Friday, 18 October 2013

Scapa Flow, HMS Royal Oak and Gunther Prien

HMS Royal Oak (Crown Copyright)
On the outbreak of war in 1939, the Royal Navy's Home Fleet had returned to it's northernmost wartime base of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, from whence the immense Grand Fleet had sailed for the Battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland and where the German High Seas Fleet had ignominiously surrendered in 1918, as well as being the scene of the 'Grand Scuttle' in 1919, when the officers of the Imperial German Navy destroyed their own ships rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the victorious Allies.

Scapa Flow had been selected to serve once again due to it's distance from German airbases but in the intervening years following the end of the Great War, it's defences had been allowed to fall into disrepair; the anti-aircraft defences were inadequate and the blockships sunken during the 1914-18 conflict had largely collapsed through corrosion. Anti submarine nets had been installed across the three main entrances to the naval base but in the early days of the war, these only consisted of single stranded wires and at this stage of the war, there was a distinct lack of anti-submarine patrols by destroyers and smaller craft. Measures were being put in place to rectify these shortcomings but on 14th October 1939, the base was still largely in it's pre-war state of preparedness. 

Two days earlier, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had made an uncharacteristically tough talking speech in which he had rejected Hitler's peace proposals made to the Reichstag six days previously. The German reply was an audacious attempt to hit the Royal Navy hard on it's own doorstep and the man chosen to lead this attack was 31 year old Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien, a former Merchant Navy office but now one of the rising stars of Donitz's U-Boat fleet. In January 1932, Prien had passed his Master Mariner's examination but had subsequently been unable to find employment and frustrated at this situation had briefly joined the Nazi Party. However, a year later Prien applied to join the Reichsmarine and was forced to renounce his Nazi membership as the Navy would not accept members of political parties. Prien quickly rose through the ranks of the embryonic Kriegsmarine, as the German Navy had by now become and in December 1938, he was appointed to the command of the new submarine U-47 and promoted to the rank of Kapitanleutnant.

Gunther Prien (Bundesarchiv)
Prien had been personally selected by Admiral Donitz to undertake this daring mission as he had proved to be one of the most determined of all of the new breed of U-Boat commanders. Despite the fact that the defences had been allowed to run down over the years, the British countermeasures were still formidable and apart from the blockships and anti-submarine nets, there were also extensive minefields but German air reconnaissance had revealed the possibility of a narrow channel between the blockships in Holm Sound that could possibly be negotiated by a U-Boat on the surface at the turn of the tide. This was a hugely risky undertaking and would need all of Prien's determination and daring in order to make it a success.

On the evening of 13th October 1939, the majority of the British Home Fleet was not actually at Scapa Flow; following a fruitless search for the German battlecruiser Gneisnau, the fleet had returned to Scapa on 12th October but a sighting of a German reconnaissance aircraft had convinced the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet, Sir Charles Forbes that an air attack was imminent and he therefore ordered the bulk of the Home Fleet to disperse to other ports on the west coast, out of range of German bombers. However, one battleship remained behind; HMS Royal Oak, a 25 year old veteran of the Great War.

HMS Royal Oak had been built at Devonport Dockyard and commisioned just in time for the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Never the fastest of ships, Royal Oak and her four sister ships were obsolete by 1939 and in the normal course of events would have been replaced by the new Lion class then under construction by 1942. However, the outbreak of war changed all that and Royal Oak had to carry on despite her lack of speed and a modern anti aircraft armament. This lack of speed was the main reason why she was still at Scapa Flow on this fateful night; nominally capable of 21 knots, the hunt for the Gneisnau had proved that she was not even capable of achieving this modest speed. She had lagged behind the faster units of the Home Fleet and had suffered in the heavy weather encountered, having several of her boats and liferafts smashed by the huge seas. Whilst the remainder of the Home Fleet's battleships had been dispersed elsewhere, Royal Oak remained behind to lick her wounds and to augment the anti aircraft defences ashore should the expected German air raid materialise.

