On the night of October 13, 1939, Kriegsmarine Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien and the crew of U-47 launched one of the most daring submarine raids of World War II. With hostilities barely a month old, the Kriegsmarine dispatched Prien to the Royal Navy’s vaunted Scapa Flow anchorage with orders to penetrate the harbor and sink one of the Royal Navy’s capital ships. Scapa Flow, situated in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, provided the Royal Navy with a vast secure anchorage in which it could maintain its Home Fleet. Basing the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow allowed the Royal Navy to more effectively deny the Kriegsmarine access to the Atlantic via the North Sea. A succesful strike within the protected confines of Scapa Flow would not only cause serious consternation in the British Admiralty, but it would also serve as a propaganda coup for the Kriegsmarine as Scapa Flow was the site of the internment and scuttling of the German Imperial High Seas Fleet following World War I.
Prien and his crew deftly negotiated the outlying islands, blockships and harbor defenses and shortly after midnight on the morning of October 14, arrived within the anchorage. By an act of Divine Providence, the Royal Navy had recently removed its most important capital ships from the anchorage and Prien was forced to settle upon a World War I vintage Revenge class battleship, the HMS Royal Oak, as his target. Two years later, a similar act of Divine Providence would occur when the US Navy’s aircraft carriers were notably absent from Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Prien lined up his boat and launched a salvo of four torpedoes, only one of which found its mark. After two more attempts, Prien’s torpedoes finally struck home and the Royal Oak swiftly capsized and disappeared beneath the cold waters of Scapa Flow.
A combination of Prien’s skill and confusion within the anchorage allowed the U-47 to successfully escape. Upon their arrival back in Germany, Prien and his crew were feted and presented with Iron Crosses for their incredible feat. Britain, meanwhile, mourned the loss of 833 of Royal Oak’s crew, many of whom were mere boys in training. Although the strike was successful, it failed to accomplish anything strategically significant. The Royal Oak, while an important capital ship, was already obsolete and not essential to Britain’s continued naval dominance. Nor did the strike enable the Kriegsmarine to have a clearer route to the North Atlantic. The Royal Oak was never salvaged and today still lies at the bottom of Scapa Flow.