HMS Royal Oak (08): Wikis


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Coordinates: 58°55′33″N 2°58′33″W / 58.92583°N 2.97583°W / 58.92583; -2.97583 (HMS Royal Oak)

A three-quarter view of a heavily-armoured battleship at anchor. There are two main turrets visible before the bridge, each housing a pair of 15-inch guns. 6-inch guns are housed in a row of individual sideways-facing sponsons. The flank of the ship has a conspicuous bulge at the waterline.
Career Royal Navy Ensign
Builder: Devonport Dockyard
Laid down: 15 January 1914
Launched: 17 November 1914
Commissioned: 1 May 1916
Nickname: The Mighty Oak
Fate: Sunk on 14 October 1939
General characteristics
Class and type: Revenge-class battleship
Displacement: 29,150 tons standard
33,500 tons full load
Length: 620½ ft (189 m)
Beam: 88½ ft (27 m) as built
102 ft (31.1 m) after bulging
Draught: 28½ ft (8.7 m)
Propulsion: 4 shaft Parsons geared turbines
18 Yarrow boilers
40,000 shp (30 MW)
Speed: 20 knots (37 km/h)
Range: 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km)
Complement: 1,009 to 1,244 (peacetime)
Armament: 4 × twin BL 15-inch MK I guns
12 × single 6-inch (150 mm) MK XII guns
4 × 2 4-inch (102 mm) guns
2 × 8 QF 2-pdr (40 mm) anti-aircraft guns
4 × 21 inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
Armour: 13 inch belt
6 inch upper belt
10 inch barbettes
13 inch turret faces
4¼ inch turret crowns

HMS Royal Oak (pennant number 08) was a Revenge-class battleship of the British Royal Navy, torpedoed at anchor by the German submarine U-47 on 14 October 1939. Launched in 1914 and completed in 1916, Royal Oak first saw action at the Battle of Jutland. In peacetime, she served in the Atlantic, Home and Mediterranean fleets, coming under accidental attack on more than one occasion. The ship became the centre of worldwide attention in 1928 when her senior officers were controversially court-martialled. During a twenty-five year career, attempts to modernise Royal Oak could not address her fundamental lack of speed, and by the start of the Second World War, she was no longer suited to front-line duty.

Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland when she became the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battle cruisers sunk in the Second World War. The loss of life was heavy: of Royal Oak's complement of 1,234 men and boys, 833 were killed that night or died later of their wounds. The numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies meant that the loss of the veteran of the First World War made little difference to the naval balance of power, but the effect on wartime morale was considerable. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of the U-boat commander, Günther Prien, who became the first Kriegsmarine submarine officer to be awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. To the British, the raid demonstrated that the Germans were capable of bringing the naval war to their home waters, and the shock resulted in rapidly arranged changes to dockland security.

Now lying almost upside-down in 30 m of water with her hull 5 m beneath the surface, Royal Oak is a designated war grave. In an annual ceremony to mark the loss of the ship, Royal Navy divers place a White Ensign underwater at her stern. Unauthorised divers are prohibited from approaching the wreck at any time.



The Revenge class to which Royal Oak belonged was ordered in the 1913–14 Estimates to be a cheaper—but smaller and slower—coal-fired version of the earlier Queen Elizabeth-class super-dreadnoughts.[1] The design, seemingly a technological step backwards, was partly a response to fears that a dependence upon fuel oil—all of which had to be imported—could leave the class crippled in the event of a successful maritime blockade.[2] High-quality coal, on the other hand, was in plentiful supply, and homeland supplies could be guaranteed.[2] Furthermore, in contrast to the "Fast Squadron" Queen Elizabeths, the Revenge class were intended to be the heaviest-gunned vessels in the line of battle proper.[3] Royal Oak and her sisters were the first major vessels for the Royal Navy whose design was supervised by the newly appointed Director of Naval Construction, Sir Eustace Tennyson-D'Eyncourt.

