Shortly after midnight on Saturday 14 October 1939 the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak was at anchor in Scapa Flow in Orkney when she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-47, commanded by Kapitänleutenant Günther Prien. Prien and the U-47 had done the unthinkable and penetrated what was supposed to be a highly secure anchorage, sunk the Royal Oak, and left, unscathed and undetected, en route for a hero's welcome back in Germany. Of the 1,234 men and boys on board the Royal Oak when she was attacked, 833 were killed almost immediately or died subsequently of their wounds. Many were never found, and their remains are presumed to lie within the ship on which they served, which still lies on the sea bed of Scapa Flow, now designated as an official war grave.
Dilip Sarkar is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and in his book he seeks to add a new dimension to other accounts of the sinking. The subtitle of the book is "In The Words of the Survivors", and this gives the clue. Yes, the historical background is nicely presented, but this is above all a book about the men and boys who crewed the Royal Oak (and, to a lesser degree U-47). The story of life on board the Royal Oak and the actual sinking and its aftermath are told through the accounts of individuals who were there.
A significant section of the book also looks in detail at the stories of members of the crew who did not survive. The author has talked extensively to the families of some of those who were lost, and it is particularly poignant, for example, to read letters posted by men that were only received by their widows after the ship had been sunk.
The story of the sinking of the Royal Oak has been told many times over the years, perhaps first by Günther Prien himself in an account that owed as much to the needs of the wartime Nazi propaganda machine as to the facts themselves. Prien and his crew did not survive the war, and neither did many of those who survived the sinking of the Royal Oak. The author has produced a worthy addition to the available body of material on the subject, and this book is a fitting memorial to men whose memories might otherwise be lost to history bar the briefest of mentions on war memorials.