Last Saturday I had the privilege to be invited to a memorial service for the Portsmouth-based Revenge class battleship HMS Royal Oak.
She was sunk in Scapa Flow, Orkney, 78 years ago today – October 14, 1939.
A total of 834 of her company of 1,234 went down in her or died in the freezing, oil-covered waters.
The loss still resonates within the service and Portsmouth to this day.
The list of dead included many in the rank of Boy, 17 years old or younger.
After this disaster boys were no longer sent to sea in wartime unless it was absolutely vital.
No doubt they had done their initial training in HMS St Vincent, Gosport, or at HMS Ganges, Shotley, Ipswich.
The very moving service, held at St Barbara’s Church, HMS Excellent, Whale Island, was attended by 49 members of the Royal Oak Association and conducted by Chaplain Lt-Cdr Mike Browning RN (Rtd.)
Bugler Jim Christopher, a former Royal Marine, blew Last Post and Reveille.
HMS Royal Oak was struck by torpedoes fired from the German U-boat U47 commanded by Gunther Prien.
The U-boat did not see out the war as it was sunk, possibly by the destroyer HMS Wolverine, on March 7, 1941.
At 9.30am today the annual memorial service was being held above the wreck in which divers attach a white ensign to the hull which remains just a few feet below the surface.
Gareth Derbyshire, the organising secretary, tells me how many members of the association are first generation descendants (son or daughter) of men lost in Royal Oak.
‘My records are incomplete but I can confirm that there are at least 16 members who are either a son or daughter of a sailor lost on HMS Royal Oak.
‘There are several members who are a son or daughter of a survivor.
‘I know of a further 13 members who lost an uncle on the ship.
‘In addition to me, I know of two other members who are grandchildren of men lost on the ship.’
Arthur Smith (Boy 1st Class at the time) was the last survivor.
Gareth adds: ‘He died in December last year aged 94. I met him and spoke to him several times by phone, latterly only a few weeks before he passed away.
‘It was like talking to someone no older than 60 – he was very astute and on the ball.
‘Remarkably, he remembered my grandfather who was lost.
‘Arthur was only a boy and my grandfather was a career seaman aged 29 with a wife and two sons. Arthur remembered him clearly as “a nice bloke”. I only wish my late father could have heard that. It was incredible to me that I actually spoke to the only man alive (at the time) who knew my grandfather and I will treasure that memory forever,’ he says.
One woman I met was the daughter of a Royal Marine who was just 19 when he was killed.
Patricia Joyce is the daughter of Marine William Samuel Tuckwood.
Strangely, for a teenager of the time, he was a married man, to Florence. Patricia never knew her father as she was born a few months after his death. Florence remarried six years after losing William who is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.