Royal Oak sinking/Voltaire

October 23, 2009

Hi Mac, recently on the local TV channel a programme about the sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. I mentioned this to my mum who's dad Robert Lawson was on the Voltaire. If I remember correctly the Voltaire took aboard survivors of the Royal Oak. She told me and I remember this story from years ago that her dad along with others were due to join the crew of the Royal Oak but for some reason this delayed and therefore
avoided being amongst the casualties. She also had a H.M.S. Royal Oak hat band, whether this was because he had been issued one or it was from the survivors I don't know. Unfortunately she doesn't have it anymore.

Wondered if anybody else can shed any further light on this.

Many thanks,Graeme Dodds.


HMS Royal Oak. From Rootsweb

HMS Royal Oak

      One of the older battleships in the fleet, HMS ROYAL
OAK had been laid down at Devonport Dockyard in 1914
at a cost of 2,468,269 pounds.   A battleship of the
ROYAL SOVEREIGN class, she had a displacement of
29,150 tons and carried a complement of some 12OO
officers and ratings.   Like her sister ships, HMS
ROYAL SOVEREIGN, she had been built for action in
the First World War.

      Following her completion she in fact saw action at
the battle of Jutland.   She again saw action in the
Spanish Civil War when, in February 1937, an
anti-aircraft shell fired by the defending forces
fell on the quarterdeck of HMS ROYAL OAK, which was
then the flagship of Admiral CG Ramsey.   The
Captain, two other officers and two ratings were
injured. On another occasion 3 bombs were dropped
near the ship when she was steaming near Gibraltar.
In November 1938 she was selected to carry the body
of Queen Maud of Norway from this country, where she
died, to Oslo.   The ship was the eleventh holder of
the name in the Royal Navy, the first being built in
1663 commemorating an oak tree near Boscobel,
Shropshire, in which Charles II hid himself after
the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

      Although laid down in 1914, she was not commissioned
until 1916 and within one month was in action at
Jutland and was the next ship astern of HMS IRON
DUKE, flagship of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.   In
1934 HMS ROYAL OAK underwent extensive modernisation
and repairs at a cost of around ?1,000,000.   During
the modernisation the ship was partially fitted with
armour plating, this was mainly confined to above
and just below the water line level but the ship
remained particularly vulnerable to underwater
attack.   When the King visited the Home Fleet in
Weymouth in 1938, he spent half an hour in HMS ROYAL
OAK, flagship of the Second Battleship Division and
saw a programme of harbour drill.


      HMS Royal Oak about to fire a broadside

      The crew also included many men from the outlying
areas of Sunderland and included Joseph Miller,
Joseph Hayes, Frank Green, Frank Carr, William
Fowles, Eric Walker, Arno Roland, Dalton Jackson,
Thomas Naisby, George Watson and Thomas Jackson.  On
7th June 1939, they all took part in the
commissioning ceremony in HMS VICTORY, Royal Naval
Barracks at Portsmouth.   Following the ceremony,
over 1000 of the ship's company marched behind the
Royal Marine band, the mile or so from the Barracks
to board the ship at South Railway Jetty in
Portsmouth dockyard.   The ship was commissioning
for two and an half years service in the
Mediterranean Sea, and, shortly after the ceremony
she sailed on a shake down cruise in the Portland
area.   It was then learned that Hitler had marched
into Czechoslovakia.   The Home Fleet was then
assembled at Weymouth shortly afterwards and then
the ships were dispersed to their home ports for
summer leave, but, by the end of August, the Home
Fleet were again assembled, this time at Scapa Flow,
under War Orders.   Whilst there, they received a
visit from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston
Churchill, who went aboard HMS ROYAL OAK and
addressed the ships company regarding the worsening
situation in Europe.   After war was declared things
remained quiet at Scapa Flow and preparations for
war were made.


      HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow

      Whilst at Scapa Flow in early September 1939 some of
the crewmembers witnessed the first German
reconnaissance aeroplane fly over on 6th September.
 By now all hopes of a visit to the Mediterranean
had gone.   On 8th October 1939, HMS ROYAL OAK, with
other units of the Home Fleet, was despatched to
intercept the German Battlecruiser GNEISENAU and ten
other ships of the German fleet.   Due to lack of
speed the ROYAL OAK was unable to keep pace with the
other British units and, after a severe buffeting in
heavy seas, and a fruitless search, the fleet
returned to Scapa Flow on Wednesday 11th October
1939.   HMS ROYAL OAK dropped anchor in the
Northeast corner of Scapa Bay, some 1500 yards South
of the old seaplane carrier HMS PEGASUS (ex HMS ARK
ROYAL).   The majority of the fleet then left Scapa
Flow in the next couple of days and were dispersed
to other safe anchorages, the majority of them
making for Loch Ewe on the West coast of Scotland.

      Meanwhile, HMS ROYAL OAK began to make good the
damage sustained on her recent sorty, during which,
due to the very stormy seas, many of her lifesaving
Carley rafts were washed away or badly damaged. 
Storing ship was another priority and a large amount
of Naval Stores and Victualling Stores were taken
aboard.   During Thursday 12th and Friday 13th a
succession of barges and lighters were brought
alongside laden with stores.   Friday 13th was also
pay day and a large amount of cash was paid to the
1200 or so crew members, but, due to the fact that
the ship had steam up and was under four hours
notice to sail, few of the crew had the opportunity
to go ashore to spend any pay.


      HMS Royal Oak at anchor

      Friday 13th October turned out to be a lucky day for
Harry Howe.

      During the forenoon of the 13th, Harry was summoned
to see the Regulating Chief Stoker who then asked
Harry if he would like to go onboard the drifter
HORIZON to relieve the Leading Stoker.   He jumped
at the chance and, together with a Leading Stoker
who was to relieve the Petty Officer Stoker they
went aboard the drifter that was lying alongside the
ROYAL OAK.   Once aboard, he was introduced to the
rest of the small crew and he was asked if he knew
anything about coal fired boilers to which he
replied that he did.   He was then ordered into the
stoke hole to do a bit firing, which he did
comfortably.   During the afternoon Harry was told
to go aboard the ROYAL OAK and pick up a few
belongings from his mess to last him overnight. 
Harry went aboard and bumped into Billy Tate who
light-heartedly asked him if there was any room for
stowaways.   Harry told him that after collecting a
few things, he was going inshore with the drifter
and would be tied up overnight at Kirkwall pier. 
The drifter DAISY 2 would therefore spend the night
tied up alongside the ROYAL OAK.


      HMS Royal Oak

      Shortly after 1am on Saturday 14th October 1939, a
German U boat torpedoed HMS ROYAL OAK as she lay at
anchor in Scapa Flow, which resulted in the death of
over 800 of the crew.   Many of the crew died in
their beds, others while they kept watch and some in
the icy waters of the Flow as they battled to swim
to safety.   Two separate torpedo attacks were
carried out, the first at four minutes past one in
the morning struck just under the bow, and word
quickly got round the ship that the jolt was in fact
due to a malfunction in one of the machinery spaces.
  Meanwhile, investigations into the cause of the
explosion were being carried out in the ROYAL OAK
and U 47, under the command of Kapitanleutnant
Gunther Prien, was busy reversing course to fire a
torpedo from her stern tube.   The torpedo was fired
but failed to detonate.   The submarine then carried
out a search for further targets but failed to find
any so commenced a second attack on ROYAL OAK,
firing three further torpedoes some twelve minutes
after the first attack.   From the second encounter
the first torpedo exploded on the Starboard side
somewhere beneath the Boys messdeck, whilst the
second, slightly aft of this, devastated the Stokers
messdeck.   The third torpedo wreaked similar havoc
to the Marines messdeck.   One of the hits also
involved a small arms magazine and the ship
immediately began to list as balls of flaming
cordite incinerated anything that would burn as they
blasted through messdecks and passageways.   Many of
the crew were burned alive as they slept in their
hammocks; others were badly scalded as clouds of
steam engulfed them.

