People associated with HMS Royal Oak
More than 1,200 men and boys were serving on HMS Royal Oak on the night of 14 October 1939. A total of 834 were killed when the battleship was lost.
Captain WG Benn
Captain WG Benn was one of the survivors. He had taken command of HMS Royal Oak in July. The Royal Navy Board of Enquiry considered that "Captain W.G. Benn and his officers did all that was possible to save their Ship. Captain Benn remained in the ship until the last possible moment, until in fact the ship left him, and his behaviour was in the best traditions of the service."
Commander Ralph Lennox Woodrow‐Clark
Captain WG Benn and Commander Ralph Lennox Woodrow‐Clark were inspecting the initial damage to HMS Royal Oak together, but this was to be the last time Captain Benn saw Commander Woodrow‐Clark alive. Commander Woodrow‐Clark was the uncle of David Turner, historian and author of Last Dawn ‐ The Royal Oak Tragedy at Scapa Flow. David was aged nine when the tragedy happened but still remembers:
"It was a dark and cold winter evening and I had arrived home from school to find my mother crying in the kitchen of our home at Laira in Plymouth. I asked 'why are you crying, Mummy?' She told me that the BBC Home Service had reported late that morning an announcement by the Secretary of the Admiralty: 'It is with regret that I have to announce that the battleship HMS Royal Oak has been sunk, it is believed by U‐boat action; fifteen survivors have been landed'."
Commander Woodrow‐Clark was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges of Dartmouth and Greenwich. He had been promoted to the Rank of Commander and was due to leave HMS Royal Oak to take up a new post in one of His Majesty's Royal Navy capital ships (Turner, 2009). Woodrow‐Clark's grave is in the Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness on the Orkney island of Hoy.
Rear Admiral Henry Evelyn Charles Blagrove
Rear-Admiral Henry Evelyn Charles Blagrove was given command of the Second Battleship Squadron in January 1939 with war impending. The squadron consisted of the battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Royal Sovereign, which were stationed at Scapa Flow.
Blagrove proved himself a capable and efficient officer, despite some doubts regarding his quiet personality . He was not among the survivors of the tragedy, becoming the first Royal Navy officer of flag rank to be killed in World War II. His body was never recovered. On recommending him for Captain in 1927 one of Blagrove's commanding officers gave this assessment:
"Above average. An exceptionally good officer, which has caused me to recommend him strongly for promotion. Very good powers of leadership – exhorts an excellent influence – is tactful and easy to deal with. Cheerful, energetic and frank personality. Physically fit – plays and is interested in all games. He has been a Rugger player of a high order & understands the game. Socially popular and much liked in the mess. He has extraordinary energy and organising capacity, and a brain capacity above the average."
Kapitanleutnant Günther Prien
Korvettenkapitän Günther Prien was born on 16 January 1908 at Osterfeld, Thüringen. He joined the Reichsmarine (Realm Navy) in January 1931 and, after a year on the light cruiser SMS Königsberg, he transferred to the U-boat force. While in command of his own boat, U-47, he became famous for the sinking of HMS Royal Oak. US journalist William L Shirer, in Berlin, described Günther Prien after this extraordinary feat on 18 October:
"The place where the German U-boat sank the British battleship Royal Oak was none other than the middle of Scapa Flow, Britain's greatest naval base! It sounds incredible. A World War submarine commander told me tonight that the Germans tried twice to get a U-boat into Scapa Flow during the last war, but both attempts failed and the submarines were lost. Captain Prien, commander of the submarine, came tripping into our afternoon press conference at the Propaganda Ministry this afternoon, followed by his crew – boys of eighteen, nineteen and twenty. Prien is thirty, clean-cut, cocky, a fanatical Nazi and obviously capable. Introduced by Hitler's press chief, Dr Dietrich, who kept cursing the English and calling Churchill a liar, Prien told us little of how he did it. He said he had no trouble getting past the boom protecting the bay. I got the impression, though he said nothing to justify it, that he must have followed a British craft, perhaps a minesweeper, into the base. British negligence must have been something terrific."
During the next 18 months, Prien proved that he was one of the best German U-boat commanders. From September 1939 to March 1941 U-47, under Günther Prien's command, sank 31 ships and damaged eight. This was from a total of 10 patrols; on his sixth patrol in June 1940 he sank eight ships. In convoy battles Prien was often the first who found the convoys and vectored in other boats. He was decorated with the Iron Cross 2nd Class on 25 September 1939; Iron Cross 1st Class on 17 October 1939; Knights Cross on 18 October 1939 and Knights Cross with Oak Leaves on 20 October 1940.
In 1941, he was promoted from Kapitänleutnant to Korvettenkapitän. Günther Prien was killed when U-47 was lost with all hands (45 men) on 7 or 8 March of that year. The last radio contact was on 7 March and it is presumed the submarine was sunk soon afterwards, probably as a result of depth-charges dropped by British warships guarding the Allied convoy which U-47 was attacking.
