During the Covid-19 lockdown in my part of the world I started pursuing one of the many questions that bug me. In this particular case it concerned what led up to the sinking of HMS Glorious and has there been a cover-up and, if so, why? The general story of the loss of the British aircraft carrier, HMS Glorious (a converted WWI battlecruiser) and its two escorting destroyers (HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta) is fairly well known.
The three warships were taking part in Operation Alphabet, the evacuation of Allied forces from Narvik in Northern Norway that had been taking place at about the same time as the evacuation at Dunkirk. At 3.00am on 8 June 1940 Glorious, with the two destroyers, was detached from the rest of the Allied fleet so as to make for Scapa Flow at all speed, while the main body of the fleet, headed by the carrier HMS Ark Royal (Vice Admiral Lionel Wells), proceeded to escort the slower convoy back to Britain.
At 3.45pm on the 8th the Glorious and her escorts were spotted by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which had put out to sea two days earlier. The Glorious had no aircraft in the air to provide early warning of approaching enemy (it didn’t even have anyone posted up in its crowsnest to keep a watch out). Further, it had no aircraft on the flight deck armed and ready to take-off in the event of an attack. To make matters worse there was conflict between the Glorious’ captain (Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes) and his two senior flying officers (Cmdr John B Heath and Lt Cmdr Paul Slessor). The captain had Heath put ashore at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, to face later court martial, prior to the Glorious sailing for Norway in mid-May. All was not well.
Unsurprisingly, the battle was relatively short and one-sided. The two German battleships opened fire at 4.30pm at a range of 20,000 yards, scoring direct hits on the bridge and flight deck of the carrier with the third and subsequent salvoes. By 5.20pm Glorious was dead in the water, little more than a hulk, and sinking fast.
The two destroyers did their brave and suicidal best to protect the Glorious, but both were smashed by the enemy’s big guns and sunk in the next 45 minutes - but not before Acasta had launched a torpedo, which hit abreast of Scharnhorst’s after turret, inflicting serious damage requiring the warship to undertake emergency repairs at Trondheim in Norway.
The German battleships did not stop to pick up survivors. Some 900 men went into the cold northern waters that evening. The British were unaware that the three ships had been lost until the following day when the Germans announced the sinkings (Or did they? See later references to HMS Devonshire). Hour after hour men waited in the cold water and in open rafts as their shipmates slipped away around them. When Norwegian fishing vessels finally found them nearly three days later, only 40 remained alive (including one each from Ardent and Acasta). The death toll of 1,519 exceeded any of the other great British naval disasters of the war. Among the dead were Captain D’Oyly-Hughes and Lt Cmdr Slessor.
An Admiralty Board of Enquiry was held within days of the 34 available survivors returning to Britain; its finding then sealed until 2041 (an interesting decision that). However, Ben Jones in his book “The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War” does contain the following:
55a. Report from Board of Inquiry to Commander-in-Chief, Rosyth (22 June 1940)
Loss of HMS Glorious, 8 June 1940
In accordance with your Memo. No. 157 of 18th June, a full and careful investigation into the circumstances attending the loss of H.M. Ships ‘Glorious’, ‘Ardent’ and ‘Acasta’, confined to taking the evidence of survivors, has been held and the Board report as follows:
1. (a) H.M. Ships ‘Glorious’, ‘Ardent’ and ‘Acasta’ were lost as a result of enemy action between 1600 and 1800 Saturday 8th June 1940, while on passage after evacuating R.A.F. Fighter Planes from the Norwegian Coast, in a position not precisely ascertainable from the evidence.
(b) The evidence obtained by the Board agrees in all important details with the Narrative compiled by the Commanding Officer of H.M.S. ‘Veteran’ in his letter of the 16th June, forwarded to the Board under cover of the Commander-in-Chief’s Memo H.F.490/114 of 17th June. The Narrative has been adopted by the Board, and attached to this report. References to the evidence are made where modifications are necessary.
(c) There were no aircraft of H.M.S. ‘Glorious’ in the air for twelve hours prior to or during the action.
