Death of Arthur Smith, HMS Royal Oak’s final survivor

Arthur Smith with Ginge Pullen a member of the Faslane diving group. PPP-161228-173049001
Arthur Smith with Ginge Pullen a member of the Faslane diving group. PPP-161228-173049001

THIS WEEK IN 1996: Southsea beaches miss out on blue flag

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Over the Christmas period we have seen the deaths of two men who played their part in a couple of the most famous and infamous naval events of the 20th century.

Arthur Smith was the last survivor from the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, the Revenge-Class battleship nicknamed The Mighty Oak, in Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939.

HMS Royal Oak in Portsmouth Harbour prior to the Second World War PP1652 ENGPPP00120130411150414

HMS Royal Oak in Portsmouth Harbour prior to the Second World War PP1652 ENGPPP00120130411150414

U-boat U47, commanded by Günther Prien, cleverly made its way into the so-called safe anchorage of the Flow and fired two salvos of torpedoes.

In all it is thought four hit their target and the crippled ship rolled over to starboard and sank within minutes, taking hundreds of men and boys with her.

The final total of deaths was 833, includingmore than 100 boys.

Arthur Smith, a 17-year old boy seaman, was on the bridge and watched a fountain of water rise into the midnight sky.

The next hit was fateful and action stations were sounded. He made his 
way to the four-inch gun deck where he tried to remove his duffle coat but could not undo the toggles as his hands were so cold.

He eventually removed the coat and leapt over the side fully booted and clothed. As the ship turned turtle he was taken down but managed to get to the surface and found himself swimming alongside a shipmate. Nothing was said between them.

His mate then looked at him and said: ‘Sod it. I’ve had enough of this’ and disappeared beneath the surface. He had given up.

Arthur was eventually picked up by an airman from HMS Pegasus and placed onboard the Daisy. He was washed down, given new clothes and that is all he remembered.

After that horrific night in which he lost so many mates, he served until 1947 when he left the navy and spent the rest of his working life as an aircraft steward.

‘Much more pleasant and a lot drier.’ was all 
he used to say. He was aged 94.

When Allan Croft spoke to Arthur on Whale Island some years ago, he told him Royal Oak was not the happiest of ships.

The officers were over-strict and more than once he received a cuff around the head for some misdemeanour.

In the photograph we see Arthur and ‘Ginge’ Pullen, a member of the Faslane Diving group. Along with five other members of the group he was a pallbearer at Arthur’s funeral on December 22.

My thanks to Allan Croft for assistance with this article.