Orkney researchers find steam vessel used by sailors to escape HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak steam pinnace. Photo: ORCA

Orkney researchers have found the vessel used by HMS Royal Oak sailors to escape the sinking battleship in Scapa Flow.

While the whereabouts of the wreck of HMS Royal Oak, which sank in the first weeks of the World War II, are known, researchers struggled to locate the battleship’s steam pinnacle in which some of the sailors escaped.

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving announced they can now confirm the position of the missing pinnace.

HMS Royal Oak was a Royal Navy battleship which was moored in Scapa Bay as an anti-aircraft platform to help defend a vital radar station on the cliffs. On the night of 13 October German submarine, U-47 manoeuvred into Scapa Flow and finding the Royal Oak at anchor fired torpedoes which led to the sinking of the huge ship. 834 men were lost of the 1,200 crew on-board with the few survivors struggling in the cold oil-covered water.

Research shows that two 50-foot picket boats were on onboard HMS Royal Oak when she was torpedoed. Number 749 was built by J Samuel White of the Isle of Wight and number 752 built by Rowhedge Ironworks, Wivenhoe Shipyard, Essex.

Documentary evidence indicates that around 100 crew members abandoned ship via her port side pinnace, which had a lifesaving capacity of 59. The Starboard side pinnace went down with Royal Oak and can be seen on the seabed a short distance from the wreck. The small pinnace had not got up steam so boards were used to paddle the vessel away from the sinking Royal Oak. The pinnace began to rock due to being overloaded and the chief buffer tried to counter the movement by shouting instructions ‘’Lean to starboard, lean to port’. Some on deck were ordered below to make more room as more men tried to climb on board.

Dick Kerr who was hanging on the side of the small vessel says, he heard someone start singing ‘Down Mexico way, south of the border’’ and a few others joined in. A short while later the pinnace capsized throwing those on deck into the water and trapping those who had gone below. Some crew scrambled onto the upturned hull but many were lost. The vessel then righted herself, capsized once more and then sank.

The location of this little ship was not known – until last month when the Shiptime Maritime Archaeology Project pinpointed the shipwreck on multibeam sonar, 300 metres from the main wreck site. The site was surveyed by Triscom Enterprise as part of the Shiptime Maritime Archaeology Project. The site had been previously side scanned by SULA Diving as part of a survey for OIC Harbours, but the identity of the craft had not then been established. As part of the project, a dive survey was conducted by SULA Diving of Stromness on the contact to establish that this was the missing port side pinnace.

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