Royal Oak sailing in line astern ahead of two other battleships. R O is painted in very large letters on the top of her B turret.
Royal Oak in line astern

Royal Oak was laid down at Devonport Dockyard on 15 January 1914, the fourth of her class.[a] Concerned over the performance limitations of coal, and having secured new oil supplies with a contract agreed with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher rescinded the decision on coal in October 1914.[2] Still under construction, Royal Oak was redesigned to employ eighteen oil-fired Yarrow boilers supplying four Parsons reaction steam turbines, each directly driving a single 9.5-foot (2.9 m) three-bladed screw. The battleship was launched on 17 November of that year, and after fitting-out, was commissioned on 1 May 1916 at a final cost of £2,468,269.[4] Named after the oak tree in which Charles II hid following his defeat at the 1651 Battle of Worcester, she was the eighth Royal Navy vessel to bear the name Royal Oak, replacing a pre-dreadnought scrapped in 1914. While building she was temporarily assigned the pennant number 67.[5]

Royal Oak was refitted between 1922 and 1924, when her anti-aircraft defences were upgraded by replacing the original QF 3-inch (76 mm) 20 cwt AA guns with QF 4-inch (100 mm) high-angle mounts.[6] Fire-control systems and rangefinders for main and secondary batteries were modernised, and underwater protection improved by 'bulging' the ship.[6][7] The watertight chambers, attached to either side of the hull, were designed to reduce the effect of torpedo blasts and improve stability, but at the same time widened the ship's beam by over 4 meters.[8]

A brief refit in the spring of 1927 saw the addition of two more 4-inch (100 mm) high-angle AA guns and the removal of the two 6-inch (150 mm) guns from the shelter deck.[6] The ship received a final refit between 1934 and 1936, when her deck armour was increased to 5 inches (12.7 cm) over the magazines and to 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) over the engine rooms. In addition to a general modernisation of the ship's systems, a catapult for a spotter float plane was installed above X–turret, and anti-aircraft defences were strengthened by doubling up each of the 4-inch (100 mm) AA guns and adding a pair of octuple Mark VIII pompom guns to sponsons abreast the funnel.[6][8] The mainmast was reconstructed as a tripod to support the weight of a radio-direction finding office and a second High-angle Control Station.[6] The extra armour and equipment made Royal Oak one of the best equipped of the Revenge class, but the additional weight caused her to sit lower in the water, lowering her top speed by several knots.[6]



First World War

A watercolour painting of Royal Oak in action. The battleship is firing her main guns while a shell explodes in the water beside her.
Royal Oak at Jutland, by William L. Wyllie, R.A.

The First World War had been under way for almost two years when Royal Oak was commissioned. She was assigned to the Third Division of the Fourth Battle Squadron of the British Grand Fleet, and within the month was ordered, along with most of the fleet, to engage the German High Seas Fleet in the Battle of Jutland. Under the command of Captain Crawford Maclachlan,[9] Royal Oak left Scapa Flow on the evening of 30 May in the company of the battleships Superb, Canada and Admiral Jellicoe's flagship Iron Duke.[10][11] The next day's indecisive battle saw Royal Oak fire a total of thirty-eight 15-inch (380 mm) and eighty-four 6-inch (150 mm) shells,[12] claiming three hits on the battlecruiser Derfflinger, putting one of its turrets out of action, and a hit on the cruiser Wiesbaden. She avoided damage herself, despite being straddled by shellfire on one occasion.[13]

Following the battle, Royal Oak was reassigned to the First Battle Squadron. On 5 November 1918—the final week of the First World War—she was anchored off Burntisland in the Firth of Forth accompanied by the aircraft carrier Campania (formerly a Blue Riband winner for the Cunard Line prior to its conversion for wartime use) and battlecruiser Glorious. A sudden Force 10 squall caused Campania to drag her anchor, collide with Royal Oak and then with the 22,000-ton Glorious. Both Royal Oak and Glorious suffered only minor damage; Campania, however, was holed by her initial collision with Royal Oak. The ship's engine rooms flooded, and she settled by the stern and sank five hours later, though without loss of life.[14]

At the end of the First World War Royal Oak escorted several vessels of the surrendering German High Seas Fleet from the Firth of Forth to their internment in Scapa Flow,[15] and was present at a ceremony in Pentland Firth to greet other ships as they followed.

