The Loss of HMS Glorious
An Analysis of the Action
by Vernon W. Howland Captain, RCN (Retd.)
ON THE AFTERNOON of Saturday the eighth of June, 1940, the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her escorting destroyers HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent were intercepted in the Norwegian Sea by the German battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. The three British ships were sunk by gunfire in a little over two hours, with the loss of over 1500 officers and men of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force. Although the events leading up to the action and the stories of the 39 survivors are fully covered in John Winton's book "Carrier Glorious" published in 1986, this paper will focus on the tactics of the action and on two points, which so far as I know have never been closely examined, namely:
Evacuation of Norway:
Operation ALPHABET, the evacuation of all British and Allied forces from Norway, was carried out from the 5th to the 8th of June 1940. Two troop convoys were formed, the first (Group I) sailing on the 7th and the second (Group II), sailing on the 8th. Both convoys reached the UK safely. During the night of 7/8 June, the carriers Ark Royal and Glorious were operating in company north of Andenes Point, Lofoten Islands. Glorious had flown on 20 RAF fighters for transport to the UK and also had on board 10 fighters and 5 torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm.1 Ark Royal and Glorious were to have formed part of the escort of the Group II convoy, but in the early hours of the 8th, Glorious made a signal to Vice Admiral Aircraft Carriers (VAA) in Ark Royal, asking permission to proceed independently to Scapa.2 The request was approved and Glorious and her two destroyers parted company with Ark Royal at 0253 in position 70°17'N, 14°10'E, thereafter proceeding on course 250° at 22 knots. Later that morning Glorious reduced speed to 17 knots and, in an attempt to confuse enemy submarines, commenced zigzag.
By 1600/8 the British ships had altered course to 205° for Scapa. Glorious was in the fourth degree of readiness, i.e. at cruising stations, steaming at 17 knots on 12 of her 18 boilers. No aircraft were ranged on deck, nor were any in the air. Ardent and Acasta were disposed two cables (440 meters) on either bow. None of the ships were fitted with radar and the carrier had no lookout in her crow's nest. The sea was calm, with wind force 2-3 (approximately 6.5 knots) from the northwest, sea temperature 34°F (I°C), visibility unlimited.
The Final Action:
Two strange ships were sighted on the western horizon shortly after 1600. Ardent was ordered to close and identify them, and a pipe was made for five Swordfish to be ranged on the flight deck. Action Stations sounded about 1620.
Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were at 69°00'N, 03°10'E steaming at 19 knots on course 330° when smoke was sighted on the eastern horizon at 1546. Steam was raised for full speed, and course altered to close the enemy. By 1636 Gneisenau was making 30.5 knots and Scharnhorst, experiencing boiler trouble, was making 29. Scharnhorst, initially in the leading position, opened fire on Glorious at 1632, range 28600 yards (26150 meters). Gneisenau opened fire at 1646. Gneisenau's slightly superior speed allowed her to slowly overhaul the Scharnhorst during the action, until she had put the Scharnhorst some 22 cables (4850 meters) on her port quarter. The two ships maintained these relative positions until near the end of the engagement, when Gneisenau reduced speed.3
In accordance with instructions from Glorious. Ardent closed the enemy ships flashing a challenge on her searchlight. She was taken under fire by Gneisenau at 1627 and by Scharnhorst at 1630 at a range of about 16000 yards (14600 meters). Ardent withdrew, firing torpedoes, one of which was seen to pass close ahead of the Scharnhorst. Both destroyers made smoke to screen the Glorious. This smoke was effective enough to force the Germans to cease fire from about 1658 to 1720. Ardent made one hit on Scharnhorst with her 4.7-inch guns, but was extensively hit by return fire from the 5.9-inch secondary armament of the battlecruisers, and sank at about 1725.
