At this time of year when we remember those who gave their lives in service of their country, here we focus on just one past example of the many thousands of sacrifices made by the members of the Royal Navy.
In April 1940 HMS Glowworm was part of the escort for the battlecruiser HMS Renown covering a minelaying operation in Norwegian waters. A man was washed overboard in heavy seas and Gloworm lost touch with the main force when detached to look for him. In worsening weather, she reduced speed and her gyro-compass failed, forcing her to rely on the unreliable magnetic compass for navigation. At dawn on April 8, she encountered two German destroyers engaging them but the ship was rolling severely and several of the crew were injured. The Germans broke off the action but Glowworm decided to follow, aware they would likely be part of a larger force which they hoped to shadow, in order to report their movements.
Not long after, the Admiral Hipper was sighted. The cruiser heavily outgunned her opponent, armed with eight 8 inch and twelve 4.1inch guns compared with the destroyer’s four 4.7 inch guns. Weather conditions made both shadowing or escape virtually impossible and the captain, 35-year old Lt Cdr Gerard Roope, decided it was their duty to inflict as much damage as possible on the cruiser before inevitably being sunk. Glowworm made smoke but this made little difference as Hipper was equipped with an early gun-direction radar system. Gloworm was hit by at least one 8 inch shell before she was close enough for the cruiser to open fire with her secondary armament.
Glowworm fired a salvo of torpedoes but all missed as Hipper combed their tracks. While attempting to withdraw to reload torpedoes, Hipper closed to close range so Roope gave the order to ram. The destroyer struck the cruiser just abaft the anchor, breaking off Glowworm’s bow but scraping down Hippers’s starboard side, tearing off a 40-meter section of the armoured belt and a set of torpedo tubes. Minor flooding also caused a four-degree list but Hipper was eventually able to resume her mission in Norway.
The battle took place in heavy seas, a cacophony of explosions, grinding metal, smoke and fire. For the men of Glowworm in must have been truly terrifying. As the ship drew away, she fired a final salvo at Hipper but was hit again and as the ship heeled over, the captain gave the order to abandon ship, ordering as much timber and other floating material over the side as possible. There were very few uninjured men left, all that could be done was to put lifebelts on the wounded that made it to the upper deck in the hope that they would float. The Glowworm eventually capsized and sank after floating bottom-up for a few moments.
Admiral Hipper hove to in order to rescue a sailor swept overboard during the action as well as Glowworm’s survivors. Of her complement of 148, only were 38 rescued by the Hipper, 7 died of wounds and the rest became prisoners of war. Lt Cdr Gerard Roope survived the action but drowned before he could be rescued. The German crew were astonished by such bravery and the cruiser’s captain, Hellmuth Heye, wrote to the British authorities via the Red Cross, recommending Roope be given the Victoria Cross. This was subsequently posthumously awarded after the war when the full story became public.
Nelson famously said, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”. The sacrificial action of Glowworm’s crew showed this fighting spirit to be undiminished and was key to ultimate victory. The courage of the Glowworm was echoed just a few months later when two destroyers, HMS Ardent and Acasta went down while confronting the German battleship Scharnhorst at close range. The destruction of these small destroyers was very much a case of temporary local superiority. By the end of the war and at enormous cost in lives, the Royal Navy had despatched Hitler’s fleet to the bottom of the ocean with its remnants pounded in their harbours by the RAF.
The effects of the pandemic have significantly curtailed public remembrance events and the opportunity for poppy sales in support of the Royal British Legion. If you can’t give cash to the Poppy Appeal collectors as you might normally have done, then donations can be made to the RBL here or the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity here.
Main image: by kind permission of Spacepickshovel