Between the wars

Official service photograph of Captain Kenneth Dewar in a formal pose.
Capt. Kenneth Dewar, court-martialled in 1928

The peacetime reorganisation of the Royal Navy assigned Royal Oak to the Second Battleship Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet. Modernised by the 1922–24 refit, she was transferred in 1926 to the Mediterranean Fleet, based in Grand Harbour, Malta. In early 1928, this duty saw the notorious incident the contemporary press dubbed the "Royal Oak Mutiny".[16] What began as a simple dispute between Rear-Admiral Bernard Collard and Royal Oak's two senior officers Captain Kenneth Dewar and Commander Henry Daniel over the band at the ship's wardroom dance,[b] descended into a bitter personal feud that spanned several months.[17] Dewar and Daniel accused Collard of "vindictive fault-finding" and openly humiliating and insulting them before their crew; in return, Collard countercharged the two with failing to follow orders and treating him "worse than a midshipman".[18] When Dewar and Daniel wrote letters of complaint to Collard's superior, Vice-Admiral John Kelly, he immediately passed them on to the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. On realising that the relationship between the two and their flag admiral had irretrievably broken down, Keyes removed all three from their posts and sent them back to England, postponing a major naval exercise.[19] The press picked up on the story worldwide, describing the affair—with some hyperbole—as a "mutiny".[20] Public attention reached such proportions as to raise the concerns of the King, who summoned First Lord of the Admiralty William Bridgeman for an explanation.[20]

External images
"Syncopated discipline recital on the Royal Oak"
The "Mutiny" court-martial was lampooned in the press: one Evening Standard cartoon by David Low achieved a notoriety of its own.[21]

For their letters of complaint, Dewar and Daniel were controversially charged with writing subversive documents.[22] In a pair of highly publicised courts-martial, both were found guilty and severely reprimanded, leading Daniel to resign from the Navy. Collard himself was criticised for the excesses of his conduct by the press and in Parliament, and on being denounced by Bridgeman as "unfitted to hold further high command",[23] was forcibly retired from service.[24]

Of the three, only Dewar escaped with his career,[25] albeit a damaged one: he remained in the Royal Navy in a series of more minor commands and was promoted to Rear-Admiral the following year, one day before his retirement.[26] Daniel attempted a career in journalism, but when this and other ventures were unsuccessful, he disappeared into obscurity amid poor health in South Africa.[27] Collard retreated to private life and never spoke publicly of the incident again.

The scandal proved an embarrassment to the reputation of the Royal Navy, then still the world's largest, and it was satirised at home and abroad through editorials, cartoons,[28] and even a comic jazz oratorio composed by Erwin Schulhoff.[29] One consequence of the damaging affair was an undertaking from the Admiralty to review the means by which naval officers might bring complaints against the conduct of their superiors.[23]

Spanish Civil War

During the Spanish Civil War, Royal Oak was tasked with conducting 'non-intervention patrols' around the Iberian Peninsula. On such a patrol and steaming some 30 nautical miles (56 km) east of Gibraltar on 2 February 1937, she came under aerial attack by three aircraft of the Republican forces. They dropped three bombs (two of which exploded) within 3 cables (555 m) of the starboard bow, though causing no damage.[30] The British chargé d'affaires protested the incident to the Republican Government, which admitted its error and apologised for the attack.[31][32] Later that same month, while stationed offshore of Valencia on 23 February 1937 during an aerial bombardment by the Nationalists, she was accidentally struck by an anti-aircraft shell fired from a Republican position.[30] Five men were injured, including Royal Oak's captain, T.B. Drew.[33] On this occasion however the British elected not to protest to the Republicans, deeming the incident "an Act of God".[34] In May 1937, she and HMS Forester escorted SS Habana, a liner carrying Basque child refugees, to England.[35] In July, as the war in northern Spain flared up, Royal Oak, along with the battleship HMS Resolution rescued the steamer Gordonia when Spanish nationalist warships attempted to capture her off Santander. She was however unable on 14 July to prevent the seizure of the British freighter Molton by the Spanish nationalist cruiser Almirante Cervera while trying to enter Santander. The merchantmen had been engaged in the evacuation of refugees.[36]

