Gold Ribbon Banner
Friday, August 23, 2019
HMS Royal OakEvery year on 14 October, a Royal Navy diver swims to the bottom of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. He carries with him a Royal Navy ensign. His destination is the remains of a once mighty battleship, the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Royal Oak. The diver takes his time in flying the ensign from the ships flagstaff. Even in the murky cold waters the current makes, it seems as if the flag is flying on the battleship once more. It was her destruction in the windy wilderness of these remote islands that truly marked the passing of the baton of capital ship from battleships to submarines – the very weapon system that sank her with the loss of 835 lives.

HMS Royal Oak was a Royal Sovereign class battleship designed and built just in time to see service in the closing stages of the First World War and had seen action during the Battle of Jutland. Armed with eight 15 inch guns, she was the epitome of battleship technology. Ranged against this behemoth was a small, sleek, agile and stealthy submarine, the U-47, commanded by the brilliant young German Lieutenant Gunther Prien.

At the time of the attack, the Second World War was just over a month old – too soon for the British public to have fallen under the spell of ‘The Phoney War’. News from Europe already told of staggering German successes in the East and the prospects of more to come. The Royal Navy, at a heightened state of alert, had moved the majority of its fleet to the large natural anchorage of Scapa Flow. This deep water anchorage was ideally located to allow the battleships and battlecruisers of the Royal Navy easy access into both the North Atlantic and, crucially, the North Sea to intercept and destroy German warships emerging from the Baltic region.

Whilst extremely useful to the Royal Navy, Scapa Flow did have its downsides. The area is full of navigational hazards both natural and man made. It was also a rather daunting billet for sailors used to runs ashore in Plymouth, Portsmouth or Chatham. The only entertainment was a small hall or a distant public house.

Scapa Flow had provided a home for the Royal Navy during the First World War and many of the defences found there in late 1939, dated from the earlier conflict. Many were in a state of disrepair which had a direct result on the tragedy that befell HMS Royal Oak.

To the Germans, Scapa Flow was a place of shame and humiliation for it was here that after the end of World War One the entire surviving German High Seas Fleet was interned. It was here that on 21 June 1919 the fleet of battleships and battlecruisers scuttled themselves on to the bottom of the anchorage.

In October 1939 the defences at Scapa Flow were, slowly, being made suitable. Extra manpower was being diverted into erecting boom defences around navigable channels not used by the Royal Navy vessels and the local fishing fleet. Minefields and heavy anti aircraft and anti ship guns were being sited at key strategic locations. Lieutenant Gunther Prien was, despite his youth, an experienced submarine commander. The crew of U-47 respected and admired him; his charisma urging them on to achieve their orders. His orders this time were to strike a blow for the ‘Fatherland’. Even Prien could not believe the audacity of what his superiors proposed.

Prien was to take his U-boat across the North Sea, penetrate the defences, battle the severe tide races and treacherous undercurrents around Scapa Flow, find and sink as many ships as possible and then escape back to Germany. At the time, Scapa Flow was one of the most heavily defended locations on Earth.

U-47 As U-47 approached Scapa Flow, it was just minutes from midnight on the night of 13 October 1939. The submarine crept agonisingly slowly forward constantly on the lookout for enemy vessels and defences. Onboard the tension was immense as the enormity of his task meant Prien stayed close to his submarines’ periscope. All around him his crew manned their positions in silence, painfully aware that any error could result in their destruction.

The only light that night came from the Northern Lights, but even this spectral illumination was sufficient to allow Prien to see his course. Ahead of him, as he set a course for Kirk Sound, were a number of sunken block ships, each connected with heavy sea hawsers and chains to prevent exactly what U-47 was attempting – entry into the inner anchorage. Prien’s plan was to surface and sail over the barriers – when he did his U-boat was snared and grounded. The ships’ company worked frantically to release their boat and after the screw propeller had churned the water U-47 was once again free to manoeuvre and proceeded into Scapa Flow.

