A swim in Scapa Flow

or How I survived Royal Oak

by Ken Conway

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I joined HMS Royal Oak as an Ordinary Signalman on 6th June 1939. After a visit to Torbay we sailed to Devonport where we were issued with tropical clothing in the belief we were going to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, Hitler was banging his drum and we sailed for Scapa Flow.

On the 8th of October it was rumoured the German Fleet was at sea and we sailed for a patrol of the Fair Isle Channel whilst the rest of the Home Fleet went looking for the enemy. The weather was appalling and we took a battering in addition to parting from our destroyer escort. We returned to Scapa Flow on the 10th October.

Friday October 13 was not an unlucky day. It was payday and what we called 'quarterly settlement'. This was the occasion that the paymaster balanced your account and paid you any extra that came to light or took some off your pay if required. I had quite a bit extra as I had been uprated to signalman in that quarter. I know I played tombola that evening but I didn't win anything. Then it was off to bed(hammock).

The communications mess was under the port side 6 inch gun battery. My hammock was slung over the gangway that ran fore and aft through the mess. Next to me slept Royal Marine Barry Hawes. I slept in my vest and pants (don't think they issued pyjamas those days) with my money belt tucked under the hammock mattress. About 1 AM there was quite a loud bang and I jumped out of my hammock (so did Barry). Some ratings came running along the gangway and we asked what was wrong, they said they thought there was trouble in the paint store in the bows of the ship. It didn't seem particularly serious so we got back into our hammocks. A minute or so later over the tannoy system came the broadcast "magazine crews take magazine temperatures".

I hadn't been back in my hammock for more than ten minutes when there was a terrific bang and the ship shook violently and I could see a cloud of yellow smoke up forward. Harry said "What the hells that? and my feet hit the deck. I didn't give a thought to my money belt or getting dressed I was on my way up the ladder from the mess deck to the port side gun battery. Through a mass of flames and smoke I could see a gathering of men where I knew there was a ladder leading to a passage outside the galley and then on to the upper deck. Someone at the bottom of the ladder was helping men up the ladder and trying to calm them down. I don't know who it was, I think it was a chief petty officer. At this time I lost touch with Barry Hawes. I was given an almighty push and before I knew it I was on the upper deck just about level with the second 6 inch gun barrel. Someone (I think it was the executive commander) was shouting "flag deck fire a rocket". Later I heard Ldg sig Fossey on duty on the flag deck had been hit by a moving flag locker and was in pain.

The ship had heeled over to starboard at the first explosion and now she started to tilt a bit more. I went over the guard rails and sat down on a small platform under the barrel of a 6 inch gun. Seconds later she began to tilt again and I got up and walked down the side and as the blister came up I pushed off into the waters of Scapa Flow. Had I jumped I would probably hit the blister as she capsized.

I could see the ships picket boat and I swam towards it. I clambered onboard, little knowing it was already overcrowded. Before I knew it the boat capsized and I was back in the water. I swam a little way away and turned on my back. I could see the boat had righted itself and I swam to it again and clambered onboard once more. There was a lot of screaming from some of the men ( I think they were mostly Maltese ships stewards). There was a man standing up on the boat shouting "Trim the boat" and attempting to push some of them off. The boat capsized again. Whether it sank or not on this occasion I don't know but I decided enough was enough and I struck out for where I thought the nearest land was on the starboard side of Royal Oak, in daylight it hadn't seemed too far. I don't know how long I was swimming but I know I was getting tired when I bumped into what seemed a large piece of wood and I clung on to it using my legs to propel me towards what I thought was the shore.

After what seemed ages, although I couldn't see anything I heard a voice say "Heres another one" and I was grabbed and lifted out of the water on to the drifter Daisy 2. From the time I jumped out of my hammock until I was picked up I had been on my own and hadn't spoken to a soul.

The Daisy 2 carried on searching for more survivors until (A) the skipper couldn't find any more or (B) he was concerned for the safety of his boat and all onboard. The Daisy made her way to the seaplane carrier Pegasus anchored nearby and disembarked the survivors. Here I was given a hot shower most of the oil was removed and someone brought me a drink of rum, neat I think and far more than the official ration. Clothing was provided either from the ships store or by the ships crew giving up some of their own.

Later that morning I was transferred to a large liner (Voltaire ?) where I had a good breakfast (and more rum!!). After the meal, I filed past a table at which sere seated some officers recording name, rank, official number. They also wanted to know where I was at the time of the explosion, what did I think it was and how did I escape. After this interrogation I think we assembled inside the Voltaire to say thanks to the skipper of the Daisy. I remember we all sang Daisy Daisy which was popular at the time. This gathering was broken up by the sound of air raid sirens .We were quickly dispersed and I found myself shipped to Flotta with a cry ringing in my ears "Dig yourself in". After the raid back to the Voltaire, then I think we went ashore at Lyness. I'm not sure if it was to identify some of the victims or whether it was a funeral service. Whatever it was it was not an enjoyable experience.

Back to Voltaire again, this time to embark on the Minesweeper Hebe for a journey to Scrabster, then by road to Thurso where I was billeted on a local family for a day (this is where I regret my loss of memory) then a train journey to RN Barracks Portsmouth . A brief visit to the clothing store and the Pay Office and then home for 14 days survivors leave.

Finally. To say I wasn't scared would be a blatant untruth. For months after I would jump out of my skin at the sound of any bang, small or large. Even in the cinema I leapt out of my seat when a gun was fired.

In the Safety of Scapa Flow who expected such a disaster.

Ken Conway

July 2001

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