By Lucy Ashton
ROYAL Navy Clearance Divers were in Orkney today to pay tribute to the 835 sailors who lost their lives during the sinking of HMS Royal Oak.
The Royal Navy divers from HM Naval Base Clyde-based Northern Diving Group (NDG) travel to Orkney every year, to take part in the memorial events to remember those lost in 1939.
The most important part of the memorial for the Royal Navy divers is to carry out the solemn task of descending to the wreck to change the White Ensign and this year Able seaman (Diver) Charlie Hopper, age 25, took part in the annual duty for the first time.
“I was honoured to be part of the team that carried out the Ensign change on HMS Royal Oak this year. It is the first time I have dived on the wreck and it was a wonderful and poignant opportunity to pay our respects to the 835 lost servicemen. It was a privilege and a dive I will always remember.”
Northern Diving Group personnel also joined relatives and friends of those who were lost during the sinking of the Revenge Class battleship, to pay tribute and lay wreaths at a memorial service in the
Garden of Remembrance.
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 and for many years it was thought that 834 lives were lost in the tragedy however further research uncovered details of a crew member who died in hospital from burns two weeks after the tragedy. His name has been added to the Book of Remembrance, bringing the total loss from the attack to 835.
Brigadier Andy Muddiman ADC RM, Naval Regional Commander Scotland & Northern Ireland said: “The annual commemoration for the sinking of HMS Royal Oak and the loss of 835 lives is an event close to the hearts of many Orcadians, it is a part of their own history and many have heard recollections from their own families of that terrible event.
“It is through community efforts and those of the Royal Oak Association, which runs commemorations elsewhere in the UK, that the memory of those sailors who perished and of survivors alike, is maintained. The Royal Navy is very grateful for this collective remembrance effort and we are proud to be invited to take part.
He added: “ I would also like to praise the efforts of the Kirkwall Branch of the Royal British Legion Scotland who have ensured that the event remains as it always has, a simple and fitting tribute to the Fallen. It is they who have ensured that the 14th October never passes without acknowledging the sacrifices made on behalf of us all.”
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.