When the Tinker asked me recently if I knew what was special about October 14th I think I might have given the wrong answer in terms of priorities when I replied 'Cliff Richard's birthday of course.'
Well yes, an important day for Cliff obviously, but not what the Tinker had in mind.
'You'd better write about that for me,' I said...so he has and my thanks to the Tinker for his recollections and a touching memorial of his own today.
It is excusable I suppose, to the generation of today, that October 14th. 1939 means very little, but to over 1000 men aboard HMS Royal Oak, a battleship at anchor in St. Margarets Bay in the Naval anchorage of Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands, it meant a great deal. 833 of those men died that night when German Captain Gunther Prien in U47 fired three torpedoes, within thirteen minutes the ship rolled over and sank.
It is now a war grave for those 833 men who still lay inside the upside down wreck fifteen feet below the waterline in a hundred feet of water and there is a commemorative memorial in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
I arrived on the scene just ten weeks later in December, 1939 to join HMS Iron Duke in Scapa Flow, which incidently had been hit by a German bomb during an air raid three days after the sinking on 17th. October, 1939. I was a fourteen-year old Royal Marine Boy Bugler and though I don’t have any memories of HMS Royal Oak's sinking I did know the two boy Buglers who went down with the ship , Harry Mountford and Aubrey Priestley both only fifteen years old.
Every year, a ceremony is held over the wreck site on October 14th to commemorate the 833 men. A new Royal Navy Ensign is taken down and placed on the wreck by two divers and numerous wreaths are laid by the marker buoy. I was asked by the Royal Navy Association of Kirkwall if I would like to lay their wreath this year, but it later turned out that other arrangements had already been made, but I am deeply honoured to have been asked to do the ceremony next year (2013). I do however have a very good picture of Mountford and Priestley which I have sent to my contact in Scapa Flow, Kinlay Francis, who has agreed to enclose the picture in a lead sealed frame engraved with their names and the words from Laurance Binyon’s poem “ We shall remember them” which the divers will lay on the wreck for me during today's ceremony.
October 14th. will always be a date I shall remember.
And of course I will remember it now too.
We met Kinlay Francis who runs Orkney Uncovered whilst we were in Orkney this year, his family owned the holiday cottage that we rented, the one with the gorgeous views that we couldn't stop staring at...
and I hope Kinlay won't mind me using an extract here from an email that he sent to the Tinker this week. It reveals the care and attention to detail that he had paid to the Tinker's request and for which we are very grateful indeed...
I thought I would give you an update about October 14th. The HMS Royal Oak memorial will start at 10:00am at Scapa Pier... we will be going straight out to the Oak site to lay the wreaths and your Plaque container and then back to the Kirkwall Royal British Legion afterwards.
As for my role: I will be laying two linked Poppy Cross wreaths for you. One for Harry and one for Aubrey. I have also hand crafted a lead memorial plate (more like a medium envelope) which I have enclosed the picture of H & A inside and a well wrapped piece of clear plastic, which is watertight and taped. I have then folded over the lead sections and sealed them down with waterproof silicone before hammering the sides to make it completely watertight.
I wrote below the boys picture: To my friends Harry and Aubrey, we will remember you. Forever, Len Chester. On the actual plaque I have inscribed your exact instructions:
‘We shall remember them’.