Glorious received her first hit at 1638 from Scharnhorst's third salvo. The 283mm shell penetrated the flightdeck and burst in the upper hangar starting a large fire.4 Splinters pierced a boiler casing and smoke entered air intakes. This caused a temporary drop in steam pressure from two boilers, but pressure was built up again as the smoke cleared. Further hits were obtained after 1720 as the carrier once again became visible through the smoke of the screening destroyers. At 1656, just before the Germans ceased fire due to screening smoke, a hit on the homing beacon wrecked the bridge, killing the captain and almost all of the bridge personnel. The Executive Officer assumed command of the ship. About 1720 a hit in the center engine room shook the whole ship, which thereafter began to lose speed, develop a starboard list, and commence a slow circle to port. The Germans ceased fire at about 1740, and Glorious sank at about 1810. A track chart of the action, adapted from German sources, is shown on Chart 1.
At about 1730, Acasta, passing ahead of Scharnhorst and maneuvering to the enemy's starboard side, fired two four-tube salvos of torpedoes, One of these hit Scharnhorst below the after main battery turret, causing heavy damage and casualties, and forcing a sharp reduction in speed.5 Like Ardent, Acasta also made a hit on Scharnhorst with her 4.7 " guns, but came under heavy and accurate fire after she had turned away, which left her burning and in a sinking condition. The Germans ceased fire on Acasta at about 1 808, and she sank about 1820.6
At about 1815, the German ships altered course for Trondheim and departed the area at Scharnhorst's best speed, then about 20 knots. No attempt was made to recover survivors.
Location of Survivors:
Descriptions of the terrible ordeal suffered by the pitifully few survivors of Glorious, Ardent, and Acasta have no place in this paper, and are, in any case fully covered by Winton. The positions and times in which wreckage, bodies, and survivors were found are of interest and are shown on Chart 2. Southampton's log for 9 June records:
"1155 body sighted in the water, altered course to investigate. 3 bodies seen in the water. 1205 proceeded at 20 knots to rejoin convoy."
Southampton's noon position was 68°46'N, 03°40E. These bodies are almost certainly casualties front the previous day's engagement. At about 1500 on 10 June the Norwegian SS Marita en route from Tromso to Thorshavn sighted empty rafts, rafts with dead bodies, and heavy oil at 68°39'N, 04°05'E. Between 2245 on the 10th and 0455 on the 11th the Norwegian MS Borgund, also en route from Tromso to Thorshavn, sighted 21 rafts and recovered some survivors at 68°15'N, 02°20'E and 67°59'N, 03°42'E.8 These men were landed at Thorshavn at 1830/13 June and subsequently returned to the UK in HMS Veteran.9
Wireless Telegraphy (WIT) Signals:
In 1940 all R.N. radio communication between ships and shore stations was by Morse code. In the Royal Navy radio was known as "Wireless Telegraphy," or W/T. Large cruisers of the older classes, such as Devonshire, were usually equipped with two long-range transmitters, a Type 36 main transmitter of 5kw output and a Type 37 secondary transmitter of 1kw output. Both of these could transmit between 100-550 kHz and between 3-12 MHz. Frequency shifts could be accomplished very quickly, probably in less than a minute. Glorious probably carried similar or identical equipment.10 Most large ships were also equipped with several 100w auxiliary General Purpose transmitters. Destroyers were usually equipped with 1kw transmitters.
In order to reduce the possibility of a single bit disabling all of the ship's W/T equipment at once, most warships located the main and secondary transmitters in different parts of the ship. In Glorious, however, the main and secondary transmitters were in adjacent compartments one deck below the flight deck and forward of the island.
When larger ships were at action stations or in a high state of readiness a remote Control W/T office (RCO) would be manned from which any transmitter could be keyed directly. This Remote Office was located in the bridge superstructure(or the island in carriers)and was in direct voice-pipe communication with the bridge. At other times signals were passed between the bridge and the Main W/T Office by pneumatic tube. Aerial arrays in aircraft carriers were carried on light steel masts along the sides of the flight deck. These were hinged so they could be lowered outboard to the horizontal position when flight operations were in progress.
