HMS Royal Oak and U-47; Cat and Mouse in Scapa Flow

16 Oct

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In late 1939, the situation in Europe was stagnant. A stale scent filled the air. Not of warfare, not that of cordite or airplane fuel or the oil-filled smoke of distant explosions. It was a stale, stuffy air of preparation, of a veritable lack of combat. After the September 3rd declaration of war thrown onto Hitler’s lap in Berchtesgaden, each and every corner of the world was preparing for war, safe for the neutral, slumbering stronghold of the United States, as well as the Soviet Union, kept in an aura of false security by the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that would only soon be broken. The ‘Phony War’, it was called by the British and French. It was a war in declaration, a comparable vacation in practice. French troops suntanned themselves in the subterranean antechambers of the length of the vaunted Maginot Line, while British cavalry officers, steeped in an air of superiority, played polo and enjoyed the finer things in life, such as fine dining and exquisite cuisines. It appeared as if this war was over before it had started, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. Only a few hundred miles away, a storm was brewing in Germany, a storm not of rain or snow, but of armor and steel and shot, that would fall upon her slumbering enemies before they could even lift a finger in their defense. 

As autumn 1939 began to roll in and gently evict the warmer temperatures of summer, something was off in this ‘Phony War’. Something was not so phony anymore. It was not the tensions brewing between the Finnish and the Soviets that would collapse into all-out warfare in November, and it was not the Italian invasion of Albania and her coming war with Papagos’s Hellenic Army. Those were issues from the minds of Europe’s best and brightest Western strategists. It was something far more sinister, far more insidious than an obvious ground war. It was stealthy in its presentation, and neither the British nor French could place a finger on what it was.

In Berlin, at the Kriegsmarine‘s headquarters, Admiral Karl Doenitz was drawing up plans for a potential attack on Scapa Flow, a shallow sound virtually landlocked by a series of islands in the center of the Orkney Archipelago off the northern shore of Scotland. During the First World War, Scapa Flow had been selected by the Admiralty as prime real estate for the anchorage of the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, the arm of the Royal Navy designed to operate internationally. Yet there are almost ten ways to enter the sound, and due to its shallow bottom, reaching a maximum depth of around two hundred feet and an average depth of a little under one hundred, it was a match made in heaven for a potential marauding U-Boat that might manage to slip through the multitude of inlets and wreak havoc on the moored Grand Fleet. The Admiralty had already worked out these minor kinks, and had decided to sink blockships, or antiquated ships, into several inlets to block entrance to U-Boats, while they then left the remaining entrances fixed with flexible booms that could be slid back by tugboats to allow for the entry of warships into the anchorage. Only two U-Boats had attempted entry into Scapa during the First World War, and both met a horrific end, losing all hands aboard. The first was the U-18, being rammed twice and subsequently run aground, her entire crew captured, in November 1914. The second being the U-116, which was detected by a patrolling warship via hydrophone, an early, rather primitive form of what would later evolve into sonar, and was subsequently assaulted with depth charges, her entire crew detailed aboard losing their lives, in October 1918. Following the cessation of hostilities on November 11th, 1918, new sites were being selected by the Admiralty to transfer the Royal Navy’s pride. Soon after Germany’s surrender, her High Seas Fleet that had surrendered to the Royal Navy, after having eluded their blockade time and again, namely at Jutland in 1916, was taken to Scapa Flow, surrendered, and scuttled, a sign of humiliation and loss. Compounded with the stringent terms listed under the noxious Treaty of Versailles, the Allies had a bit of a debt to repay to the Germans, ripe with chagrin over their previous loss.

The Grand Fleet’s next anchorage was chosen as Rosyth, a small, easily manageable port located within the Firth of Forth, an estuary of Scotland’s River Forth that emptied into the North Sea. The Firth of Forth was operated during the interwar period, yet as the threat of war loomed in the late 1930s, shattering the relative peace of a resting Great Britain, the British Home Fleet, designed to protect Britain’s territorial waters in the absence of the Grand Fleet, was immediately dispatched to take up anchorage amidst the tightly packed isles of Scapa Flow, perfect for Doenitz’s plan, now christened Special Operation P. With Scapa having been in a state of horrific neglect following the cessation of the First World War, the Royal Navy was busy revamping her decrepit defenses and breastworks, relics of the last war. Many of the inlets into the harbor had been reopened to improve postwar shipping into the area as not to damage the local economy, and this presented the Royal Navy with a considerable problem: with the advent of the war, the German Kriegsmarine was known to possess U-Boats. With the absence of blockships to block the entryways of the inlets, it would be a comparative shooting gallery. The work was hasty and, as is common with hasty work, generally of poor quality. There were considerable gaps between blockships wide enough to be exploited by the wandering U-Boat, yet the British were not too concerned with a submersible threat this early on in the war. They should have been. 

In Germany, Special Operation P had already left the drawing board, and the commander and ship had already been selected, by Doenitz himself. Kapitaenleutnant Gunther Prien and his Type VIIB ship, the U-47. The plan was twofold: slip into Scapa Flow undetected and shatter the veil of invincibility hanging over the arrogant British Home Fleet, completely unaware of the coming threat, as well as to open the North Sea to the marauding German Kriegsmarine, and to gain revenge in return for the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet there over two decades ago. The time slot was chosen: the night of October 13th-14th, 1939, when the tide was high enough to conceal Prien’s movements, and when there was the absence of moonlight: the perfect conditions for the hunt. Unbeknownst to the Germans, Admiral of the Home Fleet Charles Forbes had detected a potential threat posed to the security of Scapa Flow, and had ordered the warships of the Home Fleet to disperse and spread out to safer, more secure anchorages around the United Kingdom, yet several had stayed behind to provide a covering feint and deceive the Germans as to the condition of the Home Fleet. 

