HUNDREDS of Portsmouth sailors killed when their battleship was sunk in one of the opening salvos of the Second World War have finally been immortalised.
The sinking of HMS Royal Oak in the early hours of October 14, 1939, was branded the ‘first great tragedy’ of the war, claiming the lives of 834 men – including more than 100 boy sailors.
It left scores of heartbroken families in Royal Oak’s home city of Portsmouth devastated and sent shock waves around the nation.
Now 80 years on from the disaster a memorial honouring the courage of the crew has finally been unveiled at Portsmouth Naval Base, putting an end to a long-fought battle by city families.
The news comes on the anniversary of Royal Oak’s destruction, at Scapa Flow, Scotland, and has been hailed as ‘long-overdue’ by relatives of the crew.
Gareth Derbyshire, 50, lost his grandfather, Leading Seaman Ronald Derbyshire, in the attack.
Mr Debyshire, chairman of the Royal Oak Association, said: ‘This is a big moment for all the families. It’s been a long time coming and means an awful lot to everyone.
‘I’m incredibly proud of my grandfather. For this to happen, on the 80th anniversary of Royal Oak’s sinking, just sharpens the focus of all the men who were killed.’
The new memorial was unveiled at St Ann’s Church by Princess Anne in front of 150 descendants of the 1,259 men and boys aboard Royal Oak when she was sunk.
The mighty warship, a veteran of the Battle of Jutland in the First World War, was at anchor in Scapa Flow when she was torpedoed by a German submarine.
The first torpedo impacted just before 1am and did little damage. It was the second salvo of three torpedoes that annihilated the ship.
Three messes – stokers’, boys’ and Royal Marines’ – were vaporised in an instant.
Explosive cordite charge s ignited sending jets of flame roaring through the battleship’s passageways. It took 13 minutes for the ship to list to one side and sink.
Among those to survive was John Welch, a 34-year-old Petty Officer of Portsmouth. His grandson, Mark Newman, of Bedhampton, said the trauma of the disaster left his relative scarred.
‘It must have been horrifying,’ said the 67-year-old former BT engineer. ‘They thought Scapa Flow was impregnable to submarines. They were wrong. My granddad was lucky to survive.’
He added: ‘It’s so important the next generation remember all those killed in the tragedy.’
Former Royal Navy reservist Christine Spratt, of West Wittering, was also lucky – both her father, Leading Seaman Jesse Sherwood and uncle, Robert Edmunds survived the attack.
Jesse was picked plucked from the water by a rescue ship, while Robert swam ashore.
Christine, 79, campaigned for a memorial to be placed in the city for years. She added: ‘To have this plaque means so much to me. I’m really pleased there is finally something in Portsmouth. It’s long overdue.’
A ceremony honouring the Royal Oak is due to be held in Scotland today.