Nightmare at Scapa Flow: The Truth About the Sinking of HMS “Royal Oak”

To better understand my grandfather’s experience aboard HMS Royal Oak, I wanted to discover more about the events leading up to and following the sinking of the ship.

There have been several books touching upon the topic, including a auto-biography of U47’s commander Prien, published by the Nazis as propaganda during the war and later disowned by the ghost writter when a post-war reissue was proposed, without correction for the true facts; and naval histories whose accounts have focused on official documentation contained in naval archives. Weaver’s Nightmare at Scapa Flow is compiled from a range of sources, including personal interviews with survivors and witnesses and spouses of central figures. He allows the stories to speak for themselves, reflecting the emotions and atmosphere of the time, something I wanted to absorb to help me in making my work.

Source: ‘U-47 prepares to leave Kiel for Scapa Flow. Note the drawing of the skull and crossbones, adorned with the top hat and umbrella that were frequently used as mocking symbols of the then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.’

The book conveys the story of the horrific deaths of 844 men and boys; the overwhelming responsibilities upon the armed forces in the early months of the war and a suggestion that all was not as well-prepared as it could have been; the heroism and powerlessness of ordinary men in the face of geopolitical and national power. There are two textual references that I plan to use in my project:

  • “When I saw the first burning tanker in front of me and thought of the wretched hundreds of men perishing in this dome of flames, I felt like a murderer before the scene of his crime.” Words of German U-boat commander, Günther Prien, who was said to be unhappy participating in the hero’s welcome on his return to Germany (personally presented with the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler) and critical of the biography pen by a ghost writer.
  • ‘This marks the wreck of HMS Royal Oak and the grave of her crew. Respect their resting place. Unauthorised diving prohibited.’ This is the inscription on the buoy that I photographed from a distance when visiting Scapa Flow. The cold factuality of this notice strikes me, it is a keep-out sign with no sentiment of memorial – there is a land-based memorial site.


Weaver, H.G., & Weaver, H.J. (2012). Nightmare at Scapa Flow: The Truth About the Sinking of HMS “Royal Oak” [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply