12-Jun-2004 -- On June 11th, at 7 p.m. we took the almost brandnew "Northlink"-ferry
"Hamnavoe" at Scrabster near Thurso.
"Hamnavoe" is Celtic and means "Home Port", "Safe Haven". She links the port
of Scrabster with Stromness on Mainland Island of the Orkneys, and the
voyage over the Pentland Firth takes one and a half hour.
Even though only a passenger in this case, Captain Peter is of course not
prepared to travel just sitting in the restaurant, in the bar or in a deck
chair and glaring onto the Sea, but he immediately requested to get
admittance to the navigation bridge, which has
been granted to us by the Master with pleasure. Werner, having already
joined twice Captain Peter's ship, the "Nova Scotia", had now the
opportunity to see a real modern navigation bridge, - equipped with all the
most recent technology available, as electronic mapping, video surveillance
and a fully automated ballast control system.
Approaching the Orkneys from the South the first attraction to see is "The
Old Man of Hoy" on the island
of Hoy, - a vertical column created by erosion in millions of years.
After arrival at Stromnes we went to the capital of the Orkney Islands,
Kirkwall, where we checked in the "Kirkwall Hotel", located directly on the
Port of Kirkwall.
The next morning we went to the close by confluence, which
was easy to find and access. The view to the South shows
the radio masts, and to the North we see the Wide Firth.
Looking towards West we see parts of Kirkwall.
Another important and very famous Bay in the Orkneys is Scapa Flow.
The audacious attack on the battleship "Royal Oak" by U-47 at the base at
Scapa Flow in October 1939 is one of the legendary stories in naval history.
The raid on Scapa Flow made British High Command realize that they were not
so invincible - which in turn was to lead to the beginning of a more
concerted effort to combat the U-Boot threat.
Scapa Flow was the main fleet anchorage of the Royal Navy, a kind of a
"British Pearl Harbor" - an obviously impregnable fortress, particularly
against submarine attack. Indeed, the only previous attempt by a German
submarine (U-116) in 1918 to make its way into the British base had ended in
According to Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Dönitz, the Chief in Command of the
German U-Boot fleet in WW II, any attack on Scapa Flow would need nerves of
steel and the highest level of skill. He used to call it "the boldest of
bold enterprises", for any attacker had to deal with not only the heavy
defences, but also the unpredictable currents, powerful enough to carry a
U-Boot off course and into danger. But Dönitz began to collect intelligence
on this British anchorage. Subsequently it had been concluded that a
penetration into Scapa Flow might be feasible only through the Holm Sound,
and that the raid would have to take place at night and during slack water
(i.e. at the turn of the tide). The main difficulty, however, would concern
After reaching his conclusion, only one thing remained - the task of finding
the right man to carry out the raid. In his post-war memoirs, the Grand
"I decided to allow an attempt to be made. My choice fell upon
Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant-Commander) Prien, the captain of U-47. He, in my
opinion, possessed all the personal qualities and the professional ability
required. I handed over to him the whole file on the subject and left him
free to accept the task or not."
And Prien, the esteemed commander of U-47 wanted to do it. As Prien himself
"I felt a tremendous tension within me. Would it be possible to bring it
off? My common sense calculated and questioned the chances, but my will had
already decided that it could be brought off. My thoughts were obsessed with
the single idea of Scapa Flow."
The date set for the "Einsatzorder Nordsee Nr. 16" (Operation Order North
Sea No. 16) was the night of 13th to 14th October, when both periods of
slack water would take place during darkness. By 4 October, all other
U-Boots operating around the Orkneys were withdrawn from the area.
Armed with a full complement of torpedoes, U-47 gently moved out from its
base at Kiel, the major German Navy port on the Baltic Sea, on 8th October,
taking a carefully-considered route to the Orkneys - lying on the bottom
during daytime and keeping strict radio silence. The mission had been
planned with the highest level of security, and all information had been
transmitted word of mouth only.
When Prien on board made the announcement about the task to his crew he
recalled being able to hear the dripping of water, so still was the silence.
On being informed of the boat's destination U-47's First Officer replied
nonchalantly "das geht schon in Ordnung, Herr Kaleu ." (that will be OK,
On 13th october, at 23:31 hrs U-47 surfaced at Rose Ness, and carefully
started to make its final approach heading NW up the Holm Sound. Moving
slowly along the surface. The main defences consisted of booms - large
defensive barriers - and the small Kirk Sound to the North of the little
island of Lamb Holm was protected by a number of sunken wrecks or
"blockships", strategically placed to prevent a possible submarine attack.
