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.|
BackgroundEvents 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).|
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.
|Royal Oak operating with the 1st Battle Squadron in the 1920s.|
The SituationKriegsmarine 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 different 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).|
|HMS Revenge, the lead ship of the class, and Royal Oak behind it.|
|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.|
|An example of 105 mm ammunition stored on the German battleship Tirpitz.|
|Daisy II saved hundreds of men from the Royal Oak.|
|John Gatt, DSC, and some of the crew of the Daisy II.|
|U-47 enters Wilhelmshaven to acclaim.|
|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 a Luftwaffe attack.|
|Winston Churchill had some bad moments during World War II, and the sinking of the Royal Oak was one of the worst.|
|Hitler dines with Prien and the crew of U-47 in Berlin. Note that the sailors are wearing their shiny new medals.|
|The ghostly remnants of Royal Oak in Scapa Flow.|
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.|