Prien's Brilliant Success
|Men lined up on other ships to salute the crew of U-47 as it entered port after sinking HMS Royal Oak.|
Events at the beginning of World War Two often get short shrift because of all the dramatic and decisive events that took place later. There is a tendency to think of the fall of 1939 as the story of Hitler conquering Poland and planning his next moves. However, one of the great heroic actions and tragedies took place in an unlikely place: northern Scotland. This was the sinking on 14 October 1939 by U-47 Captain Günther Prien of British battleship HMS Royal Oak.
|Günther Prien immediately after his entry to Wilhelmshaven following the sinking of the Royal Oak (Photo courtesy of Vladimir Tarnovski).|
Günther Prien was an experienced U-boat captain (Kapitänleutnant (Captain lieutenant) as of February 1939) at the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939. He had joined the Reichsmarine (later Kriegsmarine) in 1933, served on a light cruiser, then attended U-boat training school at Kiel. While Germany was not at war in the mid-1930s, it did support Francisco Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War. Prien served on two patrols during that conflict, which enabled him to establish a reputation that made him commander of U-47 in December 1938. Both the benefits and limitations of the Kriegsmarine's experience during the Spanish Civil War would become apparent during Prien's attack on the Royal Oak.
The Royal Oak was a Revenge-class battleship of 31,130 long tons, 29,150 short tons, launched on 17 November 1914 and commissioned on 1 May 1916. It was brand new during the World War I Battle of Jutland, firing her main guns and scoring some hits on SMS Derfflinger and Wiesbaden. That apparently was the only time Royal Oak ever fired its guns in anger. After that, Royal Oak became part of the Royal Navy's permanent fleet. It developed a reputation as an unhappy ship due to various feuds among the ship's top officers.
More significantly, despite refits, Royal Oak gradually became obsolete despite retaining an important role within the Royal Navy. Its eight 15-inch (381 mm) guns remained formidable, but its top speed of 22 knots and overall old design drastically reduced its usefulness. However, despite subsequent British attempts to minimize the significance of its loss by implying that it was basically a derelict, Royal Oak remained an active ship and on 14 October 1939 had just returned from a fruitless search for German raider Gneisenau. In addition, Royal Oak's very presence at Scapa Flow that night attested to her usefulness. Royal Oak had remained at anchor while the rest of the fleet was dispersed due to fear of air attack, the thinking being that Royal Oak's anti-aircraft armament could help defend Scapa Flow.
|Royal Oak operating with the 1st Battle Squadron in the 1920s.|
Kriegsmarine Commander of Submarines (Befehlshaber der U-Boote) Karl Dönitz was a daring commander who maintained a close bond with his sailors and personally directed operations. He knew that the Royal Navy's control of the North Sea and the outlets to the Atlantic was a major problem for German raiders, so Dönitz had Siegfried Knemeyer of the Rowehl Reconnaissance Group make a hazardous overflight of the Royal Navy's main fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. Knemeyer barely made it back alive after being chased off by two Supermarine Spitfires (earning him the Iron Cross). Dönitz noticed that the Royal Navy hadn't adequately blocked some of the seven channel entrances to Scapa Flow, so he tasked Prien, who already had sunk three British freighters during his first patrol, with making a daring raid on the heavily fortified British base.
|Admiral Doenitz with Adolf Hitler later in the war. Doenitz was the brains behind the attack by U-47 on HMS Royal Oak (Federal Archive).|
The plan devised by Doenitz, Special Plan P, was for Prien to enter Scapa Flow - which is 140 square miles of open water almost entirely surrounded by land - via Kirk Sound. Dönitz had noticed a small passage north of Lamb Holm Island between Burray and the mainland that appeared to offer an opening. Although blockships Seriano and Numidian had been sunk there, a 140-foot gap between them and the mainland offered a possible entrance. Prien would have to proceed on the surface, avoid any underwater entanglements, and hope that there was nobody onshore watching. To say that this was risky was an understatement, as a single pair of human eyes anywhere along the shore would lead to certain death or capture for the entire U-boat crew.
|HMS Revenge, the lead ship of the class, and Royal Oak behind it.|
The Royal Navy already was the only branch of the British military committed to action in October 1939 (aside from sporadic bombing raids by the Royal Air Force), but it had not yet reached full wartime preparedness. The reputation of the Royal Navy was unchallenged, but that cut both ways. A certain assuredness of the impregnability of Scapa Flow infected everyone, from the lowliest swabbie to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Admiral Sir Wilfred French had just been placed in command of the Orkney and Shetland Isles in early October and already had requested increased air patrols. To assuage French's concerns, several blockships were being sent to further close off the entrances to Scapa Flow, but two already had been sunk by U-boats and a third was still a day's sail away. Inside the harbor, life went on as normal, with the only concern being Luftwaffe attacks. Everyone was confident in Scapa Flow's gun batteries, net barriers, minefields, and patrol craft.
