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Sinking of the Royal Oak

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Unit/ Formation: Memorial

Location: Scapa Flow

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1939

Date/s: 14th October 1939

HMS ROYAL OAK - Royal Sovereign-class 15in gun Battleship

At 01.16 hours on 14 October 1939 U-47 fired a spread of three torpedoes at HMS Royal Oak (08) and the British seaplane tender HMS Pegasus lying at anchor in the harbour of Scapa Flow, then turned around and fired a stern torpedo at 01.21 hours. U47 claimed a hit on the seaplane tender, misidentified as HMS Repulse (34), but one of the torpedoes apparently hit the starboard anchor chain of the battleship and both targets were undamaged.

At 01.23 hours, the U-boat fired a second spread of three torpedoes which hit HMS Royal Oak (08) on the starboard side and caused a magazine to blow up. The battleship rolled over and sank in 19 minutes. 386 of the survivors, including the commander, were rescued by the drifter HMS Daisy II which had been alongside as tender. [1]

Branded the ‘first great tragedy’ of the war, the sinking claimed the lives of 834 men, of the 1,234 crew were lost, including 135 boy sailors, not yet 18 years old, the largest ever such loss in a single Royal Navy action and 92 Royal Marines.

Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien stands atop the conning tower of U-47.

ROYAL SOVEREIGN Class Battleship ordered under the 1913 Program from HM Dockyard Devonport and laid down on 15th January 1914 on the same day as her sister HMS ROYAL SOVEREIGN. She was launched on 17th November 1914 as the 7th RN ship to carry this name which commemorates the tree in which King Charles II hid after he had escaped from the Battle of Worcester.

The name had been was introduced for a 3rd Rate in 1654 and last been carried by a battleship built in 1892, sold in 1914. Build was completed in May 1916 and she joined the Grand Fleet before the Battle of Jutland in which she took part. This ship served continuously in the post­war years apart from refit periods and was deployed with the Home Fleet in September 1939, manned by the Devonport Port Division.


At Scapa Flow.

9th - Over night the CinC Home Fleet was made aware that the German navy was about to launch a sortie by heavy units.

At 1320 hours the CinC Home Fleet received firm information from the RAF when one of Coastal Command’s Hudson aircraft of 224 Sqd. sighted the German Battlecruiser GNEISENAU and the cruiser KOLN and 9 destroyers off Lister lighthouse (Lindesnes LH southern Norway) steaming north.

(The purpose of this sortie was to sink any allied shipping found and to entice out the Home Fleet onto waiting U-boats and to bring them into range of German bombers).

At 1930 hours ROYAL OAK with destroyers MATABELE and STURDY sailed from Scapa Flow to patrol to the west of the Shetlands. ROYAL OAK didn’t sail with the Fleet due to her slow speed, which was probably less than 20 knots, so she was given the task to act as a 'back stop', should GNEISENAU slip out of the trap being set by Forces E and F of the Home Fleet, and attempt to break out from the North Sea.

10th – Sailing west by north the ROYAL OAK force ran into very heavy seas. During the day due to the foul weather ROYAL OAK's destroyers lost touch with her. After trying to re-establish contact with her escort and failing ROYAL OAK set course to return to Scapa Flow.

11th – In the early hours of the morning ROYAL OAK arrived back at Scapa Flow. She anchored in the Northeast corner of the Flow, some 1500 yards south of the old seaplane carrier PEGASUS (ex ARK ROYAL).

(Because the CinC Home Fleet believed that an attack by the Luftwaffe on Scapa Flow was imminent the majority of the fleet left Scapa Flow and over the next couple of days and were dispersed to other anchorages, most of them to Loch Ewe. ROYAL OAK was left in Scapa Flow as her anti-aircraft armament was deemed to be a useful addition to Scapa Flows inadequate air defences)

Meanwhile ROYAL OAK set about making good the damage sustained on her latest sortie, in which the stormy seas had caused structural damage and washed away many of her Carley floats.

