In the early days of April 1940, amidst the tumult of the Norwegian Campaign in World War II, HMS Glowworm, a G-class destroyer of the Royal Navy, found itself embroiled in a harrowing naval encounter.

Commanded by Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope, Glowworm faced overwhelming odds against German naval forces.

What ensued was a courageous and audacious engagement, culminating in the tragic sinking of HMS Glowworm.

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Background Of HMS Glowworm

HMS Glowworm was a G-class destroyer, a type of vessel that represented the Royal Navy’s response to the evolving demands of naval warfare in the interwar period. Designed and built in the mid-1930s, these ships were envisioned as fast and versatile, capable of performing a variety of roles including anti-submarine warfare, fleet escort, and reconnaissance.

Design Specifications

Launched on 22 July 1935 and commissioned in January 1936, Glowworm was a testament to British naval engineering of the time. The ship measured approximately 323 feet in length, with a beam of 33 feet and a draught of 12.5 feet.

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Powered by Parsons geared turbines and three Admiralty 3-drum boilers, it boasted a power output of 36,000 horsepower, enabling speeds of up to 36 knots. This formidable speed was complemented by a well-armed suite, including four 4.7 inch Mk IX guns, a pair of QF 2-pounder naval guns, eight .50 cal machine guns, and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes arranged in two quad launchers.

Armour on the Glowworm was minimal, a common characteristic of destroyers of her era, focusing on speed and agility over heavy protection. Her operational crew numbered approximately 145 men.

Early Service History

Upon its commissioning in 1936, HMS Glowworm served primarily in home waters, participating in routine patrols and exercises. These early years were crucial for testing and refining the vessel’s capabilities and the crew’s proficiency.

As tensions in Europe escalated in the late 1930s, the role of the Royal Navy and its destroyers like the Glowworm became increasingly significant. The Royal Navy was expanding and modernizing its fleet, anticipating potential conflicts, particularly with the rising naval powers of Germany and Italy.

The destroyer HMS Glowworm anchored in 1937.

In the immediate pre-war years, the strategic focus of the Royal Navy, and by extension HMS Glowworm, shifted towards preparing for a potential European conflict. This period saw intensified training exercises and a reorganization of naval forces.

The Royal Navy’s destroyers were seen as essential for protecting Britain’s maritime interests, especially in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, areas that were expected to be crucial in any future war with Germany.

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With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, HMS Glowworm, like the rest of the Royal Navy, was thrust into active duty. Initially, Glowworm’s assignments involved patrolling and escort duties, which were vital in the early stages of the war.

The Royal Navy was primarily concerned with countering the threat posed by German U-boats and surface raiders, which targeted merchant shipping vital for Britain’s war effort and survival. During these operations, the skills and resolve of the crew were tested as they faced the realities of war, including the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic and the ever-present threat of enemy action.

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In the months leading up to April 1940, HMS Glowworm continued to operate in the North Atlantic, becoming an integral part of the Royal Navy’s efforts to maintain control of the sea lanes and provide support to Allied operations.

The ship’s role in these operations laid the groundwork for its involvement in the Norwegian Campaign, a crucial early battle in the naval war and the setting for Glowworm’s most famous and tragic engagement.

The German Cruiser Admiral Hipper

Design Specifications

The Admiral Hipper, named after the renowned World War I German Admiral Franz von Hipper, was a heavy cruiser that served as the lead ship of its class in the German Kriegsmarine. Launched on February 6, 1937, and commissioned on April 29, 1939, this vessel was a formidable force during World War II, embodying the peak of German naval engineering of its time.

With a length of 202 meters and a beam of 21.3 meters, the Admiral Hipper was designed for speed and firepower, boasting three sets of geared steam turbines powered by twelve ultra-high-pressure oil-fired boilers. This setup enabled the cruiser to reach speeds up to 32 knots, propelled by three propellers.

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The Admiral Hipper was heavily armed, equipped with eight 20.3 cm guns in four twin turrets, a comprehensive suite of anti-aircraft guns, and twelve 53.3 cm torpedo tubes. Its armor was robust, featuring a belt up to 80 mm thick, deck armor ranging from 20 to 50 mm, and turret armor up to 105 mm. Additionally, the cruiser carried up to three Arado Ar 196 seaplanes for reconnaissance, launched by a catapult from the ship.

Early Service History

After its commissioning in 1939, the Admiral Hipper underwent a series of sea trials and training exercises to prepare its crew for operational service. These activities were focused on testing the ship’s capabilities and ensuring that both the vessel and its crew were battle-ready. During this period, the cruiser was also involved in several short voyages in the Baltic Sea, aimed at refining its operational tactics and familiarizing the crew with the ship’s advanced technological systems.

Admiral Hipper in Brest in 1941.

As World War II commenced in September 1939, the Admiral Hipper was still finalizing its trial and training phase. The ship’s early involvement in the war was limited, as the Kriegsmarine was cautious about deploying its valuable surface assets without ensuring their readiness for sustained operations. However, by late 1939 and into 1940, the Admiral Hipper was prepared for active engagement in the conflict.

The cruiser’s first wartime mission was a sortie into the North Atlantic, aimed at disrupting Allied maritime commerce. This operation marked the beginning of the Admiral Hipper’s participation in the Kriegsmarine’s strategy of commerce raiding, which sought to weaken the Allies’ economic and logistical capabilities by targeting merchant shipping.