Signals from Glorious and her Destroyers:
The unexpected presence of enemy surface ships represented a great danger to the Group II convoy and to broadcast a warning should have been the highest priority. Yet only one brief transmission was heard by Royal Navy units, and its significance was not immediately appreciated. The Admiralty were very concerned that no useful enemy reports had been received and later asked all UK shore W/T stations if anyone had heard any sort of signal from Glorious or her two destroyers. None had.
Glorious commenced transmitting her enemy report shortly after 1620 with the main set on 253 kHz and the secondary one on one of the Home Station HF frequencies, 8.29 MHz. The correct frequency for an enemy report was 7.3 MHz, the Narvik area wave, but this was not used until later in the action when the General Purpose set in the Main Office started up on this frequency. It was one of these 7.3 MHz transmissions that was heard by Devonshire and Gneisenau at 1720. Evidence available indicates that Glorious continued to keep the main set on 253 kHz until it was disabled at about 1720.
Glorious also transmitted her enemy report on the "Reconnaissance wave" (probably 230 MHz) from a GP set in the RCO, but this was an uncertain means of communicating over 200 miles, given the bad atmospheric conditions reported by the Germans.
Ships in the Narvik area had been directed to shift from Narvik area frequencies to Home Station 1requencies upon crossing 65'N. This should normally have occurred about 0740 on the 9th but, for reasons which have never been established, Glorious changed over at 1300 on the 8th, while still some 300 miles north of this line.
On the 8th of June, carriers and cruisers in the Narvik area were keeping watch on 230 kHz (Fleet Air Arm Wave) and 3.7 MHz (Area wave). Destroyers were on 3.7 MHz from 0400 on the 8th. In the Narvik area Fleet Air Ann Wave 230 kHz was being used instead of Fleet Wave 25 3 kHz because of "intolerable interference" on the latter. It is evident that Glorious had not received the information that the use of 253 kHz had been discontinued and that ships were to shift to Home Frequencies upon crossing 65°N. There was considerable traffic on 3.7 MHz on the afternoon of the 8th . Ark Royal, three cruisers and at least a dozen destroyers were within 200 miles of' Glorious at the time of the action. Many of these ships were in relatively close company, and operators may have cut back their RF gain to avoid strong signals blocking their receivers. This combined with the large amount of traffic and the bad conditions reported by the Germans would have reduced the probability of a distant signal being heard on the area frequency.
At the time of the action Devonshire's W/T department was in two watches, with both her Main W/T and her Remote Office listening on the high and low frequencies of both Home and Narvik areas.11 At 1700 Devonshire, then about 70 miles west of Glorious, heard a weak signal on 3.7 MHz "reception very doubtful" addressed to VAA front Glorious ". . . My 1615 2PB 1640." There were some unreadable fragments of Morse before "My 1615. .." The warbling note of the signal was identified by the Admiralty as coming from a Type 53 auxiliary transmitter.12
At 1652, Gneisenau heard Glorious transmit the following message on 8.29 Mhz addressed to Scapa W/T: "Two battlecruisers bearing 308° 15 miles course 030°. My position 154°69'N 04°E. 11 miles = 1615."13 The Germans reported that the message was sent with "badly fluctuating signal strength possibly due to interruptions in the power supply." Al 1719 Gneisenau heard Glorious, calling VAA on 3.7 Mhz and attempted, unsuccessfully, to jam the signal. This was undoubtedly the signal received by Devonshire at 1720.14
There is no record of the destroyers sending any enemy report at all. This is very difficult to explain. The W/T specialist in the Signal Department of the Admiralty made the following comments on the file on 18 June 1940:
"It is believed that the escorting destroyers attacked the enemy and no explanation can be given for their failure to make an enemy report. Any suggestion that they assumed that Glorious had made the necessary reports can hardly be accepted. Glorious must have remained afloat for at least 30 minutes after 'open fire.' If her W/T was out of action it is reasonable to expect that she would have told the destroyers to make enemy reports."