Marine George Edward Myers, lost on HMS Royal Oak

14th – At 0104 hours a torpedo, one of a salvo of three, fired by U-47 struck ROYAL OAK on her starboard bow near the anchor chains. Many of the crew heard a muffled 'whump' but were unsure of what caused it many thought it to have been an internal explosion.

At 0116 hours as Captain W G Benn and Commander R L Woodrow-Clark were examining the damage caused by the first torpedo, ROYAL OAK was struck by two more torpedoes on her starboard side amidships from a salvo of three fired by U-47.

At 0121 hours John Gatt the skipper of the 100 ton grt drifter DAISY II, ROYAL OAK’s tender, tied up for the night on ROYAL OAK’s port side, saw an explosion that reached masthead height. This explosion was thought to have been caused by an explosion in a small arms magazine that ignited cordite charges.

At 0129 hours ROYAL OAK rolled over and sank, 833 men were lost over 100 of who were boy seamen, some died of exposure, some of injuries from the fires and explosions; others drowned or choked on the oil. Of the 420 chilled and oil-soaked survivors, 386 were picked by the DAISY II, including Captain Benn. This was an incredible feat for Skipper Gatt and his crew to get so many bodies on to a vessel which was 17 feet wide by 100 feet long. For his part in the rescue Skipper Gatt, although a civilian was awarded the DSC. Most of the remaining survivors were picked by boats from the PEGASUS and few managed to swim ashore.

Women gather in Portsmouth to scour the list of survivors from HMS Royal Oak

At 0200 hours the Admiral commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands signaled the Admiralty that the ROYAL OAK had been sunk in Scapa Flow by a series of explosions.

At 0330 hours the first destroyer to move following the attack, MASHONA, slipped from No. 8 buoy. This was almost an hour after U-47 had successfully exited Scapa flow. At 0400 hours DAISY II abandoned the search for survivors and took those she had picked up to the PEGASUS.

Marine Verdun Loos James Pierpoint with family

The survivors were interviewed and asked what they thought had caused the explosions and sinking. There were suggestions of sabotage and investigations centred on a number of oil drums that had been loaded onto the ROYAL OAK on the day before. Few if any of thought the sinking had been caused by torpedoes fired by a submarine.

15th – A local salvage diver was hired to dive on the wreck in an attempt to establish the cause of the sinking. During his two dives he first found the holes caused by the torpedoes; then he found the propellers from two German type G7e/2874 electric torpedoes. Thereby definitely establishing that a submarine had been responsible for the sinking.

Crewmen stand on the deck of U-47 as the submarine returns from a successful war patrol in 1939. Every member of the crew was decorated for the sinking of Royal Oak The sinking of U-47 has always been attributed to the British destroyer HMS Wolverine, U-47 failed to report back to headquarters after 7 March 1941.

17th – By this date the ROYAL OAK survivors had mostly been embarked on the accommodation ship VOLTAIRE, the uninjured, and the injured on the hospital ship SAINT ABBA.

At 1200 hours four Ju 88’s dived out of the sun and bombed the fleet units that were off the Lyness naval base in Scapa Flow. Their main target was the old battleship IRON DUKE that was being used as an accommodation ship but they also dropped bombs near the VOLTAIRE and SAINT ABBA. Small boats took the ROYAL OAK survivors embarked in VOLTAIRE to the island of Flotta in the middle of Scapa Flow. There, they were landed and told to scatter until after the [air raid.

The wreck of the Royal Oak, which was immediately declared a war grave, lies in position 58°55.847’N, 002°59.000’W where she is marked by a green wreck buoy. Oil from the ship still leaks slowly to the surface even to this day. The wreck is visited annually by Royal Navy divers who hang a huge battle ensign from her underwater stern in honour of the men who died on her in 1939. The huge ship is otherwise untouched and is lying upside down in 30 metres of water resting on her massive superstructure. The hull reaches to within 5 metres of the surface

Captain Benn of the ROYAL OAK protested to the Admiralty and requested that his men should be removed from the dangers at Scapa Flow. Following his protest, the men on Flotta and the remainder of ROYAL OAK survivors were taken to the mainland and sent south by rail. The SAINT ABBA, with the seriously injured men aboard, sailed during the early evening for Invergordon Naval Base where the men were transferred to the new Naval hospital. [2]

A Survivors Story

Extract of letter written by Corporal John J Coombes a few months after the event, recounting his own experience on the sinking of HMS ROYAL OAK at Scapa Flow:

I can talk about the Royal Oak affair (now very much out of the limelight) without getting all upset. At first I used to feel very miserable when I thought of the splendid men who I had lost, and it unsettled me a little. I make very few good friends, two of them went with her.

