AS A 16-year-old, he survived a naval disaster at the start of the Second World War.

Now 86-year-old Kenneth Toop has just returned from a ceremony with Princess Anne to mark the 70th anniversary of the submarine attack that killed more than 800 of his shipmates.

The Basingstoke man is one of the last survivors of the battleship HMS Royal Oak that was torpedoed at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands during the opening weeks of the war in 1939.

The German submarine attacked at 1am on October 14, while most of the 1,200 crew were asleep below.

The huge old ship had been at sea for just two months and there was no sense of the tragedy that was about to unfold.

As a boy seaman, Mr Toop should have also been below deck, where the younger crew members were supervised at night.

But there was never enough room for everyone, so instead the teenager from Basingstoke found a space behind the working area used by the crew to operate the guns.

He recalled: “One might think that it’s impossible to be on a ship and be struck by a torpedo and not hear it. But there is plating that is six inches thick. The first torpedo struck and I never heard it. The chap next to me said: ‘You better get up – something’s happened.’ I never saw him again.

“Just behind me there was a ladder that went up above the guns. The emergency lights were on and there was a crowd of blokes trying to get up this ladder. There was no shouting or panic. But I thought there’s not much hope of getting up there so I decided to go forward to the gun deck.”

More torpedoes struck and the ship quickly began to sink. Cordite explosions ripped through the hull and one side became suspended in the air.

Mr Toop had no option but to make his way to the railings and slide down into the water thick with oil.

He said: “We were covered in it. At that moment I thought ‘I am going to die’, my end had come. I swam about a bit. It’s difficult to describe because you are miserable and wretched. You are covered in oil, in your eyes and your hair, everywhere. It was like thick treacle.

“It was so cold. We were all in a state of shock and I never heard screaming or shouting at all. We were all just numb with shock.”

Mr Toop managed to find the ship’s catamaran and climbed on to it to join two other men until help arrived.

He said: “It was a relief but you can’t believe what’s happened.”

Mr Toop was allowed home for 14 days survivors’ leave, after which he went back to sea on HMS Manchester.

In November the same year, he was back in Scapa Flow before sailing to Malta in a convoy. He stayed in the Navy until 1953 before returning to Basing-stoke where he spent the rest of his working life with the electricity board.

In Orkney this month, Mr Toop, who lives off Sarum Hill with his wife Lilian, joined two other survivors to pay tribute to the 834 lives lost that night.

He said: “We went on five vessels out to the wreck and Princess Anne joined us for a service. It was a great occasion.”

He is now hoping to find a home for a memorial book that he recently had made, containing the names of the dead men, which Princess Anne signed.

He said: “I want to find somewhere for it to stay in the South. There were quite a few people from Basingstoke or Alton. It’s only when you see all those names that you can understand what a great tragedy it was.”