Wednesday 18 November 2020

HMS Glorious - The controversy around the tragic sinking of HMS Glorious - June 1940

At a recent lunch in Hong Kong, I found myself sitting next to a friend who had served in the Royal Navy during his national service. I  knew he had an interest in naval history.  I had just been reading about the Battle for Norway and the tragic loss of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escort destroyers, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta, in June 1940. It turned out that he had a personal connection with HMS Glorious. His father, a naval officer, had served on Glorious and lost his life at the time of the sinking. She was sunk by the German pocket battleships, sometimes referred to as battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. I was curious to find out more about this incident, and in so doing came to learn about the controversy that has surrounded this tragic naval incident which resulted in the death of 1,531 officers and men from the three warships. 
   HMS Glorious had started life as a First World War battlecruiser. She was launched in 1916. She was one of three battlecruisers belonging to the Courageous class which included Glorious, Courageous and Furious. In 1924 Glorious began the conversion process to an aircraft carrier. The conversion was completed in 1930. The three battlecruisers were modified in compliance with the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty, signed in 1922, was an early attempt at arms control by restricting the tonnage and gun calibre of capital ships possessed by the major powers. The treaty allowed up to 66,000 tons of existing ships to be converted into aircraft carriers. The 15-inch gun turrets were removed, a flight deck was built over the main deck with a huge 2-deck aircraft hangar constructed below the armoured flight deck. The gun turrets from HMS Glorious were later installed on the battleship HMS Vanguard

Glorious refitted as an aircraft carrier (Source: IWM)

Courageous before conversion  (Source: IWM)

                                                  An aircraft taking off from Glorious (Source: n/k)

After completing sea trials, Glorious served in the Mediterranean. When war broke out in 1939, she was dispatched to the Indian Ocean to participate in the hunt for the German surface raider Admiral Graf Spee. The Graf Spee was later scuttled off Montevideo, Uruguay. Glorious returned to the Mediterranean from where she was sent to join the Home Fleet.
Glorious at Valetta Harbour Malta (Source: Times Malta Feb. 2015)
In April 1940 she was deployed with HMS Ark Royal to support the British landings in Norway.  She ferried aircraft from Scapa Flow to the Norwegian coast. These included a squadron of RAF Gloster Gladiators, several Walrus amphibians and a squadron of Hawker Hurricanes. These aircraft took off from Glorious's flight deck and landed at airfields ashore. Hurricanes had never before taken off from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Glorious also carried her own Sea Gladiators and Skuas. These were used to support military operations ashore. 

RAF Gloster Gladiator (Source: Wikipedia)

Skuas on the flight deck of HMS Ark Royal  (Source: IWM)

