Royal Oak disaster

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archive photo of a man shaking hands with Hitler

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

To me he looks hardly more than a boy but this chilling photograph clearly demonstrates the glorifying of war with little thought for the victims.

The man in the picture with German dictator Adolf Hitler is 31-year-old Gunther Prien, brilliant U-boat submarine commander. He is being awarded a medal for sinking a British battleship with huge loss of life including more than 100 boy sailors.The wreck lies upside down in just 100 feet of water – HMS Royal Oak, sunk with the loss of 833 lives.

In a meticulously-planned operation masterminded by Germany’s Commander of Submarines Karl Dönitz, U-47 crept into Scapa Flow on the night of 13 October 1939 when tides were high and there was no moon. Dönitz hand-picked Prien for the operation. Four of Prien’s torpedoes hit the anchored Royal Oak which keeled over and sank in 13 minutes.

The attack was seen partly as an act of revenge for the German High Fleet surrendering and scuttling itself at the same place following defeat in the First World War. Sinking the 29,150-ton Royal Oak, an outdated vessel launched in 1914, was also part of a German strategy to displace British warships from their haven in the Orkney Islands.

First Lord of the Admiralty (later Prime Minister) Winston Churchill conceded that the raid was “a remarkable exploit of professional skill and daring” but added that Royal Oak’s loss would not strongly affect the naval balance of power.

Prien and his crew were lauded as heroes when they arrived back in Germany. Prien was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross while each crew member received the Iron Cross Second Class.

Prien was a U-boat ace – the U-47 sank more than 30 Allied ships including the Arandora Star, also with the loss of more than 800 lives.

Prien and all on board U-47 mysteriously disappeared in March 1941. They  may have hit a mine, suffered an accident or been hit by depth-charges.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there are miniature models of the Royal Oak and the U-47, contrasting their sizes. A souvenir pamphlet commemorates Royal Oak’s visit to Liverpool in June 1937 as part of the celebrations to mark George VI’s coronation.

Royal Oak is now a designated war grave. Work still continues removing 3,000 tons of fuel oil that was on board when she sank. Salvage work can only be done during summer months because of difficult conditions.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).