The death of Kenneth Toop is now believed to leave just a single lone survivor of the sinking of the Royal Oak, one of the first great tragedies of the Second World War.
The conflict was not even six weeks old when the British battleship, pictured, was torpedoed by a German submarine as she lay at anchor in the waters of Scapa Flow off Orkney, a haven thought to have been impenetrable.
She slipped to the seabed in minutes, ultimately taking more than 830 lives and leaving almost 400 of her crew facing a horrific struggle for survival in the freezing waters, thick with oil and bodies.
Kenneth Toop was a boy sailor, just 16 at the time, in October 1939 – a period dubbed the Phoney War because of the apparent lack of action following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. But unknown to the Navy, the commander of U-boat 47, Gunther Prien, had crept into Scapa Flow on the night of October 13-14. Just before 1am on the 14th he fired three torpedoes at the Royal Oak. Two missed their target and one hit the ship’s bow, alerting the crew.
Toop, known as Lofty to his shipmates, had been asleep. Meanwhile Prien, determined to complete his audacious mission, fired again, unsuccessfully this time, through his stern tube. His third attempt, at 1:16am, hit home, with all three missiles striking the vessel amidships and detonating. The effect was catastrophic. Cordite ignited and sent a fireball through the structure which soon began to list. Toop initially managed to scramble to relative safety but quickly found he had no option but to slither from the sinking vessel as she went over.
“Once in the sea I managed to take off my shoes and trousers, which had saved me from barnacle cuts off the ship’s bottom, which I had slid down into the water,” he recalled in Dilip Sarkar’s book The Sinking of HMS Royal Oak. But the teenager was not a strong swimmer, having only met the Royal Navy’s minimum standard of three lengths of open-air baths at HMS St Vincent and staying afloat for three minutes in a canvas duck suit, and revealed: “Nothing, though, prepares one for the oil-fuel-covered winter coldness of Scapa Flow.”
What was evident, however, was the terror: “There was a lot of fear – everyone was drowning.” Somehow he managed to swim around for a while in the mess of oil and thrashing men until, miraculously, he found a catamaran that had drifted off the ship’s deck. He managed to clamber onto the boat where “two other half-dead men were already on it.” They floated helplessly until a tender, which had been tied up for the night alongside the Royal Oak, was cut free and began a rescue operation, eventually picking them up. It subsequently took weeks to remove the oil from their hair and bodies, especially those who had swallowed the fuel.
After being looked after in Thurso, on the mainland, for a couple of days, the survivors went by train to Portsmouth and then on leave. “Boys’ pay was eight shillings and ninepence a week, but we all came from poor families: I had two small sisters and a father who was sixty so, at the end of ten days survivors’ leave it was back to the dockyard at Portsmouth to join the cruiser HMS Manchester – shortly to leave for Scapa to spend the winter in Icelandic waters and on Northern Patrol until the Norwegian campaign started.”
Though many reports state the Royal Oak sank in 13 minutes Toop, who continued to serve in the Navy until he was 30 and became honorary secretary of the HMS Royal Oak Association, always maintained she went down in a mere seven minutes.
He had joined the Navy at 15 after growing up at Basingstoke’s Isolation Hospital, where his mother was a ward maid and his father the ambulance driver and gardener, and being educated at the town’s St John’s School. He said he would have worked on the railway but signed up for the Navy because his friend did.
After the Royal Oak and the Manchester, which was also sunk during the conflict, he served on HMS Ceylon, a cruiser that served in the Atlantic and the Pacific during the war, and sailed as far as Korea, Japan and America.
He was home on leave, aged 23, when he met his future wife, Lilian. It was love at first sight and a whirlwind romance. They married six weeks later, with the new groom still having seven years of his 15-year service to complete.
On eventually leaving the Navy he joined the Southern Electricity Bard as a linesman, rising to become foreman on the live line team, and had another work-related lucky escape when he fell from a pole on Odiham High Street.
He retired after a 28-year career with the board and did voluntary work driving a minibus for Age Concern and serving on the community health council for several years.
He also became involved with the Royal Oak Association, serving as its secretary for 15 years and making an annual pilgrimage to Orkney to mark the anniversary of the sinking, accompanied by his wife, from whom he was inseparable.
He was instrumental in the establishment of a Royal Oak memorial garden in Orkney and in 2012 he arranged for a memorial book to be housed, along with his folded ensign from the ship, in his local church, St Michael’s in Basingstoke. The book, a copy of one prepared for the 70th anniversary of the sinking and signed by HRH The Princess Royal, commemorates all those who perished in the tragedy, including one additional name that had previously been omitted.
Though now more than 75 years ago, the disaster affected Toop’s whole life – he lost so many friends and comrades, many of them young boys just as he was then. Neither that night nor the memory of those who died ever left him. Last year he was unable to attend the annual Orkney memorial service, the first time for many years that none of the survivors had been able make the journey. But the victims remained, as ever, in his thoughts. “All you can do now for your friends who are lost is to think about them,” he once said, “and pray for them and remember them.”
Toop is survived by his wife Lilian, to whom he had been married for 68 years, their children and grandchildren.