HMS Glorious: Photo was taken in May 1940 from the flight deck of Ark Royal  (Source: Wikipedia)
The photograph above, taken by a member of the crew of HMS Ark Royal, is thought to be the last photograph of Glorious before she sank. The Norwegian operations proved unsuccessful, and in early June a decision was taken to evacuate the troops and aircraft. At the time of the evacuation, Glorious was carrying a reduced number of her own aircraft (nine Sea Gladiators and six Fairy Swordfish) to allow for the embarkation of the RAF Gladiators and Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were landed on the flight deck. It was the first time such aircraft, monoplane fighters, with their higher landing speeds, and without tailhooks had landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. On Saturday 8 June 1940, Glorious set course for Scapa Flow escorted by the two destroyers HMS Ardent (Lt Cdr John F. Barker) and HMS Acasta (Lt-CdrCharles E. Glasfurd). Their smoke was spotted by the German pocket-battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at 1546 hours. The battleships closed in at top speed. At around 1600 hours the German ships were observed by the British vessels. The destroyer HMS Ardent was sent to investigate and determine the identity of the vessels. At 1620 hours Glorious closed up for action stations with her five serviceable Fairey Swordfish readied for take-off. At 1627 hours Gneisenau opened fire on Ardent, and minutes later, at 1630 hours, Scharnhorst also engaged the British destroyer at a range of 15 km. The destroyer, although completely outmatched by the two German battleships gallantly went to the attack even scoring hits on the Scharnhorst from her 4.7-inch guns. The destroyer deployed smoke screens and repeatedly fired her torpedoes, but was sunk at 1725 hours by Scharnhorst's secondary armament. 
   The German battleships engaged Glorious with their main armament at 1632 hours at a range of 24 km. At 1638 hours the Scharnhorst secured a direct hit on the carrier's flight deck. The shell went through the flight deck and exploded in the hangar below starting fires which destroyed some of the aircraft. The carrier's aircraft were unable to take off due to the large hole punctured through the flight deck. At 1658, a shell hit the bridge structure killing and wounding most of the personnel on the bridge, including the commanding officer, Captain Guy D'Oyly-Hughes. The Executive Officer took command of the stricken ship. The smokescreen deployed by Ardent and Acasta was effective in screening the damaged aircraft carrier. However, at 1720 hours, the smoke dissipated and Glorious came under observed fire from the battleships and was hit in the engine room. The ship lost power and steerage and then developed a list to starboard. The German battleships moved in for the kill firing salvos at close range that finally sunk the aircraft carrier at 1810 hours. HMS Acasta gallantly attacked the Scharnhorst with torpedoes and her 4.7-inch guns. The Scharnhorst was seriously damaged by one of the torpedoes, but the plucky destroyer received numerous direct hits and was sunk at 1820 hours with her guns still blazing. The damaged Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau did not stay to pick up survivors. They were concerned that the British vessels had signalled for assistance and the battleships withdrew at full speed to Trondheim. While heading back, the Gneisenau was damaged by a torpedo fired by the British submarine Clyde. After the damaged battleships returned to Trondheim, the German naval commander, Admiral Marschall, was reprimanded and relieved of his command for disobeying orders and endangering his ships.
   William Smith, a seaman on Glorious, made his way from his action station, the dynamo room below decks,  to the stern after the order to abandon ship had been given. He could see the German battleships and the flash from their guns. He recalled the number of dead and wounded lying on the decks. One marine had lost both his legs,  but when offered help, wanted no assistance to get away, simply saying he did not want to go home like that. 
   For the British, it was one of the worst naval disasters of the Second World War. Approximately 900 men from HMS Glorious took to the water, hanging on to Carley Floats in the freezing temperatures of the North Norwegian Sea. A rescue was not ordered, because seemingly the Royal Navy did not know about the loss of the three ships until it was reported on German commercial radio. More than 1,500 men lost their lives in this appalling tragedy. Only around forty men out of the 900 that had abandoned ship were rescued after spending three days and three nights in, or on, the water. Survivors recalled men quickly dying from exposure and just slipping off the rafts to their deaths. 
   The Carley Float is an odd contraption. The men sit on the flotation ring with their feet in the water or stand in the well with water level up their waist. Others, still in the sea held on to ropes dangling from the sides of the raft. William Smith swam out to a raft, but it was full of men. He could not get on until room was made for him by people dying from the cold. Fred Thornton, a Boy Seaman on Glorious, had manned one of the forward 4.7-inch AA guns. He recalled getting on a raft which had twenty to twenty-five men on it. By the time he was rescued by a Norwegian trawler, there were only two men left. Many of the dead had been left in the well because the survivors were too exhausted to heave them over the side. 

