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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : HMS 'Royal Oak' Torpedoed

13/14 October 1939

Location: Scapa Flow, Orkney, Scotland
Players: Günther Prien and the crew of the German U-47; crew of the HMS 'Royal Oak'.
Outcome: HMS 'Royal Oak' capsized and 833 lives were lost.

HMS Royal Oak, photographed in 1938
HMS Royal Oak, photographed in 1938©
The British naval base to the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow, Orkney, was penetrated - unbeknown to the British admiralty - on the night of 13/14 October 1939.

A German submarine, U-47 commanded by Günther Prien, successfully launched a salvo of torpedoes. The British were so unprepared they at first assumed that the explosion was caused by a problem on board, not by an attack.

When HMS Royal Oak was hit for a second time only 20 minutes later, it was still unclear that the cause was a surprise attack. The vessel capsized to devastating effect, but even after an official inquiry the British insisted that an attack could not have been possible by the route taken. Confirmation came from an announcement on German radio. Only six weeks into the war, this event was a blow to British morale.

Despite the many lives lost, many were also saved - 386 men were picked up and ferried to safety by the tender Daisy2. A remembrance plaque has been placed on the wall of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.

The bell of the Royal Oak was found by divers in the 1970s and has been restored and added to the display in Kirkwall.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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