Visualising HMS Royal Oak: A Multi-Modal Approach

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In the early hours of 14th October 1939 HMS ROYAL OAK was struck by four torpedoes fired from the U49 whilst at anchor in Scapa Flow. The ship sank within minutes, 835 men and boys were lost. The HMS ROYAL OAK 80 Survey took place between October 2018 and November 2019 under special licence from the Secretary of State for Defence. The survey was self-funded and conducted by professional divers volunteering their time in collaboration with the Royal Navy Northern Diving Group and the Royal Oak Association and academic partners at the University of Dundee and Newcastle University. The purpose of the survey was to document this protected war grave at 80 years underwater, to shed new light on the damage that caused the ship to sink and to raise the profile of the loss of the ship and the sacrifice made by her crew.

HMS ROYAL OAK was a WWI battleship of the dreadnought era. She was built at Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth and commissioned on 1st May 1916 into the First Battle Squadron. She saw her first action at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 but survived to see service again in WW2. Between the wars she was modified with the addition of torpedo blisters to port and starboard, new bridge structures and modified secondary guns. Post sinking, the four propellers were removed and repurposed by the Admiralty along with anchor chain and anchors. No other commercial salvage has taken place.

In the late 1950s the Orkney County Council (as named then) was approached by the Admiralty to gauge local opinion at their plans to sell the wreck for salvage. Local opposition ultimately protected the wreck. Anecdotal evidence tells us that some small-scale removal of artefacts occurred during the early years of recreational diving. Significant work has also subsequently been conducted by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to monitor and remove fuel oil from the ship.

In the 1980s the Royal Navy began a programme of ceremonial diving to change a White Ensign, which continues to this day. Recreational diving was limited by the local harbour authority at a similar time, and in 2002 she became a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act. Diving can now only take place under special licence from the Ministry of Defence, which has ensured the relative integrity of the site. She is the most complete example of a dreadnought battleship existing underwater and was sunk in full fighting condition.

The ROYAL OAK 80 survey focussed on in-water survey techniques to gather high resolution video, still photographs and 3D photogrammetry data in a bid to record the site as it is today, digitally preserving the ship in its current state. Remote survey techniques were used to provide a bathymetrically accurate model of the wreck and identify the location and extent of outlying debris or objects likely to be from the ship.

The site is unique. A near intact dreadnought battleship, she lies in approximately 30m of water, upside down. A 45° angle allows access to the portside deck. The survey describes the site in four main sections: Port/Deck side, Hull, Starboard side, and Outlying targets. Further subdivision was utilised to better manage survey activity, data recording and cataloguing.
This paper will present 3D images resulting from the survey and describe how the data was combined with 2006 multi-beam data to provide unprecedented level of detail to understand the condition of the wreck.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2022
EventIKUWA 7: 7th International Congress for Underwater Archaeology - Finland, Helsinki, Finland
Duration: 7 Jun 202210 Jun 2022
Conference number: 7


ConferenceIKUWA 7
Abbreviated titleIKUWA
Internet address


  • shipwreck
  • 3D
  • Photogrammetry


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