The Sinking of the HMS Glorious

The only time a battleship sunk an aircraft carrier

HMS Glorious as seen in 1935 (wikipedia)

TThe disastrous sinking of the HMS Glorious and loss of life was unprecedented in the annals of history. This is the only time a battleship sunk an aircraft carrier.

Setting

At the outset of WWII, the prevalent thinking by most naval strategists was rooted in the 19th century theories of Alfred Mahan, an American naval strategist who preached that a decisive battle between capital ships would decide who dominated the seas.

In the 1930’s all the major belligerents of WWII expanded their production of battleships and heavy cruisers. The pride of any national fleet lay in their collection of capital ships. Prior to the war, many countries sent their battleships to international ports showcasing their naval power and projecting national policy.

Threatening the role of the battleship, alternative naval vessels like submarines and aircraft carriers were being developed. Submarines could glide thousands of miles submerged delivering a deadly blow to enemy shipping. In addition, aircraft carriers planes could deliver their bombs hundreds of miles away exacting a toll on the enemy.

Supporters of these new weapons fought to get full recognition among the traditional fleet strategists. Despite the fact that fleet admirals utilized aircraft carriers primarily as scouting vessels, most nations began building aircraft carriers utilizing designs borrowed from capital ship hulls constructing a flight deck on top with a hangar deck below.

The HMS Glorious

Battle Cruiser HMS Glorious at anchor in 1918 (wikicommons)

The HMS Glorious was originally commissioned in 1916 as a battle cruiser. Her length of 786 feet and speed of 30 knots made her an ideal candidate for refitting as an aircraft carrier. Provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited in the total tonnage of battleships and thus gave the Royal Navy an opportunity to repurpose the Glorious as an aircraft carrier.

In 1924, The HMS Glorious was retired as a battle cruiser and reconstructed as an aircraft carrier. Her 15” turrets and guns were removed and repurposed to another ship. A flight deck, hangar deck and island were all added as well as a short forward flight deck, which gave the Glorious a distinct profile. The redesign was completed and she was placed into service in 1930.

Glorious was sleek and powerful. She was powered by 18 Yarrow boilers driving four geared steam turbines that turned four propeller shafts capable of a maximum speed of 32 knots (37 mph). She had a cruising range of over 7,000 miles.

Equipped to handle up to 48 aircraft at full capacity , she was fitted with 16 4.7” naval guns and three 40mm multi barrel AA guns. Unique to aircraft carriers, Glorious also had a pair of underwater torpedo tubes and had a compliment of 10 torpedoes on board.

At full staffing Glorious would have over 1,000 men manning her and additional flight crews and maintenance staff as required by the mission.

Operation Alphabet

British troops returning to England June 1940 (wikipedia)

In April of 1940, the British aided the Norwegians in stopping Germany’s invasion of Norway. The English landed over 18,000 troops and vehicles in the country, providing local air support via RAF fighters. To transport the fighters to Norway, the British used their aircraft carriers as ferries and loaded them with fighters to Norway.

HMS Glorious was part of this effort and was busy in April and again in May ferrying fighters to airfields at Narvik in the north of Norway.

In June of 1940, new intelligence made it apparent to the British high command that the Germans were making huge breakthroughs in continental Europe. Their Norwegian based force would be better suited to support efforts in France and Belgium. Thus began Operation Alphabet, the evacuation of Norway.

Almost as soon as they had offloaded their last set of fighters, the crew of the Glorious were called upon to reload them as the British were evacuating all troops from Norway.

Fairey Swordfish topedo plane 1939 (wiki commons)

Glorious was assigned to receive RAF Hurricane fighters from Narvik. The RAF crews faced a conundrum brought by the sudden order to evacuate. They could leave immediately, but had three choices for their aircraft: destroy them by fire, fly them to an aircraft carrier which had never been done before, or fly up to the Arctic Circle where they could disassemble their planes and await a freighter to bring them back to England.

