Today marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of H.M.S. Royal Oak on the 14th October 1939, whilst at anchor in the Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow here in Orkney. The German U-boat U47 managed to enter this great naval harbour undetected and torpedo the Royal Oak, which sank in 13 minutes with the loss of 835 of her crew. The ship is still remembered in Orkney, with an annual service held at the site of the disaster, when Royal Navy divers raise the White Ensign above the stern of the ship. There is also a permanent memorial and Book of Remembrance inscribed with the names of the dead, housed in St Magnus' Cathedral in Kirkwall:
It was thought that 833 of the Royal Oak's crew died, but recent research has identified two further casualties, who have now been added to the names in the book.
As part of the 80th anniversary commemorations special licences have been granted to the Royal Oak 80 Survey Team to dive on the wreck site (diving is normally banned as the ship is a war grave) and make digital images of the ship.
The sinking of H.M.S. Royal Oak had far-reaching consequences for Orkney, leading to the building of the Churchill Barriers linking the Mainland to the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay to provide a solid barrier to submarine access, more substantial than the block ships which were the only other defence:
And of course the Italian prisoners of war who worked on the Churchill barriers left their own memorial in the form of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, which looks out over Kirk Sound, the channel used by the U47 to enter Scapa Flow on that night 80 years ago. The chapel survives today as it was intended, as potent symbol of spirit of peace and reconciliation in the midst of war:
Although there are no living survivors of the Royal Oak disaster the families of those who died still attend from all over the world, and today is a beautiful day for the commemorations, sunny, dry and flat calm. For the first time at today's ceremony, instead of the usual wreaths, 835 flowers will be scattered on the surface of the sea above the wreck site.