This same period saw Royal Oak star alongside fourteen other Royal Navy vessels in the 1937 British film melodrama Our Fighting Navy, the plot of which centres around a coup in the fictional South American republic of Bianco. Royal Oak portrays a rebel battleship El Mirante, whose commander forces a British captain into choosing between his lover and his duty.[37] The film was poorly received by critics, but gained some redemption through its dramatic scenes of naval action.[38]

Second World War

Aerial photograph of Royal Oak under way at sea, flying both the Norwegian flag and the White Ensign at half-mast.
Royal Oak returns the body of Queen Maud to Norway

In 1938, Royal Oak returned to the Home Fleet and was made flagship of the Second Battleship Squadron based in Portsmouth. On 24 November 1938, she returned the body of the British-born Queen Maud of Norway to a state funeral in Oslo, accompanied by her husband King Haakon VII.[39] Paying off in December 1938, Royal Oak recommissioned the following June, and in the late summer of 1939 embarked on a short training cruise in the English Channel in preparation for another 30-month tour of the Mediterranean, for which her crew were pre-issued with tropical uniform.[40] As hostilities loomed, the battleship was instead dispatched north to Scapa Flow, and was at anchor there when war was declared on 3 September.[41]

In October, Royal Oak joined the search for the German battleship Gneisenau, which had been ordered into the North Sea as a diversion for the commerce-raiding pocket battleships Deutschland and Graf Spee.[42] The search was ultimately fruitless, particularly for Royal Oak, whose top speed, by then less than 20 knots (37 km/h), was inadequate to keep up with the rest of the fleet.[42] On 12 October, Royal Oak returned to the defences of Scapa Flow in poor shape, battered by the North Atlantic storms: many of her Carley floats had been smashed and several of the smaller calibre guns rendered inoperable.[42][43] The mission had underlined the obsolescence of the twenty-five year old warship.[42] Concerned that a recent overflight by German reconnaissance aircraft heralded an imminent air attack upon Scapa Flow, Admiral of the Home Fleet Charles Forbes ordered most of the fleet to disperse to safer ports. Royal Oak however remained behind, her anti-aircraft guns still deemed a useful addition to Scapa's otherwise scarce air defences.[43]


Scapa Flow

There are three main islands and many smaller ones, which almost completely enclose a central bay.
Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow made a near-ideal anchorage. Situated at the centre of the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, the natural harbour, large enough to contain the entire Grand Fleet,[44] was surrounded by a ring of islands separated by shallow channels subject to fast-racing tides. The threat from U-boats had however long been realised, and a series of countermeasures were installed during the early years of the First World War.[45] Blockships were sunk at critical points, and floating booms deployed to block the three widest channels. Operated by tugboats to allow the passage of friendly shipping, it was considered possible—but highly unlikely—that a daring U-boat commander could attempt to race through undetected before the boom was closed.[45] Two submarines that had attempted infiltration during the war had met unfortunate fates: on 23 November 1914 U-18 was rammed twice before running aground with the capture of her crew,[46][47] and UB-116 was detected by hydrophone and destroyed with the loss of all hands on 28 October 1918.[48][49]

Scapa Flow provided the main anchorage for the British Grand Fleet throughout most of the First World War, but in the interwar period this passed to Rosyth, more conveniently located in the Firth of Forth.[45][50] Scapa Flow was however reactivated with the advent of the Second World War, becoming a base for the British Home Fleet.[45] Its natural and artificial defences, while still strong, were recognised as in need of improvement, and in the early weeks of the war were in the process of being strengthened by the provision of additional blockships.[51]

Special Operation P: the raid by U-47

Map of the route taken by Prien when infiltrating Scapa Flow, firing his torpedoes and fleeing the harbour. There are many twists and turns avoiding the islands and blockships, and while trying to find a target.
Infiltration of Scapa Flow by U-47

Kriegsmarine Commander of Submarines Karl Dönitz devised a plan to attack Scapa Flow by submarine within days of the outbreak of war.[52] Its goal would be twofold: firstly, that displacing the Home Fleet from Scapa Flow would slacken the British North Sea blockade and grant Germany greater freedom to attack the Atlantic convoys; secondly, the blow would be a symbolic act of vengeance, striking at the same location where the German High Seas Fleet had surrendered and scuttled itself following Germany's defeat in the First World War. Dönitz hand-picked Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien for the task,[52][c] scheduling the raid for the night of 13/14 October 1939, when the tides would be high and the night moonless.[52]