I was on watch, 12-4, and had just gone down to see the Keyboard Sentry. A sailor came along for the magazine keys and as he was signing the book we heard a very muffled explosion forward. All of the plates in the ship rang against each other and the whole ship shuddered. I told the sentry, who was scared, to stay on his post, and ran forward to the marines mess deck myself. One or two men were turning out of their hammocks, most stayed where they were. They thought, I guess, that it was a small collision or something, and did not want to have to get up in the middle of the night as they were not duty watch. I can understand it.

I went from there onto the quarter-deck, and for about a quarter of an hour people were coming and going, and an investigation was going on forward. I was sent to tell the drifter to get up steam. We just stood and wondered and talked. There was a faint smell of cordite, or something similar.

We were so keyed up that the second explosion, which was terrific, was not, in my experience at least, half so bad a shock as it might very easily have been. There was a flash, the whole ship was blown up, and debris shot up into the air. It was followed almost immediately by another and the ship straight away started to heel over. Dense flames swept right over the quarter deck, they almost choked one.

I could not keep my footing on the deck. She was heeling to starboard, so I ran to the port rail and hung on. Several men were either jumping into the drifter or over the boom into the picket boat. Part of the superstructure had crashed over and smashed the launch on the starboard side.

Cpl Coombes wrote a summary of his experience of the sinking of HMS ROYAL OAK in a letter written whilst at Arborfield Camp a few months after the sinking (pic of him and his trainee group at Arborfield attached, and also one of him before the War - he is the one closest to the tent door)

When the ship was nearly on her side I decided that she really was going to sink, and made up my mind when the starboard side of the quarterdeck went up (The marines mess deck below was just over the magazine) I climbed the rail and ran down the ship's side. Men were trying to scramble through the ports from inside. We could see the flames inside as we helped a few out.

We had hardly rescued any before she turned right over. I scrambled onto the keel, and jumped as far to port as I could. Thought 'I shall be dragged down'. I was drawn under, but not far, I kicked and struggled through arms and legs and got to the top again. (The depth was not great, and therefore the suction was not too bad. Some men say that the keel re-appeared, but I did not see it).

The sea was thick with heads. I swam to get away from them, and struck out on my own. I must have gone about 200 yards when I found a piece of wood, and held on to it. There were cries for help all around, the sound of engines, but I could see nothing. A sailor swam up from somewhere. I remember saying something about making our way to shore holding onto the wood. About 1 3/4 miles away were cliffs, the other way, low beach, about 4 miles away. We kicked out for low beach. We started out but gave up because of the cold! Whilst we were still kicking the drifter came near to us, we shouted but were not heard. A little later she passed again, going very slowly. We took a chance, left the wood, struck out for her and came up as she stopped to pick some men from off of a Carly raft.

It was devilish cold and we stayed for another two hours in the drifter until she was nearly full. By the time that they had taken us on board the Pegasus I had nearly given up the ghost. Three or four men died of exposure.

I heard all about the worst part, which I personally had not witnessed, from other men. The sheets of flame below which burned them in their hammocks, mess decks blowing up under their feet etc ...

Thats all.

Royal Marine Royal Oak Survivors AS Amor, AJ Wheatland and KJJ Wood

Corporal John J Coombes

(Survived the sinking of HMS ROYAL OAK but lost his life later in the war as a Sergeant during the evacuation of Crete) [3]

At 29,150 tons HMS Royal Oak was one of the largest ships sunk.

92 Royal Marines were killed, you can find their names and some background to individuals on the Royal Marines Roll of Honour & War Graves Database including that of Marine Verdun Pierpoint.

[3] HMS Royal Oak - (dedication site - Peter Rowlands)

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