HMS Royal Oak
Scapa Flow 14 October 1939


Walter Clive Bonner, Band Corporal, Royal Marine Band: age 26
Desmond Ernest Kirkby (inscribed as Kirby), Boy 1st Class: age 17
Leonard George Martin, Boy 1st Class: age 16
Richard Poulter, Ordinary Signalman: age 18


Desmond Ernest Kirkby, Boy 1st Class: age 17

Royal Navy

Royal Marine Bandsman

The sinking of HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak was completed in 1916, one of five Revenge Class battleships. By the start of WW2 she was no longer suitable for front-line duty, in particular because of her lack of speed.

On October 14 1939 she was at anchor at Scapa Flow, in the Orkneys. This Fleet anchorage was penetrated in a daring attack by the German submarine U47 under the command of Günther Prien. German air reconnaissance had provided high quality images which revealed the vulnerability of the anchorage but also alerted the Royal Navy, causing a partial dispersal of the Fleet.

Despite grounding and being caught briefly in the headlights of a taxi, Prien finally identified a battleship target. A salvo of four torpedoes was fired but one lodged in its tube. Two missed but the third hit the Royal Oak's bow causing little visible damage. Prien turned U47 and fired one torpedo from a stern tube. This missed. He turned again, reloading the bow tubes. At 01:16 a salvo of three torpedoes all hit, blowing a hole in the armoured deck, destroying the Stokers', Boys' and Marines' messes and causing a loss of electrical power. Cordite in a magazine ignited and the fireball rapidly passed through the internal spaces. Royal Oak's list worsened and she sank at 01:23. 835 men died of whom 134 were Boy Seamen. The practice of sending 15-17 year old Boys to sea was then generally discontinued.

The bodies of most of those who died could not be recovered. They are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. The Royal Oak is a war grave. At least 386 men were pulled from the chilling and fuel-oil coated waters.

Despite having drawn attention to the vulnerability of Scapa Flow, the Admiral commanding was retired. The defences were improved and were officially opened just after VE Day in 1945. 

Prien and U47 were lost in March 1941. Some U47 crew members who took part in the attack on Royal Oak survived the war, having transferred to other vessels and some of them met Royal Oak survivors.

The Vicar of Leatherhead, Rev Gerard HB Coleridge wrote in the Parish magazine:

The Vicarage, Leatherhead
October 16, 1939

My Dear People,

This hitherto somewhat remote and intangible war has come this day very close to us as a parish. The sinking of H.M.S. Royal Oak has involved the loss of at least four Leatherhead boys, namely Clive Bonner, Leonard Martin, Richard Poulter and Desmond Kirkby, and these names form the first of a new Roll of Leatherhead men who have laid down their lives for Peace and Freedom. Our hearts go out with sympathetic respect to those to whom they were especially dear.

All four were all pupils at Leatherhead Central School, in Woodvill Road (the precursor of Therfield School). Their loss was reported in the local press as follows:

Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser - Friday 20 October 1939

There were four Leatherhead people on the "Royal Oak,” which, as was announced by the Admiralty last weekend, was sunk in Scapa Flow, and all four lost their lives. They were, Ordinary Sig. Richard Poulter, 18 years of age, son of Mr. and Mrs. James Poulter, of 3, Gravel Hill; Boy Desmond Ernest Kirkby; aged 17, whose home was at 2, Cinema Place, High-street; Boy Leonard Martin, aged 16, youngest son of Mrs. Martin, a cook employed at Fairmead, Leatherhead-road, which is part of the Leatherhead Cottage Hospital; and Band Corpl. Walter Clive Bonner, Royal Marines, aged 26, eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Bonner, 34 Poplar Avenue.

All four who lost their lives as a result of the disaster were former pupils of the Leatherhead Central School.

Cpl. Bonner was married last year. His wife lives at East Rudham, Norfolk. He was a native of Leatherhead and was always a keen musician. He joined the Leatherhead Town Silver Prize Band before he left school. He joined the Service at the age of 14 but had only been on the “Royal Oak” a few months. Before that he served on H.M.S. “Courageous.”

Before he joined the Royal Navy, Boy Kirkby had lived at Cinema Place since his babyhood, and after attending the Central School, he was employed as an errand boy in the town. At the age of 15 he entered the Royal Navy. He was a keen swimmer and in 1933 he was awarded a certificate of proficiency in swimming by the Surrey Education Committee.

