On this day in 1939, the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed and sunk in Scapa Flow with the loss of 833 lives. Coming just weeks after the outbreak of World War Two, it was one of Britain’s worst naval disasters. It was an even worse shock because it happened inside a famous and supposedly impregnable naval base. Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, was the Royal Navy’s home base in World War One. It’s well-organised defences gained it a reputation as a secure anchorage, where British ships were completely safe. But in the interwar years, the defences were neglected, and when war broke out with Germany in 1939 they were in bad shape.
There were not nearly enough men, searchlights, guns or patrol ships to make Scapa Flow secure. Blockships, which obstructed the narrow channels into the Flow, had rusted away to nothing. Kapitanleutnant Günther Prien, commander of the German submarine U-47, exploited this weakness and entered the anchorage shortly before midnight on 13th October 1939. He found the Royal Oak lying at anchor, oblivious to any danger. His first four torpedoes caused only small damage, due to a number of misses and malfunctions. But the crew of Royal Oak - most of whom were below decks asleep in their hammocks - thought there had been a small internal explosion.
They couldn’t conceive that they might be under attack. So Prien reloaded his torpedo tubes and attacked again. This time three explosions amidships sealed the Royal Oak’s fate. A massive hole was torn in her side. She quickly began to roll over, and then the cordite magazines caught fire, sending balls of flame racing through the ship. The electricity failed within minutes, plunging the ship into darkness. Only the very quick-witted, or very lucky, got out from inside the ship. As U-47 escaped from Scapa Flow undetected, more than 300 British sailors jumped into the dark, freezing water of Scapa Flow. Some had terrible burns. Thick fuel oil covered, choking and blinding them.
But thanks to the heroic work of Daisy II (the battleship’s tender which was moored alongside at the time of the attack) 386 men were pulled from the water alive. It was less than a third of the Royal Oak’s crew. Günther Prien and the crew of U-47 were welcomed as heroes in Germany, and Hitler sent his private plane to fly them to Berlin so he could congratulate them personally. Prien was awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military award, and became a celebrity. The Nazi propaganda machine cranked into overdrive, and milked this admittedly brilliant achievement for all it was worth. In Britain, the loss of Royal Oak caused shock and grief, particularly over the large loss of boy-sailors.
There had been 163 of them aboard the ship, some as young as 15. 126 went down with the Royal Oak. It would contribute to the end of this ancient tradition of boys serving their apprenticeships on fighting ships. The loss of Royal Oak was a tragic and demoralising event for Britain, but on the context of the war, it was soon overtaken by events. The Royal Navy, and the survivors of HMS Royal Oak, got on with fighting the war, as did the fathers, brothers and wives of those who’d perished. But none would ever forget the loss of Royal Oak and so many men. Today they still rest within her upturned hull - a protected war grave 100 feet beneath the water of Scapa Flow.