Royal Oak

History of HMS Royal Oak

The HMS Royal Oak saw much active service before coming to its tragic end on 14 October 1939. Although lacking speed, the ship proved its worth in World War I and during both peacetime operations and the early part of World War II.

This super-dreadnought battleship was laid down in January 1911 at HM Dockyard, Devonport. She was part of the five-strong Revenge class and was the last battleship to be built at Devonport (Rowlands, 2001). The Revenge class ships were slower than their predecessors – the ships of the Queen Elizabeth super-dreadnought class. They used lower-powered engines and were smaller and cheaper overall. This was not considered to be an issue because the Revenge class was not intended to form a fast battleship division of the Grand Fleet, instead it was to serve in the main battle line.

The Revenge class battleships were also narrower and this design was intended to lessen the roll of the ships and make them more stable gun platforms. However, this narrower width meant it was subsequently difficult to upgrade them without compromising their stability in contrast to the Queen Elizabeth class ships. The ships were initially designed to burn coal due to concerns about security of the oil supplies. However, during construction they were changed to burn both coal and oil.

The HMS Royal Oak was launched in November 1914 and commissioned in May 1916. The ship replaced a pre-dreadnought battleship of the same name.

She was part of the IV Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland in World War I, during which the ship fired a total of 38 15 inch shells and managed to emerge unscathed (Millford, 2011).

Between the wars, the duties of the HMS Royal Oak included non-intervention patrols in response to the Spanish Civil War and planned exercises (mainly based in Malta).

The ship first came to public notice due to a collision with HMS Campania in November 1918 and then again due to the 'Royal Oak affai'. This was a well-publicised disagreement in 1928 between Rear-Admiral Collard and the ship's two most senior officers, Captain Kenneth Gilbert Balmain Dewar and Commander Henry Martin Daniel. It led to all three men being relieved of their positions.

The ship was regularly and extensively refitted over the years, resulting in an increase in weight and decrease in speed. These changes included the fitting of a wide range of additional anti-aircraft armament, the provision of a further 900 tonnes of armour, and the fitting of an aircraft catapult. The ship's radio equipment, which included direction-finding equipment and fire-control directors, was also updated. The 1924-27 refit included the fitting of anti-torpedo bulges 2.1 metres wide along the sides of the hull. During the 1934-37 refit an additional four inches of armour was installed over the magazines and machinery spaces.

The Revenge class battleships were considered obsolete at the start of World War II with Winston Churchill labelling them "coffin ships". However, despite starting to show their age and struggling to keep up with faster capital ships, they were heavily used – taking part in fleet operations, shore bombardments, ship-to-ship engagements and convoy protection. Even a German Bismarck class battleship might have hesitated engaging a convoy protected by a Revenge class battleship. The chances of suffering significant damage hundreds of miles away from a safe harbour were too steep.

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