Boy Leonard Martin was a cousin of Cpl. Bonner and he joined the Royal Navy when he left school at the age of 14. His home was formerly at Highlands road, Leatherhead.

Ordinary Sig. Poulter joined the Navy two years ago, thus achieving his life’s ambition. A native of the town, he was the youngest son of five, and was keen cricketer, footballer and swimmer. After leaving school, he worked for a time in the General Cable Company Works at Leatherhead. One of his brothers is also in the Navy. Sig. Poulter was 18 in August last and was last home on leave in June. His parents received a cheerful letter from him only a few days before his death.

Memorial Service. The Vicar of Leatherhead (the Rev. G. H. B. Coleridge) will conduct a memorial service at Leatherhead Parish Church on Wednesday next at 3 p.m.

Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser - Friday 27 October 1939
At Leatherhead Parish Church on Wednesday afternoon a memorial service was held in honour of the four Leatherhead men who lost their lives in the Royal Oak disaster. As reported in last week’s issue of this journal, the four men were Boy Desmond Ernest Kirkby, aged 17, of Cinema-place, Leatherhead; Boy Leonard Martin, aged 16, son of Mrs Martin, a cook employed at Leatherhead Cottage Hospital; Ordinary Signalman Richard Poulter, aged 18, of 3, Gravel Hill, Leatherhead; and Band-Corporal Walter Clive Bonner, Royal Marines, aged 26, of 34, Poplar-avenue, Leatherhead.

In addition to relatives, others present included Sir Arthur Glyn, Bt. (Chairman of the Elementary Schools Sub-Committee of the Surrey Education Committee), Mr. Stephen King, J.P (formerly Headmaster of the Leatherhead Central School, where all four victims attended). Mr G. W. Fairs (a member of the Leatherhead Urban District Council), Mr. S. R. Drake (representing the Leatherhead Division British Red Cross Society), and Mrs. E. R. Still. A half-muffled peal of bells preceded the service, which was conducted by the Vicar (the Rev. G. H. B. Coleridge), and the hymns sung included "Jesu, Lover of my soul,” "The Church’s One Foundation,” and "Eternal Father Strong to Save,” and Psalm xxiii was sung. Mr. F. H. Lockett, who was at the organ, played Chopin’s "Funeral March” and the Nunc Dimittis was chanted.
There was no address.

All are named on the WW2 plaque on Leatherhead's Town War Memorial (the casualty links below are to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission entries for each):
Walter Clive Bonner, Band Corporal, Royal Marine Band: age 26
Desmond Ernest Kirkby (inscribed as Kirby), Boy 1st Class: age 17
Leonard George Martin, Boy 1st Class: age 16
Richard Poulter, Ordinary Signalman: age 18

All four are on the Leatherhead RBL Roll of Honour 1939-45 and all are commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial to those who were lost or buried at sea.

Desmond Kirkby is also remembered on the Cobham WW2 Memorial - his CWGC record states that his parents were Ernest and Emily Kirkby of Cobham, Surrey. The spelling of his surname on the Town Memorial and in the RBL Roll of Honour is Kirby.

Further work is in hand to establish the family histories in each case. Desmond Kirkby's address of Cinema Place, High Street is presumed to be Leatherhead. There was The Picture House in the Victoria Hall in Leatherhead High Street but Cinema Place has yet to be located.

From James and Nellie Poulter, the parents of Richard, in 1943 the war took another of their five sons:

Surrey Advertiser - Saturday 8 May 1943
Mr. and Mrs. J. Poulter, of 3, Gravel Hill, Leatherhead. have been notified that their son, Sapper Leonard Victor Poulter [see for family history], reported missing in the Middle East on November 14th, must now be assumed to have lost his life. Sapper Poulter, who was 23 years of age, joined the Royal Engineers soon after the outbreak of war, went to France, and was evacuated from Dunkirk. He went overseas again a year ago. He was educated at Leatherhead Central Schools, and was a carpenter by trade. This is the second loss his parents have sustained, as their youngest son, Richard Poulter, aged 18, who was serving on H.M.S. Royal Oak, did not survive the ship’s loss on October 14th, 1939.  
Leatherhead Parish Magazine: 1939 volume (Surrey History Centre, Woking)
Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Royal_Oak_(08)
British Newspaper Archive, courtesy of Lorraine Spindler
Cobham War Memorial http://thebignote.com/2012/11/09/cobham-wwii-memorial/
the website editor would like to add further information on these casualties
e.g. photos of them, and of any recollections within the families

last updated 2 Dec 19: 30 Jul 20