The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was returning to Scapa Flow from Norway separately from the other ships in the British Force, accompanied by only her destroyer escorts HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent. It was a fine clear day with light wind but HMS Glorious apparently did not have a lookout posted, did not have an aircraft on patrol – which would have given her all round visibility of approximately 40 miles, and did not have any of her aircraft on deck ready for immediate launch.
She was therefore surprised when spotted by the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst at about 1600. Although Acasta and Ardent attempted to lay a smoke screen and engaged the German ships, Glorious was first hit at 1638. The third salvo from the Scharnhorst reached Glorious from 24,175 meters (26,450 yards), possibly the longest gunfire hit on any enemy warship ever achieved. It hit her hangars and made it impossible to launch the aircraft that were on the point of readiness.
After the war Admiral Schubert, who had been First Officer on the Scharnhorst at the time of the battle, was interviewed by the Royal Navy and provided an account of the great fight put up by the two escorting destroyers, HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent:
The escorting destroyer [HMS Ardent] on the port side of the battleships continued her torpedo attacks and tried, extremely skilfully, to avoid the effective defensive fire of the battleships’ medium armament by means of constant alterations of course. Finally this destroyer also opened fire on the battleships. She fought with outstanding resolution in a situation that was hopeless for her. The destroyer received numerous hits and finally went down, her bow armament firing to the last and her engines apparently in order and driving her at high speed. The final range was about 5 miles.
After the battleships had penetrated the smoke screen, the “Glorious” was sighted again at a great range. The main armament opened frontal fire and the carrier very quickly received further hits. The range rapidly decreased, but still remained relatively great. The carrier developed a list to port, and burned until she finally capsized. Only a few aircraft were left on deck.
The destroyer with the carrier [HMS Acasta] turned to the attack on the battleships, who took avoiding action. At this stage of the fight, at about the time of the capsizing of the carrier, The ‘Scharnhorst’ received a torpedo hit on the starboard side level with the after main turret. As was ascertained later, the hole torn in the ships side was of considerable dimensions. The hit immediately affected the main turret magazines, the turret starting to burn. The starboard engine went out of action; the starboard propeller-shaft together with the bearings was torn away from the hull. A great deal of water entered the ship; her position became difficult the more so as the midships engine-room was gradually filling with water.
The ship however continued the fight with the now very severely damaged destroyer. The latter fought on in a hopeless situation with her far inferior armament against the battleships. She achieved, so far as I can remember, one light hit against the centre barrel of No.2 main turret.
The carrier had in the meantime capsized, and the place where she went down lay far astern of the ship. When the destroyer ceased firing on her armament being put out of action, the battleships did so too. The heavily damaged condition of the “Scharnhorst” made it imperative to see to the return of the damaged ship to the nearest Norwegian harbour, and to put the measures necessary for this in hand immediately.
TNA ADM 205/49
The actions of the two destroyers who both went down fighting against vastly superior battleships were no less valiant than that of the destroyer HMS Glowworm, which had taken on the Admiral Hipper on April 9th. There was even a measure of success here, since the Scharnhorst had been torpedoed. But there were no medals for this action, which was a disaster that the Royal Navy would have no wish to advertise, either now or after the war.
At the end of the action Gneisenau and Scharnhorst made off without stopping to look for survivors. At the time the Germans were uncertain whether the Scharnhorst had been torpedoed by a submarine that might remain in the area.
To compound the disaster HMS Glorious had been using the wrong radio channel. Her radio broadcast announcing the engagement was only indistinctly picked up by HMS Devonshire but she was in a state of radio silence as she was carrying the Norwegian Royal family to safety, and the message was never re-broadcast. For unknown reasons neither Acasta nor Ardent made radio signals about the engagement. There were at least 900 men in the water or on floats from the three abandoned ships, including some of the pilots from 46 Squadron who had flown the Hurricanes on board the previous day. But the Royal Navy was unaware of the battle and no immediate rescue plan was put into action.
It was nearly three days later when the first of only 45 survivors were pulled from the sea by a Norwegian boats. Among them was Squadron Leader Cross of 46 Squadron (see 7th June). In total 1,515 men died. The Glorious, Ardent and Acasta Association has many more details and casualty lists.
German film of the action from a contemporary newsreel: