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At the same time the crew went to diving stations. I broke the charge and got on the main motors at once and it was at this moment that I recognized the object as a submarine. I took the ship and kept Triton bows on. From what I could see I appeared to be on a broad track, I should say about 120 degrees, and the object was steering in a north-westerly direction. It occurred to me that it might be Oxley and I dismissed the thought almost as soon as it crossed my mind because earlier in the day I had been in communication with Oxley and I had given her my position accurately, which was two miles south of my billet, No. 5, and Oxley had acknowledged this, and I had also given him my course which was at the time 154°. By this time the signalman was on the bridge and I gave him the bearing of the object or the submarine. I told him not to make any challenge until he got direct orders from me. He knew the challenge and the reply. I then ordered the challenge to be made as soon as my sights were on and I knew the armament was ready, and the signalman made it slowly. No reply was received. After about 20 seconds I ordered the challenge to be made again. During this time I had been studying the submarine very closely indeed. She was trimmed down very low and I could see nothing of her bow or shape and the conning tower did not look like Oxley’s, and I could not see any outstanding points of identification such as periscope standards, etc.

Accordingly, I ordered the second challenge to be made. Receiving no reply to the second challenge, I made a third challenge again after a short interval. Receiving no reply to the third challenge I fired a grenade which burst correctly. I did not see the grenade actually burst although I knew it had burst because of the light as I had my eyes fixed on the submarine. By this time I was completely convinced that this was an enemy submarine. I counted fifteen to myself like this: and-one, and-two, and-three … When I had counted fifteen to myself I gave the order to fire; No. 7 and No. 8 tubes were fired at three-second intervals. About half a minute after firing, indeterminate flashing was seen from the submarine. This was unreadable and stopped in a few seconds. The Officer of the Watch also saw this. It gave me the impression that somebody was looking for something with a torch — it was certainly not Morse code. Very shortly afterwards, a matter of a few seconds after the flashing had stopped, one of my torpedoes hit. I told the Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant H A Stacey, to fix the ship, and he fixed the ship as follows: Obrestad Light 035° Egero Light 105°. This fix placed the ship 6.8 miles 189° from No. 5 position, which put me 4 miles inside my sector. I took the bearing of the explosion and proceeded towards the spot at once. The sea state was about 3 and 2. Very soon we heard cries for help and as we came closer we actually heard the word ‘Help’. There were three men swimming. I manoeuvred the ship to the best of my ability to close the men and kept Aldis lights on. Lieutenant Stacey and Lieutenant Watkins attached lines to themselves and dived in the sea which was covered in oil and succeeded in bringing Lieutenant Commander Bowerman and Able Seaman Gukes to safety. The third man who afterwards transpired to be Lieutenant Manley, RNR, was seen swimming strongly in the light of an Aldis when he suddenly disappeared and was seen no more.

Evidence to explain the lack of response from Oxley was given by Lieutenant Commander Bowerman. He stated he was called to the bridge following the sighting of Triton’s signal grenade, but when he tried to answer, his grenade malfunctioned. The OOW, Lieutenant Manley, claimed to have answered Triton’s challenge, but Bowerman was not sure this had been done properly. Before he could put things right, however, Oxley was struck by Triton’s torpedo and he was thrown into the sea.

No blame was apportioned to the crew of Triton. Oxley was found to have been out of position and her watchkeeping had been at fault. All the blame fell on her officer of the watch, Lieutenant Manley, RNR. Viewed from an astern position it would have been difficult to pick out the distinctive gun mounting of the ‘O’-class boats.


Naval and military complacency in the face of determined enemies can lead to disaster. Also, forgetting past lessons can be costly.

Early in the Great War, German U-boat commanders had boldly brought the fight to the British, with the sinking of several cruisers, causing great loss of life. It was only to be expected that their successors would seek to capitalise on this reputation, and strike before the Royal Navy could put itself into top gear to fight yet another ‘total war’.

In the Western Approaches, misplaced confidence in the abilities of British Asdic to detect U-boats led to the organisation of four hunter-killer groups, each based around an aircraft carrier. Common sense would have dictated that such valuable vessels be kept well away from any reported U-boat sightings. The carriers could in fact be considered the Second World War equivalents of the ‘live bait’ armoured cruiser squadron sent to patrol the Broad Fourteens at the start of the Great War.

In the Orkneys, despite repeated warnings from Admiral French that the eastern approaches to the great British naval anchorage of Scapa Flow were passable with care, nothing was done. He was later to be made a scapegoat for the loss of the Royal Oak. Retribution was not long in coming.

On 14 September the new aircraft carrier Ark Royal and her escorts received a distress call from a merchant ship under attack from the U 30. As she launched Skuas and Swordfish, Ark Royal came under attack from U 39, which launched three torpedoes at her. All three torpedoes exploded prematurely and brought down her escorting destroyers, which depth-charged U 39 to the surface and took off her crew as she sank. The attempted rescue of the merchantman turned to tragic farce when two Skuas attempted to bomb the U 30 but crashed, the observers being drowned. U 30 was able to escape with the captured pilots after having torpedoed the freighter.

Three days later it was the turn of the hunter-killer group formed around the old carrier HMS Courageous to respond to a message from a merchantman that she was under attack. The carrier detached two of her destroyers to search for the U-boat and, in turning into the wind to launch aircraft, headed directly across the bows of U 29, whose captain Otto Schuhart had been stalking her for ninety minutes, having first seen a Swordfish aircraft flying so far from land that he was convinced a carrier was near. Two of the three torpedoes he launched at 1940 from just 3000yds (2740m) struck the old ship on her port side, knocking out her electrical power. She capsized and sank less than fifteen minutes later, with the loss of 519 of her crew of 1,260 officers and men. Captain Makeig-Jones went down with his ship.

Following the near-miss on Ark Royal and the disaster which had overtaken Courageous, the remaining hunter-killer groups were dissolved and henceforth aircraft carriers were forbidden to enter the U-boat-infested waters of the Western Approaches.

At the beginning of October 1939 the Scapa Flow anchorage had been overflown by a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, leading Admiral Forbes to order the dispersal of the majority of the warships, in the expectation of a major air attack. Several ships, however, including the brand-new heavy cruiser HMS Belfast, were left behind. The muddled thinking behind the decision to leave the old ‘R’-class battleship HMS Royal Oak was that her eight 4in anti-aircraft guns could add to the meagre AA defences of Scapa. In fairness, it must be said that in September 1939, the battleship still ruled supreme in British naval thinking. Few could predict the vulnerability of these behemoths to lesser adversaries such as aircraft and submarines. And, of course, Royal Oak was one of the first ships to receive anti-torpedo bulges, which were expected to make her highly resistant to underwater damage.



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