JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON OCTOBER 13, 1939. and Britain and Germany have been at war less than six weeks.
U-47, a German Type VII U-boat creeps into Scapa Flow – a huge body of water covering 120 square miles or more than 300 square kilometres – off the northeast of Scotland. It had been used by the Royal Navy since Napoleonic times, although Viking ships had anchored there. (1)
That night Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien was on his second war patrol in U-47 as commander. A former merchant seaman, Prien had joined the Kriegsmarine in January 1933.
Serving first in the light cruiser KMS Konigsberg, he transferred to the navy’s submarine arm in October 1935 and would serve in submarine U-26 during the Spanish Civil War before getting command of his own boat in December 1938.
Besides being a principal Royal Navy anchorage – there were fifty-one ships at anchor at the time of Prien’s attack – Scapa Flow had a special significance for Germany and the German navy.
This was the place that the seventy four units of the High Seas Fleet had been sailed to at the end of November 1918 while the victorious Allies debated their future and to some extent the future of the 20,000 German seamen who were maintaining the ships in good order.(2)
With the First World War apparently ended some seven months previously and with little news from home for the crews who had arrived with the first units on 21 November 1918, rumour and counter-rumour abounded.
So it was the place where Admiral Ludwig von Reuter had ordered his men on 21 June 1919 to carry out a secret plan to sink their own ships.
Of the seventy-four German ships held there fifty-two had slowly sunk beneath the waves as their crews opened sea cocks and made their way off the ships. Nine men would die and sixteen were wounded. (3) (4)
These casualties occurred either as the British tried to stop the scuttling or when German sailors making for the shore were fired on, having been mistakenly thought of trying to stage an attack against their captors.
After almost an hour searching amongst the enemy ships a look-out found HMS Royal Oak a veteran of the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and acting as an anti-aircraft picket that night.
In all U-47 fired three torpedo salvos at his target of which a number missed. The final attack caught the ship amidships and healing over the ship sank in minutes.
Of the war complement of 1,234, some 833 seamen died. These included 134 boy seaman aged between 15 and 17 and 125 of them had been trained at HMS St Vincent at Gosport, near Portsmouth in Hampshire. (5)(6)
Their deaths in particular prompted questions in the British Parliament regarding the Navy’s policy at this time, with Winston Churchill revealing in a debate on 25 October 1939 that there were ‘just under 5,000 boys under 18 years of age serving at sea’ in order to gain practical experience. (7)
Prien returned home to a hero’s welcome. His crew were decorated with the Iron Cross while he received the Iron Cross First Class, the Knight’s Cross and finally the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves – all within days of returning to his base at Kiel on 17 October 1939.
U-47 would be lost with all hands during its tenth patrol on 7 March 1941. By that time Prien and his crew had accounted for thirty ships. (8)
(1) http://www.scapaflowwrecks.com/history/ – retrieved 12 September 2018
(2)http://www.scapaflowwrecks.com/wrecks/royal-oak/sinking.php – retrieved 12 September 2018
(3) https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/german-battle-fleet-scuttled-scapa-flow – retrieved 12 September 2018
(4) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33152438 – retrieved 12 September 2018
(5) https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/crews/ship68.html – retrieved 12 September 2018
(6) https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2016/december/16/161216-last-survivor-of-the-royal-oak-tragedy-dies – retrieved 12 September 2018
(7) https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1939/oct/25/boys-active-service#S5CV0352P0_19391025_HOC_291 – retrieved 12 September 2018
(8) https://uboat.net/men/prien.htm – retrieved 12 September 2018
Charles Edward Fitch and Portsmouth Naval Memorial
http://www.naval-history.net/xDKCas1939-10OCT.htm – retrieved 12 September 2018
https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2492399/fitch,-charles-edward/ – retrieved 12 September 2018
https://www.cwgc.org/find/find-cemeteries-and-memorials/144703/portsmouth-naval-memorial – retrieved 12 September 2018