The last minutes of HMS Royal Oak

HMs Royal Oak in 1937, torpedoed while at anchor, 14th October 1939


From the Royal Navy Board of Enquiry

Narrative of events in ROYAL OAK.

At 0104 on 14th October, 1939, H.M.S. ROYAL OAK was lying at single anchor in Scapa Bay when an explosion occurred right forward the starboard side below water. Its effect was to break all the slips on both cables which allowed the port cable to run out to a clinch and let go the starboard anchor. The explosion itself and the effect of the cable running out woke most of the Officers and some of the Ship’s company. The Admiral, Captain, Commander, Engineer Commander and others hurried on deck after putting on a few clothes. Many Officers who were aft thought that the explosion was in or under the after part of the ship, this being accounted for by the vibration effect from the other end of the ship.

Witnesses in the A.D.P. and on the Flag Deck state that a column of water was shot up the starboard side forward and drenched the fore part of tha forecastle. Through the hole in the side a number of shores and other timber may have dropped or been blown out.

The Captain, on turning out, went on to the Q.D. and being informed that the slips on the cable had parted went forward to the forecastle. It was a fine clear night, the sea was calm, and the sky was lit up by the Northern Lights. He arrived on the forecastle, looked at the cables, received reports from various Officers, and sent the First Lieutenant down to inspect the forward compartments. He remained on the Forecastle a few moments in order to ascertain whether the ship was in any way effected by what he thought was an internal explosion in the Inflammable Store. As the ship was neither listing nor settling down by the bows he went down the after forecastle hatch and forward to the cable locker flat. Here he met several Officers, including the Engineer Commander, and received reports that the Inflammable store was venting through the breather pipe showing that water was entering that compartment and that there was no fire. The compartment immediately abaft it, the C.O. 2 room, was intact. Up to this time no one had thought that the ship might have been torpedoed, the general impression being that there had been an internal explosion, or possibly a bombing attack by aircraft. Under the Captain’s directions orders were given for starting salvage pumps and preparing to open and examine damaged compartments. No orders were given for closing watertight doors or deadlights.

In the meantime the S.O.O. turned out and went to the Admiral’s cabin at 0106. The Admiral had already turned out. S.O.O. made a quick examination of the after part of the ship and returned to report “no damage aft”. This was confirmed a few moments later by the Engineer Commander who had also made an inspection of the after compartments. S.O.O. accompanied the Admiral on deck, but the latter then went forward and S.O.O. went on to the Marines’ Messdeck. He did not see the Admiral again.

The Ship’s company generally were not much disturbed by the first explosion, and there are several records of men having turned out and then turned in again between the first and second explosions. During this interval the launch and picket boat were called away, the Drifter DAISY II was ordered to raise steam, and two prisoners were released from the cells.

At 0116 the Captain was still near the C.O.2 room with several Officers. In his own words “I had no thought other than that a local explosion had taken place in the Inflammable Store. This was backed up by the report I received that the C.O.2 room was intact. I had not even thought of the ship being torpedoed. I felt no uneasiness about the safety of the ship”. Suddenly there was another” shattering” explosion, followed at very short intervals by a third and fourth. These explosions occurred on the starboard side of the ship approximately between “A” and “X” turrets, and had an immediate and catastrophic effect. The ship at once started to heel to starboard and, with only a slight “hang” for perhaps three or four minutes, heeled over with increasing velocity until she capsized at 0129.

From the moment the second explosion occurred it was practically impossible to do anything effective to save the ship, nor was it possible to broadcast the order to “Abandon Ship” as the lights went out and power failed. Officers in various parts of the ship told the men near them to save themselves. The Captain was still in the cable locker flat. He told Officers and men to clear out of the flat and walked aft to the Messdeck which was in darkness. He sent the men up to the forecastle and followed them up. On the forecastle he realised that the ship was going over as she was heeling so quickly and felt sure that the only thing left to do was to throw over the side the Carley floats etc. and as much wood as possible. The Captain and Commander got to work on this assisted by a few men, but, the ship turned over so rapidly that little could be done. In a few minutes they found the deck becoming impossible to stand on so climbed over the port guard rails and up the port side until they slipped or were flung into the sea.

