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  • Claire Jordan

They Did Not Flinch

Overwhelmed suddenly by the very worst moment of your life, these are some of the kind faces you would want to appear above you.

On 14th October 1939, a German U-boat slipped into the Royal Navy’s anchorage at Scapa Flow and fired without warning in the crisp cold air of an Orkney autumn midnight at the venerable battleship HMS Royal Oak, laden with over 1200 sleepy men.

In this first attack only one torpedo hit, causing minor damage. Most of the sailors woken by the judder went back to their hammocks; no one seemed to be alarmed. Scapa Flow was a safe haven.

Still undetected, U-47’s captain stealthily repositioned himself and tried again. This time, three torpedoes struck the huge British ship in quick succession and detonated.

A hole was blown in the armoured deck and the messes of the Stokers, the Boys and the Royal Marines were all obliterated. 134 Boy sailors, brave lads of 15 and 16, were gone in an instant.

The explosions knocked out all electrical power, plunging the ship into darkness.

Cordite from a magazine now ignited, the fireball ripping through the interior of the ship where men struggled desperately in the darkness.

Quickly, the Royal Oak listed to one side, letting the frigid North Sea waters in through the open portholes. She rolled onto her side, hanging briefly in the water as men screamed and prayed and jumped, in an awful echo of Titanic. In 13 minutes, she was gone.

In her wake was a churning hell of burning oil and wreckage, the dead and the still-living, who had gone into the water clad in night shirts and whose efforts to swim for shore were hopelessly hampered by the thick oil now coating their skin and their lungs as they gulped for air.

One small pinnace which had somehow gone into the water intact was swamped by panicking survivors and capsized, pitching them all back into agony.

Meanwhile, a humble Fraserburgh fishing boat named ‘Daisy II’ had been tied to the Royal Oak that evening when disaster struck. The skipper, Rosehearty-born John Gatt (above), quickly understood what was happening and managed to disentangle his little boat from the doomed battleship and to pull clear before she dragged him down with her.

John Gatt now knew what he must do; he would save as many of these boys as he could or die trying.

He and his brave men, rather than steaming clear of the debris and the dying to keep themselves safe, began to haul the frozen and exhausted sailors into the Daisy II.

Hampered by the darkness, Skipper Gatt took the decision to risk his own life and those of his crew by switching on the Daisy’s lights; it made them sitting ducks for any enemy still in the vicinity.

The Daisy II worked for the next three hours through the icy small hours of the night to pick up everyone they possibly could. They had no way of knowing where the German submarine had gone; was it watching, waiting for them to load their boat to bursting with the rescued before letting loose further torpedoes to destroy them all? Still, they did not flinch.

John Gatt only stood reluctantly down when it became clear, around 4am, that there could be no one left alive in the water.

Almost every man who survived the Royal Oak that night was saved by John Gatt and the doughty men of the little Daisy II.

They saved 420 men from the Royal Oak’s crew of 1234.

One of those whom Gatt could not save was 21 year old career sailor Able Seaman Albert George Parker, born in Chatham and greatly mourned ever-after by his parents Arthur and Ada.

All over the country, there were more than 800 families just like them and the War was only six weeks old.

Daisy II’s skipper John Gatt was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his immense courage and kindness that night.

We Will Remember Them

Above: Johnnie Duthie. Below: John Stephen

Above: Bobbie Duthie. Below: John Gardener

Above: Alex Stephen

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