Royal Oak tragedy is remembered

Gently bobbing in the calm waters of Scapa Flow, these are 835 red carnations – one for each man lost at this spot exactly 80 years ago.

Capsized, torn, crumpled and slowly disintegrating in the cold, dark depths are the remains of HMS Royal Oak, the first British battleship sunk in World War 2.

Relatives made the pilgrimage to the former wartime anchorage of the Fleet, the huge natural harbour in Orkney to join islanders, dignitaries and today’s Royal Navy in paying their respects to 835 men and boys killed when the battleship was torpedoed.

Among today’s sailors were the crew of minehunter HMS Bangor, staff from the RN’s regional officer and Northern Diving Group, who perform the solemn duty of diving on the wreck each year to replace the White Ensign which is fixed to the battleship in tribute. With no survivors of the disaster left – the last man who experienced the sinking in the small hours of October 14 1939 passed away in 2016, it fell to relatives to pay their respects.

On Sunday morning, a service of remembrance was held at Kirkwall’s impressive St Magnus Cathedral, followed by a community ceremony at the HMS Royal Oak Memorial. There, members of the community and Royal Navy personnel placed 1,259 wooden poppies – one for each person who was on board in the small hours of Saturday October 14 1939 – in the ground, in advance of the anniversary on Monday, October 14.

For many years it was thought that 834 lives were lost in the tragedy however recent research has uncovered details of a crew member who died in hospital from burns two weeks after the tragedy. His name has now been added to the Book of Remembrance, bringing the total loss from the attack to 835.

Unlike battlefields, such as the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy, naval war graves are less accessible to most people and are more easily forgotten. Lying beneath the waves, it is difficult for current generations to imagine the significance of these sites and the scale of such a loss.

Lieutenant Jen Smith

That figure was reflected on the day of the anniversary when boats carrying descendants of the crew left Scapa pier for a further service of remembrance above Royal Oak’s wreck, with 835 red carnations cast into the flow in honour of those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

 

Over the past 12 months a team of volunteer divers have been granted a licence to inspect the wreck by the Secretary of State for Defence; the site is normally off limits except to navy divers.

 

The HMS Royal Oak Survey Team gathered new footage and imagery which were released as part of the 80th anniversary commemorations.

The images were gathered using the latest techniques to create 3D virtual reality models of the wreck – updating similar scans produced over a decade ago.

The aim is to help relatives of those lost – and the wider public – to picture the ship's final resting place.

Pictrures credit to: Marjo Tynkkynen, Kieran Hatton, Bob Anderson, Professor Chris Rowland & Kari Hyttinen