The Royal Navy’s HMS Royal Oak was a Revenge-class battleship that saw action in World War I. But by 1939 Royal Oak was too cumbersome to engage in the new sort of flexible naval warfare that would no longer involve mighty battleships pounding each other in set-piece battles. Six weeks into World War II she lay in Scapa Flow, Britain’s great naval base in the Orkneys. It wasn’t a safe harbor. German submarine commander Karl Donitz was planning a daring raid that would exact revenge for the humiliating scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow in 1918, and also weaken Britain’s ability to protect Atlantic convoys.
His chosen weapon was U-47, commanded by Gunther Prien. On the moonless night of October 13 the submarine brazenly entered Scapa Flow on the surface, only to find the anchorage almost empty. Prudently, much of the fleet had been dispersed, though Royal Oak and a few others remained. At 00.58 U-47 fired a salvo of torpedoes at the unsuspecting battleship. One struck her bow six minutes later, causing the startled crew to think there had been an on-board explosion. Prien fired again, using his stem tube, and missed. But a second salvo from the bow tubes struck home, wreaking havoc. A fireball engulfed Royal Oak’s interior and she rolled onto her side before sinking at 01.29, just 13 minutes after the second attack.
Over 800 crew members perished on the stricken ship and in Scapa Flow’s icy waters.
The loss of Royal Oak had a seriously negative effect on morale, but at least the ease with which U-47 slipped in and out of Britain’s main naval base and sank a capital ship ensured that home sea defenses were immediately tightened, making any repeat of the disaster much less likely.
When: October 14 1939
Where: Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK
Death toll: 833 from the ship’s complement of 1,234 perished
You should know: Today, Royal Oak’s upturned hull lies just 5 m (16 ft) below the surface of Scapa Flow. The wreck is a designated war grave that may not be visited by divers, save those from the Royal Navy who go down each year on the anniversary of the sinking to place a White Ensign at her stem.