but for the catastrophe, would now most likely have been enjoying well-earned recreation in Luton.
First to be officially confirmed lost was Engine Room Artificer Herbert Pestell, aged 26 years, the second son of dairyman Mr F. W. Pestell and Mrs Pestell, of 17 Burr Street.
He had been a member of St Paul's Sunday school and Church Choir and had served his apprenticeship at the Vauxhall & West Hydraulic Co, during which period he was entrusted with the erection of important machinery in various parts of the country.
He joined the Navy in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of war, and a year later was transferred to the Vanguard, the vessel with which he remained until the disaster happened. He had gone through the Battle of Jutland unscathed on Vanguard and was being recommended for promotion.
He had married dressmaker Elsie Sawyer, of 9 Harper Street, Driffield, Yorkshire, at Driffield Wesleyan Church on April 7th, 1916. Elsie, a daughter of Robert and Caroline Sawyer, remarried in 1918.
Mr and Mrs Thomas Armitage, of 43 Tennyson Road, Luton, were informed that their son, Francis Harold Armitage, was feared drowned in the Vanguard disaster. Harold, aged 26, had been promoted from Leading Stoker to Petty Officer, and was second in charge of the engine room.
He had worked as an iron moulder at Hayward Tyler's prior to joining the Navy in September 1912. Like Herbert Pestell, he had served on HMS Vanguard during the Battle of Jutland and come through unscathed.
Harold had hoped to spend his leave with his comrade, First-Class Seaman Alfred Morgan, whose parents lived in Totternhoe. Alfred also perished when the Vanguard went down.
The third Luton victim of the disaster was AB Charles Johnson, son of George and Marjorie Johnson, of 24 Ash Road. He had done seven years' service in the Royal Navy and was serving in the Mediterranean when war broke out. He later served in the Dardanelles and German East Africa.
A Navy friend who wrote to pay tribute recalled that, although not a strong swimmer, Charles had on one occasion dived into a rough sea in high winds to rescue a pet minah bird that had been blown into the water.
All three Luton sailors are included on the Luton Roll of Honour and the Chatham Naval Memorial. Their bodies were not recovered for burial.