The 70th anniversary of one of the Royal Navy’s blackest days, which saw the loss of 833 lives, was marked at a ceremony on HMS Penzance this week by The Princess Royal.
Shortly after 0100hrs on 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak, in the Home Fleet’s wartime anchorage of Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, suffered four torpedo hits, one at the bow and three amidships, from German submarine U-47. Captained by Gunther Prien, the submarine had infiltrated the natural harbour that was thought to be impregnable.
Of the ship’s complement of 1,234 men and boys, 833 were killed that night or died later of their wounds. Over a hundred were Boy seamen, under the age of 18. The loss of the Royal Oak had little effect on the war at sea, given the Royal Navy’s overwhelming superiority over the German fleet, but had a considerable effect on morale.
The Royal Oak, a designated war grave, now lies in 30 metres of water at the bottom of Scapa Flow where, from HMS Penzance on Wednesday 14 October 2009, The Princess Royal laid a wreath to remember those lost.
HMS Royal Oak was a Revenge class battleship launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916. She fought at the Battle of Jutland soon after joining the fleet, and between the wars saw service in the Home, Atlantic and Mediterannean fleets. By the time she was sunk she was largely obsolete. She was one of four Royal Navy Battleships sunk in the Second World War, along with Barham, Repulse and Prince of Wales.