Few survivors could shed direct light on this issue. According to the sole survivor of Acasta, the ship was not hit until she attacked Scharnhorst at about 1730. Ardent also had only one survivor, an AB stationed at X-gun who could contribute nothing of value with respect to communications.
I have concluded that:
Curiously, neither side seems to have been satisfied with the outcome of the Glorious action. The Royal Navy had, of course, suffered an embarrassing defeat. Upon his return to Trondheim, Admiral Marschall, the German commander, was relieved of his command for disobeying orders (to attack shipping at Harstad), endangering his ships (by attacking an old aircraft carrier), and expending too much ammunition. Worse was yet to come. While escorting her wounded sister back to Germany, Gneisenau was torpedoed by the British submarine Clyde. Both ships subsequently spent many months in dockyard hands.
(Those prefixed "ADM" are available from Public Record Office, Kew, England.)
ADM205/49 "Report of the Sinking of the Aircraft Carrier Glorious written under instructions of Rear Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grobman by Kontreadmiral Schubert from memory, Kiel, 19 July, 1945."
ADM53/113253 Deck Log of HMS Southampton, 7-9 June,1940.
ADM53/11872 Deck Log of HMS Coventry, 7-9 June, 1940.
ADM53/112009 Deck Log of HMS Devonshire, 7-9 June,1940.
(ADM53/11434)Deck Log of HMS Ark Royal, 7-9 June, 1940.
ADM1/19910 "Translation of various German documents dealing with the circumstances of the loss of HMS Glorious, including a copy of Scharnhorst's Battle Chart, 15 June, 1946."
ADMI99/478 Wireless Telegraphy File "Recent losses of HM Ships off Northern Norway, lack of enemy reports."
ADMI/19406 Handwritten statement of Warrant Telegraphist Ernest E. Blackwell, dated 16 July, 1945.
D/NHB/10/2/7A Directorate of Naval Staff Duties, Ministry of Defense, London, 19 August, 1991, with details of enemy reports made by HMS Glorious, and a copy of Gneisenau's plot of the action.
Telephone conversation with Mr. Trevor T. Jenkins of Dawlish, Devon, who was Petty Officer Telegraphist of the Watch, HMS Devonshire at the time of the action, May, 1991.
Austin, John, "The Man Who Hit the Scharnhorst," Seeley Service & Co. Ltd., 1973.
Broome, Capt. Jack, "Convoy is to Scatter," William Kiniber & Co. Ltd., 1972.
Brown, Capt. Eric, "Wings of the Navy-Flying Allied Carrier Aircraft of World War II," Jane's Publishing Company, 1980.
Roskill, Capt. Stephen, "The Cantankerous Captain of HMS Glorious," Sunday Times, 15 June, 1980.
Winton, John, "Carrier Glorious -The Life and Death of an Aircraft Carrier," Leo Cooper/Secker & Warburg, 1986.
HMS Glorious (Aircraft carrier)
(Captain Guy D'Oyly-Hughes D.S.O. and bar, D.S.C., RN)
Originally completed as a "Large Light Cruiser" in 1917, Glorious was converted to an aircraft carrier in the late 1920s, and re-commissioned as a carrier on 10 March 1930.
HMS Acasta (Destroyer)
(Cdr. Charles Glasfurd, RN)
HMS Ardent (Destroyer)
(Lieutenant-Commander J. F. Barker, RN)
(Vice-Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, Capt. H. Netzbandt) (The unfortunate Captain Netzbandt perished as Admiral Lutjens Chief of Staff in battleship Bismarck.)