Carley Float schematic (Source:
There was no food or water on the rafts. William Smith recalled that some people drank seawater but those who did soon died. After twelve hours he recalled there were only three men left alive on his raft. Vernon Day, an Aircraft Mechanic, recalled the shell coming through the flight deck and setting fire to the Hurricanes in the hangar. He had got on a Carley Float but was one of those standing in the well until one by one the survivors died, and he was able to get on the rim. Squadron Leader Kenneth Cross, who commanded the RAF s Hurricanes, recalled only a handful of men survived on his raft. On Tuesday 11 June, after three days and three nights on a flimsy raft in Arctic waters, they were picked up by the crew of a Norwegian trawler. There were less than forty survivors picked up from the rafts. Given that the survivors had no food or water, had little clothing, and were wet through,  it is a testimony to human endurance that any survived at all. The trawler took them to the Faroe Islands, and from there, an RN destroyer took them to Rosyth, Scotland. 
   The German crew on the battleships had been amazed to find an aircraft carrier, not at full steam, not in convoy, without spotter aircraft in the air, and with only two escort destroyers. They were impressed by the courage and audacity of the two destroyers.  The commander of Glorious was forty-nine-year-old Captain Guy D'Oyly-Hughes.  He was a veteran of the First World War. He had been a submariner and had won the DSO, DSC and MiD for gallantry. In one incident he had swum ashore at the Dardanelles with explosives which he used for blowing up an important rail link between Constantinople and Baghdad. 

Captain Hugh D'Oyly-Hughes
Undoubtedly brave, and somewhat enigmatic, he has been described by some as being an authoritarian officer without strong leadership, or man-management skills. It has been said he was an old-fashioned Edwardian type of naval officer. A strict disciplinarian who did not always temper authority with understanding. However, other reports suggested that he was popular with the men on the lower deck, if not with always with his own officers. Although he had learnt to fly, and perhaps because of that, he did not always trust the advice of his senior aviators. Some said he did not see the importance of maintaining regular air patrols and reconnaissance. At one stage he had ordered his Commander (Air), John B. Heath, to attack certain ill-defined ground targets in Norway. Heath objected because of the unsuitability of using Fairy Swordfish for this type of ground attack. D'Oyly-Hughes was not an officer to have his orders questioned or challenged. Of course, Commander Heath should have obeyed the Captain's orders to provide air support for the ground forces. It was an order which had emanated from the Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps it was a clash of character, but the row with his senior aviator had been going on for much longer than this one incident. It also involved Lt-Cdr (Air) Paul Slessor, Heath's second-in-command. Slessor had supported his immediate senior and in so doing had also incurred the wrath of the Captain. PO Dick Leggott described how when he joined Glorious he was taken up to see the Captain who had indicated that he (Leggott) would be of more use to him (the Captain) than these two (referring to nearby Commander Heath and Lt-Cdr Slessor). On return to Scapa Flow from that deployment, the Captain had Commander Heath put ashore and placed under arrest for his refusal to obey orders. As a result, Heath was not aboard when Glorious set out on her final fateful voyage. The Captain intended to institute court-martial proceedings against Heath and presumably Slessor when the carrier returned to base at Scapa Flow. Slessor remained with the ship to take charge of air operations and was one of those who lost their lives following the sinking.

This sinking of these ships and the huge loss of life raised several questions and controversies which have never been satisfactorily answered or resolved. 

Why were the three warships sailing on their own rather than in the main convoy to Scapa Flow?
Captain D'Oyly-Hughes asked permission from Vice Admiral (Aircraft Carriers) Lionel Wells, who was embarked onboard HMS Ark Royal, for Glorious with two destroyers as escort to proceeded independently. The reason given was a shortage of fuel necessitating a lower speed. I assume that Wells accepted this explanation, which sounded plausible, and there had been no intelligence provided about the proximity of German capital ships. 
   However, post-war analysis of fuel usage by Glorious on the voyage from Scapa Flow to Northern Norway suggests that there would have been ample fuel. So either the Captain believed that fuel was in short supply, and it may have been, which was consistent with their reduced boiler usage, or he had another reason to return without waiting for the convoy. Some have suggested it was because the Captain wanted to get back to Scapa Flow to initiate the court-martial proceedings against Commander Heath who had defied him. 
   After the death of D'Oyly-Hughes on Glorious, Commander Heath was released and never charged.  He could not be charged without the Captain or other relevant officers to give evidence. The official story remains the shortage of fuel. However, had the ship returned in convoy it would have been at a lower speed than going solo and would have saved more fuel. Going solo at reduced speed, notwithstanding the two escort destroyers, exposed the aircraft carrier to submarine attack. Her sister ship, HMS Courageous, had been sunk by a submarine in September 1939.

