On 8 June 1940, HMS Glorious and her escort destroyers, HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent, were intercepted in the North Sea by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

Despite valiant defensive efforts by the British ships, they were outgunned by the superior firepower of the German warships.

The resulting engagement led to the sinking of HMS Glorious and her two escorts, marking one of the most tragic naval episodes for the Royal Navy during World War II.

Contents

Background

Originally commissioned during the First World War, HMS Glorious was designed as a Courageous-class battlecruiser. These were fast, heavily armed ships, meant to outrun enemies and deliver powerful blows. However, their role in naval warfare was relatively short-lived.

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With the interwar period’s technological advancements, particularly the rise of naval aviation, the importance of aircraft in maritime operations became increasingly evident. Aircraft carriers, which could launch and retrieve planes at sea, began to play a pivotal role in naval strategy. Recognizing this shift, the Royal Navy decided to convert HMS Glorious, along with her sister ships, into an aircraft carrier in the late 1920s.

HMS Glorious docked in Plymouth after being converted into an aircraft carrier.

This conversion was no small task. The ship’s superstructure was extensively reconfigured to include a full-length flight deck, hangars, and other necessary installations to facilitate aircraft operations.

By the time World War II began, HMS Glorious was fully integrated into the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet. The early days of the war saw her deployment in various theaters. By 1940, her role in the Norwegian Campaign epitomized the strategic importance of carriers.

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The campaign involved a series of naval and land confrontations in Norway, as the Allies tried to thwart the German invasion and secure crucial supply routes. HMS Glorious played a significant part in these operations.

The Sinking Of HMS Glorious

On 8 June 1940, as the situation in Norway became increasingly untenable for the Allies, HMS Glorious, accompanied by her two escort destroyers, HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent, received orders to return to Britain. The urgency of the situation and the looming threat of German naval forces in the area made the journey perilous.

Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commander of the Glorious, faced a crucial decision: wait for the protective cover of the larger Royal Navy fleet or chart an independent course home. He chose the latter, a decision that would later come under intense scrutiny.

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The vast expanse of the North Sea, with its unpredictable weather and waters, provided both an opportunity and a challenge. It was in this setting that the trio of British ships encountered their formidable adversaries: the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

The Scharnhorst firing her forward guns on HMS Glorious.

These were two of the Kriegsmarine’s most powerful warships, equipped with heavy artillery and capable of high speeds. Their sudden appearance caught the British contingent off-guard.

Another complicating factor was the state of HMS Glorious’ air complement. An aircraft carrier’s primary strength lies in its airborne capabilities, but, for reasons still debated, many of the carrier’s aircraft were below decks and not in immediate readiness to launch. This left the ship critically vulnerable.

The ensuing battle was both swift and brutal. The longer range and superior firepower of the German battleships meant they could engage HMS Glorious and her escorts from a distance. But the British ships did not go down without a fight. Both HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent, despite being outgunned, launched torpedo attacks against the German warships.

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HMS Acasta even managed to score a torpedo hit on the Scharnhorst, causing damage. However, the retaliation from the German ships was fierce. The two escorting destroyers were sunk, and the Glorious, after sustaining heavy fire, began to list and eventually sank.

The rapid sequence of events left little time for the majority of the crew to evacuate. As the icy waters of the North Sea claimed the ships, they also claimed the lives of most of their crew. The scale of the tragedy became apparent in the aftermath, with the staggering loss of over 1,200 personnel from the Glorious, leaving only 38 survivors.

Controversies Surrounding The Attack

The aftermath of the sinking of HMS Glorious was not just marked by mourning and grief, but also by intense debate and controversy. In attempting to understand the tragedy, naval officers, politicians, and the public sought answers, leading to the emergence of several contentious issues.

One of the central controversies arose around the decision-making of Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes. The decision to sail independently without waiting for the cover of the larger Royal Navy fleet drew considerable criticism. Detractors argued that this choice exposed the ship and her escorts to unnecessary risk, particularly given the known presence of German naval forces in the vicinity.

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Was this decision made out of overconfidence, a misjudgment of the threat level, or simply the pressure of the moment? While some defended the captain, stating that he had to make a decision under immense pressure and with limited information, others considered it a grave miscalculation.

Another point of contention revolved around the state of Glorious’ aircraft. For an aircraft carrier, its strength and defense lie in its airborne capabilities. The fact that many of the ship’s planes were not on deck, ready to be rapidly deployed, rendered the carrier unusually vulnerable. Questions arose regarding why the aircraft were not in a more combat-ready state, especially when traversing such potentially dangerous waters.

Following the sinking, the response—or perceived lack thereof—by the British Admiralty became a source of contention. Many believed that a more robust and immediate search-and-rescue effort could have saved more lives. The cold waters of the North Sea are notoriously unforgiving, and every minute counted for the survivors awaiting rescue. Critics argued that a more proactive response could have reduced the already staggering death toll.

Beyond the controversies, the sinking of HMS Glorious imparted crucial lessons. It underscored the importance of reconnaissance, communication, and preparedness in naval warfare. The tragedy highlighted the need for carriers to always maintain a state of readiness, particularly in hostile waters. Additionally, it stressed the significance of fleet support, especially for valuable assets like aircraft carriers.