Wreck of HMS Royal Oak
This Revenge class battleship now lies in 33 metres of water in Scapa Flow.
As a designated war grave all unauthorised diving is prohibited.
The site serves as a reminder of the brutality of war.
The wreck of HMS Royal Oak is one kilometre west of Gaitnip Hill in Scapa Bay. A Scapa Bay green-coloured channel buoy marks the location. On the buoy is a plaque reading:
"This marks the wreck of HMS Royal Oak and the grave of her crew. Respect their resting place. Unauthorised diving prohibited." [Wood, 2008: 95].
HMS Royal Oak was originally designed as a coal-burning vessel of World War I but was converted to oil and had around 75 fuel tanks. The ship was fully fuelled when the torpedoes hit. To this day the wreck still leaks small quantities of heavy fuel oil.
As a designated war grave the Royal Oak can only be dived on receipt of authorised permission. The Royal Navy diving club – the Naval Air Command Sub Aqua Club – had permission to dive on the wreck from 1983 to 1987 as part of their two-week annual diving expedition. The 12 divers of the team each had about eight dives on the wreck (RCAHMS, 2002). By the late 1990s a diving team from HMS Cochrane began surveying the wreck annually.
Each year the RN Northern Diving Group divers replace a white ensign at the stern of the Royal Oak. The site remains a poignant war grave.
The wreck today
HMS Royal Oak capsized as she sank and now lies almost upside down in 33 metres of water. The up-turned hull is the shallowest point of the wreck and is just 12 metres below the surface. The weight of the wreck is resting on the superstructure and, as a result, the bows are three metres clear of the seabed, with the anchor chains hanging down in big loops.
Proceeding aft, the portholes remain in place. They are 18 to 20 inches in diameter. Some are open, others closed and some with their deadlights down. Looking in one porthole near the officers' galley, dinner plates can still be seen stacked in drying racks.
The guns have swivelled and now lie underneath the wreck. Massive turret lids have fallen off and lie on the seabed. Consequently all the components within the turrets are visible including voice pipes, the huge breeches of the 15 inch guns and big brass wheels.
Continuing aft the superstructure lies broken on the seabed, with the steam pinnace (small boat) crushed underneath. Higher up there is a row of 6 inch guns pointing outwards as if waiting to go into action. Further aft, and past a row of portholes, more turrets lie on the seabed with their lids displaced. These turret fittings look as intact as those in the forward turrets.
Only the lower hull shows any sign of salvage work. In the 1950s the Royal Navy removed the propellers, but the shafts remain. The massive torpedo holes can be clearly seen on the port side. They are startling and reveal how HMS Royal Oak sank so rapidly.
The multi-beam sonar imagery which heads this page and is shown in the page's gallery is from a survey carried out for the Ministry of Defence by ADUS in 2006.
The oil on the wreck
The wreck of HMS Royal Oak continues to be monitored by the Salvage and Marine Operations (S&MO) branch of the Ministry of Defence.
In December 2011 a further remote-operated vehicle (ROV) and multibeam survey of the wreck was undertaken to assess the condition of the vessel. The results indicate that the wreck remains in an excellent state of preservation and that steps taken to date have been successful in halting any significant leakage of oil. S&MO will continue to monitor the wreck and is aware that further intervention may be required to remove oil from the vessel.
However, the oil remaining onboard HMS Royal Oak is located deep within the ship. Gaining access to the tanks containing this oil would, using currently available technology, require cutting large holes in the vessel. As this would go against S&MO’s commitment to remove as much oil as is practicable, while minimising damage to the wreck, the pace of operations has slowed. S&MO is also keen to respect the ship's status as a war grave and this has played a part in delaying further oil removal until such time as less intrusive methods of extraction become available.
Naturally, all wrecks deteriorate over time. However, the potential for a sudden collapse of the wreck to release the oil remaining aboard in a single event is extremely remote. The point at which such an event may occur is likely to be measurable in centuries. As a battleship, HMS Royal Oak’s construction was extremely robust and this contributes significantly to the long-term survivability of the wreck.