Why was no report or signal made requesting assistance by Glorious or the destroyers? 
HMS Devonshire was the nearest vessel, and the signals personnel on Devonshire reported they had received signals from Glorious indicating sighting of German pocket battleships and their positioning. The Gneisenau had also intercepted the signals from Glorious and had attempted to jam them. There are reports that the messages in Morse code lacked signal strength and were relayed on different frequencies. Vice Admiral John Cunningham on HMS Devonshire claimed that the messages were garbled. The Devonshire was carrying the Norwegian King, Cabinet Ministers and Norwegian gold to England. Was this the reason that Devonshire did not alter course and left the Glorious to her fate? Some reports indicate that a radio silence had been ordered, but others indicate that orders had been given to report any enemy sightings. Common sense would suggest that one would break radio silence to report enemy sightings, especially a sighting of capital ships. Were the messages really garbled? Not according to several members of the crew who were interviewed for the documentary film Secret History. Did Cunningham have orders not to stop in any event? If that was the case, why did he not instruct other naval units to assist Glorious? Why were the Admiralty files marked as closed for one hundred years until 2040? They were recently opened but do not offer much more clarity. If Cunningham had not received the message from Glorious, why did Devonshire increase speed and exercise the main armament? Or was that just a coincidence? It is not clear why the two destroyers did not send out enemy sighted signals, which would be normal procedure rather than assuming somebody else would do so.

Why was HMS Glorious not flying a Combat Air Patrol (CAP)
No aircraft were flying. They were not using the vital 'eyes' that a CAP provides. The CAP, assuming clear weather which was the case, could have spotted the enemy vessels at long range and prevented the loss of these three ships. At least one survivor reported that Captain D'Oyly-Hughes had stated there would be no flying on the way back to Scapa Flow. Some reports say there was not even a lookout in the crows-nest. 

Was the Royal Navy aware of the presence of German battleships in the sea area
In Secret History Professor Harry Hinsley, who was an Intelligence Analyst at Bletchley Park, confirmed that his team were aware that the German pocket battleships had left Kiel and sailed northwards. They were tracking the vessels. However, at this stage in the war, the information they supplied was not fully trusted, and while it reached the Admiralty,  it never got passed all the way up the line.

Summing Up 
It was ill-fortune running into two battleships, but there were a series of mistakes, which had they been avoided may have saved the carrier and her two escorts. If Cunningham had received the signal ungarbled could they have prevented the sinking - probably not, but they would have saved many hundreds of lives of those that had taken to the freezing water. If the report from Bletchley of enemy battleships had been relayed, perhaps Glorious would not have been allowed to detach from the convoy, or at least might have had spotting planes in the air. Mistakes happen in war. We will never know all the answers, and the controversy will no doubt continue. The most important thing is that those who gave their lives, and just as importantly, those who survived against all the odds are still remembered for their service and their gallantry, and they are.
The Glorious - Ardent - Acasta (GLARAC) Association helps keep the memory alive and in June 2019 they arranged for a  plaque, shown below,  to be installed at Plymouth Ho in commemoration of all those who gave their lives in the tragic sinking of HM Ships Glorious,  Ardent and Acasta.



  1. Do you know Thomas John o neill

    1. I'm sorry I only know he was a Telegraphist who died on HMS Glorious

  2. In response to a query about what happened to Commander (Air) John B. Heath I had the following response from John Lovell: "Heath was promoted to Captain and spent time in Australia. Thereafter he commanded the RNAS HMS Heron at Yeovilton in 1947. He retired and lived near Yeovil".