“From the darkness, light” was the motto of a G-class destroyer that was commissioned into the Royal Navy service on 22nd of January 1936. It would meet its fate in the cold waters off Norway 4 years later, fighting what has to be one of the most out matched battles in the Royal Navies history. During which its captain won the first Victoria Cross of the Second World War. The ships name was HMS Glowworm, a name I suspect many of you will already heard of, if not the exact details of the fight.
Glowworm had a bumpy career being involved in two collisions, the first in 1939 was with her sister ship HMS Grenade, the second was with a Swedish ship Rex in 1940. After repairs Glowworm set out on her final mission escorting HMS Renown. This battlecruiser was the core of a small force sent to screen mine laying operations off Norway to prevent the German invasion of April 1940.
On the 6th of April a crewman at one of Glowworms torpedo launchers was washed overboard in very heavy seas. The ship’s captain Lieutenant Commander Roope was well liked, and respected by his ships company, so it’s not surprising he requested permission to detach from the task force to search for the seaman. Renown gave the go ahead despite there being no chance at all to find the missing crewman.
Glowworm started a search which lasted about two hours and found no sign. During the search the ship had taken such a battering some of its navigating equipment had been damaged which made it hard to find and re-join Renown.
On the morning of the 8th Glowworm was still separated from the task force, when she saw another destroyer through thick fog at about 0800. Hailing the destroyer Glowworm asked for identification as the ship wasn't flying an ensign. Luckily it responded, and identified itself as Swedish, then opened fire! The ship was actually a German destroyer carrying troops to Norway. Glowworm responded, and is said to have caused quite some damage. Before too long another German destroyer appeared and joined in the attack on Glowworm.
Suddenly both ships broke off and ran for the cover of a rain squall. LTC Roope had a suspicion he was being lured towards a larger force, however he knew that the information of where the Germans were would be invaluable to the Royal Navy, so he pursued.
As Glowworm emerged from the squall the huge bulk of the armoured cruiser Admiral Hipper loomed into view. At first the Admiral Hipper had trouble telling the destroyers apart, however after a few moments she worked out which ship was the enemy and opened fire. Knowing he couldn't disengage, LTC Roope knew he had one chance. On his deck he had 10 Torpedo tubes. Glowworm signalled the information to Renown, and blowing smoke to provide herself with cover she turned to attack.
The smoke had no effect. The Admiral Hipper had radar controlled main guns and continued to hurl shell after shell at the British destroyer. Glowworm took several punishing hits, but closed the range. Admiral Hippers guns were designed to take on armoured cruisers such as herself. She weighed 14000 tons, and wore 3 inches of armour. Glowworm in contrast weighed in at just under 1500 tons, had no armour and had four 4.7 inch guns which couldn't go through the German cruisers armour. So you can only imagine the damage that those 8 inch shells did.
Admiral Hipper didn't give the battered destroyer a chance. She came crashing through the smoke screen in pursuit. In the swirling fight that followed Glowworm managed to launch a second spread of torpedoes, which also missed. As Glowworm exited the smoke screen she saw Admiral Hipper parallel to her.
Things become confused at this point with conflicting accounts.
LTC Roope in some accounts is heard say "Stand by to ram!", what is known is the Glowworm, still shrieking, with all guns blazing rammed into the side of the Admiral Hipper, Ripping a 40 meter gash in the side of the cruiser. Through which 500 tons of water poured. The impact destroyed the Admiral Hippers desalination plant and a torpedo launcher. The German ship took on a 4 degree list. As Glowworm reeled away with her bows smashed. She was pelted by gun fire from the Germans; even Small arms were being fired at the crippled Destroyer. In return Glowworms last 4.7 mount continued firing.
LTC Roope was seen helping survivors into life jackets and assisting his men to climb out of the sea onto the nets and ropes being thrown overboard by the Admiral Hipper. At last no further sailors could be seen, a rope was thrown to LTC Roope, who grabbed hold and was hauled towards the deck. Suddenly a huge wave crashed against the side of the ship, and LTC Roope, his strength failing was lost.
Admiral Hipper carried on with her mission and after returning to port after the invasion Captain Heye took the then unprecedented step of writing to the British authorities through the Red Cross recommending LTC Roope for a VC.
However with only half the story, and unable to confirm the events the VC wasn't issued until 1945 when the 36 surviving crew members from HMS Glowworm were repatriated at the end of the war.
One of the soldiers on-board Admiral Hipper had a camera, so all action photographs were taken during the battle.
This website has the detailed stories of three of the survivors.