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The most significant early wartime operation involving the Admiral Hipper was the German invasion of Norway in April 1940, known as Operation Weserübung. The operation was a combined naval and airborne assault aimed at securing key ports and cities in Norway, to protect Germany’s access to the North Atlantic and prevent the Allies from establishing a foothold.

The Admiral Hipper played a crucial role in the invasion, leading a group tasked with capturing Trondheim. The operation involved transporting troops and providing naval gunfire support to German forces. It was during this mission, on April 8, 1940, that the Admiral Hipper encountered the British destroyer HMS Glowworm.

The Deadly Encounter

In early April 1940, HMS Glowworm, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope, was part of a flotilla assigned to lay mines off the Norwegian coast as part of the broader Allied effort to counter the German invasion of Norway.

However, Glowworm faced mechanical issues and had to be detached from the flotilla temporarily. During this period, the ship’s crew engaged in the search for a man overboard, a task that delayed its reunion with the flotilla.

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On the morning of April 8, 1940, while still detached from its flotilla, Glowworm encountered the German destroyer Z11 Bernd von Arnim. This encounter marked the beginning of a dramatic sequence of events that would ultimately lead to the sinking of HMS Glowworm.

Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Glowworm engaged the German destroyer in a fierce battle. The crew, well-trained and resolute, fought with determination. The clash between the two destroyers, though intense, was a prelude to an even more significant development.

The situation escalated when the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, commanded by Captain Hellmuth Heye, arrived on the scene. The Admiral Hipper was a significantly larger and more powerful vessel than both Glowworm and the German destroyer it was initially engaged with.

The German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in Norwegian waters, 1942.

Facing overwhelming odds, Glowworm continued to fight valiantly. Lieutenant Commander Roope, recognizing the dire situation, made a critical decision to attempt a torpedo attack on the formidable Admiral Hipper. This daring maneuver showcased not only the courage of the crew but also their commitment to engaging the enemy, even in the face of almost certain destruction.

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The torpedo attack, while unsuccessful, led to a desperate move by Glowworm. In a final act of bravery, Lieutenant Commander Roope decided to ram the much larger Admiral Hipper. This unexpected and audacious move caught the German crew off guard and resulted in significant damage to the Admiral Hipper.

However, the impact proved fatal for HMS Glowworm. The force of the collision, combined with the damage sustained during the intense battle, led to the eventual breaking apart and sinking of the British destroyer. The crew faced the harsh reality of abandoning ship in the icy waters of the Norwegian Sea.

The Aftermath

The sinking of HMS Glowworm resulted in a tragic loss of lives. Of the 149 crew members on board, only 40 survived the ordeal. The majority of the crew perished in the icy waters of the Norwegian Sea, succumbing to the harsh conditions following the sinking of their ship. The survivors, now prisoners of war, faced an uncertain future in enemy hands.

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One of the remarkable aspects of the aftermath was the recognition of the bravery displayed by Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope and the crew of Glowworm by the enemy. Captain Hellmuth Heye of the German cruiser Admiral Hipper, the very ship that Glowworm had engaged in battle, was so impressed by the audacious actions of Roope and his crew that he recommended Roope for a gallantry award.

Glowworm in flames, pictured from the Admiral Hipper.

This recommendation, while unusual in the context of wartime hostilities, underscored the chivalry that could emerge even in the midst of conflict. Lieutenant Commander Roope, who had lost his life in the sinking, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for valor in the British and Commonwealth forces. This made Roope the first VC recipient of the Second World War.

The Admiral Hipper After her Encounter With HMS Glowworm

After the engagement with HMS Glowworm, the Admiral Hipper continued its involvement in the invasion of Norway, providing gunfire support and assisting in the transportation of troops. Its activities were crucial in the early success of Operation Weserübung, the German campaign to secure Norwegian ports and protect shipping routes from Allied interference.

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In the latter part of 1940 and into 1941, the Admiral Hipper was tasked with commerce raiding in the Atlantic, aimed at disrupting Allied shipping lines. During these missions, the cruiser attacked several convoys, sinking or capturing numerous merchant vessels. These operations were designed to cut off Britain from its overseas resources and weaken its economic strength.

One of the Admiral Hipper’s most significant engagements after the Norway campaign was the Battle of the Barents Sea on December 31, 1942. The cruiser, along with the heavy cruiser Lützow and several destroyers, was ordered to intercept Convoy JW 51B, a supply convoy heading to the Soviet Union.

The battle was a strategic failure for the Germans. Despite superior firepower, the Kriegsmarine forces failed to break through the convoy’s escort, and the Admiral Hipper was forced to retreat after sustaining damage.

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As the war progressed, the Admiral Hipper was increasingly deployed in the Baltic Sea, supporting German military operations against the Soviet Union. The cruiser participated in evacuating German troops and civilians from advancing Soviet forces, particularly during the later stages of the war. These operations were part of the larger German naval effort to defend the Baltic coast and facilitate the withdrawal of German forces from the Eastern Front.

The Admiral Hipper’s active service came to an end in 1945 as the Allies advanced into Germany. With the Kriegsmarine’s operational capabilities severely limited and German ports under threat, the decision was made to scuttle the Admiral Hipper to prevent its capture. The cruiser was sunk at its moorings in Kiel in May 1945, just before the end of the war in Europe.

Admiral Hipper in Kiel Harbour covered in camouflage in order to hide her from Allied bombers, 19 May 1945.

After the war, the wreck of the Admiral Hipper was partially scrapped in situ, and over the years, further salvage operations have removed much of what remained.