Hawker Hurricane (wikipedia)

The main challenge for the aviators was the flight deck of the Glorious. It was only 510 feet long and had no arresting wires to slow the much faster Hurricane fighters down. Compounding this, the Hurricanes had no tail hook only a tailwheel. Their landing speeds were significantly faster than the slower biplanes that normally would land on the carrier.

The RAF pilots skilled as they were, devised an assist device: adding a 15 lb. sandbag to the rear of the plane to bring the tailwheel down and the plane to a stop using full brakes. It was successful and the Glorious received all 10 of the Hurricanes without incident. They were stored in her hangar deck for the trip back to England.

It was notable that the Glorious was carrying only six of her swordfish torpedo planes (five were flyable) and nine Sea Gladiators to make room for the Hurricanes.

Early Departure?

Glorious, with Captain Guy D’Orly-Hughes in command was originally slated to leave Norway with her sister carrier Ark Royal and a complement of cruisers, destroyers and transports in a convoy back to England. Circumstances aboard the ship altered the original plan.

Captain Guy D’Orly-Hughes, a decorated, legendary submariner from WWI was also known for his demanding leadership. He was in his first command of an aircraft carrier. When his flight commander J. B. Heath refused to send his planes in against German shore targets, Captain D’Orly-Hughes became incensed. In his defense Heath stated that the antiaircraft guns and Luftwaffe fighters would have cut his squadron of slow flying biplanes to pieces.

Not used to being refused, D’Orly-Hughes put Heath off the ship in the Scapa Flow and issued an order for a court martial for “cowardice in the face of the enemy”. It was clear to all aboard that D’Orly-Hughes was not someone to mess with and that Commander Heath was the subject of his latest vendetta.

The official record reads that due to a low fuel supply, D’Orly-Hughes was granted permission to leave early and with minimal support. Glorious left with only two destroyers the Acasta and Ardent, not the required four destroyers which was the minimum to accompany an aircraft carrier.

Unofficially it is recognized that D’Orly-Hughes was agitated about the court martial wanting to rush back to England to attend in person. Many historians suggest that there was another reason, a secret operation that was conjured up by Winston Churchill known as Operation Paul.

The Attack

Glorious left Norway with her two accompanying destroyers, Acasta and Ardent, on June 8, 1940. Unbeknownst to her, as she was transiting the Norwegian Sea, the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were on patrol in the area. They were part of a fleet operating in the Norwegian Sea to interdict the British evacuation convoys. Earlier that day the Germans had sunk several British merchant ships and were aware of radio traffic indicating British naval ships were in the area.

The Glorious was sailing at a leisurely pace of 17 mph having only twelve of her boilers lit as she considered the area relatively safe; it was her fifth voyage through the area and submarines were thought to be the primary threat. Despite warnings by Norwegian coastal watchers that the German fleet was sailing into the Norwegian Sea, Glorious recieved no imminent warnings about German ships operating in the vicinity.

HMS Glorious in Norway with destroyer HMS Diana June 1940 (Royal Navy source)

Unfortunately the HMS Glorious had no planes in combat air patrol, nor did she have a lookout in her crow’s nest; and she was not equipped with radar which was a relatively new technology in 1940.

The German ships spotted the smoke on the horizon from the three British ships at 3:45 in the afternoon. The German battleships advancing at 30 knots set a course directly towards the unsuspecting British. When at 4:00 PM the Glorious spotted the German vessels about 20 miles away, D’Orly-Hughes ordered the HMS Ardent to investigate. As the Ardent flashed the unknown vessels for identification she was answered by a salvo from the battle ships guns.

German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at anchor (wikipedia)

At 4:20 PM the Glorious called up five of her Swordfish planes as she struggled to gain speed. Battle stations were called onboard all three British ships. She made a radio report that she was under attack by enemy vessels.

Some 32 miles away, the radio report was recieved by the cruiser HMS Devonshire on a secret mission under radio silence.The HMS Devonshire was transporting the Norwegian royal family and government to the safety of England. The captain of the Devonshire decided to ignore the request for assistance and continued on with his mission.

