Battle of Scapa Flow
Celebration in Berlin
Even before his arrival in Wilshelmhaven on the morning of October 17, the entire nation of Germany was already celebrating the remarkable exploits of U-47 and its commander. As a commemorative, the First Watch officer Endrass painted the outline of a charging bull on the conning tower of the boat. It was to become Prien’s personal insignia and later, the official insignia of the Wegener Flotilla. As U-47 sailed into harbor, crews of the battlecruiser Scharnhorst cheered and saluted the returning of the Bull of Scapa Flow.
They were met at the dock by two beaming admirals: Donitz and Raeder who presented Prien with the Iron Cross First Class and to all others, the Iron Cross Second Class. But Hitler himself was ecstatic and was anxious to meet the Reich’s new hero. That afternoon the entire crew of U-47 was flown to Berlin in Hitler’s personal airplane; where they were paraded in a motorcade through the streets of Berlin. Thousands turned out, cheering and lining the streets, whipped into a frenzy of enthusiasm. A brass band, guard of honor, flowers, candies, lunch with Hitler, press conference, speeches, and even more speeches. Prien and his crew were treated like celebrities. It was the greatest and the most grandiose celebration of a naval battle victory in Germany, or any country in the world, and such a celebration was never equaled then, or now in the history of modern submarine warfare.
At the Chancellery, Prien was further awarded with the coveted Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, pinned personally on his breast by Hitler. Worn prominently on the neck, it immediately identified the holder as a true hero of the Third Reich. The Bull of Scapa Flow was the first servicemen in the German Armed forces to earn this prestigious medal.
The celebration and ceremonies continued for several days. The American journalist William L. Shirer noted in his diary that Prien was “a clean-cut, cocky, fanatical Nazi, and obviously very capable”.
And when the Fuhrer addressed the nation, “it was a unique triumph. A deed of great daring, achieved in the very place where a weak Germany had surrendered its entire fleet in 1918”.
Impact of the Raid
The German victory of Scapa Flow was not so much strategic, but the main benefit lies within its propaganda value.
The aging Royal Oak was a veteran of World War One, an already outclassed warship by modern standards when compared to the Nelson or Hood. With her maximum speed of 20 knots, she could not keep pace with the Home Fleet, and neither could she outgun or outrun the modern Kriegsmarine battleships of the Bismarck or Scharnhorst class. In fact, the sinking of the HMS Courageous on September 17 1939 by Otto Schuhart (U-29) was far more valuable from a strategic sense. The same could be said about the sinking of the battlecruiser Hood, or the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.
But yet the victory was exalted because of its connection to the German Navy’s failure during World War One. The defeat of the German Navy was so closely associated with Scapa Flow, that at last the ghosts of defeat, and the impregnable British fortress that plagued the Germans had been banished forever.
In addition, most admirals at that time, including those of the Kriegsmarine subscribed vehemently to the unsinkable battleship – giant behemoths which could not only fight it out in a battle, but also afforded a nation its “superpower” status. Submarines and U-boats were considered primitive and troublesome, but up to that point, the sinking of the Royal Oak proved that a single cheap U-boat, manned merely by a forty-four man crew could sink a huge and expensive battleship such as the Royal Oak, manned by over 1,200 men. What more if the submarine’s versatility and firepower was brought to bear with a large fleet of U-boats against Great Britain’s thinly spread merchant ships. Thus the idea that the Royal Navy could be defeated began to take root.
As a result of the raid, Grand Admiral Raeder promoted Donitz to Rear Admiral. Having gained Hitler’s attention, Donitz seized the opportunity to press upon his Fuhrer for higher U-boat construction priorities – to which the Fuhrer grudgingly agreed. Almost simultaneously, Hitler eased the political restraints governing U-boats; all enemy ships including liners could be torpedoed on sight. For all purposes, by November 17 1939, the official policy against British and French shipping was unrestricted submarine warfare.
For the British, the attack ended the careers of several naval figures. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty escaped only because he was just recently appointed. After the U-47 hoopla, the Flow’s defenses were further beefed up with additional blockships sunk, completely sealing off the channel. Additional barriers and booms were further constructed over the next few months, in what the Admiralty deemed as a tragedy never to happen again. Meanwhile, until Scapa Flow could be made secure again, the British Home Fleet dispersed to other anchorages. As planned, Donitz had already mined the most likely refuges. Mines damaged the battleship Nelson and cruiser Belfast and another four vessels were sunk.
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