Royal Oak 73rd Anniversary Memorial Services 2012

by Andrew Hamilton

‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn’

“It was very emotional, as always” — these were the words of HMS Royal Oak survivor Kenneth Toop on the 73rd anniversary of the sinking of the battleship in Scapa Flow.

On a bright, crisp morning on Sunday, Mr Toop was joined by several family members and friends of those who served on the Royal Oak, members of the Royal British Legion, the Royal Navy’s Northern Diving Group, and others, in paying tribute to the 834 men and boys who lost their lives on October 14, 1939.

Mr Toop, 89, who was a 16-year-old boy sailor on board the ship on that fateful night when she was hit by the torpedoes of a German U-boat, is now the honorary secretary of the Royal Oak Association. He was making the journey to the annual memorial service for the fifteenth time, along with his wife, Lilian, from his home in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Mr Toop, who was the only survivor to attend the service, added: “We’re very appreciative of all the kindness shown to us when we come up here.”

Among others who lost a family member when the Royal Oak went down was David Balls from London, who made the long trip north to pay tribute to a father he never knew. Mr Balls was only 18 months old when his father, Captain H. E. Balls, lost his life on the Revenge-class battleship.

“I never met him and don’t remember anything about him,” he said. “I don’t have any pictures at all of myself with my father which, for me, is very sad. “It’s been an emotional day.”

Mr Balls, who was visiting Orkney for the first time, was accompanied on the trip by his sons, Patrick and Dominic.

“We decided, all three of us, to come over here to pay our respects and to lay a wreath,” he said. “It’s something I have always intended to do, but wanted my two boys to come with me because he was their grandfather. “It’s important they are aware of where he lost his life.”

Also paying tribute was Kinlay Francis, representing the Royal Naval Association (RNA), who laid a plaque in memory of two 15-year-old boys at the site of the Royal Oak’s final resting place. Mr Francis said: “I was asked by the RNA to lay a sealed plaque of the pictures of two Royal Marine buglers on behalf of veteran Len Chester.

“Len served as the bugle boy, or boy bugler as more commonly known, on the battleships HMS Iron Duke and King George V between 1939 and 1942 in Scapa Flow. “Len was best friends with the two bugle boys — Harry Mountford and Aubrey Priestley — who went down with the Oak when she was torpedoed. Both were aged 15. “He was unable to make it up to Orkney this year, so I promised him I would help him fulfil his wishes to lay his mind to rest over losing his friends 73 years ago.”

The inscription on the plaque, handcrafted by Mr Francis, read: “HMS Royal Oak ‘We shall remember them’, H. Mountford, A. Priestley, 14th October, 1939.”

Mr Francis added: “The reason I am doing this is I have a tour company called Orkney Uncovered, in which I do wartime/military history tours in and around Orkney. “Many of the people I take on tour are past and present military personnel, and I have made it my mission to help many of the veterans from World War Two that are still alive to tell their story about Scapa Flow.”

The commemoration events started at 9.30am on Sunday with a short service on Scapa Pier conducted by the Rev Don Currie, from the Baptist Church in Kirkwall. Laurence Tait, from the Kirkwall City Pipe Band, played the traditional lament Flowers of the Forest, before James Burgon, standing in at the last minute for Billy Stanger, played The Last Post.

Bryan Taylor, president of the Kirkwall Branch of the Royal British Legion, recited Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, which includes the immortal lines:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old, Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”

A two-minute silence was then observed.

After the service, the group of around 100 people wishing to pay their respects headed out into Scapa Flow on the Flotta Lass — provided by Talisman, the operators of the Flotta Oil Terminal — to the buoy marking the final resting place of the Royal Oak, 120 feet below the waves.

At the site a number of floral tributes were laid, led by the Lord-Lieutenant of Orkney, Dr Tony Trickett.

On returning to Scapa, further tributes were made at the memorial unveiled at last year’s commemorations, where Mr Toop led a prayer of remembrance for those who lost their lives.

The Kirkwall Branch of the Royal British Legion then played host to those who had attended, and there was a surprise presentation of the naval ensign — attached to the Royal Oak since last year’s commemoration service — to Morgan Wood.

The presentation was made in honour of Mr Wood’s 17-year-old brother Stanley, who died on the Royal Oak. Mr Wood, who travelled from Liverpool with his four children, said: “It’s fantastic to have this keepsake. It’s beyond me absolutely to put into words what this means.” Speaking on behalf of the family, Mr Wood’s son John also gave an emotional thank-you to Agnes McBarron, the area co-ordinator of the Royal Oak Association, for organising the day’s events, and to the Royal Navy’s Northern Diving Group, who change the ensign each year.

He said: “Thank you for this memory of an uncle I never got to see.”

There was then another special presentation made by four members of the Northern Diving Group, who gifted their hats to Mr Toop, Mr Wood, Mrs McBarron, and Rozanne Mackie.

Mrs Mackie, who was presented with the ensign two years ago, is the grand-daughter of John Gatt, the skipper of the Daisy II, who rescued 386 men from the oily waters following the sinking of the Royal Oak.

Speaking after the presentations, Mrs McBarron said: “We had perfect weather and a beautiful day. “When you are out over the Royal Oak it is such a special place to be, and marking it every October 14 is always a very poignant occasion. “As long as I am able, the Royal Oak will be remembered,” she added.

by Andrew Hamilton
The Orcadian

Back to Main menu