The night of 13/14th October, 1939, was cold and moonless, but illuminated by Northern Lights over the remote island of Orkney. Most of the crew of HMS Royal Oak were softly snoring in their hammocks when a deadly intruder glided silently into their ‘safe’ harbour. Though the German submarine travelled on the surface, nobody saw, heard or suspected a thing until the attack came.
Lieutenant Commander Günther Prien was both lucky and unlucky in his mission; lucky, because the unusually high tide on the evening of his arrival made it easier than it might otherwise have been to pass through the partly-blocked Kirk Sound (this passageway had been identified as a possible weakness in the harbour’s defences, and a boat sunk in a vain attempt seal the entrance); unlucky, since the appearance of a German reconnaissance craft a couple of days earlier had warned the Navy of a possible threat, and all other ships had departed from Scapa Flow.
The one ship remaining in the harbour was World War One veteran HMS Royal Oak, which had fought in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. She had once been considered a fine ship, but advances in nautical design since her birth on 1st May 1916 meant that she was now rather too slow and heavy to be taking on the modern German battleships. Still, she was well-armed, and had therefore been assigned to help protect the island base from aerial attacks. The threat from the water had of course been considered, but dismissed as unlikely because of the audacity and skill needed to launch such an attack on British home ground.
As rain clouds gathered and the weather worsened, Lieutenant Commander Prien lined up his first attack, and sent three torpedoes towards his unfortunate target at 1.04 am. One hit, striking the bow, but two were wide of the mark. Firing a last torpedo to cover his escape (which, however, failed to launch properly) Prien turned to flee, but to his surprise found that his first attack had gone undetected. Many men had, of course, heard the thud, but they took it to be a small explosion on board that the fire crew could easily deal with, and most went straight back to their hammocks.
Hardly daring to believe his good fortune, Prien brought the submarine around and launched a second batch of three torpedoes at HMS Royal Oak’s bow at 1.16 am. This time, all met their target. According to ‘The World at Arms’ by the Reader’s Digest Association Ltd., Prien wrote in his log-book, “There is a loud explosion, roar and tumbling, then come columns of water, followed by columns of fire, fragments fly through the air.”
This time, there was no mistaking the seriousness of the explosion. The men scrambled to try and save the 29,150 tonne ship, but for the faithful craft and the majority of her passengers, it was too late. The force caused her to list to the side, and within 15 minutes she had turned turtle and sunk beneath the freezing waves, dragging with her a small 50ft Admiral’s barge that had been moored alongside. Of 1,234 sailors manning her, 834 (120 of whom boys aged 14-18) went down with the ship or perished in the icy, oily waves as they thrashed helplessly towards the shore, half a mile away. Few made it. In fact, the losses would have been near total, had not the small trawler Daisy II, which measured just 100ft long and 15ft wide, been close by to motor to the rescue. Her crew managed to pull 386 men from the water.
The attack had just the effect that the German leaders had hoped it would, shaking the world’s confidence in the invincibility of the famous British Navy, and bringing the realities of war home to the British people with a sudden and sickening thud. Meanwhile, since the German navy had been scuttled in Scapa Flow at the end of World War One, the German propaganda machines were given plenty of rich fuel to fire the German people up with. The crew of U-47 returned to a hero’s welcome and were all awarded the Iron Cross, while Lieutenant Commander Günther Prien was presented with the Knight’s Cross by Adolf Hitler himself.
Meanwhile, what dead could be recovered from HMS Royal Oak or died from their injuries after the attack were buried in the Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery on the nearby island of Hoy, while the remainder were left to lay forever with their ship, which now rests in 30ft of water, with the keel reaching to just 5m from the surface. A wreck buoy marks the spot, and diving is forbidden without special permission. Once a year, on the 14th October, a battle ensign flag is raised on the submerged ship by Royal Navy divers, and a Remembrance Plaque has been erected on the wall of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, to be sure that those who were lost in the attack will never be forgotten.
Sources: 'The World at Arms' by The Reader's Digest Association Ltd; 'Campaigns of World War II: Day by Day' Edited by Chris Bishop & Chris McNab; 'British Vessels Lost at Sea, 1939-45', Her Majesty's Stationary Office.