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Issue 89 - Remembering the Royal Oak

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016

 

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Remembering the Royal Oak

Stephen Roberts investigates the history that lies beneath the waves of the Scapa Flow

It was just after midnight on 14 October 1939 when German submarine U47 slipped unobtrusively into Scapa Flow’s great harbour. Taking advantage of a narrow gap between Mainland Orkney and the isle of Lamb Holm, it had successfully penetrated one of the UK’s key naval fortifications – a base of the British Home Fleet.

Although the fleet had sailed the night before, veteran WWI battleship HMS Royal Oak lay at anchor off cliffs at Gaitnip, close to Scapa Bay on East Mainland’s south side. The ship was a relic from an earlier conflict that, due to lack of speed, was no longer deemed suitable for front-line duties. Britain had been at war with Germany for a little over a month, but the stark reality of warfare was about to hit in home waters.

Led by Guther Prien, U47 followed up two unsuccessful attacks with a fatal third assault – three torpedoes hit home. It took just 13 minutes for 30,000 tons of warship to go down in 100 feet (30m) of water, taking 834 souls with her. After the smoke had cleared, 26 bodies were recovered and today lie buried in the Lyness Naval Cemetery on the island of Hoy; their mates remain aboard Royal Oak, today an undisturbed and respected war grave.

Royal Oak was named after the tree, reputedly a haven for Charles II during his escape following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The ship of that name included Jutland (1916), WWI’s standout naval battle, amongst its battle honours and also took part in troop landings in the Dardanelles.

How could it have happened? A U-boat had infiltrated a mighty UK naval base, taken down an important ship, and then stealthily slid out of harm’s way and back to a hero’s reception.

Scapa Flow had been a naval base since Napoleonic times and by the 20th Century, as attention switched from France to Germany, it was perfectly placed for harbouring a fleet that was keeping a watchful eye across the North Sea. WWI saw the harbour’s defences improved in a fortification effort that included the fitting of gun emplacements, blockships, minefields, and anti-submarine booms.

People had viewed WWI as a full-stop as far as conflict was concerned and the authorities began dismantling defences across the nation as thoughts turned once more to peace. As a result, during the interwar period Scapa Flow was denuded of the measures that had kept it safe and when storm clouds gathered again a generation later, at the outset of WWII, the harbour had merely a few rusting blockships to keep the enemy at bay. These proved to be no obstacle at all to U47 on that fateful night. As it happens, the deficiency had in fact been recognised and a new blockship ordered for the narrow channel that U47 would traverse. It would arrive one week too late to save Royal Oak and its crew.

Prien and his crew of 40 benefited from a dark and moonless night as they advanced along the surface through the narrow gap
, close to shore so as to avoid the inadequate blockships. Once inside the naval base, shortly after midnight, Prien’s disappointment must have been palpable when he realised the fleet had flown the nest, for he had sufficient torpedoes to wreak havoc. As it was, he had to turn his attention, and the full might of his armoury, against the solitary Royal Oak, which was at rest after a stormy patrol in open waters. There were a few other vessels across the harbour at Lyness, but as these were several miles distant they were safe from U47’s attack. Royal Oak was in an isolated and exposed position because it could use its anti-aircraft weaponry to help protect the base. However, the menace would not come from the air.

Closing to 4,000 yards, Prien fired his bow tubes. Although there appears to have been one minor hit, this doesn’t seem to have been enough to alert the crew to attack. Instead, an erroneous and fatal conclusion was drawn that there had been some internal malfunction aboard the ship. Prien turned around and fired his stern tubes, missing the target completely. Bow tubes re-loaded, he turned and fired again, this time smashing his quarry with all three torpedoes.

The losses on Royal Oak were massive. In total 834 were lost and the lucky ones, amounting to a little under 400, were rescued thanks to the seamanship and extraordinary bravery of the crew of Royal Oak’s resident tender, Daisy II, which scooped up as many of the stricken mariners from the dangerously oily water as it could.

Meanwhile, U47, its deadly cargo delivered, had vanished as furtively as it appeared and returned to open water, before diving below for its celebratory journey back to Germany. While the Germans rejoiced at this notable victory, the finest of Prien’s distinguished career, there was significant shock back in the UK and questions were asked of the Admiralty regarding its state of preparedness.

No time was lost. Orkney saw its resident population trebled as men and materials poured in to make the waters safe. Such gun batteries were constructed that, at its peak, the Scapa Barrage had to be manned by 900 gunners. Submarine booms were reinstated, more blockships sunk and minefields laid.

The greatest feat of engineering was the Churchill Barriers, a permanent closing of the eastern approaches with stone and concrete causeways, built by 1200 Italian prisoners of war. Any U-boat seeking to emulate U47’s daring raid would have to come further south, below South Ronaldsay, then past massive gun batteries at Hoxa. There would be no repetition of the Royal Oak disaster. It is worth noting that the Italians left more than just the barriers – the Italian Chapel atop Lamb Holm is a testimony to man’s resilience.

With ultimate victory came a second dismantling of Scapa’s defences, as the naval base went back to a peacetime footing once more. Scapa Flow’s days were numbered as a naval base too and by 1957 changes in the way war was waged had rendered it obsolete. The era of aeroplane and missile was upon us and serried ranks of capital ships no longer cut it.

Orkney and Scapa Flow continue to show the remnants of 200 years of service, however, with decaying blockships and chunks of former gun batteries evoking memories of those more recent conflicts. Ness Battery is the only coastal battery in Britain still with accommodation huts and the mess hut has murals painted by AR Woods. These tell of a rustic, thatched homeland; perhaps a reminder to the men stationed there of what they were fighting for.

The visitor centre at Lyness (the former naval base on Hoy) tells the wartime story in its entirety and here Royal Oak is remembered too. The ship’s proud nameplate, retrieved from the wreck before diving was forbidden under the Protection of Military Remains Act (1986).

At Scapa beach there is a memorial and at St Magnus Cathedral one can view the ship’s bell and a book that contains the names of those who perished. The pages of the book of are turned once per week, on a Monday, so that over the course of a year all the names of those lost are displayed.

From St Mary’s, East Mainland, it is possible to take a boat to the wreck site. An annual ceremony sees a white ensign taken down to the wreck and placed on its stern. The fate of HMS Royal Oak and its sailors have never been and never will be forgotten in this part of the world.

Visitor Information

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre
Lyness, Hoy, Orkney, KW16 3NU
+44 (0) 1856 791 300

St Magnus Cathedral
Broad Street, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1NX
+44 (0) 1856 874 894