Members of Northern Diving Group salute while laying the new White Ensign; Royal Navy personnel join the community planting 1,259 poppies at the memorial garden;  Gareth Derbyshire, Chairman of the HMS Royal Oak Association, Bill Spence, Lord Lieutenant of Orkney and Captain Chris Smith, Naval Regional Commander get ready to lay the wreath – made of real oak leaves – at the site of the wreck, and 835 red carnations are scattered above the wreck – one for every life lost.

By Kim Hardie

Pictures by Marjo Tynkkynen, Kieran Hatton, Bob Anderson, Professor Chris Rowland and Kari Hyttinen. 

A series of commemorative events have taken place in Orkney to mark the 80th Anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow.

Royal Navy personnel attended the events to pay tribute to the 835 sailors who lost their lives during the sinking of the Revenge Class battleship. The ship was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney when it was torpedoed by a German submarine during World War II on October 14, 1939.

Among those attending were Royal Navy divers from HM Naval Base Clyde-based Northern Diving Group (NDG), who travel to Orkney every year, to carry out the solemn duty of descending to the wreck to change the White Ensign.

For many years it was thought that 834 lives were lost in the tragedy however recent research has uncovered details of a crew member who died in hospital from burns two weeks after the tragedy. His name has now been added to the Book of Remembrance, bringing the total loss from the attack to 835.

This year marks 80 years since the disaster and to mark this the HMS Royal Oak Association held several events. On Sunday morning, a Service of Remembrance was held at St Magnus Cathedral which was followed by a community ceremony at the HMS Royal Oak Memorial. Members of the community and Royal Navy personnel placed 1,259 wooden poppies – one for each person who was on board – in the ground, in advance of the anniversary on Monday, October 14.

On the anniversary itself, Royal Navy personnel joined relatives and friends of those who were lost, local residents and members of the Royal Oak Association to pay tribute at the garden of remembrance.  Following the tributes, vessels departed from Scapa pier for a further service of remembrance above the wreck of HMS Royal Oak where 835 red carnations were scattered in honour of those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Over the last 12 months a team of volunteer divers have been granted a licence to dive the wreck by the Secretary of State for Defence. The HMS Royal Oak Survey Team have gathered new video footage and images which were released as part of commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.

The images were gathered using the latest techniques to create 3D virtual reality models of the wreck in the hope that the sinking is not forgotten, by helping relatives of those lost, and the wider public, to visualise the ship’s final resting place. Some of the video and imagery were shared at events which took place over the anniversary weekend.

Lieutenant Jen Smith who has worked with the survey team over the past year said: “”Unlike battlefields, such as the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy, naval war graves are less accessible to most people and are more easily forgotten. Lying beneath the waves, it is difficult for current generations to imagine the significance of these sites and the scale of such a loss.”

An annual Service of Remembrance is also held at Portsmouth Naval Base and earlier this month Princess Anne and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence unveiled a new commemorative stone to mark the 80th Anniversary.

A brief history of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak

On 8 October 1939 German submarine U-47 departed Kiel, Germany, to carry out ‘Special Operation P’ targeting the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet’s main base in Scapa Flow. It was believed to a one-way mission.  At high tide and under the darkness of a moonless night six days later, U-47 threaded her way through block ships in the poorly defended Kirk Sound. At 00:27am on 14 October 1939, Prien entered in the U-boats log “Wir sind in Scapa Flow!!!“. Most of the Home Fleet had been ordered to sea leaving only a small number of ships in the Flow. Prien sailed towards Lyness, but finding no ships or resistance, he reversed course and a lookout spotted a Revenge-class battleship at anchor to the north. The ship was HMS ROYAL OAK.

At 00:58am U-47 fired a salvo of three torpedoes. The first two missed their target, but the third struck the bow of HMS ROYAL OAK at 01:04am. The muffled explosions awoke the sailors onboard, but not for an instant did they believe they were under attack; after all, they were in the safety of the home anchorage. Magazines were checked, but many sailors returned to their hammocks, unaware U-47 was repositioning for a further attack. Prien attempted a shot via the stern tube but missed. After re-loading his bow tubes, he turned towards HMS ROYAL OAK once again and fired a further salvo of three torpedoes. All three found their target.

At 01:16am the torpedoes hit HMS ROYAL OAK amidships and detonated. Explosions blew a hole in the armoured deck, immediately destroying the Stokers’, Boys’ and Marines messes. The battleship quickly listed to starboard and the open scuttles were submerged below the waterline, causing a rapid intake of water. HMS ROYAL OAK rolled further over, remaining there for several minutes before watertight hatches, left open due to the fine weather, rapidly flooded the ship. At 01:29am, just 13 minutes after Prien’s second attack, HMS ROYAL OAK sank.

U-47 successfully escaped Scapa Flow and Gunter Prien returned to Germany a war hero. The loss of HMS ROYAL OAK was a significant propaganda coup for Germany and the attack sent shockwaves throughout the Admiralty. As a direct result the Churchill Barriers were built to block the Eastern Approaches to Scapa Flow. Subsequently the Landscape, Seascape and marine environment of Scapa Flow were changed forever.

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