(Capt. C. Hoffmann)
1 Before departure from Scapa Glorious was ordered to land her Squadrons with the exception of the following which were to be retained on board "for her own protection":
The following RAF aircraft were flown on board in the early hours of 8 June for transport to the UK:
2 Glorious request to proceed independently was to expedite a Court Martial. A poor relationship between Glorious Captain, DOyly-Hughes and his Commander (Air), J.B. Heath had broken down completely during the ships previous deployment to Norway, after Heath refused the Captains orders to use his Swordfisth to attack certain ill-defined target ashore. Heath refused, on the ground that the aircraft were unsuitable to the task and the aircrew were untrained for such a venture. Left behind in Scapa awaiting trial for disobedience of orders, Heath escaped the forthcoming disaster. Glorious was not a happy ship. Full details of the incident are given in Wintons book.
3 Survivors taking passage in HMS Veteran reported that the German ships were disposed on on each quarter with the largest ship to starboard apparently a Hipper class cruiser " with a cut-away bow and clinker screen." Both Gneisenau and Hipper had clipper bows and funnel cowls at the time. Many of the survivors took Scharnhorst on Gneisenaus port quarter and with a straight stem and no funnel cap to be a Leipzig class cruiser.
4 An early hit, possibly the first hit, brought down the after W/T mast on the starboard side carrying away the main aerial. The main set was then connected to the secondary aerial and the second set to an alternative aerial (4H). The report heard in Gneisenau at 1652 was from the secondary transmitter.
5 The torpedo tore a hole 14 meters long and six meters high in the side of the ship, flooded about 30 watertight compartments, and stopped two of the ship's three shafts. In all Scharnhorst took on about 2500 tons of water, giving here 5 degree list and putting her 3 meters down by the stern. Two officers and 46 men were killed in the blast or drowned in the subsequent flooding.
6 Scharnhorst's gunnery summary follows:
Main armament--in action against Glorious:
Average 242.5 26515
Secondary Armament--in action against Ardent
Secondary Armament--in action against Acasta.
1 hecktometer (hm) = 100 meters
Secondary armament-842 rounds
Heavy Anti-aircraft-1 36 HE time-fuzed**
**This ammunition was expended, primarily against Acasta, in order to maintain and improve the morale of the German gun crews.
Admiral Marschall made the following comments in his gunnery report of the action:
7 Mr. Blackwell, Glorious' Warrant Telegraphist, and three ratings were picked up by a Norwegian fishing vessel and taken to Norway where they became Prisoners of War Mr. Blackwell made a written statement upon his return to the UK in April, 1945. The transcripts of the Board of Inquiry (less summaries) are scaled under the "75 year rule," and will not become available for another thirty years. The officer survivors of Glorious were a Lieutenant-Commander and two Sub-lieutenants (both FAA pilots), the Warrant Telegraphist, one Squadron Leader, and one Flight Lieutenant RAF. There were no survivors from the bridge or engineering spaces of Glorious, and no survivors that were in a position of significant command, so many tactical and technical details of the action will always remain a mystery.
8 These middle-of-the-night sightings are difficult to explain until one realizes that, at that time and in that latitude, the sun was above the horizon 24 hours per day.
9 Capt. Jack Broome in "Convoy is to Scatter," describes the experiences of Veteran and Vanoc during this period, writing "As the troop convoy cleared the Norwegian coast, Veteran and Vanoc were suddenly detached from the convoy escort and ordered northward to intercept Glorious and supplement her destroyer screen. . . . When we reached our rendezvous we were in midnight sun latitudes, calm sea, maximum visibility but no Glorious. We searched unsuccessfully until the old fuel problem loomed, then headed for the Faroe Islands ... where we found thirty exhausted, frostbitten survivors of Glorious."
10 World War II terminology has been updated here for the convenience of modern readers. Prior to about 1960 radio frequencies were often expressed in cycles per second, with a frequency of 1700000 cycles per second (for example) being expressed w 1700 kcs (kilocycles). Modern frequencies we expressed in Hertz instead of cycles per second, but as one Hertz equals one cycle per second the translation is easy; 1700 kcs = 1700 kHz (kilohertz), or 1.7 MHz (megahertz). Some documents use the wavelength instead of the frequency to define the band in use. As radio waves travel nearly at the speed of light, i.e., at about 300,000,000 meters per second, a frequency of 1.7 Mhz would correspond to a wavelength of 300,000,000/1,700,000 or 176.47 meters. A frequency of 250 kHz would correspond to a wave length of about 1200 meters. The now outdated word "wave" is synonymous with "frequency."