Back on the U-47, Prien surfaced his boat late on the evening of 13th October and in a textbook manoeuvre, guided his submarine through the narrow channel, which was there just as the intelligence photographs had suggested. Apart from his skill in manoeuvring his vessel through the narrow channel, luck was also with Prien, because if he had attempted this entry just twenty four hours later, he would have found the channel blocked by a new blockship which was en route even then. As it was, shortly after midnight in the early hours of the 14th October, Prien had entered Scapa Flow. Shortly after this, one of the bridge lookouts identified "two battleships lying at anchor." Prien correctly identified the nearest vessel as being one of the Revenge Class, whilst the furthest ship he mistook as being a battlecruiser of the Repulse class, which was in fact a seaplane carrier, HMS Pegasus. At 0058, Prien fired a salvo of three torpedoes, two of which failed to find a target, with the other one striking the anchor cable of Royal Oak. On board the battleship, it was thought that perhaps there had been some sort of internal explosion and orders were given to inspect ammunition magazines for overheating and the forward paint store, in case of an explosion there. Many of the ship's complement returned to their hammocks, unaware that their ship was in fact, under attack. Undeterred by this initial failure, Prien fired a salvo from his stern torpedo tubes, all of which missed their target. By this time, three of the bow tubes had been reloaded and this time, the salvo of three torpedoes all found their mark. Massive internal explosions rent the stricken battleship and at 01:29, just thirteen minutes after Prien's successful strike, Royal Oak rolled over and sank, taking with her 833 officers and men, including over one hundred boy seamen below the age of eighteen. At this time, the Royal Navy was still persisting with the practice of taking boy seamen between the ages of fifteen to seventeen to sea on it's warships, a practice which abrubtly ceased in wartime with the loss of the Royal Oak.

Capt WG Benn RN (Unit Histories)
Heroic efforts by the tender Daisy 2, moored alongside Royal Oak for the night and usually used for ferrying men to and from the battleship, ensured that some 386 survivors were pulled from the water, including Captain William Benn, the battleship's commanding officer. Rear Admiral Henry Blagrove, commander of the Second Battle Squadron was not so fortunate and went down with his flagship. For his rescue efforts, the skipper of Daisy 2, John Gatt RNR was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Apart from the terrible loss of life, the loss of an obsolete battleship was not a huge material blow for the Royal Navy but the fact that a German U-Boat had managed to enter the Home Fleet's main base was a massive humiliation for the Royal Navy and was a shocking revelation to the British public of the vulnerability of one of their principal naval bases.

Following the attack, Prien managed to extricate U-47 relatively easily in the confusion of the old battleship's sinking and the rescue efforts for the survivors. He returned to Wilhelmshaven on October 17th to a hero's welcome, being met by Admirals Raeder and Donitz, who immediately awarded the Iron Cross First Class to Prien and the Iron Cross Second Class to every other crew member. As can be imagined, much was made of the triumph by Dr Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, which whisked Prien and his crew off to Berlin, for a motorcade from Templehof Airport, a meeting with Adolf Hitler and a stay at the prestigious Kaiserhof Hotel. During his meeting with the Fuhrer, Prien was presented with a new award, the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, or the Ritterkreuz as the U-Boat crews immediately dubbed it.

Following this devastating attack on the Royal Navy's prestige, Scapa Flow was temporarily abandoned as an operational base whilst urgent upgrades were made to the defences; new blockships were hurriedly installed and the channel that Prien had used to enter the flow was permanently blocked with a causeway carrying a road, which was built largely by Italian prisoners of war. Although the base was quickly brought back into use, some of these new defences were ironically not completed until after VE Day and the base itself was closed in 1956.
Captain William Benn was later appointed to command the new cruiser HMS Fiji, before being promoted to Rear Admiral and ending the war as Director of Navigation at the Royal Navy's Hydrographic Department. He retired in 1946 and passed away in 1962, aged 73.

Gunther Prien was nicknamed 'The Bull of Scapa Flow' and continued in command of U-47 and during his career, in addition to the Royal Oak, sank thirty merchant ships totalling 162,769 gross register tons, including the notorious sinking of the troopship Arandora Star described in the July 2010 edition of this blog in which some 713 German and Italian POWs being transported to Canada were lost.

HMS Wolverine (Naval
Prien's career ended abruptly on 7th March 1941, when U-47 formed part of a Wolf Pack attacking Convoy OB203. Prien, by now promoted to the rank of Korvettenkapitan, was attempting to attack the convoy on the surface. Spotted by the destroyer HMS Wolverine, Prien managed to crash dive just as the destroyer dropped a full pattern of depth charges. Working in tandem with another escort, HMS Verity, Commander JM Rowlands in the Wolverine attacked U-47 for over five hours. The two destroyers maintained this relentless attack despite Prien's best efforts to evade them, until finally an oil slick came to the surface and at 0500 the ASDIC operator on HMS Wolverine reported loud clattering sounds. Twenty minutes later, Prien surfaced again and attempted to creep away on the surface but had to crash dive when he saw the British destroyer preparing to ram. This time, the full depth charge pattern resulted in a massive underwater explosion and a dull red glow beneath the surface.

The end had come for The Bull of Scapa Flow.
Printed Sources:
Battleship at War - Cdr BR Coward RN, Ian Allan 1987
Battleships of World War 1 - Anthony Preston, Arms & Armour Press 1972
Engage The Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991
Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters 1939-1942 - Clay Blair, Cassell 2000
The Battle of the Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977