Glorious was attacked by the German vessels long range guns at 4:32 at a range of 26,000 yards (14.7 miles). The Scharnhorst’s third salvo hit the flightdeck at 4:38 PM blowing a huge hole in the deck, destroying two planes that were waiting for armament and starting a large fire.

Still frame from Scharnhorst video of ship firing on Glorious (Royal Navy source)

Shrapnel from the explosion pierced a boiler casing and smoke filled her air intakes. The Glorious temporarily slowed down due to a loss of steam pressure. The damage wreaked by these shells was one of the longest confirmed naval shots in history.

Ardent, a small destroyer ran in front of the Glorious while firing at the German ships 25 times her size, planting a very effective smokescreen which prevented the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from visualizing the carrier. Ardent then sped through the smokescreen and fired her 4.7” guns at the battleships landing one hit. She launched her torpedoes forcing the Germans to change course.

At 4:58 a salvo hit the bridge of the Glorious killing the captain and the other command officers severing the internal communication system. From then on communications within the ship was by runner. It is likely the salvo also destroyed the main and secondary radio masts aboard the Glorious as her radio signals were quite faint during the action.

The Ardent and Acasta continued to lay down a smoke screen that effectively shielded the carrier from German shelling for the next 20 minutes but drew fire upon themselves. At 5:20 the smoke screen dissipated and the Germans began raining shells down on the Glorious.

Glorious was hit in the engine compartment at 5:20 and her steering was damaged. While losing speed, the ship began to list and make a slow turn to port. At 5:25 the Ardent sunk. The German ships continued to pound Glorious with shell fire until 5:40 PM as she was on fire from stem to stern. The crew of the Scharnhorst filmed the episode and a crude video can be seen.

The end of Glorious as seen from Scharnhorst (Royal Navy source)

Acasta, rather than retire from the fight, bravely broke through her smokescreen and attacked the battleships with her torpedoes. Miscalculating the torpedo speed, the German ships altered their course at precisely the wrong moment. A torpedo slammed into the German Scharnhorst. The Scharnhorst started listing as a hole 30 feet wide by 18 feet high had opened in her hull and she took on 2,500 tons of water. Her rear turret, one propeller, rudder and boiler were out of commission. Boldly, Acasta continued to fight on against both battleships until she too was hit multiple times, stopped in the water and sank at 6:20.

HMS Acasta (wikipedia)

Aftermath

With one German ship badly damaged, the Germans quickly retired from the scene and did not pick up survivors. They made all possible speed to a repair base in Trondheim, Norway leaving approximately 1,200 British sailors that had survived the battle in the water.

The British Admiralty had not had received any communication from the Glorious. They had no idea the ships had been lost. On June 9th, they sent the Ark Royal out to the area of the battle but no survivors were seen. The British received confirmation the ships had been sunk when it was announced on German radio!

There still remained 900 British sailors in the waters hoping for rescue. Spending three days in the freezing water, the sailors succumbed to injuries and hypothermia. They were eventually picked up by a German floatplane and a Norwegian fishing vessel. Thirty five went on to survive. The British had lost a total of 1,519 men with 1,207 from the Glorious, 160 from Acasta and 152 from Ardent.

It was the worst British naval loss of WWII and a significant embarrassment to the Admiralty.

A sacrifice not in vain

The Acasta’s daring and courageous torpedo attack with subsequent damage to the Scharnhorst is said by some prominent historians to have caused the Germans to delay and ultimately cancel Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England.

Scharnhorst’s sister ship, the Gneisenau, was torpedoed by a British submarine while Scharnhorst was accompanying her back to Germany for repairs. At that time, the German Navy only had light cruisers to support the possible invasion of England. They would have been severely outgunned by the British battle fleet.

There are some that posit the Glorious, Acasta and Ardent were sacrificed to protect the HMS Devonshire and ultimately the Norwegian royal family.

Interestingly, the Royal Navy’s inquiry into the disasterous sinking and loss of life has been sealed for 100 years! It is due to be opened in 2041.

Stand by, we may learn some important details in the next 20 years!

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WALTER O'NEILL

WALTER O'NEILL

Medical field, WWII History buff especially the Pacific Theater