Formidable, indomitable, redoubtable were the adjectives that Churchill used to describe Prien, the U-boat commander who became famous for his daring raid against the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
Following the orders of Commodore Karl Doenitz, Germany’s U-boat chief, Prien guided the U-47 through the British boom defences and entered Scapa flow on the night of 13 October 1939. He fired four torpedoes at point blank range into the battleship HMS Royal Oak.Three torpedoes failed to hit the battleship, and the fourth struck home, but with little effect. Amazingly, Prien had time to reload and fire a second salvo from his bow tubes. The result for the aging WWI battleship was catastrophic. The ship’s magazine exploded and the vessel capsized with a loss of almost 900 of her crew.
The U-47 made good its escape, and Prien and his crew returned to Germany in triumph.Prien became one of Germany’s most successful U-boat commanders. Eventually, on 8 March 1941, he was sighted on the surface whilst attacking a convoy south-east of Iceland. He dived, but was pursued and depth charged by the convoy’s escort. A final depth charge attack by HMS Wolverine is believed to have blown the U-boat apart.
The war at sea, including the exploits of Gunther Prien, are described by Marc Milner in his book Battle of the Atlantic (Tempus Publishing/Vanwell Publishing, 2003).