In the early hours of October 14, 1939, when the battleship ‘Royal Oak’ was torpedoed in the harbour at Scapa Flow, 810 officers and men lost their lives. Those who managed to survive the ordeal had great difficulty in reaching safety, as it shows in the following stories originally printed in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express.
Vincent Merchant, 19, of Doncaster, described how he was asleep in his hammock when the first explosion occurred.
“I ran to the upper deck to see what happened”, he said. “There was a second explosion twenty minutes later, followed by a third and then a fourth. By that time the ship was tilting. She was sinking rapidly.
“Remembering what happened on the ‘Courageous’ and the lesson that taught us, I stripped myself of all my clothing and, tying my safety belt around my waist, dived into the water. Search lights were playing over the surface and I could see hundreds of heads bobbing around.
“Great volumes of oil started to belch up to the surface. My eyes started to smart and the faces of all the men swimming in the water turned a greasy black. I was caught in a searchlight for several minutes and saw that two of my pals were swimming alongside me. Later, however, they had cramp and disappeared.
“A small boat passed near at hand with someone on board shouting for survivors. I ‘ahoyed’, but they evidently did not hear me and the boat disappeared in the darkness.
“I swam and swam for I don’t know how long, but I must have gone about a mile and a half when I felt the rock under me. I scarcely remember what happened to me after that. It was a nightmare.
“I have just a vague recollection of climbing up the sheer face of a cliff about 20 to 30 feet high.
“Another figure was climbing behind me, but he slipped and crashed along the rocks below. He must have been killed or drowned. I lay down on top of the cliff and lost consciousness.
“Then I heard someone shouting from the direction of the sea, they told me not to try to climb down again as they would send someone along the top of the cliff.”
Another survivor was Paymaster-Lieutenant Harrison, of Glasgow, whose birthday was just fifty-eight minutes old when the first explosion occurred. This is his story:
“I was in the mess at two minutes to one when I heard a minor explosion. I was just about to open a parcel from my wife, a birthday present, but I replaced the string and went up on deck.
“Three minutes after I left the mess there was a violent explosion. I was pitched forward.
“Then there came another explosion. I joined a queue and was making to go overboard on the port side when there came a fourth explosion.
“I managed to get to a canvas lifeboat, but after I had clung to it for a while another poor fellow arrived almost exhausted. I hoisted him into my grip on the boat and swam away.
“A piece of wrecking came along and I used it for a swimming support. Later I bumped into a log, and with wood support under both arms I swam to a drifter and was taken aboard. It was a lucky birthday for me.”
Lieutenant Harrison still has his birthday present. He was clinging to it when he was rescued!
Rear-Admiral HEC Blagrove was among the officers lost when the Royal Oak went down. He had been appointed Admiral superintendent of Chatham Dockyard as of October 2nd (seen below)