Captain of HMS Glowworm wins first VC of the War

HMS Glowworm, the 1,350 ton British destroyer

In April 1940, the Royal Navy sent a force led by HMS Renown to lay mines in Norwegian waters. Operation Wilfred was designed to prevent Swedish iron ore being exported to Germany, and to provoke a German reaction. On the 7th April 1940 HMS Glowworm lost a man overboard and as a consequence was detached from the main British force to conduct a search. On the 8th April while making her way to rejoin the main force she came across two German destroyers, part of the German invasion force for Norway. They were escorts for the German cruiser, Admiral Hipper, which swiftly joined the fight.

HMS Glowworm was hopelessly outgunned by a ship ten times her size but this did not deter Lieutenant Commander Roope from making a determined attack.

HMS Glowworm, making smoke, as seen from Admiral Hipper, 8th April 1940.

From the log of the Admiral Hipper, captured and translated by the Royal Navy at the end of the war:

HIPPER turned and ran at half speed ahead towards the scene of the action, for a greater speed would not have been practicable in such seas and would have obscured the vision of the forward guns. At about 0951 one destroyer was sighted to port and another to starboard, the port one being well covered by a smokescreen. Both ships were on several occasions heavily handicapped by the heavy seas when firing.

HIPPER delayed opening fire until it was certain which was which; but then the destroyer to starboard approached HIPPER and began to flash recognition signals – in case — as was later established — HIPPER turned out to be a British ship. At 0956 the destroyer to starboard was identified as an enemy ship and at 0957 fire was opened on her. The first salvo from the main armament burst at the range of 9250 yards.

As it was evident that the destroyer could no longer escape in that weather, and that very close range fighting was inevitable, HIPPER’s captain from then on resolved to keep the enemy dead ahead of him so as to be able more easily to avoid his torpedo tracks. At the same time he had to take into consideration the fact that this would greatly diminish his firing capacity and that turning and altering course would waste too much time, besides bringing his ship within range of a torpedo attack.

The enemy knowing full well that he could no longer avoid an engagement, made most effective use of his smoke and ran out of his own screen several times in order to fire.

At a rapidly decreasing range he fired a salvo of two if not three torpedoes from out of the smokescreen. The tracks of the torpedo were however easily visible and could be avoided with small alterations of helm, so that one track passed down the port side a few yards off and the second a little further off to starboard . So as to deny to the enemy, who then again disappeared into the smokescreen after, (in the opinion of HIPPER’s C.O. having sustained a double hit on the bridge) any further opportunity to use torpedoes, HIPPER decided to penetrate the smokescreen.

After passing through it, the destroyer was sighted off the starboard bow, obviously turning to port. The relative position of the ships was such that with less port rudder, the enemy would pass close to HIPPER, so the latter turned a hard starboard so as to overtake and ram the enemy. Owing to the heavy seas HIPPER failed to answer satisfactorily to her helm and at the moment of impact the destroyer’s bow hit HIPPER’s forecastle just abaft the starboard anchor and broke off. The destroyer then submerged until the water reached her starboard torpedo tubes, during which time, in all probability, she tore away 130 feet of armoured belt with her keel and destroyed HIPPER’s starboard torpedo tubes. After the collision the enemy ceased firing and lay with a heavy list without moving, and partly on fire. HIPPER ceased fire.

Admiral Hipper, the German battlecrusier

The Admiral Hipper, a 14,250 ton battle crusier

Gerard Roope, awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in 1945

The award of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant Commander Roope was not made until 6th July 1945, when it was possible to corroborate the circumstances with German sources, including the captured log as above:

On the 8th April, 1940, H.M.S. Glowworm was proceeding alone in heavy weather towards a rendezvous in West Fjord, when she met and engaged two enemy destroyers, scoring at least one hit on them. The enemy broke off the action and headed North, to lead the Glowworm on to his supporting forces. The Commanding Officer, whilst correctly appreciating the intentions of the enemy, at once gave chase. The German heavy cruiser, Admiral Hipper, was sighted closing the Glowworm at high speed and an enemy report was sent which was received by H.M.S. Renown. Because of the heavy sea, the Glowworm could not shadow the enemy and the Commanding Officer therefore decided to attack with torpedoes and then to close in order to inflict as much damage as possible.

Five torpedoes were fired and later the remaining five, but without success. The Glowworm was badly hit; one gun was out of action and her speed was much reduced, but with the other three guns still firing she closed and rammed the Admiral Hipper. As the Glowworm drew away, she opened fire again and scored one hit at a range of 400 yards. The Glowworm, badly stove in forward and riddled with enemy fire, heeled over to starboard, and the Commanding Officer gave the order to abandon her. Shortly afterwards she capsized and sank. The Admiral Hipper hove to for at least an hour picking up survivors but the loss of life was heavy, only 31 out of the Glowworm’s complement of 149 being saved.

Full information concerning this action has only recently been received and the VICTORIA CROSS is bestowed in recognition of the great valour of the Commanding Officer who, after fighting off a superior force of destroyers, sought out and reported a powerful enemy unit, and then fought his ship to the end against overwhelming odds, finally ramming the enemy with supreme coolness and skill.

London Gazette
6th July 1945

HMS Glowworm has more on the action, including three survivors’ accounts. See more images of Admiral Hipper at MaritimeQuest.

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