HMS Royal Oak Memorial

On the night of 8th October, 1939, the German submarine U-47, under the command of Günther Prien, penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow, Orkney, through Holm Sound and Kirk Sound. Her first two torpedo salvos missed all but an anchor chain but her third struck HMS Royal Oak. Within fifteen minutes the ship had sunk with the loss of 833 British sailors out of the crew of 1,234 men and boys. Many of their bodies were unrecoverable and remain on the ship. A few are interred at Lyness Naval Cemetery on Hoy.

For his feat Prien was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the first sailor of a U-boat and the second member of the Kriegsmarine to receive this decoration.

To prevent any further such attacks a series of barriers known as the Churchill barriers was built between four of the southern Orkney islands to connect them to each other and the mainland. The one shown below (picture from the Royal Oak’s Wikipedia page) crosses what was Kirk Sound.

Churchill Barrier across Kirk Sound

For decades afterwards the Royal Oak, a designated war grave on which diving is therefore prohibited, leaked oil into Scapa Flow before the leak was sealed off.

A memorial to HMS Royal Oak is set into the north wall of Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral. There is a dedication plaque, a book of remembrance listing the names, with a page turned every day, surmounted by the ship’s bell.

Royal Oak Memorial

Further along the same wall lies another site of more general remembrance, a niche containing poppies and candles.

Remembrance niche, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

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