The Kirk Sound itself was little more than half a kilometre in width; while
the intelligence reports gathered before the raid had suggested that the
route was not completely impenetrable, it didn't fail to mention the obvious
dangers. It was through this small stretch of water that Prien was to
With so little room to play with and under constant fear of the
unpredictable currents, the path through the Kirk Sound was a perilous one;
having studied the situation and the position of the three partly-visible
blockships, Prien instructed his helmsman to take the narrow channel between
two of them, running with the current, and there was a particularly
heart-stopping moment as the U-Boot found itself momentarily grounded when
its hull brushed the anchor cable of one of the blockships. After blowing
the tanks U-47 managed to free itself and rejoin the current, only to come
so close to the shore that it found itself illuminated by the headlights of
a passing taxi car in the vicinity of St. Mary's Village.
By just after midnight on the morning of 14th October the U-Boot had finally
made its way into the harbour. At 00:27 hrs, Prien entered into his logbook
the famous words:
"WIR SIND IN SCAPA FLOW!"
The scene was now set for one of the most dramatic incidents of the war:
Continuing westwards after entering the British base, two vessels were
spotted, one of which was the "Royal Oak" and the other the veteran seaplane
carrier "Pegasus". Having decided on the target "Royal Oak", U-47 silently
moved in for the kill.
At 00:58 hrs, Prien gave the command to launch the first of two
three-torpedo salvoes at the two targets from the bow tubes, one at the
Northern target ("Pegasus") and two at the lower ("Royal Oak"). The first
torpedo had struck the "Royal Oak" at 01:04 hrs, and the crew were clearly
shaken but not too stirred. It was assumed by the crew, still under the
false illusion that they were immune to enemy attack, that the sudden
shudder had been caused by an internal explosion. Not thinking anything of
it, many of them returned to their beds.
Having waited a short while for the reaction from the battleship, that never
came, the crew of U-47 busily set to reloading the bow tubes. Reloaded and
ready, Prien maneouvred his U-Boot for the fatal attack, launching three
more torpedoes at the "Royal Oak".
After around three minutes (01:16 hrs), the hull of the British vessel was
torn apart. Very quickly the battleship started to list heavily. A mere
thirteen minutes later it had sunk to the bottom, taking with it the lives
of 833 sailors, among them Rear Admiral Henry E. Blagrove, the commander of
the 2nd Battle Squadron.
Amid the chaos it had caused, U-47 quickly and quietly slipped out of the
Flow back through the Kirk Sound, escaping both the now-awakened Royal Navy
destroyers and the current running at a hair-raising ten miles per hour.
Contrary to reports put out by the BBC suggesting that the offending U-Boot
had been sunk, by 02:15 hrs, Prien was safely out in the open waters of the
North Sea on its way to base at Wilhelmshaven. Even when U-47 was well on
its way home, the British Admiralty refused to believe that the Royal Oak
had been sunk as a result of a torpedo attack, insisting on that it had sunk
due to a series of explosions.
It was not until 07:46 hrs that the British realised what had actually
happened, after divers had been sent down to examine the wreck where they
found the remnants of a type G7e/2874 electrical torpedo.
U-47's journey back home was a big celebration. Prien was soon to become
known as "Der Stier von Scapa Flow", ("The Bull of Scapa Flow") On arrival
at Wilhelmshaven on 17th October Prien and his crew received the
much-expected heroes' welcome and were greeted by U-Boot commander Dönitz
himself. Prien and his crew were even taken to Berlin for lunching with
Adolf Hitler. Prien received the "Ritterkreuz" (Knight's Cross). The rest of
the crew was awarded with the "Eisernes Kreuz" (Iron Cross, either Frist or
Second Class). Prien and his crew were celebrated like film stars, besieged
by armies of autograph hunters.
The attack by U-47 on the "Royal Oak" was without doubt one of the most
significant actions of the war. The then First Lord of the Admiralty,
Winston Churchill, who in an annoucement after the attack grudgingly
described Prien's feat as "a remarkable exploit of professional skill and
The Admiralty were determined that what had happened on the night of 13th to
14th October 1939 would never happen again. A week after U-47's escapade,
several additional blockships were sunk, sealing off the Kirk Sound
completely. Later other potential gaps were also plugged, mainly by the
construction of concrete dams, known as "Churchill barriers".
The lengths to which the Admiralty went in sealing off everything up to the
last inch of the Flow was due to the fear and respect they held towards the
German U-Boots and their crews.
(Recommended literature on the German U-Boot-Weapon and the Raid of Scapa
Dönitz, Karl, Großadmiral - Memoirs: "Zehn Jahre und zwanzig Tage" (Ten
Years and Twenty Days)
Prien, Günther, Kapitänleutnant - "Mein Weg nach Scapa Flow" (My Way to
see also: www.u-47.org
Sheep are plentiful on the Orkneys and the Stone Rings from prehistoric times are nowadays inscribed in
the World's Heritage List.
At 1630 we took the "Hamnavoe" back to Scrabster and travelled South until
Golspie, where we checked in the "Granite Villa" for overnight.