11 The Secondary W/T was manned only at action stations or if, for any reason, the main transmitter was "down." Mr. Jenkins, who was a Petty Officer telegraphist aboard Devonshire at the time of the action, told me that otherwise the Secondary was never used if the main transmitter was operating,
12 My guess is that the missing Morse fragments were the single word "amend," making the whole message "VE 1NR (call sign of VAA) VOW20-UAMENDMY 16152PB = 1640." Why Glorious wanted to alter her first, and correct, identification of the enemy must remain a mystery. The B. Dienst operator in Gneisenau recorded this as "the very same message" as the enemy report heard at 1652.
13 The complete message as based in Gneisenau would have been transmitted in the "self-evident" code used for enemy reports, and would have been transmitted in Morse as follows:
VE MTA V OW2 O-U 2BC 308 15 030 154GQOX 11 BT 1615 IMI
Breaking this down, we have:
The transmitting ship's position was coded as:
Letter groups with an overhead bar (here underlined instead for convenience in typesetting) are transmitted as single groups, i.e. without any spaces between the letters.
14 The Germans were fully expecting Glorious to transmit on 7.3 MHz, and had a transmitter in Gneisenau, pre-tuned to that frequency in order to jam any outgoing signal. The Germans used a rather subtle jamming technique; instead of generating a lot of noisy interference, they attempted to drown out the legitimate signal by simultaneously generating a series of false signals which would overwhelm it, using standard RN call signs and procedures. No ship or shore station reported receiving Gneisenau's bogus messages, and in fact Devonshire was unaware that the Germans were attempting to jam Glorious' signals.
15 This individual, Vice Admiral Lionel Victor ("Nutty") Wells, later became Flag Officer Orkneys & Shetlands, flying his flag in the old battleship Iron Duke, permanently moored in Scapa Flow.
16 An acquaintance of mine, a senior naval aviator who served in Glorious before the war, was of the opinion that Swordfish with torpedoes could have taken off even with the ship steaming directly downwind at 30 knots, " . . particularly as there would have been only five aircraft ranged at the round-down with the whole flight deck ahead of them. "Figures in Captain Eric Brown's "Wings of the Navy" confirm this opinion. A 30 knot ship speed with a 10 knot "tailwind" would have given a 20 knot relative wind over the bow. Brown gives the deck run for a Swordfish at maximum Loaded weight (9250 lb) into a 20 knot headwind as 540 feet, and Glorious' flight deck was about 576 feet long. The first hit at 1638, which penetrated the flight deck forward and burst in the upper hangar starting a furious fire, apparently terminated all efforts to arm and range aircraft.
Glorious' zigzag scheme and her failure to have aircraft in the air indicates that she was probably more concerned with the threat of submarines than with surface raiders. Early in the war, Captain D'Oyly-Hughes, a submariner, was quoted as saying ' as far as anti-submarine operations were concerned, no aircraft had ever sunk a submarine or ever would." This feeling, if widespread, may explain why no aircraft were flying when the encounter began.
About the Author:
CAPTAIN VERNON W. HOWLAND, RCN (Retired).
Born Winnipeg, Manitoba 11 February 1918.
Joined the Reserve Naval Division in Toronto as a junior officer in 1937. Wartime Service ashore and afloat from 2 September 1939. Transferred to the RCN Permanent Force in 1944; Royal Navy Staff College, Greenwich 1947-48; Canadian Joint Staff, London 1954-55; Promoted to Captain 1961; National Defence College, Kingston, Ontario 1961-62; Canadian Joint Staff, Washington, D.C. 1962-65; Staff of SACLANT, Norfolk, Va. 1958-7 1; Retired 11 February 1973.