14th October 1939. Scapa Flow.

In September 1939 a torpedo sunk the Carrier HMS Courageous, off Ireland, on patrol in the Atlantic, with the loss of over 500 including Captain Mackeig-Jones.(1)

A month later the battleship, Royal Oak, the ship ‘too old to fight and too slow to run’, as Churchill described her, was sunk early Today on 14th October.

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak. Courtesy Alan Ingles.

It was on the previous evening and under a brilliant display of Northern Lights that a German U-boat commanded by Lt Gunther Prien slipped through a maze of channels, currents and block-ships protecting the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands.(2)

He headed for the Royal Oak where 1146 sailors were asleep and fired three torpedoes which penetrated despite the ‘Torpedo Bulges’ on its sides, causing the ship to capsize in thirteen minutes killing 832 crew plus the skipper, Rear Admiral H.F.C. Blagrove.

HMS Glatton in dry-dock 1914-18 showing Torpedo Bulges.

HMS Glatton, Gorgon Class Monitor, in dry-dock 1914-18 showing Torpedo Bulges.

Of little consolation is the disaster could have been worse but for the fact most of the Fleet had departed the previous night headed for Norway.(3)

Churchill, at this time, First Lord of the Admiralty, decided in 1940, to supply protection for the Fleet by a monumental civil-engineering project, the ‘Churchill Barriers’, consisting of  four, stone and concrete barriers, between the islands, built by Balfour Beatty, using local Italian POW.s.

Of such a magnitude, The Barriers required a railway, power station, overhead cable-ways and piers and not to be completed until 1944.

3rd Churchill Barrier seen from Burray looking across Weddel Sound with remains of hulks. Dave Wyatt under Creative Commons Licence.

3rd Churchill Barrier seen from Burray looking across Weddel Sound with remains of sunken hulks.
Dave Wyatt under Creative Commons Licence.

However the Italians regarding the construction as being for wartime defence (against The Geneva Convention), went on strike; the British responded by imprisonment for 14 days on bread and water, with intermissions of regular fare.

Reconciliation only came, apart from removing trouble-makers, when the project, involving sunken ‘gabions’, topped with slabs of stone, was deemed as creating beneficial roadways for the locals, (still extant), between the scattered islands.(4)

One of the biggest dangers at sea apart from the enemy was the propellant cordite exploding by overheating.

This was the cause at Scapa Flow, of a violent explosion in July 1917 on HMS Vanguard with a loss of 800, which in terms of deaths remains the most catastrophic accidental explosion in the UK.

Vanguard (1909)

Battleship HMS Vanguard (1909).

(1) September 17th 1939.

(2) The Home Fleet had been  based in the natural harbour, protected by islands at Scapa Flow, since WWI.

(3) Ships which had departed included: The Battle-Cruisers, Hood and Repulse, the Battleships, Nelson and Rodney, and the Carrier, Furious.

(4) Gabions were wire-cages filled with rock.


The sinking of the Royal Oak saw the greatest loss of boy-sailors (14-18) in any conflict. In WWII Royal Naval losses were over 50,000 (see all figures below).

RN casualties WWII.

Men: Killed 50,758, Missing 820, wounded 14,663.

Wrens: killed 102, wounded 22.



educationscotland.gov.uk/Pic of Glatton.






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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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