The Princess Royal led the 80th anniversary tributes to those who lost their lives on HMS Royal Oak in October 1939. Six weeks into the war seven men from Northern Ireland were amongst 833 sailors who were lost when their ship HMS Royal Oak went down in minutes after being attacked at anchor in Scapa Floe on October 14, 1939.
Most were killed by fire, many as they slept in their hammocks. Of those who escaped, few survived the freezing cold sea.
More than 100 of the ship’s 1,234 compliment were ‘boy sailors’. It was the war’s biggest loss of these teenage seamen, who were permitted to join the British fleet before they became ordinary seamen at 18 years of age.
A memorial at St Magnus’ Cathedral in nearby Kirkwall displays a plaque dedicated to those who lost their lives and a book of names. This list of names was not released by the Government until 40 years after the sinking. A page of the book is turned every week.
The sinking of Royal Oak gave the United Kingdom just about the worst possible start to the war. The Royal Oak was not a modern fighting ship but as a battleship she represented part of the might of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was the ‘Senior Service’ and many in the UK were still steeped in the ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves’ philosophy based on the perceived dominance of the Royal Navy. The Royal Oak was not unnaturally seen by the nation as part of this mindset.
Many assumed that berthed at Scapa Floe, the Royal Oak was perfectly safe from attack. The night of October 14 shattered this illusion.There were not nearly enough men, searchlights, guns or patrol ships to make Scapa Flow secure.
The naval base at Scapa Floe was set in the midst of the Orkney Islands. It is a natural base for a large fleet. The passages giving access to it had been closed by sinking old vessels as “blocks” and using booms which were opened and closed by tugs as required. Whilst the admiralty acknowledged that a U boat threat existed, it felt that Scapa Floe was impregnable.
Two U boats had tried to penetrate it during World War 1 and paid the price for doing so. However, not wishing to take a risk, the Admiralty had agreed to upgrade defences including the sinking of more block ships.
Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats, planned for an attack on Scapa Flow and he personally selected U-boat captain Günther Prien of U-47 for the mission. Dönitz believed that a successful attack on Scapa Flow would be a huge psychological blow against the United Kingdom as it was a major base for the Royal Navy. It was also where the German High Seas Fleet had scuppered itself after World War One had ended and as a successful attack would provide the Nazi propaganda machine with much useful material.
The night of October 13/14 was selected as the weather – a moonless night and a high tide – were both in Prien’s favour. Prien had access to up-to-date reconnaissance photos and could plot his route accordingly in the knowledge of where the block ships were as they were highlighted in the photographs. The photos also showed that there were plenty of targets at Scapa Flow.
Prien had selected his route around the Kirk Sound. Ironically, the Admiralty had pinpointed this as an area of weakness with regards to the defence of Scapa Flow.
When he reached his target area Prien found fewer ships than the reconnaissance photos had indicated. The reconnaissance aircraft had alerted commanders at Scapa Flow and they ordered the dispersal of ships – hence the scarcity of targets. However, he did identify ‘HMS Royal Oak’ and lined up U-47 accordingly.
Just after 01.00 on October 14th, the ‘Royal Oak’ was hit by a torpedo fired fromU-47. Prien had fired four torpedoes but two missed their target and one failed to fire. The torpedo that did hit failed to alarm the crew on board the ‘Royal Oak’ and many believed it was a small explosion on board that a fire crew could deal with. Survivors later reported that many men simply went back to their hammocks convinced that nothing was amiss.
Prien had to re-load his bow torpedo tubes before he could fire again. At 01.16 three torpedoes hit the ‘Royal Oak’ amidships and caused huge damage. All electrical power was knocked out and a cordite magazine ignited. The attack was so sudden that there was no time to send out a distress call or fire distress flares. The explosion ripped through the ship and caused the ‘Royal Oak’ to list so much that her starboard portholes were below the waterline. Those that were open let in water that caused the battleship to list further. At 01.29, just thirteen minutes after being hit for the second time, the ‘Royal Oak’ turned over and sunk. Many men were trapped on board and could not be rescued. 883 men were killed out of a crew of 1219.
Survivors who had jumped into the sea had to endure extremely cold water until they were pulled onto a rescue ship.
One said, “It was so cold that I was told that it was colder than the inside of a fridge; so that might give you some idea of what it was like.”
Another survivor commented, “I was swimming along all on my ‘Todd’ when I heard some scraping alongside me. It was another lad. We did not say a lot. We had been swimming for a while when he said “oh bollocks” and disappeared. I found that very frightening.”