The ship capsized and finally sank at 0129, twenty five minutes after the first explosion and thirteen minutes after the second explosion. An Officer who had climbed up the port side, over the bilge keel and onto the bottom checked the time at 0133 before taking to the water.

The second, third and fourth explosions were observed by men stationed in the A.D.P. These explosions were accompanied by columns of water which fell on the A.D.P., also a flash which was seen round the funnel casing, and a quantity of black smoke which covered the after part of the ship for a short period.

After the first explosion the Assistant Torpedo Officer went to the Main Switchboard, then on the Messdeck where he reported to the Engineer Commander and met the Warrant Electrician. The Assistant Torpedo Officer and Warrant Electrician again went down to the Switchboard and thence to Nos. 4 and 3 Dynamo rooms where everything was normal.

While still in No. 3 Dynamo room the second third and fourth explosions occurred. The second seemed to be well forward, the third abreast the Boiler Rooms and the fourth close to No.3 Dynamo Room but forward of it, probably at the starboard wing Engine Room. After the second and third explosions orange-coloured flames appeared at the top of the dynamo room hatch. After
the fourth explosion the forward bulkhead of the dynamo room between the dynamo room and the wing engine room began to bulge inwards and steam began to escape. The two Officers and the Watchkeeper made their way up the ladder. The lights then failed and the flames became less intense. By the time they reached the Marines Messsdeck the ship had listed about 25 degrees to starboard. The Messdeck was full of choking fumes and burning hammocks and other material.

From other reports it appears that after the third and fourth explosions the Marine Messdeck swept by flames and full of smoke and fumes. Several hammocks caught fire and were extinguished by men near them. There is also evidence that holes appeared in the decks and that the decks caved in.

A sliding horizontal hatch abaft “A” turret slid across and jammed in the closed position due to the heel of the ship and to the fact that the wire strop used to hold it open had not been properly secured. Men in this compartment may not have had time to escape by another route. Sliding hatches in other positions may have closed similarly.

During this period there are several reports of men being blown through doors, up hatches, and out of scuttles. By the time the ship capsized a large number of men had reached the water via the Forecastle and Quarter Deck. It appears that few men were saved from the Engine and Boiler Rooms.

The Admiral had been on the Boat Deck, where the Engineer Commander on his way aft, reported to him. Later the Admiral was seen on the Q. D. by the Captain’s Maltese Steward who had come up from below and collected a lifebuoy from the starboard guard rails. This steward saw the Admiral amidships calling to the men on the Port side to jump overboard further forward because they were likely to injure themselves by jumping on the the propellers. The steward climbed up towards the Admiral and asked him to come overboard with him as he had a lifebuoy, but the Admiral refused saying, “Don’t worry about me; try to save yourself.”He remained there helping the men to save themselves and was not seen again.

Men who tried to man the launch at the starboard lower boom had a terrifying experience. They would not cast off from the boom and saw the ship turning over on top of them. Metal from the foretop fell into the launch and sank her, and the funnel came down into the water between the launch and the ship’s side. One man from the sunken launch was partially sucked into the tunnel and then blown out again. Others saw “A” and “B” turretts swing round and “fall into the sea”.

After the ship capsized she rolled over to about 160 degrees, possibly righted a little, and is now lying bottom up at an angle of 40 degrees from the vertical with a trim of 2 degrees aft.

Rescue work was first carried out by the Drifter DAISY II who had been lying alongside the port side. Other men were kept afloat by the picket boat, gig, one or two Carley floats or bits of Carley float, pieces of wood, church deals and empty petrol drums, but the picket boat capsized twice through being overloaded, and the gig, having her cover on, turned over and over when men tried to climb into her. Very soon boats from PEGASUS joined in the rescue work and also drifters from Scapa Pier. Later drifters came across from Lyness and Gutter Sound.

The general behaviour of the Ship’s Company was calm and good.

The Board was to conclude that

‘We consider that Captain W.G. Benn and his officers did all that was possible to save their Ship. Captain Benn remained in the ship until the last possible moment, until in fact the ship left him, and his behaviour was in the best traditions of the service.’

The Board ‘deplored’ the death of Rear Admiral H.E.C. Blagrove.

TNA ADM 199/158

833 men died on HMS Royal Oak. Their story is told at HMSRoyalOak.co.uk.

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