Other interesting notes and tales from Scapa
Compiled by Dougie Martindale
The absence of the Home Fleet from Scapa Flow on the night of the 13/14 October 1939 came about by a foray into the North Sea by the battleship Gneisenau, the cruiser Kln and a number of destroyers. The Gneisenau sortie had been planned by Admiral Saalwchter, who had been unaware of U-47's mission due to the need for security. Had his sortie not been carried out, U-47 would have had many more targets to choose from.
The intention was to lure the Home Fleet out of Scapa Flow, plus the Humber Force out of Rosyth on the east coast of Scotland, into the reach of Luftwaffe bombers and four U-boats. The plan would also divert attention away from the Graf Spee and the Deutschland that were operating in the Atlantic. As planned, the two fleets departed from their bases in search of the Gneisenau group. The veteran battleship Royal Oak laboured behind the Home Fleet as it was too slow to keep up. When the Luftwaffe bombers and the four U-boats did not achieve any success, the Gneisenau group was ordered to withdraw.
Learning of the withdrawal, Admiral Forbes made a decision which ultimately robbed Prien and his crew of more juicy targets than the aging Royal Oak. The Humber Force was to return to Rosyth, and the Home Fleet was to disperse. Of the Home Fleet, the Hood, Nelson and Rodney were to sail for Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland, and the Royal Oak, Repulse and the aircraft carrier Furious were to return to Scapa Flow. A German reconnaissance aircraft noted the presence of the Royal Oak, Repulse and Furious while flying over Scapa Flow at 1500 hours on 12 October. When approaching the Orkneys, U-47 spent a lot of time on the sea bed, thus missing the operational report that was based on the German reconnaissance photos taken on the same day. The Furious departed from Scapa Flow, and was not present during U-47's attack. On Admiral Forbes orders, the Repulse had left Scapa Flow for a Rosyth dock at 1734 hours on the 12 October. The Pegasus anchored in the position which the Repulse had vacated. R.F. Nichols RN stated that the Pegasus was anchored at 1,400 yards (0.8 mile) at 340 degrees from the Royal Oak.
The men aboard U-47 saw two ships in the north-east corner of Scapa Flow - the Royal Oak and the seaplane tender Pegasus to the north. All the officers believed that northern ship - actually the Pegasus - was a battlecruiser. This mistake may have been due in part to poor visibility and the great stress they were under. Matrose Obergefreiter Gerd Hänsel, who was on U-47's conning tower behind Prien, heard his commander say that as the Renown was on operation elsewhere, the northern ship had to be the Repulse. Prien was also mistaken in his belief that the first torpedo which exploded had hit the bow of the "northern" ship; the torpedo actually hit the bow of the Royal Oak.
Since the reconnaissance photographs taken at 1500 hours on the 12 October showed the Repulse to the north of the Royal Oak, the Germans understandably assumed that U-47 had torpedoed the Repulse. The Goebbels-founded newspaper Der Angriff then announced on 15 October that both the Royal Oak and the Repulse had been torpedoed at Scapa Flow. This was news to the Admiralty, who knew that the Repulse had not been even been present in Scapa Flow on the night in question, let alone hit.
Prien sent a radio signal to Dönitz asserting that he had sunk a ship belonging to the Royal Sovereign class. He and his crew did not know which particular ship belonging to this class they had sunk. The Germans only learned that it was the Royal Oak when the BBC announced the loss of this veteran battleship at 11am on 14 October.
In The Phantom Of Scapa Flow by Alexandre Korganoff (Ian Allan Ltd., 1974) the author suggests that the ship which the crew of U-47 misidentified as the Repulse was actually the Iron Duke. This post-war theory was taken seriously, especially by Germans who did not want to admit that Prien could have made the embarrassing error of mistaking the small and distinctive seaplane tender Pegasus for the large battlecruiser Repulse.
A post-war story published on Christmas Eve December 1947 in the Berlin newspaper Der Kurier maintained that the hero of Scapa Flow was not Prien but a man called Alfred Wehring. The story is as follows - In 1923 Wehring joins the Intelligence Service of the Navy. In order to have a cover he is sent to Switzerland to learn watchmaking. In 1927, with Swiss papers in the name of Alfred Ortel, he settles in the Orkneys, opening a watchmaking and jewellery shop in Kirkwall. When, in 1939, he learns of the existence of a gap in the Scapa defences, he broadcasts the information to the naval attache in The Hague, Captain Baron von Bulow. Prien picks Ortel up in the submarine B-06 (?), whereupon he, not Spahr, pilots the U-boat into Scapa Flow. Then he returns to Germany on the U-boat. This is an interesting story, but obviously complete nonsense that belongs in the files of a Hollywood scriptwriter.
Black Saturday by Alexander McKee (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1959), which was published while the Official Secrets Act kept a ban on details of the disaster, seriously suggests that the Royal Oak was sunk by sabotage, and that U-47 was never in Scapa Flow. This came about because survivors of the Royal Oak could not come to terms with the fact that a submarine could have penetrated their home base, which they had viewed as impregnable. The fact that the diver's report states that the plating was bent inboard means that sabotage through an internal explosion was impossible.
In The Phantom Of Scapa Flow by Alexandre Korganoff (Ian Allan Ltd., 1974) the author suggests that the ship which the crew of U-47 misidentified as the Repulse was actually the Iron Duke. This theory was taken seriously, especially by Germans who did not want to admit that Prien could have made the embarrassing error of mistaking the small and distinctive seaplane tender Pegasus for the large battlecruiser Repulse. R.F. Nichols RN stated that the Pegasus was anchored at 1,400 yards (0.8 mile) at 340 degrees from the Royal Oak. He also says that the Repulse had been in this position, but had sailed at 16.00 hours on the 13th. Of all the positions suggested, this seems the most likely.
G7e electric-powered torpedoes were used rather than G7a air-powered torpedoes. These had standard guidance systems and were fitted with a Pi 1 detonator pistol. This pistol had a new, untested magnetic influence detonator as well as a standard impact detonator. Due to problems with the magnetic influence detonator, a cut-out switch was added which allowed torpedoes to be set for impact detonation only (AZ setting - this was short for Abstandzundung, which means contact setting). This was the setting used on the torpedoes used during the Scapa Flow attack.
The map published by the Admiralty under No. 35 shows the wreck of the Royal Oak with its bow slightly east of north-east.
The snorting bull was painted upon the tower on the return journey to Germany. Therefore, it was not, as is widely believed, present during the Scapa attack.
As a direct result of U-47's penetration of Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy was forced to resort to other anchorages, which the enterprising Germans quickly mined. On 21 November, in the Firth of Forth, the new cruiser HMS Belfast struck a magnetic mine which broke her keel. Then, on 4 December 1939, the battleship HMS Nelson was damaged by a mine in Loch Ewe. Four other vessels were sunk by these mines, all as a direct consequence of U-47's action in Scapa Flow.
There were myths alluding that Prien did not die at sea. Hoaxers, mad people and even a minister claim to have seen Prien alive after the end of the war. There was even a daft story about Prien perishing in a concentration camp for mutiny; another maintained that he served in a penal battalion on the Russian Front. Some people have very active imaginations.