(d) An enemy sighting report was originated in ‘Glorious’ and transmitted on Low Power. A report that ‘Glorious’ was sinking was originated, but there is insufficient evidence to show if this report was transmitted.
The Board find: -
2. (a) That the ships were sunk in an engagement with superior enemy force.
H.M.S. ‘Glorious’ by gunfire at ranges outside the range of her own armament.
H.M.S. ‘Ardent’ by gunfire while laying a smoke screen between the ‘Glorious’ and the enemy.
H.M.S. ‘Acasta’ by gunfire after pressing home a torpedo attack to 8000 yards.
(b) That the consequences of the action could not have been avoided in the situation in which the ships found themselves, which arose from circumstances beyond the scope of the enquiry, which has been confined to taking the evidence of survivors.
(c) No satisfactory explanation of the absence of precautions in H.M.S. ‘Glorious’ against attacks by surface vessels.
(d) That all officers and men behaved with the utmost devotion to duty during the action and afterwards in accordance with the traditions of the Service…
The above, however, does not resolve where the blame for the disaster lies. Nor does it reveal the true findings (assuming they exist) of the Board of Enquiry.
Controversy began fairly quickly following the loss of the Glorious. Questions were raised in the UK Parliament in July 1940, with Richard Stokes, a noted critic of the then government, being a prime mover. How could such an epic disaster occur and who bore the responsibility? Given the wartime situation no answers were forthcoming from the Admiralty. The war moved on and the issue went quiet for some years until in 1946 Stokes raised the matter again. This time a brief official account was released. It described a ship travelling independently due to shortage of fuel on a normally safe route that had run out of luck by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This fuel explanation was described as “not convincing” by no other than Winston Churchill. But it was the Navy’s WWII official historian, Captain Stephen Roskill, who in 1980 finally lifted the lid on the controversy in an article for the Sunday Times. He described an unhappy ship run by a captain whose WWI legend hid incompetence, tyranny and questionable mental stability. So choleric was D’Oyly-Hughes, asserted Roskill, the sole reason his ship was racing home independently, completely unready for combat, was in order to bring forward a court martial against his former senior flying officer (Cmdr John Heath).
Also steaming home to Britain from Norway, at the same time as HMS Glorious and also independently, was the County-class heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire. This cruiser was on a special mission for it was carrying the Norwegian royal family (including King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav) and Norwegian government officials (including the Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold) from Tromsø to safety in Britain. On board were a total of 461 passengers. The Devonshire passed within 80 km (50 miles) of where the Glorious and the two destroyers were sunk.
The Devonshire had been instructed to maintain radio silence due to the importance her ‘cargo’. There are questions over whether Devonshire received a clear or corrupted message from Glorious advising of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau attack. These in turn raise the question of whether the 900 odd crewmen of Glorious and her escorts, who initially survived the German attack, were in some respects sacrificed to protect Devonshire and her Norwegian passengers. This prompted another round of questions in the UK parliament and an official response from the Ministry of Defence that broadly restated the Admiralty’s original case, particularly over fuel and radio issues.
One thing that most historians (except UK government officialdom) seem to agree on is that the underlying problem that led to the disaster was a human one in the form of the Glorious’ captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes. But the Admiralty seems to have a bit of a problem admitting that, maybe because they appointed him to the position.
The last time this matter came up in the UK parliament was in January 1999 (I think). Below is a link to the UK Hansard record of question and answer session:
A documentary film was produced (I think it must have been in the late 1990s) about this affair. It is available on Youtube and is called ‘Secret History HMS Glorious’. It is about 56 minutes long. I’m afraid it does include some ad breaks. The link is below:
A new slant came out in the middle of last year when Ben Barker published an article about HMS Glorious and a mysterious Operation Paul. You’d be hard put to find any other references to Operation Paul but it makes for a good story. The relevant link is below:
I don’t know if we’ll ever know the full story. The Admiralty certainly doesn’t want it known. However, my recent delving into the subject has made me want to re-read John Winton’s ‘Carrier Glorious: The Life and Death of an Aircraft Carrier’ (1986) and also to get out and read Geirr Haarr’s ‘The Battle for Norway: April-June 1940’ (2010), which has been sitting too long in my “To Read” pile.