- Graham-Smith, Mick
- Colonial navies, Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
maintenance ship which he thought was the battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and Royal Oak. He fired a salvo of two torpedoes at the Pegasus, one of which missed and the other hit with a glancing blow Royal Oak‘s bow and dislodged the starboard anchor chain. He then reloaded and fired three torpedoes, all of which hit Royal Oak amidships on the starboard side, and the aft magazine blew up. The ship heaved over 45 degrees to starboard with the gun turrets wrenched around and the barrels dipping in the water. Some crew were able to extricate themselves out of portholes on the port side and within four minutes, the ship rolled over to 90 degrees and settled in the water. Admiral Blagrove and 832 members of the crew were killed but 386 were rescued from the dark, icy and oil covered waters.
Meanwhile the German submarine made its escape through the same channel on the outgoing tide. Returning home to Germany, Prien was personally decorated with the Knight’s Iron Cross with Oak Leaves by Adolf Hitler and the U-47 was later responsible for the sinking of 30 allied ships with a combined 200,000 tonnage. Prien later died in March 1941 in the North Atlantic when the U-47 disappeared, the sinking attributed to HMS Wolverine. New research suggests she was sunk by a circling torpedo from another German submarine in the pack. Two American submarines in the Pacific are also believed to have sunk in the same manner later in the war.
For the British nation this event at Scapa Flow was a shattering blow and a tragic loss. Blagrove’s widow, Edith Lowe, later married Admiral Patrick Brind and worked at Bletchley Park breaking the codes of the German Naval Enigma Machine. She also became the Superintendent of the Wrens. The Royal Oak is a protected war grave and a commemorative service is held every year on 13th October to remember all the men who died on that fateful night.
Naval divers descend to renew the battle ensign on the ship on the anniversary of the sinking. The ship lies in 30 metres of water with the upturned keel reaching to just 5 metres under the surface, where a wreck buoy marks the hazard to shipping. Oil is still seeping from the hull to the surface and on calm days it is a telling visual reminder of the ship. A decision by the Admiralty to build permanent barriers across the eastern entrances to secure the Naval Base brought long term benefits to Orkney. Known as the Churchill Barriers, they took four years to construct with most of the work being done by Italian prisoners of war.
Closer to home, it is interesting to note that Captain Joseph Burnett RAN was the executive officer in Royal Oak and later in December 1938 was promoted to captain of the ship. Under secret orders he took the ship to Gibraltar at the time of the Munich crisis before being recalled to Australia when war broke out. The loss of HMAS Sydney is another story.
Also, both of my relatives mentioned earlier served in Curacao in the inter-war years, but it is interesting to note that in October 1942 she was engaged in convoy escort duties off the coast of Galway, Ireland. The Queen Mary, with 15,000 United States troops on board, was on a zigzag course at 28 knots when Curacao crossed her bow with insufficient clearance. The cruiser was sliced in half by the Queen Mary and sank instantly with the loss of 338 men. As there were U-boats in the area, the captain of the Queen Mary had been instructed never to stop to pick up survivors under any circumstances, but he was forced to reduce speed to 10 knots with damage to her bow before docking at Gourock in Scotland.
I mentioned earlier Admiral Brind who married Admiral Blagrove’s widow. He was the admiral who exceeded his authority and on his own initiative ordered the destroyer HMS Consort to assist HMS Amethyst on the Yangtze River in July 1949 without first informing the Admiralty and the British Foreign Office.
China was in the midst of a civil war and the Consort was the guardship for the British Consulate at Nankin, stationed there on the Yangtze to take off British and Commonwealth subjects if necessary. Amethyst was sent to relieve her, but had come under heavy fire from Communist Chinese forces. Fortunately both ships eventually achieved a breakout while under gunfire from shore batteries. Admiral Brind was exonerated when King George VI inadvertently heard about the Yangtze incident and congratulated Brind and members of the ships’ companies before the Admiralty could admonish him. This action however did not diminish his promotion prospects as Admiral Brind ended his career as C-In-C NATO Forces in Northern Europe!