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Home » U-Boat Historical Battles » Battle of Scapa Flow » Retreat from Scapa Flow

Battle of Scapa Flow

Retreat from Scapa Flow

At 1.28am, believing he had been seen, and that destroyers would leave their berths any minute now, Prien traveled at high speed towards the exit, at Kirk Sound. He still had five serviceable torpedoes but would need at least 30 minutes to reload them. His decision to get out was correct, as the tide was ebbing fast and a third attack would have claimed an inconsequential Pegasus.

After a short run, Prien reached the entrance of Kirk Sound. This time he took the southern path, through the blockship Minich and the coast of Lamb Holm – the gap Donitz had recommended. Despite strong currents, in excess of ten knots now running through the channel, Prien and his crew managed to pass the southern blockship “with nothing to spare.” Clear of the blockships and the restraining cables, Prien ordered for flank speed ahead towards Holm Sound. At 2.15am, he logged, “we are once more outside”

U-47 arrives in Wilhelmshaven Salute by battlecruiser Scharnhorst
U-47 arrives in Wilhelmshaven after sinking the Royal Oak. In the backdrop is the cruiser Emden. Salute by battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Prien saluted his brave crew, and broke the shattering news to them. The U-47 had crept into the impregnable Scapa Flow, sunk a battleship, damaged another (to his misjudgment) and successfully crept out. Their faith in the mission and the crew who executed them, was completely vindicated. He let them cheer and announced “we are going home”. The mood was one of celebration, but U-47 still maintained radio silence.

Across the Flow, the news of the Royal Oak caused a universal upheaval within the ranks of the Admiralty. The British were still debating the cause of the sinking. Reports had suggested internal explosions, yet others had pointed to German aircraft. But amongst the survivors was Captain Benn, the commanding officer of the Royal Oak. He was convinced that his ship had fell victim to torpedo attack. The loss of the ship with over 800 of its crew was bad news enough; but a torpedo attack in Scapa Flow? Senior Naval officers rejected that notion. But to put the matter to rest once and for all, it was decided to send divers down to investigate.

By the first light of day, divers reached the wreck site. Lying in less than 100 feet of water, the giant hull of the mighty battleship was clearly discernible on the clear sunny day. Hundreds of bodies littered the bottom of the ocean floor. Divers were instructed to knock on the steel structure to see if any survivors were still trapped below decks. The structure was still intact, the guns and decks were still attached. But there were three big holes, gaping low down in the hull. The divers concentrated their search in the areas surrounding the holes, and found what they were looking for - the propeller of a German torpedo. That placed the matter beyond doubt and silenced the mouths of the disbelieving officers. Royal Navy destroyers were dispatched to comb the basin at Scapa Flow. Prien was long gone, but it was a week before the search was called off.

Royal Oak wreck
The Royak Oak, still lies upturned at the bottom of the Flow and is a designated war grave. Photo thanks to Ocean Optics.

The sad news was broken to the public on the same day. The BBC announced the sinking of the Royal Oak, adding that the attacking U-boat had also been sunk. Donitz first learnt about the news of Prien’s feat through the BBC, but pending any news from Prien, all public comment and festivities were withheld. Details were sketchy, but it was clear to him that U-47 had crept into Scapa Flow and had sunk a battleship. But did U-47 successfully make it out of the British base? It was not until the early hours of October 16, when Prien broke radio silence that Donitz was beaming with pride.

Next: Celebration in Berlin

U-995 German Type VIIC U-Boat

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