The sinking of the battleship ‘HMS Royal Oak’ in October 1939 gave the United Kingdom just about the worst possible start to World War Two. 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 philosophy. Many assumed that berthed at Scapa Flow, the ‘Royal Oak’ was perfectly safe from attack. The night of October 14th 1939 shattered this illusion.


‘HMS Royal Oak’ was a World War One battleship that had fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. By 1939, her build was dated but more importantly it was known that the ‘Royal Oak’ lacked the speed required by modern warships with the Kriegsmarine putting its faith in smaller but faster battle cruisers. Repeated upgrades had made the ship slower. For example, a 5 inch increase in the thickness of the armour plating on the deck that protected the magazines and engine room had made the ‘Royal Oak’ heavier and slower; her top speed was about 20 knots depending on the condition of the sea and that was slower that Nazi Germany’s battle cruisers.


In the summer of 1939, ‘Royal Oak’ was due to have started a 30 month tour of duty in the Mediterranean Sea but the situation in Europe meant that the Admiralty decided to order the battleship to Scapa Flow. The declaration of war on September 3rd 1939 was followed by the ‘Phoney War’ – so-called because nothing happened in Western Europe that could compare with what had occurred in Eastern Europe. However, World War Two was brought home to the British public on October 14th.


Scapa Flow was a natural base for a large naval fleet. The naval base was in the centre of the Orkney Islands and all the channels to it had been protected either with booms across the channels or with obsolescent ships that had been sunk as ‘block ships’. The booms were opened and closed by tug boats as and when this was required. While the Admiralty were aware that a U-boat threat did occur, it was generally believed that Scapa Flow was as safe as could be expected. Two U-boats had tried to enter the base during World War One and had paid the price. However, not wanting to risk an attack, the Admiralty had agreed to update the defences around Scapa Flow. This included sinking 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 13th/14th 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.


Prien’s journey to the naval base was not without problems in terms of following his planned route. 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.


“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.”


“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.”


“It was very dark and very very cold.”


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.” 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 14th. 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 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 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 14th 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.  


December 2011