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A though printed some time ago,

    • The Royal Oak Disaster, by Gerald S. Snyder, Presidio Press, 1978, is an interesting insight into the early days of WW II submarine warfare. More significantly, it conveys some of the frequently ignored management weaknesses that lead to tragic events (not unlike the recent fire at the BP refinery in Texas).

For 30 years after the sinking, the true story remained hidden from the public by the British Official Secrets Act. With the expiration of that Act, many British and German documents became accessible for the first time. Author Snyder conducted extensive research in the early l 970’s, including interviews of survivors from both ROYAL OAK and U-47, in order to present a minute-by-minute narrative of suspense, high drama, and extraordinary bravery.

A natural harbor located within the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland is known as Scapa Flow. It’s sheltered waters have been used over many centuries, from the Viking fleet of King Haakon in the 13th Century, to the present day. In the early days of WW II the British utilized the Scapa Flow as a major anchorage for their fleet. Although the Scapa was considered secure by most, a careful review by an independent contractor, in May 1939, reported that” … it is safe to assume that an intrepid submarine officer, in war time, would take risks which no discreet mariner would think of taking in peace time. The possibility of a hostile submarine entering Scapa Flow, if the Sounds are left as at present, cannot therefore be excluded … ” Nevertheless this warning was largely ignored by the Admiralty.

At the same time, Raeder and Donitz were conceiving a plan to penetrate the Scapa. They selected Gunther Prien, who was in command of U-47, as their choice for this special operation. The author recounts in considerable detail the planning and execution of this daring penetration of Britain’s impenetrable port. On the night of 13/14 October 1939, U-4 7 penetrated the Scapa Flow and sank the British battleship ROY AL OAK-one of the worst disasters in the history of the Royal Navy. The battleship sank with the loss of 833 lives, only 424 of the crew surviving. Prien became known as the Bull of Scapa Flow and returned to Germany a hero.

In the following months, Korvettenkapitan Gunther Prien became one of Donitz’s top three aces, sinking, in addition to the sinking of ROYAL OAK, a total of 28 merchant ships for a tonnage of 160,935. Yet, in just over a year, 8 March 1941, U47 was sunk south of Iceland by HMS WOLVERINE with a loss of all hands.

  • After the sinking of ROY AL OAK a Board of Enquiry was convened. One of the determinations was that various officers were responsible for various sections of the defense but that no one officer was responsible for the whole of it. In reading the book one finds a number of significant issues that deserve emphasis as they relate to future submarine operations. In the early l 980’s the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) identified eight common attributes that contributed to poor management of commercial utilities. Of those attributes, the following contributed to the sinking of Royal Oak and need to be respected by submariners as Lessons Learned:
  • Diffuse responsibility
  •  A mindset that success is inevitable
  •  An acceptance of known hazards
  • Minimal risk assessment

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