HMS Royal Oak, one of five steel Revenge class battleships built for the Royal Navy, was launched from Devonport Naval Dockyard on 17th November 1914. Her keel had been laid in January the same year and she measured 620.6’ x 88.5’ x 30.6′ and displaced 25,750 tons. She was powered by twin Parsons steam turbines delivering 40,000 shaft horse power making the huge ship capable of 22 knots. Her impressive armament consisted of 4 × twin breach loading 15 inch Mark I guns, 14 × single 6 inch Mark XII guns, 2 x 3 inch guns, 2 x 8 quick firing 2pounder anti-aircraft guns and 4 x 21 inch torpedo tubes. She was commissioned on 1st May 1916 and assigned to the Third Division of the 4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet.
Within a month she, along with most of the fleet, was engaged in the Battle of Jutland. During the indecisive battle the Royal Oak fired a total of thirty eight 15 inch and eighty four 6 inch shells, claiming three hits on the battle cruiser 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. In another infamous incident on 5th November 1918 – the final week of the First World War – she was anchored off Burntisland, Firth of Forth accompanied by the aircraft carrier Campania and the battle cruiser Glorious . A sudden 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 and she settled by the stern and sank five hours later, though without loss of life. 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.
The peacetime reorganisation of the Royal Navy assigned Royal Oak to the Second Battleship Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet then she was transferred in 1926 to the Mediterranean Fleet based in Malta. In early 1928, this duty saw the notorious ‘Royal Oak Mutiny’ incident. 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, descended into a bitter personal feud that spanned several months. The press picked up on the story worldwide, describing the affair—with some hyperbole—as a “mutiny”. 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.
During the Spanish Civil War, Royal Oak was tasked with conducting ‘non-intervention patrols’ around the Iberian Peninsula. She was involved in a number of incidents including an aerial attack by three aircraft of the Republican forces 30 nautical miles east of Gibraltar on 2nd February 1937. They dropped three bombs (two of which exploded) within 3 cables of the starboard bow, although no damage resulted. Later that same month, while stationed off Valencia on 23rd February during an aerial bombardment by the Nationalists, she was accidentally struck by an anti-aircraft shell fired from a Republican position. Five men were injured, including Royal Oak’s captain, T. B. Drew.
In 1938, The Mighty Oak as she was nicknamed returned to the Home Fleet and was made flagship of the Second Battleship Squadron based in Portsmouth. As hostilities loomed, the battleship was dispatched north to Scapa Flow and was at anchor there when war was declared on 3rd September. By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 she was already an old ship, much slower than her modern descendants. She still packed a powerful punch but she was destined not to fire a single shot in this second conflict.
The loss of the battleship Royal Oak in Scapa Flow on the night of 13th October, 1939 remains one of the most poignant moments of the Second World War. The loss of eight hundred and thirty three British sailors would be cause enough but the penetration of the Royal Navy’s most important base by an enemy U-boat so soon after the start of the war sent shock waves throughout the nation and awakened the government to the renewed strength and determination of their German enemies.
In the early days of the war the German High Command were determined to strike at the heart of the British defences and gain the upper hand in the propaganda campaign. Commodore Donitz dreamed of and plotted a raid on the base at Scapa and, after intense study of photographs taken by a plane flying high over the base, chose the tide swept channel through Kirk Sound as a possible, if dangerous, route into the anchorage. The four eastern entrances into Scapa Flow had been blocked by sunken ships in the First World War but the rusting hulks had been gradually torn apart by the fierce tidal streams which rushed through these narrow channels at up to ten knots. The night of Friday 13th October, 1939 was chosen for the daring raid. An extremely high tide and no moon made it perfect for the dash through the defences. Slack water was due thirty minutes before high tide at 11.30pm making it ideal for the risky trip through Kirk Sound. A commander of equal daring was required for the mission. Donitz chose Lieutenant Gunther Prien, a thirty year old ace with three kills already to his credit in the early days of the war.