Many were rescued by the tender ‘Daisy 2’ that had been tied up alongside the ‘Royal Oak’ but had cast herself free just as the ship had started to list. “I never saw the Daisy 2, the Daisy 2 saw me,” said a survivor.There can be little doubt that the crew of the ‘Daisy 2’ saved lives as the nearest coastline to the ‘Royal Oak’ was half-a-mile away from the ship and very few of those who tried to swim to shore made it such was the temperature of the water.
There was nothing the War Office could do to cover up the disaster. First, the explosion on board the ‘Royal Oak’ had been seen by many in and around Scapa Flow and ‘bottling up’ the news would have been impossible. Also the War Office knew that the Nazis would use the sinking to their advantage with their broadcasts to the UK from Berlin – and many in the UK listened to them. The BBC broadcast news of the sinking on October 14. Almost immediately theories developed as to what had happened.
The most famous was that U-47 had been helped by a spy called Albert Oertel. It was said that he had paddled out to U-47 and helped to guide the submarine through the channels of Scapa Flow. The story was nonsense created by a journalist down on his luck, but the public seemed to want to grasp at anything to explain away what had happened barely six weeks into World War Two.
A Board of Enquiry was held in the immediate aftermath of the sinking. It found that there were 11 possible routes into the heart of Scapa Flow that a submarine could follow. It also found that junior officers based at Scapa Flow had expressed their views that the base was not safe but that senior officers had chosen to ignore these views. However, Admiral Sir Wilfred French, the commander of the Orkney and Shetland Isles, was held responsible. French was put onto the retired list despite his insistence prior to the ‘Royal Oak’ disaster that Scapa Flow needed 15 protection ships when it had, in fact, only 2.
For Günther Prien, the ‘Bull of Scapa Flow’, the success of the raid brought huge fame throughout Nazi Germany. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and Hitler himself presented Prien with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. All the crew of U-47 was flown to Berlin in Hitler’s private plane and awarded the Iron Cross Second Class.
In the UK there was much soul searching especially with regards to the 126 boy sailors who lost their lives – out of a total of 163 on board ‘HMS Royal Oak’ – a 77% fatality rate.
After the loss of the ‘Royal Oak’ it was generally accepted that under-18’s should not serve on warships unless in exceptional circumstances. Scapa Flow itself underwent a great deal of modernisation in terms of its defences. ‘Churchill’s Barriers’ were built at great expense – causeways that shut off previously useable channels around Scapa Flow.
Today the ‘Royal Oak’ is a recognised war grave. As such it is protected from the intrusion of recreational divers who do not have authority to dive around the wreck.
Each year on October 14 a specialist team of Royal Navy divers descend to the wreck and fly the Royal Ensign above the overturned hull of the ‘Royal Oak’ in memory of those who served on board her but did not survive the attack by U-47.
ROLL OF HONOUR – HMS ROYAL OAK
RN. Ordinary Seaman. P/SSX27561. Died 14/10/1939. Age 18. HMS Royal Oak. Son of Alexander and Elizabeth Anderson, Regent St., Belfast. (Belfast Weekly Telegraph 30/09/1939). Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Panel 33
+ANDERSON, William Thomas
RM. Marine. PO/X 2917. Mentioned in Despatches. HMS Royal Oak. Died 14/10/1939. Age 19. Son of Samuel and Georgina Anderson, Newtownards. Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 36. Newtownards WM
RNVR. Ordinary Seaman. P/UD/X1510. Died 14/10/1939. Aged 20. HMS Royal Oak. Son of James and Margaret Farrell, Belfast. (Belfast Weekly Telegraph 21/10//1939). Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 36.
+McGIBBIN, Thomas Henry
RNVR. Ordinary Seaman. P/UD/X1391. Died 14/03/1939. Age 27. HMS Royal Oak. Served four years in the Ulster Division, HMS Caroline. His brother William served in the RAF. Son of Henry and Sarah Ann McGibbon, Belfast. (Belfast Weekly Telegraph 21/10/1939). Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 36
RN. Stoker 1st Class. P/KX 91411. Died 14/10/1939. Age: 20. HMS Royal Oak Son of James and Alice Murphy, Newtownstewart. Plymouth Naval Memorial. Panel 35
RN. AB. P/JX 132173. Died 14/10/1939. Age: 22. HMS Royal Oak. Joined RN aged 15. Served in Gibraltar and Malta. Son of Mrs Joseph Quigley, Bootle St., Belfast. (Belfast Weekly Telegraph 21/10/1939). Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 33
+WALLACE, Andrew James
RN. Leading Seaman. P/JX 142260. Died 14/10/1939. Age 20. HMS Royal Oak. Served in Neptune and Repulse. His brother George died in HMS Indefatigable 16/12/1945, Age 24.. Sons of George and Annie Wallace, Florencecourt. (Belfast Weekly Telegraph 21/10/1939). Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Panel 33. Enniskillen WM