Dönitz was aided by high-quality photographs from the recent reconnaissance overflight, which revealed the weaknesses of the defences and an abundance of targets.[52] He directed Prien to enter Scapa Flow from its east via Kirk Sound, passing to the north of Lamb Holm, a small low-lying island between Burray and Mainland.[53] Prien initially mistook the more southerly Skerry Sound for the chosen route and his sudden realisation that U-47 was heading for the shallow blocked passage forced him to order a rapid turn to the northeast.[54] On the surface, and illuminated by a bright display of the aurora borealis,[55] the submarine threaded between the sunken blockships Seriano and Numidian, grounding itself temporarily on a cable strung from Seriano.[53] It was briefly caught in the headlights of a taxi onshore, but the driver raised no alarm.[56][d] On entering the harbour proper at 00:27 on 14 October, Prien entered a triumphant Wir sind in Scapa Flow!!![e] in the log and set a south-westerly course for several kilometres before reversing direction.[53] To his surprise, the anchorage appeared to be almost empty; unknown to him, Forbes' order to disperse the fleet had removed some of the biggest targets. U-47 had been heading directly towards four warships, including the newly commissioned light cruiser Belfast, anchored offshore of Flotta and Hoy 8 km distant, but Prien gave no indication that he had seen them.[57]

On the reverse course, a lookout on the bridge spotted Royal Oak lying approximately 4,000 m to the north, correctly identifying it as a battleship of the Revenge class. Mostly hidden behind her was a second ship, only the bow of which was visible to U-47. Prien mistook it to be a battlecruiser of the Renown class, German intelligence later labelling it Repulse.[53] It was in fact the World War I seaplane tender Pegasus.[58]

The attack site today, seen from a cliff above the bay. A small green wreck buoy is a few hundred metres away. A thin slick of oil is on the surface of the sea.
Site of attack on Royal Oak, with oil risen from the wreck visible

At 00:58 U-47 fired a salvo of three torpedoes from its bow tubes, a fourth lodging in its tube. Two failed to find a target, but a single torpedo struck the bow of Royal Oak at 01:04, shaking the ship and waking the crew.[59] Little visible damage was received, though the starboard anchor chain was severed, clattering noisily down through its slips. Initially, it was suspected that there had been an explosion in the ship's forward inflammable store, used to store materials such as kerosene. Mindful of the unexplained explosion that had destroyed HMS Vanguard in Scapa Flow in 1917,[47][f] an announcement was made over Royal Oak's tannoy system to check the magazine temperatures,[g] but many sailors returned to their hammocks, unaware that the ship was under attack.[59][60]

Prien turned his submarine and attempted another shot via his stern tube, but this too missed. Reloading his bow tubes, he doubled back and fired a salvo of three torpedoes, all at Royal Oak,[53] This time he was successful: at 01:16 all three struck the battleship in quick succession amidships and detonated.[61][62] The explosions blew a hole in the armoured deck, destroying the Stokers', Boys' and Marines' messes and losing electrical power.[63] Cordite from a magazine ignited and the ensuing fireball passed rapidly through the ship's internal spaces.[63] Royal Oak quickly listed some 15°, sufficient to push the open starboard-side portholes below the waterline.[h] She soon rolled further onto her side to 45°, hanging there for several minutes before disappearing beneath the surface at 01:29, 13 minutes after Prien's second strike.[64] 833 men died with the ship, including Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the Second Battleship Division. Over one hundred of the dead were Boy Seamen, not yet 18 years old, the largest ever such loss in a single Royal Navy action.[65] The admiral's wooden gig, moored alongside, was dragged down with Royal Oak.

Rescue efforts

Excerpts of signals between the Admiralty (ADMY) and
Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland (ACOS)[66]
02:00 ACOS ADMY Royal Oak sunk in Scapa Flow, series of explosions.
02:11 ACOS ADMY No details yet available.
05:06 ADMY ACOS Can it be definitely stated that sinking not due to enemy aircraft?
06:20 ACOS ADMY Yes.
07:04 ADMY ACOS No reference to Royal Oak to be made in plain language until further orders. This includes list of survivors.

The tender Daisy 2, skippered by John Gatt RNR, had been tied up for the night to Royal Oak's port side. As the sinking battleship began to list to starboard, Gatt ordered Daisy 2 to be cut loose, his vessel becoming briefly caught on Royal Oak's rising anti-torpedo bulge and lifted from the sea before freeing herself.[67]

Many of Royal Oak's crew who had managed to jump from the sinking ship were dressed in little more than their nightclothes and were unprepared for the chilling water. A thick layer of fuel oil coated the surface, filling men's lungs and stomachs and hampering their efforts to swim. Of those who attempted the 800-metre swim to the nearest shore, only a handful survived.[68] Gatt switched the lights of Daisy 2 on and he and his crew managed to pull 386 men from the water, including Royal Oak's commander, Captain William Benn.[69] The rescue efforts continued for another two and a half hours until nearly 4:00 am, when Gatt abandoned the search for more survivors and took those he had to Pegasus. Although aided by boats from Pegasus and the harbour,[70] he was responsible for rescuing almost all the survivors, an act for which he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross,[71] the only military award made by the British in connection with the disaster.[72]


A jovial Prien, dressed in uniform

The British were initially confused as to the cause of the sinking, suspecting either an on-board explosion or aerial attack.[45] Once it was realised that a submarine attack was the most likely explanation, steps were rapidly made to seal the anchorage, but U-47 had already escaped and was on its way back to Germany. The BBC released news of the sinking by late morning on 14 October, and its broadcasts were received by the German listening services and by U-47 itself. Divers sent down on the morning after the explosion discovered remnants of a German torpedo, confirming the means of attack. On 17 October First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill officially announced the loss of Royal Oak to the House of Commons, first conceding that the raid had been "a remarkable exploit of professional skill and daring", but then declaring that the loss would not materially affect the naval balance of power.[73] An Admiralty Board of Enquiry convened between 18 and 24 October to establish the circumstances under which the anchorage had been penetrated. In the meantime, the Home Fleet was ordered to remain at safer ports until security issues at Scapa could be addressed.[74] Churchill was obliged to respond to questions in the House as to why Royal Oak had had aboard so many Boys,[75] almost all of whom lost their lives. He defended the Royal Navy tradition of sending boys aged 15 to 17 to sea, but the practice was generally discontinued shortly after the disaster, and under 18-year-olds only served on active warships in the most exceptional circumstances.[65]

The Nazi Propaganda Ministry was quick to capitalise on the successful raid,[6][76] and radio broadcasts by the popular journalist Hans Fritzsche displayed the triumph felt throughout Germany.[77] Prien and his crew reached Wilhelmshaven at 11:44 on 17 October and were immediately greeted as heroes, learning that Prien had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class, and each man of the crew the Iron Cross Second Class.[78] Hitler sent his personal plane to bring the crew to Berlin, where he further invested Prien with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.[79] This decoration, made for the first time to a German submarine officer, later became the customary decoration for successful U-Boat commanders. Dönitz was rewarded by promotion from Commodore to Rear-Admiral and was made Flag Officer of U-Boats.[78]

Prien was nick-named "The Bull of Scapa Flow" and his crew decorated U-47's conning tower with a snorting bull mascot, later adopted as the emblem of the 7th U-boat Flotilla. He found himself in demand for radio and newspaper interviews,[78] and his 'autobiography' was published the following year, titled Mein Weg nach Scapa Flow.[i] Ghost-written by a German journalist, in the post-war years certain of its claims relating to the events of October 1939 were brought into question.[80][81]

The causeway, made from many concrete blocks, carries a two-lane road between the islands. The sea is rough on one side of the barrier but calm on the other.
Churchill Barrier 1, now blocking Kirk Sound, Prien's entry into Scapa Flow

The British Admiralty's official report into the disaster condemned the defences at Scapa Flow, and censured Sir Wilfred French, Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland, for their unprepared state. French was placed on the retired list,[82] despite having warned the previous summer of Scapa Flow's deficient anti-submarine defences, and volunteering to bring a small ship or submarine himself past the blockships to prove his point.[83] On Churchill's orders, the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow were sealed with concrete causeways linking Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay to Mainland. Constructed largely by Italian prisoners of war,[84] the Churchill Barriers, as they became known, were essentially complete by September 1944, though they were not opened officially until just after VE Day in May 1945.[85] They now form part of the transport infrastructure of Orkney, carrying the A961 road between the islands.