Prien left Kiel on 8 October 1939 and by 13 October 1939 was lying on the seabed to the east of the Orkneys at about 90 meters. After giving the crew a hot meal and preparing for action, he surfaced as darkness approached and headed west. There was a bright aurora borealis, but navigating was tough. Prien first attempted entry through Skerry Sound, south of his preferred route, but that way was blocked. After turning to the northeast, Prien found his passage, Kirk Sound. It was only 33 feet deep at high tide and 600 yards across, with heavy currents. Prien proceeded through on the surface, easily visible to anyone on shore - but there were no guards and no searchlights. A taxi did drive by and illuminate the submarine with its headlight (one headlight was permitted under the blackout), but nothing came of that. After temporarily grounding on a cable trailing from the Seriano, U-47 made it into the harbor at 00:27 and Prien wrote in his log, "Wir sind in Scapa Flow!!!"
|Royal Oak returning the body of Queen Maud to Norway in November 1938.|
The Attack on Royal OakA U-boat getting into Scapa Flow, for the first time in two World Wars, was a brilliant achievement. However, the real work remained to be done. Scapa Flow is immense and could take hours to investigate. Aerial reconnaissance had indicated a concentration of ships to the southwest, but when Prien headed there, they were gone (pursuant to Admiral of the Home Fleet Charles Forbes' fortuitous order to disperse). Still, there were some warships in that direction anchored off the towns of Flotta and Hoy, including light cruiser Belfast, but Prien didn't see them. So, Prien reversed course to the northeast. Things weren't turning out quite as planned, but it was still early in the night.
|The movements of U-47 on 14 October 1939.|
However, then one of Prien's lookouts spotted Royal Oak looming in the darkness about 4400 yards (4000 meters) to the north. Behind it, mostly hidden, was obsolete seaplane tender Pegasus. Royal Oak had only anchored there on 11 October 1939 after completing an abortive mission in the North Sea. Relieved at finding a worthy target, Prien ordered a four-torpedo spread from his position at 3500 yards. One tin fish lodged in the tube, but three made it out. Here, the limitations of the Kriegsmarine's Spanish Civil War experience came into play, as the U-boats had little experience actually using torpedoes. Two of the torpedoes misfired - perhaps running low, or simply going off course. The only one that hit Royal Oak struck the bows at 01:04, severing the starboard anchor chain. It is unclear if this would have been enough to sink the ship, but even old battleships were well-constructed and Royal Oak probably would have survived. Prien, anticipating a massive response from harbor defenses, turned and headed away.
|An example of 105 mm ammunition stored on the German battleship Tirpitz.|
The explosion aboard Royal Oak woke everybody up, but for most of the sailors it was far away and explainable if one tried hard enough. Nobody in a position of authority seems to have suspected an enemy attack. Random explosions aboard battleships were hardly routine, but they were not unheard of, either. Ammunition in those days required cool temperatures, and temperature surges could set off cordite charges in the magazines without any enemy help. An announcement was made over the ship's loudspeakers to check the magazine temperatures, a sure sign to ordinary sailors that this was as routine as an explosion could be. Hearing the ship's announcement, many went back to bed, assuming that the problem had been identified and somebody else was looking after it. Time enough in the morning to look after things.
On U-47, meanwhile, Prien was astonished that the entire harbor hadn't come alive with searchlights and patrol boats despite torpedoing a battleship. Collecting himself, he decided to attack again to finish off the ship (whose name he did not know). Prien fired one torpedo from his stern tube, but it also missed (it may have hit the stern anchor chain). Frustrated, Prien first sailed away, but then had second thoughts and threw caution to the winds. He returned to approach the target to within 3000 yards, virtually point-blank range against a large stationary target. Having reloaded the three undamaged forward tubes, the U-47 crew fired three more torpedoes at Royal Oak. All three torpedoes struck amidships in quick succession at 01:16 just as men awakened by the earlier attack were getting back to sleep. The torpedoes ignited a magazine, a standard cause of large warships sinking during the war. This explosion sealed the battleship's fate.