      Most of the crew were asleep in the citadel below
the armour-plated deck.   Hatches through this deck
were protected by a 2" armour plate and were mounted
on runners.   As the ship began to list to
starboard, the armour plates began to slide across
the hatches, cutting off the means of escape for the
crew and unless someone pulled on the toggle that
opened the hatch, escape was impossible.   It was
not possible to pull on the toggle and climb through
the hatch at the same time.   As the ship listed
further to starboard, water cascaded into her
through the portholes, the first row of which were
situated only ten feet above the sea.   To assist
with ventilation whilst in harbour, many of the
portholes were open, and wooden light excluding
ventilators masked the portholes to preserve the
blackout that was in force.

      HMS ROYAL OAK took only 13 minutes to turn
completely over and sink with over 800 men still
trapped inside her.   A few men escaped from the
portholes after she sank by removing the wing nuts
on the light excluding ventilators, and, floating to
the surface, they emerged in a sea thick with
furnace fuel oil, which was escaping from the
ruptured fuel tanks.   The thick, tar like,
substance made swimming very difficult and everyone
in the water were coated thickly with the oil; some
even swallowed large quantities of it.   HMS
PEGASUS, anchored some 1500 yards north of ROYAL
OAK, alerted by the initial explosion, sent one boat
to investigate.   On hearing the explosions from the
second attack, PEGASUS sent all boats to the rescue.
  Before daylight dawned it became apparent that
ROYAL OAK had sunk with a loss of 833 officers and
men, whilst some 420 or so crew members were
rescued.   Considering that the war was only a
matter of a few weeks old, the ROYAL OAK was the
second major loss for the Royal Navy which, on 17th
September, had lost the aircraft carrier HMS
COURAGEOUS, also in a torpedo attack, with a loss of
518 of her crew.

      Many of the survivors were suffering from burns and
exposure and the majority were clad in only
underwear.   Everything they possessed, including
their pay, which they had received a few hours
before on the Friday, lay on the seabed.   About one
dozen of the crew were in a very serious way,
suffering from burns caused by either the cordite
flash or the clouds of steam.   Shortly after 8am,
Billy Tate and the other seriously injured were
transferred from HMS PEGASUS onto a tender belonging
to the hospital ship SAINT ABBA.   The tender then
made its way across Scapa Bay to Lyness naval base
where the injured were transferred to the hospital
ship.   There, the medical staff began the treatment
of the horrific burns and other injuries.   On
Tuesday 17th, the Germans conducted an air raid on
the Fleet Anchorage at Scapa Flow and HMS IRON DUKE
was holed by two bombs which landed alongside the
ship and she had to be beached before she sank


      HMS Royal Oak firing a broadside

      Many of the survivors of ROYAL OAK were embarked in
the accommodation ship VOLTAIRE and they had a good
view of the attack.   Bombs also rained down around
the hospital ship SAINT ABBA, which healed over
precariously and the injured were rocked about in
their cots in the sick bay.   Miraculously she
escaped a direct hit.   Small boats took the ROYAL
OAK survivors embarked in VOLTAIRE to the island of
Flotta in the middle of Scapa Flow.   There, they
were landed and told to scatter until after the air
raid.   Captain Benn of HMS ROYAL OAK protested to
the Admiralty and requested that his men should be
removed from the dangers at Scapa Flow.   Following
his protest, the men on Flotta and the remainder of
ROYAL OAK survivors were taken to the port of
Scrabster on the mainland for transfer to Thurso and
the rail journey South.   The SAINT ABBA, with the
seriously injured men aboard, sailed during the
early evening for Invergordon Naval Base where the
men were transferred to the new Naval hospital. 
Families of the more seriously injured were sent


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