Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak

At 12.58am on 14 October 1939 German torpedoes struck HMS Royal Oak. The battleship sank quickly with the loss of more than 800 lives.

Today the wreck is a designated war grave and the waters above are a place of remembrance in Scapa Flow.

HMS Royal Oak was a Royal Navy battleship under Captain WH Benn. She had been moored off the cliffs of Gaitnip, in the north-east corner of Scapa Flow, so her anti-aircraft guns could help defend against any air attack on the vital Netherbutton Radar Station which stood above the cliffs.

On the night of 13/14 October 1939, German submarine U-47, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien – one of the three recognised U-boat aces of World War II – crept into Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound, between the blockships which were meant to have made the Sound impassable to enemy vessels.

Royal Oak was sighted. U-47 fired three salvoes. The first landed a minor hit which the crew of the battleship mistook as a minor internal explosion, rather than a sign of attack. Despite the second salvo missing, the confusion surrounding the first hit gave Prien time to return to his original firing position, reload, and fire again. This third salvo delivered the fatal hits.

The ferocity of the explosions caused the ship to heel over alarmingly and she sank with frightening speed. Those men that managed to escape the initial explosions and ensuing fires were faced with a swim through chilling waters thick with oil. Few survived the half-mile swim to shore.

From the crew of more than 1,200, 834 were lost. Recent careful research has better-established the casualty list, 833 having been the figure commonly given in the past. 

Captain Benn was one of the survivors and both he and his crew were credited with doing all they could to save their ship. 

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