Aboard Royal Oak, there was no mistaking what was happening now. The ship immediately developed a list to starboard which only got worse with every passing minute. The torpedoes caused a loss of electrical power, and the cordite charges in the ammo room created a fireball which literally burnt the skin clear off anyone in the vicinity. The ship's quickly growing list pushed the open starboard portholes underwater, adding to the water intake and the speed of the roll. The ship capsized and sank within 13 minutes of the second attack, sliding under the water at 01:29.
|Daisy II saved hundreds of men from the Royal Oak.|
The men and boys on board Royal Oak had no time to react, and there were no lights to guide the way topside. If you've ever been in an unlit maze, that was about the size of it for anyone trying to stay alive. Some of the boys literally squeezed themselves out through portholes, an option not available to the men trapped with them. Once on the deck, those who made it faced a situation where the ship was rapidly rolling over and a decision had to be made. There were two choices - jump in the direction of the roll and face the possibility that the ship would roll over on you before you could swim clear, or jump in the opposite direction and possibly land on the barnacle-encrusted keel (barnacles are sharp) as it swung upward. The water was full of oil, and there were no lights anywhere. Royal Oak's portside pinnace made it away, but quickly got overloaded and itself capsized about 300 meters from the sinking battleship. The Admiral's launch went down with the ship. Tender Daisy 2, a former fishing boat, was tied to Royal Oak's port side and could have been taken down with Royal Oak. However, skipper John Gatt reacted with lightning speed, cut his line, and got clear before the Royal Oak's massive keel hit his boat.
|John Gatt, DSC, and some of the crew of the Daisy II.|
The men in the water were scantily clad and had nowhere to go. There were the usual flotsam and jetsam that some clung to before they froze to death - better to keep moving even if it meant possibly drowning. The shore was tantalizingly close, but further than it looked. Very few made it. The men persevered, and one even began to sing "Roll Out the Barrel" as the ship rolled over. That is what you do at a time like that, and perhaps you won't understand until you face it. Daisy 2 went around with crewmen standing on the gunwales plucking half-dead survivors from the oily water - "Here's another one" - and the boat with its plucky crew was responsible for saving almost all of the survivors. Some of the men spent literally hours struggling in the frigid water, but many who survived the sinking itself died from exposure. Icy water isn't just deadly, it's painful and numbing and disorienting. Every minute reduced your chances of survival, and there were reports of some saying "Oh, screw it" or words to that effect after a while and giving up. Royal Oak's commander, Captain William Benn, survived, but most of his men did not, including the squadron admiral. John Gatt received the Distinguished Service Cross for his rescue efforts, the only military award made by the Royal Navy in connection with the sinking.
|U-47 enters Wilhelmshaven to acclaim.|
Guenther Prien, meanwhile, headed out of Scapa Flow the way he had entered without incident, taking a slightly different route around the block ships - proving there as more than one way in and out. The British took some time to figure out that it had been a U-boat attack, first considering things like internal explosions and air attack. After all, Scapa Flow was impregnable so it couldn't be a submarine, right? When they did realize the situation, the admirals sent patrol boats on heavy depth charge attacks against an empty harbor. The Royal Navy accomplished exactly nothing in retaliation, the bird had flown. Within hours, Prien was in complete safety and on his way to a triumphant welcome at Wilhelmshaven.
|The memorial to Royal Oak at St. Magnus.|
The Aftermath of the Royal Oak SinkingWhen the final counting of the Royal Oak tragedy was complete, there were 420 survivors and 833 dead. It's an interesting ratio, that 1/3 ratio of survivors, similar to the Titanic and many other tragedies at sea where some means of inadequate rescue is available (else all will drown). An astonishing 126 of the dead were boy sailors of ages 15 and 16, out of a total ship's complement of 1234 men. Winston Churchill knew that he could not keep the loss quiet (as he was able to do successfully with some later sinkings) because there were too many witnesses both on land and at sea. So, a few days later, on 17 October 1939, Churchill announced the sinking to Parliament and the world (naturally, German propaganda already was blaring the triumphant news and everyone knew something was up). This was the same day that Prien arrived at Wilhelmshaven, greeted by the crews of other ships lined up on their decks in honor of the war's first true hero. There has never been a more triumphant port entry than U-47 received.
