For the Royal Navy – and, indeed, Britain – one of the saddest episodes of the war was the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, in the supposedly safe anchorage of Scapa Flow in 1939. In this book David Turner tells the story of the ships sinking, spurred on by finding out what happened to his uncle, who was killed in the disaster. The Royal Oak is often overshadowed by the Hood, so this is a welcome addition to the naval historians bookshelf.
As the Royal Oak was not at sea and was thought to be safe, she was not in the high state of readiness that a ship expecting imminent attack would have been. No doubt this added to the loss of life onboard. But this is not to detract from the incredible skill of Gunther Prien in slipping into Scapa Flow and then escaping unmolested. So unlikely was the sinking considered, that the Admiralty could scarcely believe the first reports that the Royal Oak had gone down.
As she was an obsolete ship and not in an active deployment at sea, and anchored up, she had a large number of Boy Seamen onboard. For many years boys could join the Royal Navy underage as Boy Seamen. There is something particularly tragic about so many young boys being killed without being being able to fight back, so early in the war. Four Boy Seamen killed in the Royal Oak were from Portsmouth – three were 17, and one was 16 – Boy 1st Class Gordon Ogden.
The loss of the Royal Oak was keenly felt in Portsmouth – she was a Portsmouth-manned ship, and 66 of the men and boys who went down hailed from the City. In the D-Day Museum’s section that tells the story of Portsmouth at war, there is an oral history recording of Doris Bealing telling the story of how her family heard of the sinking, and waited anxiously for news of whether her father had been killed: ‘touch wood my Daddy isnt dead’. But sadly, Petty Officer Frederick Bealing was killed. Multiply that for every family affected, and you have a whole community hit incredibly hard on the same day. Similar to how the wiping out of the Pals Battalions on the Western Front was a hammer blow to communities.
The loss of the Royal Oak was a serious blow to British morale. In material terms, it was not such a massive loss -the R Class Battleships were obsolescent and unlikely to be of much use during the war – but it was a serious dent in the Navy’s hard-won prestige. And particularly in a period of the war where not much else was happening – it was, very much, first blood to the Kriegsmarine. And Scapa Flow had to undergo massive changes to prevent any more attacks, including some pretty substantial causeways blocking the route that Prien had taken into the anchorage.
I found this a very useful source for finding out about the Portsmouth men who went down on the Royal Oak. As with all of my research, the key to understanding the impact of a sinking ship is not just the gap it leaves in the order of battle, but the even bigger gaps that the human costs leaves among families and communities.