Scapa Flow was a hugely important base for the Royal Navy in both world wars, and during the Second World War became what was probably the best-defended naval anchorage anywhere in the world. But things were very different at the beginning of the war. Lessons learned during the First World War had been forgotten and early efforts to improve defences were slow and in places ineffective. In the early hours of 14 October 1939 a German U-boat, U-47, made its way into Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound, the gap between the islands of Lamb Holm and Mainland. Efforts had been made to defend the passage with sunken blockships, but a gap had been left that was large enough to allow U-47 through.
At 00:58, U-47 fired three torpedoes at HMS Royal Oak, a Revenge-class battleship built for the Royal Navy during the First World War. She was at anchor off the coast of East Mainland, in the mouth of Scapa Bay. Six minutes after the torpedoes were fired, one of them struck her. U-47 then attacked again, and three more torpedoes struck HMS Royal Oak at 01.16. The ship sank within 13 minutes of the second attack. 834 members of her crew of 1,234 were killed, including over 100 boy seamen aged under 18. That figure of 834 is a fairly recent one: for many years it was thought that there had been 833 fatalities, and that is the number still often quoted.
Many of those who lost their lives went down with their ship and the sunken wreck of HMS Royal Oak is protected as a war grave. 26 of those killed whose bodies were recovered were buried in the naval cemetery at Lyness on the island of Hoy. The sinking of HMS Royal Oak has long been commemorated by a memorial in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. In 2010 a Royal Oak Memorial Garden was established at the head of Scapa Bay, looking out into Scapa Flow, towards the location of the wreck of HMS Royal Oak. (Continues below images...)
The Royal Oak Memorial Garden is a poignant place. Despite the name, it was established to "offer the chance to reflect on all the lives lost in Scapa Flow in WWI and WWII." As well as the men and boys of HMS Royal Oak, these include the 843 members of the crew of the battleship HMS Vanguard who were killed when their ship suffered a catastrophic - and apparently accidental - explosion while at anchor in Scapa Flow on 9 July 1917.
There are a number of different elements to the Royal Oak Memorial Garden. Towards its western end is a mounted crest of the Royal Oak. Not far away is a large ship's propeller. Towards the eastern end of the garden is a mounted ship's anchor, near a memorial obelisk that was unveiled on 14 October 2011, on the 72nd anniversary of the sinking of the Royal Oak.
The garden is completed by a display hut in which you find information about the Royal Oak and about the men and boys who lost their lives in her. As well as commemorative wreathes, there are memorials to individual sailors. In some ways the most moving element for us is a display board listing the names and ranks of all those who died. This brings home the sheer scale of the loss of life.
In keeping with the garden's aim of commemorating all those who lost their lives here in both world wars, there is a touching memorial back out in the garden to pioneer naval aviator, Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning. On 2 August 1917 he made the first ever landing by an aeroplane on a moving ship, when he landed his Sopwith Pup biplane on the deck of HMS Furious in Scapa Flow, having taken off from an airfield at Smoogroo on Orkney's West Mainland. Five days later on 7 August 1917 he repeated the feat. An attempt at a second deck landing that day was less successful, and when he tried again, his aircraft went over the side of the moving ship, killing him. He is buried at St Lawrence's Church at Bradfield in Essex, and it is fitting that he is remembered in the Royal Oak Memorial Garden, perhaps within sight of the place where he died.