In the early morning hours of October 14th, while the ships of the Home Fleet moored in Scapa slept soundly, an unknown killer crept stealthily into Scapa Flow, torpedo tubes flooded and warheads armed. It was the U-47, slinking silently between the multitude of islands surrounding the sound. Yet one mishap after another beset the U-47 and her delicate mission. Just prior to entering the harbor, Prien had ordered his men to turn the submarine south: the wrong direction. This sent him and his valuable vessel toward sunken blockships. After recalculating his course, Prien began the dangerous meander into the harbor itself, which would leave him dangerously exposed. In order to navigate the sunken blockships effectively without incident, he would be forced to surface. Luckily, with the inherent lack of moonlight, this task would not be nearly as suicidal as it may have been before. As Prien began his dangerous gamble, his surfaced submarine was bathed in an another, eerie, unearthly light, not that of the moon, but of something far grander. The wavering , dancing, multicolored bands of the aurora borealis: the notorious Northern Lights. Creeping between the submerged wrecks of the Seriano and Numidian, Prien thread his ship between the treacherous hazards presented by the sunken derelicts. Just as he began to complete the run, suddenly his warship caught and ran itself aground, or so he thought. In reality, the U-47 had caught itself on an antisubmarine cable stretched taught between the two warships that had been designed to catch a submerged vessel, not a surfaced one, and Prien was able to slip himself from the trap. Fortunately for him, he had been blessed with enough providence to not have run himself aground, as this would have meant almost immediate capture at sunrise, when his situation would have surely been discovered. As Prien moved into the harbor, his submarine began to dive into the murky depths, camouflaged in the shallow seas by the lack of light. Prien moved the U-47 along the coast of the largest island, Mainland, as he crept past the small island of Lambs Holm, just off the coast. As he rounded a cape off Mainland, suddenly the stark relief of the conning tower and compass platform of a British warship came into the view of his periscope, silhouetted against the Northern Lights. One of his men identified it as a Revenge-class battleship, and he was one hundred percent correct. It was the HMS Royal Oak, one of the Royal Navy Home Fleet warships whose commander, Rear-Admiral Henry Blagrove, had elected to remain behind. The Royal Oak was a veteran of the 1916 Battle of Jutland, a battle that neither side can claim victory, an enigmatic exchange of gunfire in which the German High Seas Fleet was able to escape the next morning through heavy fog and elude the massive guns of the looming Royal Navy, and had also returned the body of Queen Maud of Norway, a Welsh-born royal who had married into Norwegian aristocracy with her marriage to Haakon VII, reigning king of Norway, signing off an unofficial allegiance with the British Crown. Yet now the U-47 had caught the warship and her crew slumbering soundly alongside the antiquated First World War-era seaplane tender HMS Pegasus, yet through his periscope, Prien could only see Pegasus‘s bow. Prien ordered his four bow torpedo tubes emptied of their high explosive cargo, and his crew complied with readiness. The four thousand yard journey to the target proved too much for his torpedoes: two missed, one struck the heavy armored plating of the bow and had little effect expect to shatter the starboard anchor chain, and the fourth failed to launch.

Aboard the Royal Oak, everything was running smoothly and silently for the sleeping crew, until they had been viciously awoken with a distance rumble and sudden vibration of the hull. Something was wrong, but judging by the blast, it did not sound too major. The bridge immediately ordered all available hands to check the forward magazine and inflammable store, where such items as ammunition ranging from twenty millimeter Oerlikon rounds to massive fifteen inch shells for the main guns, as well as kerosene, gasoline, and petroleum were stored. Most of the crew went back to sleep, while a handful headed forward to examine the extent of the negligible amount of damage dealt to her hull. In the meantime, the U-47 had already turned rapidly around to face the Royal Oak were her stern torpedo tube. Prien attempted to void the flooded tube while his men simultaneously armed the four forward tubes as well, ridding themselves of the faulty warhead. This ill-fated torpedo, too, failed to reach its target. Prien then turned the U-47 back to face its target, and ordered a spread of three torpedoes to be fired at the span of the battleship. Much to his luck, all three struck home, rocking the ship and spouting rivets from her hull. The third struck the forward magazine, blasting it to pieces and incinerating a vast majority of the crew in the blast, as the ensuing fireball had raced through the unfastened, unsealed bulkheads and straight into the undefended and unprepared crews quarters and mess decks. The shock of the blast was intense, extreme enough to send the warship reeling into an almost immediate list to starboard. After being rocked by an additional chain of blasts, the warship sank within fifteen minutes of being struck. Eight hundred and thirty three men, including Rear-Admiral Blagrove, went down with the ship or were killed in the blast. In the mayhem following the warship’s destruction, the U-47 managed to slip out of Scapa Flow undetected, and the next morning rendezvoused with the warship Scharnhorst in the North Sea. The Kriegsmarine had scored an amazing victory, but had instilled with the Royal Navy a thirst for vengeance that would go almost unquenchable throughout the course of the war, resulting in the systematic hunting and killing of Germany’s wolf packs to their ignominious end.

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