Royal Oak 74th Anniversary Memorial Services 2013

Report by Andrew Hamilton

Photos by Tom O'Brien

The Orcadian

Earlier this week, on the calm waters of Scapa Flow, wreaths and floral tributes floated quietly on the waves — a stark contrast to the early hours of October 14, 1939, when HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed by a German submarine, with devas­tating loss of life.

Of the ship’s complement of 1,234 men and boys, 834 were killed that night, or died later of their wounds.

The annual remembrance ceremony to mark the sinking of the Royal Oak took place on Monday — the 74th anniversary of the wartime tragedy.

Built at a cost of £2.5 million, the 27,000 tonne Revenge-class battleship had been presumed unsinkable by submarine attack within Scapa Flow — but the unsinkable became the unthinkable, as German U-boat commander Lt Günther Prien evaded the flimsy defences in the submarine U47, and attacked at the heart of the British Navy.

The memorial events started at 10am, with a service led by RNA chaplain David Dawson at the Garden of Remembrance at Scapa.

In attendance was Rear Admiral Chris Hockley, Flag Officer for Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland; Captain Chris Smith RN, the naval regional commander for Scotland and Northern Ireland; crew members of HMS Tyne and a contingent from the Rosyth-based Royal Marines Band.

All had been in Orkney over the weekend for the Royal Oak commemorations, and to mark the 50th anniversary of the local Sea Cadet unit, TS Thorfinn.

They were joined by several family members and friends of those who served on the Royal Oak, members of the Royal British Legion, repre­sentatives from the Royal Navy’s Northern Diving Group, members of the Royal British Legion, and others.

For the first time in ten years no survivors were present.

Following the service, the marine band led a parade to the pier at Scapa, where those wishing to pay their respects boarded the Talisman launch, Flotta Lass, to be taken to the buoy marking the final resting place of the Royal Oak, now a designated war grave.

Leading the floral tributes was Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Orkney Bill Spence, before two Royal Marine buglers played the Last Post, and a minute’s silence was observed.

Veteran Len Chester also recited from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen, including 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.”

Making the emotional trip north for the memorial service was 74-year-old Tony Hicks, who was two months old when his father, Albert Edward Hicks, lost his life on the Royal Oak.

Mr Hicks, who was accom­panied on the visit by his three children, was also chosen to receive the naval ensign which has been attached to the ship for the past year.

Speaking at the Kirkwall branch of the Royal British Legion after the commemora­tions, he said: “My dad did know he had a son, but I never met him. He was 38 years old when he died.

“For me, it was sad when we were over the wreck, but you have to take control of your emotions, like when I went up to receive the flag. I was very proud to receive the ensign.”

Mr Hicks said he planned to display the flag in a glass cabinet, with a picture of the ship and her crew.

“It was an excellent day,” he added.

“The service was brilliant. It was a bit cold out on the boat, but other than that it was excellent. It’s really good that everybody is still, after 74 years, coming up and showing their respects.”

Mr Hicks’ son Gary said: “We’re really appreciative of the ladies and gentlemen, par­ticularly Agnes, that keep it all alive as a legacy for the next generation.

“Next year, for the 75th anniversary, I’m thinking of bringing my own kids up. The support here is just fantastic.”

Presenting the ensign, Agnes Millar, area co-ordinator of the HMS Royal Oak Survivors Association, said: “This is the part of the day’s proceedings where I must stay strong to get me to the end.

“It falls on me to decide the worthy recipient of the battle ensign which has been on the wreck since last October.

“As is normal for me, the person who will receive it knows nothing about it.”

Referring to Mr Hicks’ father, she said he had been one of seven brothers who had served their king and country.

“At 16 he was in the convoys serving as a boy seaman during the Great War, for which he obtained two boy seaman medals.

“The Oak was to be his last commission after 22 years of naval service. At the time of his loss, he was a leading torpedo man.”

Ms Millar said that the person who she had chosen to receive the ensign had grown up without a father, adding this was why he was now such a devoted father to his own three children.

“His family have told me that coming to Scapa Flow brings his father closer to him, and fills that gaping hole left by his death,” she added.

Ms Millar also said that the first time she took over from her late father Charlie, who dedicated himself to the memory of the Royal Oak for over 40 years, this person and his family had helped “get her through the day”, and were a big part of why she continued in the role to this day.

“He has been back to Scapa Flow a few times now, and today I have the great honour of asking the son of Able Seaman Albert Edward Hicks, Tony, to come forward and receive his ensign from Robert Dewhurst of Northern Diving Group.”

Ms Millar then asked those present to be upstanding and raise their glasses “to absent friends.”

Speaking after presentation of the ensign, she said: “It’s always an emotional time, and it’s great having so many Navy ones here. It makes it even more poignant.

“The four Royal Marine buglers playing the Last Post at the service at the Garden of Remembrance was something special to hear,” she added.

Also present was Len Chester, who travelled from his home in Tavistock to pay his respects to two friends who lost their lives on the Royal Oak.

Mr Chester served as a boy bugler on HMS Iron Duke during the war, and arrived in Scapa Flow in December, 1939, eight weeks after the tragedy. He was 14 years old at the time. His friends, Aubrey Priestley and Harry Mountford, were 15 and 16, respectively, when they died.

“When we joined as buglers, we joined in groups. When I was in Form One, they were in Form Four — they were a couple of groups above me,” he said.

“When I heard about it, because I was so young, I don’t think it really registered at the time.

“The Iron Duke herself had been damaged, and I had enough problems accustomising myself to life on board.”

Mr Chester, who has returned to Orkney six times since the war, said it was his first time over the site of the Royal Oak wreck.

“It was a very personal moment. It was emotional. I think it would be emotional for anybody, standing above where 834 men lost their lives. It’s a very humbling experience,” he said.

Mr Chester, whose book, Bugle Boy recounts his time on HMS Iron Duke in Scapa Flow and then on the Arctic Convoys to Russia during the Second World War, added: “I served on the Iron Duke for two-and-a-half years, and I never once came to Kirkwall. Lyness was the only place we went to.

“I don’t suppose there is any living man in the UK who has sat behind the guns that fired at the Battle of Jutland [HMS Iron Duke was Admiral of the Fleet John Rushworth Jellicoe’s flagship during the First World War battle in 1916].”

Accompanying Mr Chester was Kinlay Francis, of the Royal Naval Association, who organised funding for the trip through the Government-run Heroes Return initiative, which provides lottery funding to help World War II veterans take part in commemorative visits.

Last year, Mr Francis laid a handcrafted sealed lead plaque at the site of the Royal Oak’s final resting place on behalf of Mr Chester.

It contained a photograph of the two boys and bore the inscription: “HMS Royal Oak ‘We shall remember them’, H. Mountford, A. Priestley, 14th October, 1939.”

by Andrew Hamilton
The Orcadian

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Copies of these and many more photos of the event are available at

Copies of these and many more photos of the event are available at