In the years that followed, a rumour circulated that Prien had been guided into Scapa by one Alfred Wehring, a German agent living in Orkney in the guise of a Swiss watchmaker named Albert Oertel.[86] Following the attack, 'Oertel' escaped with the submarine B-06 back to Germany.[87] This account of events originated as an article by the journalist Curt Riess in the 16 May 1942 issue of the American magazine Saturday Evening Post and was later embellished by other authors.[86][88] Post-war searches through German and Orcadian archives have, however, failed to find any evidence for the existence of either Oertel, Wehring or a submarine named B-06, and the story is now held to be wholly fictitious.[89][90]


Status as war grave

The White Ensign and Union Flag are crossed together on an interior stone wall above a brass bell and wooden plaque. Beneath this is a glass and wood cabinet. Poppy wreaths lie to either side.
Memorial in St Magnus', featuring Royal Oak's bell

Despite the relatively shallow water in which she sank, the majority of bodies could not be recovered from Royal Oak. Marked by a buoy at 58°55′50″N 2°59′00″W / 58.93056°N 2.9833333°W / 58.93056; -2.9833333, the wreck has been designated a war grave and all diving or other unauthorised forms of exploration are prohibited under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.[91] In clear water conditions, the upturned hull can be seen reaching to within 5 m of the surface. The brass letters that formed Royal Oak's name were removed as a keepsake by a recreational diver in the 1970s. They were returned almost twenty years later and are now displayed in the Scapa Flow visitors' centre in Lyness on Hoy. Royal Oak's loss is commemorated in an annual ceremony in which Royal Navy divers place the White Ensign underwater at her stern.[92] A memorial at St Magnus' Cathedral in nearby Kirkwall displays a plaque, dedicated to those who lost their lives, beneath which a book of remembrance lists their names. This list of names was not released by the Government until some 40 years after the sinking. Each week a page of the book is turned. The ship's bell was recovered in the 1970s and, after being restored, was added to the memorial in St Magnus'.[93] A number of bodies, including some that could not be identified, were interred at the naval cemetery in Lyness.[94]

Environmental concerns

Royal Oak sank with up to 3,000 tons of fuel oil aboard, the precise amount being unknown since such records were lost with the ship. The oil leaked from the corroding hull at an increased rate during the 1990s and concerns about the environmental impact led the Ministry of Defence to consider plans for extracting it.[95] Royal Oak's status as a war grave required that surveys and any proposed techniques for removing the oil be handled sensitively: plans in the 1950s to raise and salvage the wreck had been dropped because of public opposition.[96] In addition to the ethical concerns, poorly managed efforts could destabilise the wreck, resulting in a mass release of the remaining oil;[97] the ship moreover containing many tons of unexploded ordnance.[98]

External images
Sonogram of Royal Oak
High-resolution sonar images showed the wreck in greater detail than had been seen before.[98]

The MOD commissioned the specialist Archaeological Dive Unit Survey team to carry out a series of multi-beam sonar surveys to image the wreck and appraise its condition.[99] The high-resolution sonograms showed Royal Oak to be lying almost upside down with her top works forced into the seabed. The tip of the bow had been blown off by Prien's first torpedo and a gaping hole on the starboard flank was the result of the triple strike from his second successful salvo.[98][100] Following several years of delays, the task of pumping off the remaining oil has begun and by 2006, all double bottom tanks had been cleared. A 2007 test scheme to remove oil from the inner wing tanks with cold cutting equipment was successful and the MOD plans to continue efforts to remove the remaining accessible oil during successive years.[98] Difficult operating conditions limit salvage work to the summer months.