Prien had expected to find the majority of the Royal Navy’s battleships and battlecruisers at anchor, but as fate would have it, most of the major units had been ordered to sea. The one major exception was HMS Royal Oak; she remained in harbour to provide anti aircraft defences for the anchorage.

Onboard HMS Royal Oak, most of her crew were asleep in their hammocks believing Scapa Flow to be impenetrable by submarines. At 0058, U-47 started to close the distance to the battleship. Prien noted, in his after battle report, that the battleship stood out like a fortress, framed by the Northern Lights and made a perfect target.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - October 2014 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!


Most Popular

  • Lifeboat Withdrawn After Some Crew Stood Down +

  • An Unexpected Job in Cuba +

  • New Crane Lifts Business Growth +

  • Test Spells The End of Paper Bills of Lading +

  • Windemere Jetties +

  • 1
  • 2

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • Two Rescued by Lifeboat +

    Two Rescued by Lifeboat TWO local fishermen were rescued after their fishing vessel caught fire off Land’s End on the afternoon of July 16. Read More
  • Two Gulf Tankers Set on Fire in Attacks +

    Kokuka Courageous Two loaded tankers were set on fire after being attacked with limpet mines in international waters in the Gulf of Read More
  • Lifeboat Withdrawn After Some Crew Stood Down +

    Peterhead Lifeboat Peterhead lifeboat has been taken out of action by the RNLI. Read More
  • Test Spells The End of Paper Bills of Lading +

    CargoX Demo It is possible to stop using the paper Bill of Lading according to a test of CargoX’s blockchain-based Smart Bill Read More
  • New Crane Lifts Business Growth +

    Hull Port A new £3.5mn hybrid Liebherr crane has been delivered to Associated British Ports (ABP) for operation at Hull to support Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Record Set by Largest US Ship for Hawaii Service +

    Lurline The largest combination container, roll-on, roll-off ship ever built in the United States was formerly named in a ceremony at Read More
  • $293mn for Port Projects +

    Long Beach port The United States is to invest $292.7mn in the country’s ports through a new Port Infrastructure Development Programme. Read More
  • Facility Exports First Cargo of Propane to Japan +

    Sumire Gas The first marine export facility for propane in Canada has been officially opened. Read More
  • Changes in Tolls for Using Panama Canal +

    MSC Pohlin The Panama Canal plans to modify its tolls structure for all types of ships “to better serve the global maritime Read More
  • Largest LNG Carrier Sails From West to East +

    Al Safliya The largest LNG tanker to use the Panama Canal since it was expanded less that three years ago passed through Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3


  • Line Adds Automated Power Kite to Propulsion +

    Airseas The Japanese shipping company Kawasaki Kisen KK (K Line) aims to cut ship greenhouse gas emissions with automated power kites. Read More
  • ONE Express to North Sea and Baltic +

    ONE Apus The Japanese shipping line Ocean Network Express (ONE) was due to start an enhanced North Sea Baltic Service with Russia Read More
  • MOL Links with Russian Uni for Crew Training +

    Makarov University The Japanese shipping company Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Russian university on co-operation Read More
  • “Prelude” Makes its Debut With First LNG Cargo +

    Prelude The first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has left Shell’s floating LNG facility Prelude some 475kms north-east of Broome Read More
  • Special Navigating System to be Fitted to VLCCs +

    AR Nav Following two-ship trials, augmented reality (AR) navigation systems are to be installed on 21 very large crude oil carriers (VLCCs) Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • Scorpene Sub Snags +

    INS Khanderi indian News The troubled Scorpene class submarine program hit another snag in June. Read More
  • US Navy’s Frigate Program Passes Significant Hurdle +

    USS Minneapolis-St Paul US News The US Navy has unveiled its plans for the purchase of a new frigate known as FFG(X). Read More
  • Fourth Dreadnought Named HMS “King George VI” +

    Dreadnought Class UK News The fourth member of the new Dreadnought class of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines will bear the name Read More
  • US Navy Orders Flight II Landing Platform Dock +

