Princess Royal unveils WW2 memorial in Portsmouth

The Princess Royal led 80th anniversary tributes to hundreds of sailors killed in the greatest tragedy to rock the Navy – and Portsmouth – in the first months of World War 2.

She joined 150 descendants and relatives of the 1,259 men and boys who were aboard battleship HMS Royal Oak on the night of October 14 1939 for a memorial service.

The warship – veteran of the Battle of Jutland a generation earlier – was at anchor in Scapa Flow in Orkney, the principal wartime base of the Royal Navy, when she was torpedoed by a German submarine.

U47 skilfully negotiated the blockships and defences at Scapa to reach the Fleet’s anchorage, where its commander Günther Prien took aim at the first major target he sighted.

After being hit by one torpedo which caused relatively little damage but woke the crew, Royal Oak was then struck by three more simultaneously as Prien made a second attack.

The results were horrific. Three messes – stokers’ boys’ and Royal Marines’ – were vapourised in an instant. Explosive cordite charges ignited sending jets of flame roaring through the battleship’s passageways. And the list caused by the holes blasted in the hull rapidly worsened as water poured through open portholes.

Royal Oak sank in 13 minutes, taking with her 834 souls, including more than 100 boys aged under 18 – a tragedy in itself and one which would mostly lead to the end in sending boys to sea on active service.

The association is immensely grateful to Her Royal Highness for sharing the occasion with its members – and spending time with them to hear their stories after the annual memorial service.

Mike Browning

The last survivor of the tragedy died in December 2016, but the ship’s memory is kept alive both in Orkney, where there are memorials to the ship, and Portsmouth – where the battleship was based pre-war.

HMS Royal Oak Association holds an annual service of remembrance at St Ann’s Church in Portsmouth Naval Base.

There was added poignancy to the 80th anniversary commemoration with the unveiling of a new memorial stone by Princess Anne and her husband Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, and its dedication by Royal Naval Reserve chaplain Rev Adam Gay.

He told those gathered in the historic church that the new memorial “is a reminder to us of those who have died, but it also compels us to look forward; to honour those who died by seeking to build a better future – to ensure that the courage and sacrifice of others will never have been in vain.”

After the service, the Princess Royal chatted with relatives and was shown underwater imagery captured by divers over the past 12 months as part of the Royal Oak 80 initiative to produce a comprehensive 21st Century survey of the wreck.

She then moved on to Whale Island to meet the Royal Navy divers who plunge into Scapa Flow each year to inspect the wreck and replace the White Ensign which ‘flies’ on the upturned hull.

“There was a very special commemoration for 150 members of the Royal Oak Association gathered in the church to see the Princess Royal unveil the first permanent memorial in the ship’s home port,” said Mike Browning, the association’s honorary chaplain.