Leading Stoker Cornelius Curtin
Leading Stoker Cornelius Curtin was 23 and came from Liverpool. He had been in the navy for four years and was using his navy pay to assist in the education of his younger brother who had won a scholarship to St Edward's College, Liverpool. [Source]
Seaman Christopher Maher
Seaman Maher from Liverpool joined the navy aged 18 and was transferred to HMS Royal Oak at the outbreak of war. He celebrated his 19th birthday on 5 October, nine days before the Royal Oak was lost. He was a single man, an expert swimmer and athlete. He was the eldest of four sons and joined the navy against his parent's wishes as soon as he was old enough. [Source]
Boy [1st class] Stanley Wood
Mrs Wood, a widow from Liverpool, received a telegram stating that her son, Boy [1st class] Stanley Wood, was safe. She then received a second telegram that he was lost. A third confirmed the terrible news. Boy Wood was 18 years old and had joined the navy in June 1938. He had served on HMS Hawkins, from which he was transferred to HMS Royal Oak. [Source]
Stoker Edwin Henry Fairney
Ted Fairney was born in Cardiff on 13 February 1910. He was 25 when his younger brother, Hill, persuaded him to enlist in the Navy; the weekly wage of £2 18s was a fortune compared to shipyard rates.
The brothers served together in the training ship Iron Duke at Portsmouth before Ted was posted to Malta in Cyclops, a submarine depot ship. He made something of a name for himself in the Mediterranean as someone who could carry out "impossible repairs", earning the admiration of officers, including a rear admiral.
In 1939 the brothers were again due to be serving together, this time on HMS Royal Oak. But when war broke out, Admiralty preference was for close family members not to serve together. Eric Jenkins, a fellow Welshman, took Hill's place, and was one of those lost.
Ted was in the mess room at the time HMS Royal Oak was struck, two decks below on the waterline. He and a shipmate decided that the only way out was through the adjacent mess deck. Opening the connecting watertight door, they found that balls of ignited cordite had raced through the ship, incinerating many of the crew. Ted re-locked the door, scrambled up two decks, and leapt into the water. A fair swimmer, he struck out in the darkness for what he hoped was the shore half-a-mile away. But, as the great vessel heeled over to starboard, halyards carrying signal flags from one of the masts caught him and dragged him under. He could never recall how he managed to work himself free.
Ted and his surviving shipmates then faced 50 foot cliffs, some of the men falling back on to the rocks. To the end of his days, Ted said that he owed his life to two crofters who found him in the dark, injured, soaking wet and suffering from hypothermia. Ted served with the Navy until 1963 but never returned to Scapa Flow. In retirement he lived frugally on his naval pension, enjoying touring Europe in his car. He died at a nursing home in Watford in 2003, aged 93. [Source]
Midshipman Norman William Rockingham
Rockingham entered the naval service on leaving school at the age of 17 and was appointed to HMS Royal Oak as a midshipman. One of the first acts of Midshipman Norman William Rockingham after surviving the sinking was to telephone his parents. He told them he was safe and asked for an outfit of clothes and a pipe. All his possessions were lost with the ship. The only clothes he had was a pair of dungarees given to him by his rescuers.
Vincent Marchant, aged 18, from Doncaster, told the Liverpool Daily Post for their publication on 18 October 1939 that he was asleep in his hammock when the first explosion occurred:
"I ran to the upper deck to see what had happened, there was a second explosion 20 minutes later, followed by a third, then a fourth, the ship was lilting and sinking rapidly. Remembering what happened on the HMS Courageous and the lesson of what the sinking of the aircraft carrier taught us I stripped off my clothes and tying my safety belt around my waist, dived into the water. Searchlights were playing over the surface and I could see heads bobbing around. Great volumes of oil belched to the surface. My eyes started to smart and the faces of all the men in the water turned a greasy black. I was caught in the searchlight for several minutes and saw two of my friends swimming alongside me. Later however they got cramp and disappeared. I must have swum a mile and a half when I felt the rock underneath me. I have the vague recollection of climbing up the sheer face of a cliff 20 to 30ft high. Another figure climbing behind me slipped and fell crashing on the rocks. I fell down at the top of the cliffs and lost consciousness." [Source]
Paymaster Lieutenant GR Harrison
Paymaster Lieutenant GR Harrison, a son of the harbour master at Lerwick, declared a minor explosion at 12.58am on Saturday. "No one paid much attention to it. I was sitting in the mess with some other officers and I awakened some of the men who didn't hear the explosion. I walked upon deck. Three minutes after I left the mess there was a violent explosion. I joined a queue and was making to go overboard on the portside, when there was a fourth explosion." [Source]
John Gatt DSC
John Gatt of the Royal Naval Reserve was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his rescue efforts. He skippered the tender Daisy 2, which was tied up to HMS Royal Oak's port side at the time of the attack. The tender had to be cut loose and was briefly lifted out of the water on the rising port side of the battleship before she was finally freed. Most of those who were saved were lifted from the water onto the deck of the Daisy 2. John Gatt sailed his tender back and forth through the wreckage, as men were pulled on board, before relaying them to HMS Pegasus, the nearest larger vessel.