The War Illustrated No. 226, Vol. 9, February 15th 1946

How the "Royal Oak Was Sunk O n October 14,1939, at 1.30 a.m. H.M.S. Royal Oak, a battleship of 29,150 tons, wearing the flag of Rear-Admiral C.H.E. Blagrove, was sunk in Scapa Flow with the loss of two-thirds of her officers and men. It afterwards proved that she had been torpedoed by a German submarine which had contrived to enter the sheltered anchorage, supposed to be im­penetrable. Not only was this the first British capital ship to be lost in the Second Great War, but the circumstances of the disaster enabled the enemy to exploit its propaganda value to the fullest extent. (See pages 244,251,344, Vol. 1.) No clear official explanation has ever been furnished of the circumstances in which the U-boat was able to reach the spot undetected and to escape again. As described in Parlia­ment four days later by Mr. Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty), a good deal of mystery appeared to surround the operation. When the first explosion occurred, in the U '‘'V.S •!¦-KB y FRANCIS E.M cM U RTRIE He added that a court of inquiry was being held into the whole matter. Simultaneously with the First Lord’s announcement came a German account of the affair. It stated that a submarine com­manded by Kapitanleutnant (Lieutenant) Prien had returned to her base after entering Scapa Flow and torpedoing two British ships. As Prien would have had only hurried glimpses of the scene this belief may well have been a genuine one. though his sug­gestion that Uie other ship was H.M.S. Repulse was probably an official embroidery of his report. His own broadcast story said :“It was quite a job to smuggle ourselves into Scapa Flow through all the British defences. I saw two British warships to the north of me, and discharged torpedoes at them twice. I then turned and left the harbour, as I did not want to be captured. As I was leaving I heard explosions but closed by nets, with gates which were opened only when required to permit ships to enter or leave. This left only the narrow, shallow and tortuous entrances on the eastern side of the Flow to be considered. One alone of these w'as in any sense a practical possibility this was Holm Sound, to the northward of the island of Burray. Across it lie two smaller islands, between which during the First Great War were sunk a number of merchant ships so arranged as to make the passage im­pervious to a submarine. After 1919 these blockships were raised and sold for scrap, but it was understood that arrangements had been made for them to be replaced in emergency. It is not known when this was done, and no official announce­ment has ever been made on the subject. It seems highly probable, however, that the work of blocking the channels had not been completed on October 14.1939, so that the enterprising Lieutenant Prien was able to nose his throughway Holm Sound and emerge unobserved in the open water of Scapa Flow'. He cannot have had an easy passage, for the currents in Holm Sound arc very strong, and the most careful navigation must have been required to get through with­ outrunning aground. This view agrees with that which has been expressed by experienced British submarine officers. p L E CTR IC ALLY Exploded Mines Blew the Submarine UB 116 to Pieces In 1914 there was no such unanimity on the subject of the possibility of entering on October 17 of that year—25 years prior to the loss of the Royal Oak—a general alarm was sounded following a report that an enemy submarine had been spotted inside the Flow. Guns were fired, destroyers zigzagged around at high speed, and the entire Grand Fleet put to sea in haste casein the report might be well-founded. There could hardly have been a more complete contrast with the perplexity of everyone on board the Royal Oak when the first torpedo struck. Actually no U-boat ever got into Scapa Flow during 1914-18. Only one desperate attempt was made to penetrate the defences, and the issue of that enterprise tended to strengthen the belief that they were im­pregnable. This incident occurred on October 28,1918, w'hen the greater part of the German Fleet was already in a state of mutiny prior to the Armistice. T TB 116, with a volunteer complement of ^officers, offset from Wilhclmshavcn with the object of carrying out a last attack on the Grand Fleet, which it was supposed inlay Scapa Flow, though actually it was in the Firth of Forth. Unlike Prien, the captain of UB 116 (Emsmann) regarded Holm Sound as too difficult to attempt, and made his approach by the widest and most direct route through Hoxa Sound. The submarine was duly located on the screen connected with the controlled minefield forming part of the Hoxa defences, and as soon as she was well over the mines they were electrically exploded and the submarine was blown to pieces. Now that the War is over there seems no reason why a full official account of the circumstances in which the Royal Oak was sunk should not be published. If, as seems probable, there was needless delay in placing blockships in Holm Sound, thus allowing the U-boat to get through, it is time this fact was admitted. It maybe assumed that any who may have been adjudged to blame in the matter have long ago been dealt with suitably, and the fact could be stated without names being mentioned SHiPS OF THE 2nd BATTLE SQUAD RON are seen beyond the 15-in. guns of the ill-fated Royal Oak, whose story is recounted here. Mr. Winston Churchill described the action of the U-boat concerned in her sinking in Scapa Flow as“ a remarkable exploit of professional skill and daring.” See also pages 244,251,344, Vol. I. Photo, Charity BrownE. forward part of the ship, the idea of a tor­pedo being responsible was never enter­tained. Instead, it was imagined that defective ammunition must have detonated, this having been responsible for the destruction of the battleship Vanguard in Scapa Flow on July 9,1917. Steps were at once taken to flood all magazines in the vicinity, while the captain, accompanied by Rear-Admiral Blagrove and other officers, proceeded forward to in­vestigate the cause of the trouble. T twas now, 20 minutes after the first mufiled explosion, that the submarine fired a second salvo of torpedoes, three or four of which hit. The Royal Oak capsized and sank almost immediately, and the loss of life was increased by the spreading around of oil fuel, which smothered swimmers. Out of some 1,200 on board only 414 were saved, the admiral being one of those lost. To quote Mr. Churchill’s words, “When we consider that during the whole course of the last War (1914-18), the anchorage was found to be immune from such attacks, on account of the obstacles imposed by the currents and the net barrages, this entry by a U-boat must be considered as a remark­able exploit of professional skill and daring.” and saw a column of water rising by the British ship farthest to the northward.” (This would correspond to the position of the Royal Oak.) Lieutenant Prien was sent by air to Berlin, where he was received by Hitler and decorated with the Iron Cross. At a later date he appears to have been advanced to the rank of Kor- vettenkapitan (lieutcnant-commander). HOW the Enterprising Lieutenant Gained Scapa Flow’s Open Water He ultimately lost his life in a U-boat which failed to return from patrol. His exploit, as a legitimate act of war, maybe contrasted with the foul deeds of so many U-boat captains, who, as shown clearly by documents produced a t 'the Nuremberg trials, did their utmost to ensure that there should be no survivors from merchant ships torpedoed without warning. Naturally the Germans allowed no indica­tion to be given of the route taken by Pricn's submarine in entering and leaving Scapa Flow'. It was almost certain that it could not have. been through any of the three main entrances, Hoxa and Switha Sound on the south, Hoy Sound on the west. All three of these entrances were not only well patrolled PAGE 643
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