The loss of HMS Royal Oak
On the night of 13th/14th October 1939, the German submarine U-47 penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 men.
Early in the war German reconnaissance aircraft had surveyed the defences of Scapa Flow, whilst submarines monitored the movements of British shipping. The information was given to Commodore Donitz, Flag Officer U-boats, who planned a submarine raid on the base.
The task was given to Lieutenant Commander Gunther Prien in U-47. Gaps between the blockships in Kirk Sound were identified as possible entrances into Scapa Flow for the 66.5 metre long U-boat.
U-47 arrived off Orkney on the night of 12th October 1939 and lay on the seabed for almost 24 hours. She surfaced and headed towards Kirk Sound during slack water at high tide.
In the darkness of the night of 13th October 1939 the U-47 slipped past the blockship Seriano, grounding slightly on the Holm shore as she went. Prien found himself in Scapa Flow, but was disappointed to discover that the main Fleet had sailed that day. His frustration was relieved when he saw a battleship lying under the cliffs at Gaitnip, Holm.
HMS Royal Oak was anchored at the north-eastern side of Scapa Flow to provide extra anti-aircraft cover for the Fleet and for the radar station at Netherbutton. She had just returned from a patrol of the Fair Isle channel and it should have been a time for repairing any damage and having a much needed rest.
On his return from the south side of Scapa Flow, Prien saw the silhouette of the Royal Oak and moved in to attack. Three torpedoes were fired, one of which hit Royal Oak’s bow at 1.04 am. This was mistakenly thought to have been an internal explosion, and worried crew members were ordered back to their beds. The U-47 turned and fired a torpedo from her stern tube, but this also missed its intended target. The U-47 turned towards the Royal Oak and fired three more torpedoes from her bow tubes. This time all three torpedoes found their target.
When the first torpedo struck the Royal Oak at 1.04 am it had only scored a minor hit which was dismissed as an internal explosion. Some of the crew feared it may have been an enemy air-raid, and took cover below the ship’s armour plated deck. This action sealed the fate of these crewmen, as they had no chance of escape.
The last three torpedoes that U-47 fired found their mark, tearing open the hull of the battleship. This was at 1.16 am and the crew had only 13 minutes in which to save themselves.
The torpedoes hit the starboard side of the ship, sending a pillar of flames as high as the mast. Some of the crew were killed by these three explosions, while others died when the cordite in one of the magazines ignited, sending sheets of flames through the ship.
The generators failed due to the torpedo attack, plunging the ship into darkness. Oil poured out of the stricken ship, turning the sea into a thick sludge which made it difficult for the men to swim to safety. The lower portholes of the ship were open, fitted with ventilator covers to allow air in but prevent light from getting out. As the ship keeled over, water poured in through these open portholes, causing her to sink quickly.
John Gatt, the skipper of the Royal Oak’s drifter Daisy II, was wakened by the sound of the first torpedo. Sensing danger, he dressed and went up on to the deck of the boat moored alongside the battleship. When the fatal torpedoes struck the Royal Oak the ship rolled over, dragging the Daisy II up its side. The mooring lines were cut, and the drifter slid back into the water.
The Daisy II saved many lives that night, as did boats launched from the seaplane carrier Pegasus and destroyers that steamed to investigate the attack. Although the shore was only half a mile away, the intense cold of the sea meant that many people died of hypothermia. Others made it to the shore, only just visible in the pitch darkness. Many more never escaped from inside the ship. 833 men perished in the icy waters of Scapa Flow on that October night.
Plans by the Admiralty to sell the salvage rights of the vessel in 1957 were met with outrage by the Orcadian public. The Admiralty conceded, and HMS Royal Oak was made an official war grave. Diving on the wreck is prohibited.
U-47 escaped and returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany. Gunther Prien was awarded the Iron Cross by Hitler.
The U-47 escaped from Scapa Flow using the same channel as it had entered by, though this time staying close to the south. Prien had radioed to Germany that he had sunk HMS Royal Oak and had also badly damaged HMS Repulse, although this ship was in dry dock in Rosyth at the time.
On their return to Germany on 17th October they were greeted by Donitz, now promoted to Admiral, and informed that Prien had been awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, while the crew were awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class. They were flown to Berlin where they met Hitler and the propaganda minister Dr. Goebbels, who was planning a book on the raid.
A German broadcast that same evening gave a distorted view of events, as did Prien’s book 'My Night in Scapa Flow.' It is now known that Prien did not write the book, but that it was produced by a ghost writer working for the Nazis.
Prien was killed on 8th March 1941 when the U-47 was sunk off Iceland by the destroyer HMS Wolverine.
In the first week of March 1941, Prien’s U-47 was one of a pack of three U-boats that attacked a convoy 300 mile off the coast of Iceland. The destroyer HMS Wolverine gave chase, trying to detect the submarine using hydrophones so as not to frighten it away. Eventually it launched two depth charge attacks, resulting in the sinking of U-47 on 8th March 1941. There were no survivors.
Following the loss of HMS Royal Oak Churchill ordered the permanent closure of the four eastern channels.
After the sinking of HMS Royal Oak the Navy temporarily abandoned Scapa Flow as a base. More blockships had been sunk in the eastern channels, but this was not considered good enough. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the permanent closing of these eastern channels. This was achieved by building four causeways linking the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay to the Orkney Mainland. These causeways were named the Churchill Barriers after the wartime leader who ordered their construction.
Closing the four channels to the east of Scapa Flow was not a new idea. In 1915 the same proposal was considered, with an additional barrier in Burra Sound between Hoy and Graemsay to protect the western approaches. This idea had been abandoned as the work was expected to take 18 months to complete and the Government expected the war to be over before the end of the year.
(c) Tom Muir