Scapa Flow, Northern Coast of Scotland, Orkney Islands October 14, 1939

Illuminated only by the northern lights (aurora borealis) early on this date in 1939, barely six weeks into World War II in Europe, a German Type VIIB diesel-electric sub­marine under the com­mand of Kapitaen­leutnant (Captain Lieu­ten­ant) Guenther Prien infil­trated the defenses of Scapa Flow, the newly reacti­vated main anchor­age for the British Home Fleet in Scot­land’s Orkney Islands. Sliding quietly on the sur­face of the water, Prien was struck by how few capital ships were at anchor. (The Home Fleet had recently been dispersed.) However, sil­hou­etted against the northern lights the elderly (1916–1917) 30,450-ton battle­ship HMS Royal Oak had been spotted by a look­out on the sub’s bridge. The 620-ft-long battle­wagon, just arrived at Scapa Flow after being battered by fierce North Atlan­tic storms, and con­sidered unfit for modern com­bat, had been pressed into service as an antiaircraft gun platform.

Prien angled his weapon at the backlit big ship. After firing a three-torpedo spread that caused little damage to the Royal Oak’s starboard bow (Prien believed all torpedoes had missed their target), U‑47 reluc­tantly turned to make its escape. At that moment Prien realized he was in no imme­di­ate danger from patrol­ling British vessels or land-based artil­lery, so he swung his sub­marine around for another attack. His second array of three torpedoes blew three holes amid­ships, in the Royal Oak’s engine room and a magazine room, where a fire soon raged out of control and hurled metal every­where. Inside 13 minutes the ven­er­a­ble battle­ship had heeled over and slipped beneath the oil-slick sur­face. Of 1,234 sailors aboard, 833 were lost, including 126 “boy sailors” (sailors under 18). Undetected, U‑47 made a clean get­away, Royal Navy offi­cials in the con­fu­sion of the moment ignorant of the agent of the Royal Oak’s destruction.

The spectacularly successful penetration of Scapa Flow was another humil­i­ating blow to the prestige of the Royal Navy. The month before a U-boat attack had sunk the British cruiser-turned-aircraft-carrier HMS Cou­ra­geous off south­west Ireland in 20 minutes flat for a loss of 519 men and 48 tor­pedo planes during the first U‑boat offen­sive against the Royal Navy. For Prien and the Kriegs­marine, the naval raid on Scapa Flow brought instant fame to the 31‑year-old skipper, who before Scapa Flow had only com­manded one war­time patrol. (On that patrol Prien sank the war’s second British ship, plus two more, for a total of 8,270 tons; the first British ship sunk was the ill-fated 13,581‑ton pas­sen­ger liner SS Athenia, allegedly mis­taken by U‑30 for a troop­ship or armed mer­chant cruiser.) Despite U‑47’s single kill, and an anti­quated one at that, the Kriegs­marine gave Prien and his dare-devil crew a hero’s wel­come when the sub tied up at a Wilhelms­haven pier. A few days later at a gala luncheon for Prien and his 44‑member crew in the Reichs Chan­cel­lery in Berlin Adolf Hitler person­ally awarded Prien the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, the first sailor of the U‑boat service and the second member of the Kriegs­marine to receive this award. Prien and his crew­members had earlier in the week received the Iron Cross First and Second Class, respectively, from Grand Admiral Erich Raeder.

Sinking the HMS Royal Oak: German Naval Raid on Scapa Flow, October 14, 1939

Route of Prien’s "U-47" in Scapa Flow, October 1939

Above: Map showing the route of Guenther Prien’s 218-ft-long sub­marine, U-47, infil­tra­ting the defenses of Scapa Flow and the destruc­tion of the British battle­ship HMS Royal Oak, October 14, 1939. Scapa Flow con­trolled the entrances to the North Sea and was con­sidered remote enough from German land-based air­craft to be a safe anchor­age (though German recon­nais­sance air­craft had recently over­flown the area). A 125‑sq-mile natural harbor, Scapa Flow was sur­rounded by a ring of islands sepa­rated by a half-dozen shallow chan­nels subject to swift flood tides and treach­erous currents. Scapa Flow pro­vided the primary anchor­age for the main fleet of the Royal Navy during the First World War and was reacti­vated at the start of the Second World War, becoming the main base of the Home Fleet, which operated in British terri­torial waters. Scapa Flow’s natural and arti­fi­cial defenses, while still strong, were recog­nized as needing improve­ment. In the early weeks after Septem­ber 3, 1939, harbor defenses were in the process of being strengthened by installing booms and anti­aircraft bat­teries and sinking addi­tional block­ships, or weighted hulks held on the seabed by cables anchored on land.

HMS "Royal Oak" in 1938Famous U-Boat skipper Lieutenant Commander Guenther Prien

Left: The mighty British battleship HMS Royal Oak. First published in 1938 this image reappeared in the Liverpool Daily Post on October 16, 1939, following the loss of the Royal Oak.

Right: Lieutenant Commander Guenther Prien (1908–1941). Eight years in the German mer­chant marine, where he rose from lowly cabin boy to first mate, Prien volun­teered at age 25 for U‑boat duty under then Fregatten­kapitaen (Frigate Captain) Karl Doenitz. Prien, since Decem­ber 1938 skipper of U‑47, was the first mem­ber of the Kriegs­marine to receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Germany’s highest mili­tary decora­tion in Octo­ber 1939. Under Prien’s com­mand U‑47 sank 30 Allied ships totaling 162,769 tons and damaged nine more in its 10 war patrols. Prien’s boldest and most famous exploit was to sink the British battle­ship HMS Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow, Great Britain’s chief naval base in the Orkney Islands far to the north in Scot­land. For this he received the nick­name “Der Stier (Bull) von Scapa Flow.” A few months after sinking the Royal Oak, Prien’s auto­bio­graphy, Mein Weg Nach Scapa Flow, was pub­lished and sold a whopping 750,000 copies. U‑47 was last heard from in early March 1941, lost will all hands in waters off the west coast of Scotland.

Doenitz and Raeder congratulate Prien after Scapa Flow, October 17, 1939

Above: Guenther Prien (left) being congratulated on his succesful mission by German Com­mander of Sub­marines Com­modore Karl Doenitz (middle) and Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Wilhelms­haven, Octo­ber 17, 1939. Early in the out­break of hostil­i­ties Doenitz had Scapa Flow in his cross­hairs and the skilled Prien, though in com­mand of U‑47 for less than a year, was his choice to lead the haz­ard­ous under­taking. With any luck the attack on the Home Fleet’s main anchor­age would nudge the Royal Navy into with­drawing to a less favor­able loca­tion (from the British perspec­tive), which Doenitz believed would then give his boats and the Kriegs­marine’s sur­face raiders, con­sisting of brand new battle­ships and heavy cruisers, greater access to the resource-rich shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. There the two naval branches could inflict a hellish car­nage on Britain’s vener­able navy and its fleet of 2,000 mer­chant ships, the largest fleet of tankers and trans­ports in the world. The posi­tive propa­ganda value of the Scapa Flow raid (enhanced respect for the Kriegs­marine and its sub­marine branch; Com­modore Doenitz was swiftly promoted to rear admiral in the wake of the raid) and its nega­tive effect on British morale were not to be dis­counted, neither in Doenitz’s view nor that of Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goeb­bels.

The Sinking of HMS Royal Oak, an STV and History Channel Documentary

Continue Reading