|Royal Oak 72nd Anniversary Memorial Services 2011
by Craig Taylor
“This really means a lot, the Royal Oak will never be forgotten.”
These were the words of 89 - year - old HMS Royal Oak survivor Arthur Smith, speaking on Friday, the 72nd anniversary of the sinking.
The same day a granite memorial to those who were lost was officially unveiled in the garden of remembrance at Scapa.
Mr Smith said that the memorial was the culmination of a lot of hard work by fellow survivor Kenneth Toop, the Honorary Secretary of the Royal Oak Survivors Association, and Agnes McBarron, the associations Orkney co-ordinator.
Mr Smith, who was aged just 17 when he escaped with his life, said it pleased him to see the memorial now in place, in memory of the 834 men and boy sailors who died when HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German U-boat on October 14, 1939.
Mr Toop echoed his former shipmates sentiments, saying: “We have been collecting for years, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction that it is here for those who come after us.”
Mr Toop, once a teenage boy sailor onboard HMS Royal Oak is now 88. He drives up to Orkney from his home in Basingstoke along with his wife Lilian each year, to pay respects to lost shipmates. He now believes that there are only 11 survivors still alive.
At the unveiling ceremony Mr Toop said that the association had been planning a memorial for many years.
Speaking to the gathered crowd of just under 100 people, Mr Toop said that they were there to remember all those who had given their lives for freedom, especially the 834 members of the ships company of HMS Royal Oak, whose memories were treasured.
He said that a great debt was owned to Agnes McBarron and to her father, the later Charlie Millar, who for 42 years had met with so many family and friends of those who were lost onboard the battleship. This was a proud tradition carried on by Agnes, he explained.
The honour of unveiling the memorial fell to Mrs McBarron who, like many people during the day, was clearly emotional.
She thanked local stonemasons John and Malcolm Dowell for their work on the memorial and thanked everyone who was there for the day. She added that it has been a great honour to be asked to unveil the monument.
Fittingly, the flag used to cover the monument before the unveiling was a naval ensign which spent a year attached to the wreck.
The unveiling was also timed to take place at exactly 1.04pm, which was exactly 72 years and 12 hours, to the minute, that the first torpedoes slammed into the wreck of the once great battleship.
During the ceremony The Last Post was played by Billy Stanger, and the colours of the Orkney Branch of the Royal Naval Association were lowered by David Hughes.
Navy personnel from the Northern Diving Group, who had earlier in the week carried out the annual changing of the ensign onboard the wreck, lined both sides of the memorial during the service.
In a moving moment they led: “three cheers for the officers and crew of HMS Royal Oak”.
After the unveiling, a number of wreaths and other floral tributes were laid by those who had made the pilgrimage to Scapa for the occasion.
Also taking part in the days events were members of the Kirkwall and Stromness Royal British Legions, the local Royal Naval Association and many others, including a delegation from the Nairn Branch of the Royal British Legion.
Lord Lieutenant of Orkney Dr Tony Trickett, took part in the memorial events, as did Rear Admiral Chris Hockley, Flag Officer for Scotland, Northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who is based at Faslane.
They joined family and friends of those who were lost as well as survivors for a service on Scapa Pier, earlier that morning.
The service was led by Rev Don Currie from the Baptist Church in Kirkwall.
In bright sunshine and pleasant, conditions, he addressed those gathered, saying that it was the first time he had been at the event,describing it as a privilege to do so.
He explained that he himself had not known the trauma of war, as some of those present may have had, but said that his father had served with the Royal Artillery in Holland and in Burma during the Second World war, and that had left a mark on his father.
Rev Currie himself had also been in war torn El Salvador, being locked up in a hotel as a battle raged nearby, which had been frightening enough. Seeing the battlefield soon after the fighting, had left a mark on him.
He described the sinking of HMS Royal Oak - in the early days of war - as a “great tragedy which had caught people off-guard,” adding that it had been a “traumatic experience” for all those involved.
