Bold attack that brought war to Scotland's shores
AS THE natural fireworks of the Northern Lights lit up the night sky on Friday, 13 October 1939, German submarine U-47 lay submerged and undetected in the darkness of the North Sea just off Orkney's east coast, poised to launch one of the most daring naval attacks of the Second World War.
The submarine strike on the British navy's principal home base at Scapa Flow led to the loss of 833 lives and one of the most heavily armed gunships in the British fleet, the HMS Royal Oak. Had the German attack been launched earlier as the Home Fleet lay anchored and unprepared off the northern Scottish isle, it could have altered the course of history.
U-boat commander Captain Gnther Prien entered Scapa Flow through narrow channels strewn with sunken wrecks to deter enemy attacks. But Prien, who had been hand-picked by the German navy for this top-secret mission, was an accomplished sailor. Using all of his skill, the commander slowly steered his vessel through dangerous passages, some only 15 metres deep, the hull scraping so violently against the barriers that his crew thought they had struck mines. In total darkness, the sub wound its way along the deadly channels for several hours.
Sometime after midnight, the U-boat emerged in the heart of Britain's naval defences at Scapa Flow, believing they had already been spotted and preparing to face the full might of the Home Fleet in what must have seemed a suicide mission. They remained undetected and were surprised to find that, instead of the largest complement of warships in what was then still the world’s most powerful navy, only one battleship and a barge lay moored on the bay. The British navy, fearing a German air attack, had already ordered the other ships to evacuate. The decision, though made on a false premise, was to prove wise. Had the British fleet not left, Prien could have struck a mortal blow for Germany.
He approached the HMS Royal Oak just before 1am and fired the first salvo of torpedoes. The initial strike woke some of the crew, but the ship did not register that it was under attack. The Royal Oak, a Royal Sovereign class Dreadnought battleship, was presumed to be immune to submarine attack. After reloading, Prien launched another three torpedoes at the British vessel. They struck with deadly accuracy.
Prien described the devastation in his log: "After three tense minutes comes the detonation… There is a loud explosion, roar and rumbling. Then come columns of water, followed by columns of fire and splinters fly through the air."
The Royal Oak listed sharply to starboard as seawater rushed in through the gaping wounds, the immense 29,000 ton ship sinking in around ten minutes and dragging the barge moored alongside her down to the depths as her crew fought for survival. The war was just six weeks old, the Royal Oak being the first battleship sunk.
Able Seaman Don Harris, who was rescued, recounts the terrible event: "All lights went out, and in a matter of minutes she had listed... I hauled myself out of the hammock and into my shoes. A further sudden list made me realise the situation was getting desperate. The piano grazed me as it slid past and crashed into the combing-fitting to hold six-inch shells. Had I been standing a foot closer it would have crushed me against the bulkhead.
"Slowly - and how interminably slowly it seemed - I made my way to the ladder at the bottom of which stood the first of many heroes I was to know that night."
Sailors swam out of potholes into the pitch black of the sea as the saltwater rushed in, some made it to shore nearly a mile away, but many drowned as the bone-chilling water sapped their strength.
Prien returned to Germany to a hero's welcome, but 833 men from the Royal Oak crew of 1,234 - including its commander, Rear Admiral Henry Blagrove - would never return. However, thanks to the heroic efforts of the tiny auxiliary vessel Daisy 2, 386 men were rescued from the water's icy grasp and a total of 401 men survived. Many of those who did not are now buried nearby at the naval cemetery on Lyness, on the island of Hoy.
A buoy now marks the remains of the 180-metre long Royal Oak, now lying 30 metres below sea level with the upturned keel reaching to within five metres of the surface, the most intact naval wreck in shallow waters in the Northern Hemisphere. The remains are now an official war grave off-limits to divers, but survivors hold a ceremony at the wreck site on every Friday the 13th - a dark date in our military history.
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