|Prien also may have destroyed 1912 battleship HMS Iron Duke on 14 October 1941. The British, though, ascribed its damage to Luftwaffe attack.|
However, Churchill may in a sense have had the last laugh, and not just because he won the war. There is evidence that Prien also torpedoed another large vessel on 14 October 1939, the 1912 battleship HMS Iron Duke. Immediately upon returning to Germany, Prien claimed to have torpedoed a second large ship. Luftwaffe reconnaissance indeed spotted Iron Duke, the Atlantic Fleet flagship, beached in Scapa Flow a few days later with a large hole in its bows. That's pretty solid evidence. Churchill never admitted to a connection between Royal Oak's loss and Iron Duke, and thus Prien's claim was quickly forgotten because an undisputed massive victory is better than a disputed larger victory. The loss of Iron Duke around the same time was attributed by the Royal Navy to a random Luftwaffe attack, a handy catch-all excuse which deprived it of all sensationalism. Look it up, see if you can find any hard details on this "Luftwaffe attack." The thing is, the Luftwaffe never claimed to have hit Iron Duke - and any pilot who hit a battleship was sure to have sought credit. So, Churchill may have gotten away with part of his plan to minimize a catastrophic night while costing Prien some additional prestige and depriving Hitler of an even larger moral victory. Have you ever heard of Iron Duke? Probably not, and that's exactly the point. Depriving the Germans of this propaganda coup would have been a typical Churchillian move, and he would have secretly chuckled about it for a long time.
|Winston Churchill had some bad moments during World War II, and the sinking of the Royal Oak was one of the worst.|
Churchill desperately tried to downplay the sinking of Royal Oak, telling Parliament that the incident would not materially affect the balance of power in the North Sea. In addition, he made caustic comments about the capabilities of the Royal Oak, as if that somehow mitigated the loss of 800 men and boys in the best-protected anchorage (supposedly) in the world. However, aside from everything else, an Admiralty Board of Enquiry ascertained that the Royal Oak had on board 162 young boys, a fact that Churchill had great difficulty explaining in the House. Ultimately, boys henceforth were forbidden on warships except under exceptional circumstances - against Churchill's protests that this was necessary to train future leaders. The Board of Enquiry did not stop there, though. It also found numerous flaws in Scapa Flow's defenses. Naturally, Churchill leaped to correct these, and the channel through which U-47 had entered was sealed forever with a stone causeway (which still exists). Admiral French became the scapegoat and was sacked, being placed on the retired list despite being the only one before the attack to raise a ruckus about Scapa Flow's vulnerabilities. Churchill, of course, was beyond reproach.
|Hitler dines with Prien and the crew of U-47 in Berlin. Note that the sailors are wearing their shiny new medals.|
In Berlin, Hitler was ecstatic at Prien's daring success. The loss of a British battleship, even an old one, would make an eventual invasion of England that much easier. It also would make the exit of German raiders into the Atlantic less risky, and Hitler had some plans in that regard. Hitler sent his personal plane and pilot to bring the entire U-47 crew to Berlin immediately. Prien became the first major propaganda hero of the war for the Reich, or for anyone for that matter, and he received the Iron Cross First Class upon arrival in port while his crew all received the Iron Cross Second Class. Upon meeting Hitler, Prien was further awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, the first such award to a U-boat commander and quite an honor at this early stage of the war. Dönitz received a promotion from Commodore to Rear Admiral and became the flag officer for the entire U-boat fleet, a position he was a born to fill.
|The ghostly remnants of Royal Oak in Scapa Flow.|
Prien went on to become one of the top U-boat aces of the war, renowned for his daring surface attacks in the middle of convoys. However, Prien perished under murky circumstances 15 months after his success with the Royal Oak during an attack on a North Atlantic convoy. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Prien left behind a spurious account of the attack on the Royal Oak which was written by a ghostwriter and was intended solely as an inspirational tale for young boys, not as a true historical account. As for Captain Benn of the Royal Oak, he quickly took command of light cruiser Fiji for a year, then pushed papers for a while and retired honorably in 1946. You only need one scapegoat in such a tragedy, not two.
The Royal Oak today lies in shallow water at a depth of about 100 feet (33 meters), with the upturned hull sometimes reaching to within fifteen feet (5 meters) of the surface. There is a memorial at St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall which includes the ship's bell, only recovered decades later, and every year Royal Navy divers hoist a flag over the submerged wreck. The wreck is a war grave, though recreational divers descended upon Royal Oak and stripped it of artifacts for many years (some have since been recovered). Those few bodies that were found (many remained in the wreck) were interred at the naval cemetery in Lyness. Oil continued to leak from Royal Oak's tanks regularly for almost 70 years, though the balance has been removed at great effort (some still occasionally leaks out).
The Royal Oak's demise is downplayed in histories because it was a great embarrassment to the Royal Navy and the Allied war effort. However, the boys and men who died on Royal Oak deserve to be remembered just as much as those who died on Normandy Beach and at Guadalcanal. You can't give more than your life in service to your country, and that's what 833 boys and men did on the Royal Oak. The sinking of the Royal Oak remains a painful memory for the families of the men and a high point in the annals of the Kriegsmarine, but overall it was just sad all the way around.
|Royal Oak's final resting place is marked by a green buoy with a commemorative plaque.|