    LDP30 American News The contract for the construction of LPD30, the first Flight II Landing Platform Dock of the San Antonio Read More
  • US Navy Seeks Faster Ship Delivery +

    FFGX Rendering American News The future frigate program for the US Navy is getting fully underway and some idea of the urgency Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Fragile Future for Calmac +

    Isle of Arran TMore and more, I am reading reports that say the media, and the public too, are well aware of the Read More
  • Oscar Goes to Italy +

    Oscar Wilde Irish Continental Group has entered into a bareboat hire purchase agreement for the sale of its 1987-built Oscar Wilde to Read More
  • CalMac Heritage +

    Columba I include a fine poster and artist’s image of the famed Macbrayne paddler Columba. Read More
  • Russian Adventure +

    Ocean Adventurer To the North East Coast and arriving at Aberdeen for the first time for many months, I witnessed a passenger Read More
  • Windemere Jetties +

    Osprey and Branksome Last month I commented on the new setting of the classic collection of mainly steam boats held at Windermere. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • The Green Band of Marstal +

    Bessie Ellen The Danish Maritime Museum had the schooner Bonavista built on the island of Aero at Marstal and this year they Read More
  • Norweigan National Day +

    Thorodd I was in Montrose on the Norwegian National Day, 17 May, when its independent constitution from Sweden was confirmed in Read More
  • Port of Aberdeen Fifty Years On +

    Aberdeen Harbour Extension Project When I first arrived in Aberdeen in 1968, I couldn’t believe my luck. Read More
  • Thames Tributary Barges +

    Lady of the Lea Most of the rivers flowing into the Thames had their own barge type. Read More
  • Dry Rot and Dry Dock +

    HMS Victory For some time Victory, the 110gun ship of the line, has had trouble with dry rot and is in danger Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • President Opens ‘Largest UK Ship Simulation Centre’ +

    Sir Michael Bibby With the training of seafarers being so important to safety at sea, and in particular navigation equipment and bridge procedures, Read More
  • Hands-Free Mooring at St Lawrence Seaway +

    St Lawrence Seaway I feel there are probably many readers, like me, who feel a shiver down their spine when they think of Read More
  • Flying the Flag on Merchant Navy Day +

    Red Ensign For more than 35 years, it has been my immense privilege to be a local Isle of Man committee member Read More
  • Lifeline Cash for “Waverley” Agreed +

    Waverley The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS) has announced that it will provide immediate funding to support efforts to “Save The Read More
  • Viking Glory Celebrates Keel Laying +

    Front Altair The construction of Viking Glory is proceeding on schedule. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Boudicca Pays Tribute to D-Day Veterans +

    Boudicca Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines were proud to have played its part in hosting 250 D-Day veterans. Read More
  • Captain of a Modern Passenger Carrying Sail Ship +

    Sea Cloud 2 If you have ever wondered what qualities a Captain of a cruise vessel might need to have listed on his Read More
  • Every Ash Cloud Has A Silver Lining +

    The ash cloud crisis continues to cause uncertainty as we see sporadic closures of airspace and cancelled flights, and this Read More
  • Damen Group Superyachts +

    Amels With 25 projects underway, business is booming for Amels, the Dutch luxury yacht builder. Read More
  • Singer Andrea Bocelli Trades Up in Size +

    Stella del Nord Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor and song writer whose work spans both popular music and classical opera is a Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places


An Unexpected Job in Cuba

In 1948, I joined the MV Yamaska Park as an EDH and, over the first few days aboard, I became Read More
Suez Canal

The Creation of the Suez Canal - Part Two

IAt the end of 1858, the company’s Works Committee convened for the first time. It included an impressive assembly of Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features


The Teeswood Tragedy

The British steamer Teeswood was launched in May 1915 at the Harkness & Son Shipyard of Middlesbrough and went into Read More

From Fjords to Fiji

On the morning of 9 October 2014, two patrol boats from the Spanish Maritime Service and Public Safety Unit were Read More
  • 1
  • 2