a. ^  The fourth equal of the class to be laid down: Royal Sovereign began construction the same day. Design changes to the class meant Royal Oak was the second to commission.[101]

b. ^  The irascible Collard infamously called Marine Bandmaster Percy Barnacle "a bugger" in the presence of guests, and that he had "never heard such a bloody noise".[102]

c. ^  Dönitz said of Prien: "He, in my opinion, possessed all the personal qualities and the professional ability required. I handed over to him the whole file on the subject and left him free to accept the task or not, as he saw fit."[52]

d. ^  The taxi driver's name was Robbie Tullock. He did not notice U-47 passing through his headlights.[56]

e. ^  German: "We are in Scapa Flow!"

f. ^  Cdr R.F. Nichols, Royal Oak's second-in-command, had narrowly escaped death 22 years earlier as a midshipman of Vanguard when he had been away from the ship the night it exploded.[103] He had been attending a concert-party on board the amenities ship Gourko, given by coincidence by sailors of Royal Oak, and had overstayed only because the show had overrun.[104]

g. ^  Cordite, used for propelling the shells, was prone to explode if allowed to overheat. The Court of Enquiry convened to investigate the loss of Vanguard concluded that the explosion of a cordite charge, either unstable or carelessly placed, was a likely cause of the disaster.[105]

h. ^  The portholes were not, in fact, fully open, but were covered with light excluders, designed to provide ventilation while maintaining blackout. Crucially, they were not watertight.[106]

i. ^  German: My path to Scapa Flow


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  • Admiralty (1939), ADM199/158: Board of Enquiry into sinking of HMS Royal Oak, HM Stationery Office  
  • Campbell, N. (1998), Jutland, London: Conway Classics, ISBN 0-85177-750-3  
  • Chesneau, Roger (1997), Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1922–1946, Conway Maritime, ISBN 0-85177-146-7  
  • Dönitz, Karl (1959), Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days (English translation by R.H. Stevens), Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-3068-0764-5  
  • Gardiner, Leslie (1965), The Royal Oak Courts Martial, Blackwood  
  • Glenton, Robert (1991), The Royal Oak Affair: The Saga of Admiral Collard and Bandmaster Barnacle, Leo Cooper, ISBN 0-85052-266-8  
  • Gretton, Peter (1984), The Forgotten Factor: The Naval Aspects of the Spanish Civil War, Oxford University Press  
  • Haywood, James (2003), Myths and Legends of the Second World War, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0-7509-3875-7  
  • Kriegsmarine (1939), Log of the U-47, (reproduced in Snyder and Weaver)  
  • Kriegsmarine, "Report on Sinking of Royal Oak",, British Admiralty Naval Intelligence Division translation 24/T 16/45,, retrieved 2006-12-22  
  • Miller, James (2000), Scapa: Britain's famous war-time naval base, England: Birlinn Ltd, ISBN 1-84158-005-8  
  • McKee, Alexander (1959), Black Saturday: The Royal Oak tragedy at Scapa Flow, England: Cerberus, ISBN 1-84145-045-6  
  • Parkes and Prendergast (ed.) (1919), Jane's Fighting Ships, David & Charles, ISBN 0-71534-716-0   (Reprinted 1969)
  • Parkes and Prendergast (ed.) (1939), Jane's Fighting Ships, David & Charles, ISBN 0-71535-017-X   (Reprinted 1971)
  • Prien, Günther, Mein Weg nach Scapa Flow, Wingate-Baker, ISBN 0-09305-060-7   Translated into English by Georges Vatine as I sank the Royal Oak.
  • Smith, Peter (1989), The Naval Wrecks of Scapa Flow, The Orkney Press, ISBN 0-9076-1820-0  
  • Snyder, Gerald (1976), The Royal Oak Disaster, Presidio Press, ISBN 0-89141-063-5  
  • Taylor, David (2008), Last Dawn: The Royal Oak Tragedy at Scapa Flow, Argyll, ISBN 978-1-906134136  
  • Watts, Anthony, The Royal Navy: An Illustrated History, ISBN 1-85409-324-X  
  • Weaver, H.J. (1980), Nightmare at Scapa Flow: The truth about the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, England: Cressrelles, ISBN 0-85956-025-2  

External links


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