On 8th October, Prien and his crew cast off from the dockside at Kiel and headed into the North Sea. It was probably just as well that the crew did not know their target as they left. Two similar attempts to penetrate Scapa Flow in the First World War had ended in disaster with the loss of one U-boat and the capture of the other. However, as U-47 settled to the bottom of the North Sea to await nightfall before proceeding northwards on the surface, Prien quietly told his men that they were to breach the defences at Scapa Flow and attempt to sink any ships they found there. The men were left to their own thoughts as they headed north that evening.
Meanwhile, the British fleet were in action attempting to chase down the German battleship Gneisenau off Norway although the slower Royal Oak was left well behind in the pursuit. After a fruitless two day search, the fleet was ordered to return to base but, in a fateful decision, they were ordered to disperse to a number of alternate bases rather than return to Scapa. However, Royal Oak did return to her usual berth, dropping anchor in the north east corner of the Flow at 07.05am of the 11th . The seaplane carrier Pegasus anchored about a mile north, closer to the shore.
On the evening of the 13th, U-47 surfaced in the Pentland Firth and raced north the last few miles before turning west into Kirk Sound. The night was unexpectedly bright with a magnificent display of the Aurora Borealis casting a glow over the calm waters. Prien was forced to crash dive his vessel when an unidentified surface ship came towards them but it passed without incident. However, by then, the dive had delayed them by thirty minutes meaning that they would miss slack water in Kirk Sound. This did not deter Prien.
Ahead of him lay the short, treacherous trip between the blockships. The photographs used to plan the mission were excellent but the scene ahead was still menacing. Three blockships straddled the sound. The 2890 ton steamship Minieh, sunk in 1915, lay in the middle of the channel. North of her, the 3543 ton steamship Seriano, sunk only months earlier, stretched to within two hundred feet of the northern shore. To the south, the 1327 ton steamship Thames was the last obstacle in this metallic barrier. Ironically, another ship, the 3859 ton steamship Lake Neuchatel was due to arrive in Orkney that same weekend and was to be sunk in Kirk Sound to block the four hundred feet gap between the Thames and the Minieh which had been created when the Aorangi was moved during a salvage attempt in 1920 . Already the fierce tide was streaming through the gaps between the blockships. The chosen path for U-47, north between the Seriano and the shore, looked frighteningly narrow in the ghostly light of the Aurora Borealis. It was further narrowed by a heavy hawser reaching from the sunken ship to the shore. Prien steered his ship towards the narrow twenty four feet deep channel (U-47 drew only fifteen and a half feet). Disaster nearly struck when the bow of the U-boat went aground and the stern was pushed onto the protruding cable from the Seriano but Prien calmly blew his forward ballast tanks and his ship pulled free and was catapulted through the gap. ‘We are in’ announced Prien over the ship’s intercom. It was 00.27am on the 14th.
Inside Scapa Flow, despite the dispersal of the fleet, fifty one vessels lay at anchor. Among them there were only eighteen fighting ships with the main concentration in the heart of the anchorage between the islands of Flotta and Fara. Aboard the ships the crews had turned in for the night content in the knowledge that they were in one of the Royal Navy’s safest anchorages. Prien could not believe his eyes when he entered Scapa Flow. As he strained through the now fast reducing visibility he couldn’t see any ships at all. He first headed west towards Flotta but then, fatefully, turned back north east towards the Royal Oak. At this stage he could not have known that she was anchored in this corner of Scapa. Soon the shapes of what Prien thought were two capital ships appeared through the night. There were indeed two ships anchored in that corner of the base but it seems unlikely that Prien could see Pegasus which was lying a mile north beyond the Royal Oak. He mistakenly identified the second shape as the battleship Repulse. He prepared his ship for action. He fired three torpedoes from his forward tubes from a range of 3200 yards and a further single shot from his stern tube before retreating south to await the results.