Following the service, Mike Parkins from the Kirkwall City Pipe Band then played ‘Flowers of the Forest’, and local bugler Billy Stanger played The Last Post.
President of the Kirkwall Branch of the Royal British Legion, Bryan Taylor then read the words of Binyon, before a two minutes silence was observed.
The launch Flotta Lass, kindly provided by Talisman, operators of the Flotta Oil Terminal, then took everyone out over the wreck site in Scapa Flow, where further words of remembrance were said.
Wreaths and floral tributes were once again cast upon the waters close to the green buoy marking the sight of the wreck, the final resting place of so many young sailors.
Dr Tony Trickett and Rear Admiral Chris Hockley laid the first to wreaths as Mike Parkins again played the pipes. They were then followed by numerous wreaths and tributes from the families and organisations.
Also present for the ceremony were relations of the John Gatt, skipper of the fishing drifter Daisy II, which saved so many men from the oily waters after the sinking.
The Kirkwall Branch of the Royal British Legion played host to everyone present, who enjoyed soup and sandwiches and other refreshments at the club between the service on the boat and the service at the memorial.
A surprise presentation was made to Bryan Wilkins from Portsmouth at the legion when he was presented with the naval ensign which has spent the last year attached to the wreck.
His father, AB Joseph Paschal Wilkins, aged 36, lost his life on the battleship when Bryan was only 13 months old.
Clearly moved, he described receiving the ensign as “a great honour,” which made him feel tremendously proud.
He said that enjoyed being in Orkney and being a part of the “Royal Oak Survivors Association family.”
He was presented with the ensign by Rear Admiral Chris Hockley and AB Lee Dixon, the youngest member of the North Diving Group.
Rear Admiral Chris Hockley said that he was delighted to be in Orkney.
He said: “I have to say it has been a huge privilege and an honour to be here in Orkney for the anniversary. This is very special to me and to the divers. They are truly humbled by it all, and I think that it shows that if we show that we remember the past, it shows that we will also remember those currently serving in the future.
“Orkney is a wonderful place and the people here are so friendly, “ he added.
Rear Admiral Hockley also said that going out over the wreck has been “really poignant,” and had experience that he would take with him.
He also hopes to be present for the anniversary next year.
Travelling to Orkney for the occasion all the way from Canada, was Tony Nichols, along with his wife Rosemary.
Mr Nichols is the son of the Executive Commander of HMS Royal Oak Reginald Frederick Nichols, was second in command of the ship when she went down.
Mr Nichols, who lives near Toronto explained how has father, who died in 1984, aged 84, told him of how he and the captain of the ship, had gone down below to see the bow area of the ship which had been hit by the German torpedoes.
“He realised quickly that it was going to sink and the order was given to untie Daisy 11 and as many Carley floats (rafts) as possible. He described to me how he scrambled over the hull of the upturned ship and lowered himself into the water.”
In a earlier coincidence, his father escaped death on another occasion in Scapa Flow, as he also served onboard HMS Vanguard as a midshipman.
On the night that she sunk as the result of an internal explosion his father was actually onboard HMS Royal Oak attending a concert along with 22 others from the stricken ship.
“I believe he was one of the last men to leave the Vanguard before she was sunk.” he added.
He said that they had planned to come to Orkney for years, and he and his wife were delighted to make it here, after hearing so much about the events in Scapa Flow.
At the end of the formal part of the day Mrs McBarron said: “I know it is a sad day but it is also a fantastic one for everyone involved with the Royal Oak. It always makes folk smile that they have come. That is never going to stop, we will keep it going as long as we can.”
Mrs McBarron was actually taken out over the wreck site by the North Diving Group earlier in the week, as was survivor Arthur Smith who travelled up from his home in Middlesex with his son Andy.
In beautiful calm weather, Mrs McBarron explained how clearly they could make out the hull of the upturned battleship from the surface, 72 years after it was sent to the bottom of Scapa Flow.
The ship may be gone, but those who lost their lives are always remembered.
by Craig Taylor
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