Wearside Echoes: The night the Royal Oak was felled

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SOUTHWICK sailor William Tate was fast asleep in his bunk when a U-boat torpedo struck HMS Royal Oak.

As the ship rolled over and scalding steam filled his cabin, the former pitman was forced to search blindly for an escape route.

Slowly, agonisingly, Billy squeezed his injured body through a tiny porthole and into the sea. Sadly, his heroic actions were to be of no avail.

The 23-year-old died just a few days later – burned almost beyond recognition. More than 800 of his crew members – including many Wearsiders – also perished.

“The sinking of HMS Royal Oak was the first great tragedy of the Second World War,” said David Turner, author of Last Dawn, a book detailing the incident.

“It was also the greatest loss of boy life in living Naval history. More than 120 boys, some aged just 14, died when the Royal Oak was torpedoed that night.”

Royal Oak had seen action at the Battle of Jutland during World War One and, as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, officials proposed she should be scrapped.

Once war with Germany became almost a certainty, however, the battleship was given a stay of execution – and sent with the Home Fleet to Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands.

“After the outbreak of war, German reconnaissance aircraft took photographs over Scapa Flow of British ships at anchor,” said David, whose book has been made into a TV film.

“These were passed to Kommodore Karl Donitz, commodore of the Unterseeboote arm of the Kriegsmarine, who decided that a U-boat could attack the British fleet base.”

Official documents dating from the First World War reveal how two U-boats attempted to penetrate the deep, almost landlocked basin. Neither was to make it back to Germany.

Donitz, however, believed all he needed was the right man to navigate his way past the three sunken ships blocking the entrance. That man was Kapitan-leutnant Gunther Prien.

“Prien was his best U-boat Kapitan, and he almost failed. It took him nearly six hours – at one point they were hopelessly ensnared in a cable from one of the block ships,” said David.

“But, on the night of October 13, 1939, U-47 penetrated the line of block ships in Kirk Sound and found the old battleship Royal Oak lying at anchor before it.”

The first trio of torpedoes fired failed to do any damage. Indeed, only one managed to find its mark – but apparently struck an anchor chain or failed to detonate fully.

Prien’s second attack, however, proved deadly. This time there was a loud explosion and Royal Oak rolled over and sank within minutes.

A survivor later reported that one torpedo had struck the starboard side, while another started a fire in the magazine. A third blew a huge hole in the engine room.

“By 1.30am on November 14, 1939, all there was to be seen of Royal Oak was fuel oil and men desperately fighting for their lives,” said David. “More than 830 men died with her.

“It has been said that she was destroyed by a colossal explosion, but Admiralty records show only that the ship capsized and sank after heavy flooding amidships.

“The loss off 24 officers and 809 men was much greater than it need have been, because the ship’s company had not yet become accustomed to war routine.”

Indeed, the ship had been acutely vulnerable to attack. No procedures had even been put in place to ensure that watertight doors and hatches were kept secured at night.

“The skill of Prien and his U-47 in penetrating a base that had been thought to be impregnable shook the confidence of the Admiralty,” said David.

A rescue operation was launched by the Royal Navy within hours of the tragedy, with nets thrown over the wreck of the Royal Oak to “catch any floating bodies.”

Divers were also sent to inspect the remains. Many returned with horrific tales of dead sailors trapped in cabins, or jammed in portholes as they tried to escape the wreck.

In the meantime, U-47 slipped quietly out of Scapa Flow and headed home, reaching Wilhelmshaven on October 17 at 11.44am – where the crew received a heroes’ welcome.

“They were flown to Berlin, where Prien was awarded the Knight’s Cross – Germany’s highest honour – and the whole crew took lunch with Hitler,” said David.

U-47 went on to sink more than 30 Allied ships under Prien’s command. The submarine went missing, however, in March 1941, and is thought to have been sunk off the coast of Ireland.

To date, there is no official record of what happened to U-47, or her 45 sailors. Indeed, Germany kept Prien’s death a secret for weeks – as he was seen as a hero by so many.

“The attack on Royal Oak infuriated Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who ordered the construction of barriers at Scarpa Flow,” said David.

“The Churchill Barriers, as they were named, were sufficiently high in 1942 to prevent any repetition of the Royal Oak incident – and completed in 1944.”

David himself has vivid memories of the events at Scapa Flow, as his mother’s brother, Ralph Lennox Woodrow-Clark, died in the tragedy. Arriving home from school on the evening of October 14, nine-year-old David found his mother in floods of tears. News of the sinking had just been announced on the radio.

Ralph, the youngest battleship commander in the Royal Navy at the time, was laid to rest in Lyness Royal Navy Cemetery on Hoy – the only officer to be buried on land.

“My mother lived to be 96, but always missed him. It was one of her dying wishes that she could be buried at the foot of her brother’s grave,” said David.

“This we managed to arrange, due to my uncle’s rank and the fact my mother had worked for the Admiralty as a decoding officer at Bletchley Park during the war.

“As far as I’m aware, she is the only civilian to be buried within a military graveyard. Fulfilling that last wish should have been impossible, but we managed it.”