At 01.04am a single explosion near the bow of the Royal Oak signalled his initial success. However, aboard the battleship, Captain William Ben and his crew did not stop for a second to consider an enemy attack. They immediately assumed that an internal explosion had caused the problem and, while the fire crew assembled to extinguish the blaze, most of the crew simply turned over in their bunks and to go back to sleep. They were to be rudely awakened shortly after when Prien fired another three torpedoes from 3000 yards on his second run. This time all three torpedoes smashed into the starboard side of the Royal Oak and exploded, sending huge plumes of spray high into the air along the side of the ship. As the noise of the explosions died a deafening rumble echoed through the ship as both anchor chains snapped and ran out, plunging in a boiling rage into the sea beneath the bows of the stricken ship.
Many men were killed instantly in the explosions. The huge ship rolled heavily as the torpedoes hit but she quickly settled back with an immediate twenty degree list. The devastation below was increased when one of the cordite magazines exploded sending sheets of flame ripping through the under deck compartments killing many more of the crew who were, by now, scrambling around in the darkness trying to get to the deck before the ship turned turtle and sank.
Alongside the ship a small cutter and a hired drifter, Daisy II, were rapidly filling as men rushed to escape. The cutter was smashed to pieces moments later when the spotting top crashed down onto her. She sank immediately throwing the men aboard into the freezing sea. The Daisy II faired better as her skipper, John Gatt, had got up steam after the first explosion and, after a frightening moment when his ship got caught on the thick armour plating of the side of the battleship, he cast off and steamed around to pick up the seamen who were now jumping off the sinking ship in increasing numbers. He succeeded in picking up around three hundred survivors and was later awarded the DSC for his efforts. Many other men tried to swim the mile to the shore but in the freezing water most did not make it. Thirteen minutes after the second series of hits the Royal Oak rolled over and sank.
Meanwhile Prien and the U-47 had managed to negotiate the difficult return trip through Kirk Sound, this time passing between the Thames and the Minieh, and back into the open sea. It was 02.15am. He returned to Germany to a hero’s welcome. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. The crew were awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. All the medals were presented by a delighted Adolf Hitler in Berlin the day after they reached Germany.
Back in Scapa Flow, other ships began to move to the scene but it took until 03.00am for anyone to consider that the loss of the ship might have been the result of a submarine attack. Three destroyers were ordered to search the anchorage for signs of a U-boat in a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. In fact, so incredulous were the naval authorities that a U-boat could enter and leave the base safely, that they kept the search going for over a week before finally calling it off on the 22nd.
On the 17th , the same day as Prien arrived back in Germany, a sombre Winston Churchill announced the loss of the Royal Oak to a shocked House of Commons. Later that same day the base flagship at Scapa, the aged Iron Duke, was badly damaged in an air raid and had to be run ashore at Lyness to avoid her sinking. The two incidents were to have a massive impact on the government who were finally forced to upgrade the defences at the base. Indeed it was initially considered that the base should be abandoned altogether. However, after the conclusion of a tumultuous enquiry, which unfairly laid most of the blame for the Royal Oak incident on the Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland, Sir Wilfred French, who was retired from the service, the defences both ashore and at sea were heavily reinforced. In the eastern entrances more blockships were quickly sunk and then a major project began to seal off the channels once and for all by building concrete causeways between the islands – the Churchill Barriers.
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Royal Oak, which was immediately declared a war grave, lies in position 58°55.847’N, 002°59.000’W where she is marked by a green wreck buoy. Oil from the ship still leaks slowly to the surface even to this day. The wreck is visited annually by Royal Navy divers who hang a huge battle ensign from her underwater stern in honour of the men who died on her in 1939. The huge ship is otherwise untouched and is lying upside down in 30 metres of water resting on her massive superstructure. The hull reaches to within 5 metres of the surface. Diving on the wreck is very restricted although the Navy have given permission to a few lucky teams who report an eerie dive on the huge upside down ship with her massive guns hanging from the upturned deck and the massive rips in her hull where the torpedoes hit, gaping at them as they swim along the side of the ship. The Royal Oak is designated as a Protected Military Wreck with a restricted area radius of 200 metres.