Picture Perfect: the Fallen Oak

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    Picture perfect: the fallen Oak

    IT LIES on the seabed like a giant Airfix model dropped by a careless schoolboy. Underneath the massive hull, the superstructure of the battleship lies crushed, with gun barrels buried in the sand.

    Part of the bow is missing, torn off, while along the starboard side are ragged holes that hint at the fate of the HMS Royal Oak.

    These are the clearest images yet of one of the most terrible naval tragedies in British history. The Dreadnought class warship, one of the largest in the British fleet, was sunk by torpedoes during the Second World War in a U-boat attack in Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939.

    The wreck, an official War Grave in which more than 833 sailors died when it sank in just over 10 minutes, is still leaking fuel oil. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a sonar survey of the ship to find out whether the hull was in danger of cracking up after 67 years on the seabed off Orkney.

    The ghostly images created by ADUS, a specialist research team based jointly at St Andrews and Dundee universities, are published for the first time today and show the wreck in the greatest ever detail.

    Mark Lawrence, one of the directors of ADUS (Archeaological Dive Unit Survey) said: "It is of enormous value to the salvage team to know whether there has been significant deterioration, and what we found was that the hull is actually in surprisingly good condition given the time it has been down there and what happened to it. It is intact with no signs of weakening and appears to be in no imminent danger of breaking up.

    "These are the most detailed images we have ever had of the Royal Oak and the first time we saw the full wreck on the survey screens it sent a shiver up the spine."

    The Royal Oak is the largest offshore War Grave in the northern hemisphere and its status means that diving near the wreck is only allowed under strict rules.

    Although wrecks have been sonar surveyed before, the difficulty has always been in getting the system close enough to the remains to build up an accurate picture of the damage.

    ADUS trialled a "long pole" technique for getting a sonar system close to such wrecks at the Underwater Centre at Fort William. They then used the technology, allied to a global positioning satellite system, to produce the images of the Royal Oak, which is lying in just 30 metres of water in Scapa Bay.

    A key feature is that data from the system can be used for virtual 3D flypasts so that observers can get a better overall sense of the condition of the wreck.

    Chris Rowland, ADUS's 3D visualiser, said: "This leads to a much better understanding of the state of the wreck than can be gleaned from static print images."

    One of the most powerful images is of the starboard side of the upturned hull, in which a bite appears to have been taken out of the bow where the first torpedo struck shortly before 1am as the crew slept. At the other end of the 600ft hull, the rudder mechanism is unaffected.

    In between are three gaping gashes where the German torpedoes holed the Royal Oak beneath the waterline, leading to the catastrophically quick sinking as seawater rushed in and the giant ship, at anchor off Kirkwall with more than 1,200 sailors aboard, keeled over.

    Other poignant images show the Royal Oak on the seabed with its port side tilted upwards. Under the hull, the debris of the superstructure lies in a tangled heap, while the heavy roofs of its massive rear gun turrets have become detached and sunk to the ocean floor. Remnants of its tubular steel mast lie scattered nearby.

    As well as being a War Grave, the Royal Oak is also an environmental disaster waiting to happen. When it was sunk, while providing anti-aircraft protection for Kirkwall, it was laden with 3,000 tonnes of furnace oil. After the sinking, around 1,000 tonnes remained on board and has been slowly leaking ever since.

    This prompted a rescue operation by the MoD's Salvage and Marine Operations branch, starting in 2001, which has so far tapped into some of the 70 fuel tanks and slowly extracted almost half of the remaining oil.

    The latest sonar survey has reassured the MoD that the Royal Oak wreck is relatively stable. Future surveys will give advance notice of whether tactics have to change to avoid a massive oil leak damaging the Orkney coastline.

    James Ward, the assistant director of Salvage and Operations, said: "We have been working closely with the ADUS team at St Andrews and Dundee universities to improve the pictures and information we get from our regular surveys of the Royal Oak.

    "This data will be vital to our operations, especially as we now hope to go deeper into the wreck to extract oil from the lower internal tanks."

    Of the 390 servicemen who survived, only around a dozen are still alive, most in their 80s. It is a night that Robert Edmunds, now 88 and living in Hull, will never forget.

    "I was asleep in my hammock in the mess about 30 yards from where one of the torpedoes struck," he said. "I got up, slipped some trousers on and went to see what had happened."

    After inspecting the damage, which didn't seem that great, he went back to rouse his colleagues. "There was no panic; some of them got up, others didn't."

    Then, on his way to get keys to the workshop, the ship began to tilt. "By the time I got on the upper deck it had tilted right over, but I managed to get into a small boat. Then that turned over and I was in the water.

    "I was a fairly good swimmer so I covered myself with oil to protect myself against the cold and just swam ashore."

    Amazingly, his older brother Jessie also made it to dry land. He died in 1997.

    Edmunds' niece, Christine Spratt, said the tragedy of the Royal Oak had stayed with her family all their lives. "I think some of the survivors would like to see the new images, but others might not. When you see something like that it brings it right back to you."

    Period24 Sep 2006

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