166: The Gallant Glowworm


With British and German ships both sailing off the coast of Norway, at some point they were going to run into one another.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 166 - The Invasion of Norway Part 4 - The Gallant Glowworm. This week a big thank you goes out to Martin for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member, you can find out more about supporting the podcast over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. In the weeks and months before the German invasion of Norway in early April 1940 there was at least some evidence that such an action was being planned by both sides. On the German side, they had learned as early as January that certain units were being pulled out of the line to prepare for a move into Norther Europe, including French Alpine troops. This was added to the evidence that was also known, like the increase in British naval activity near the coast of Norway and some intercepted communications in late March which seemed to make it clear to German leaders that the British and French were planning something. On the side of the Allies, there was also growing evidence by March 1940 that the Germans were going to do something. It was unclear exactly what that something would be. Before diving into what the evidence was, first it is important to talk about the concept of cognitive priming. Priming is a psychological concept in which you can prime the brain to provide certain responses based on giving it input. So for example if I tell you the word table, then ask you to think of another word it is likely you will think of a word that is in some way related to table. This type of concept plays a very important role in military intelligence and analysis during the Second World War because nobody had perfect information. Because perfect information was not present, it was always possible that new information that was received would be filtered based on whether or not it fit within existing threat scenarios. To give a specific, and applicable to the situation in Norway, example: The Royal Navy spent the first few years of the war very concerned with the threat posed by German surface ships. The entire intelligence apparatus of the Royal Navy was primed to with the concept of a surface ship breakout and so any information about German naval preparations for actions immediately took them down the path of preparing for a breakout attempt. If other information was received that was not related to such an action, they were more likely to ignore it. There are a whole list of really important moments in the war where this idea of priming is important, because it helps us explain why decisions were made and why certain evidence and activity was ignored by those involved. It can be hard to break away from pre-conceived ideas and concepts in situations where information is not perfect, and even at time contradictory.

Preparation for an invasion on the size of the German invasion of Norway are difficult, well basically impossible to hide. In early March there were already reports of the German government was setting up what they were calling travel agencies in Oslo, Bergen, and Stavanger. An interesting choice for sure, but not if the German government was attempting to pull together more information about those areas. This type of activity was concerning, but it would be in the last week of March that German actions, and subsequently Allied information about those actions, began to accelerate. On March 26th there were reports that there were a large number of ships concentrated at Kiel, and more were joining them. Also on the 26th reports were made from Stockholm that the Germans were concentrating aircraft and shipping for a possible move into Scandinavia. The Norwegian ambassador in Germany would send a report that German troops were embarking on ships on April 1st. On April 4th and 6th the RAF would be able to send multiple reconnaissance flights over German ports, during which they found both a large fleet of merchant ships and then also a large grouping of German warships. Finally on the eve of the invasion the Danish intelligence services would observe various German ships moving north throughout April 8th, and these reports were passed on by the Danes to the Norwegians. With all of these activities happening, and all of the various reports being made, why where the governments of Denmark, Norway, Britain, and France surprised with what was about to happen? Well, that is a complicated question. In Norway it would start with some denial, because while there were many reports, there was no firm information that whatever the Germans were doing was actually going to target Norway. And without that firm evidence there was a hesitancy to take any drastic actions. This hesitancy prevented the Norwegian military from being put on full alert, due to concern that doing so would according to Admiral Diesen commander of the 1st Naval District “just scare people.” The main actions that were taken on the evening before the invasion was to call up a few additional personnel to man some of the forts that protected Norwegian ports. Some of these orders did not even arrive in time to be useful. In defense of the lack of Norwegian action, they were also dealing with other problems, including the ongoing problem of the Allied threats to mine Norwegian waters. This same excuse does not extend to London, Paris, and Copenhagen. In those nations, the inability to act on the information that they had was a bit more concerning, especially for the future of Denmark. In all three nations the problems generally came down to a lack of organization on the intelligence side, and then a generally inability to put the pieces together and act on them. In Britain and France, the two nations that had the military ability to react to the German actions, one of the problems is that during the early war years their intelligence services were not really integrated. This meant that in Britain MI5, MI6, and other groups within the government where not sharing information correctly and were certainly not coordinating their efforts effectively. These challenges would leave all four nations on the back foot when the invasion began.

While the evidence was there by April 8th, there were already at that point limited options in terms of how to respond, because the German plan was already in action and on its path to completion. This is because the first merchant ships of the operation to leave port had done so on April 3rd, with three ships on their way to Narvik. Over the new few days 5 more ships would leave for Trondheim and Stavanger. Then on April 5th the first information about the upcoming operation began to trickle down to the sailors of the German navy when meetings were held by various officers with those under the command. One of these meetings would occur aboard the the German destroyers Heidkamp, during which Commodore Friedrich Bonte would brief the Captains and Senior officers of the 10 destroyers under his command. There had been rumors among the Kriegsmarine about what was happening, as the actions of the fleet were obvious, but this would be the first official information that these officers would receive, just a few days before the attack would begin. Just after midnight on April 7th the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would leave port, joined by Bonte and his destroyers. They were then joined by the Hipper and two more destroyers. The reason that this specific grouping was important was because, even though it would later break up and proceed to different destinations, it was for a brief period the strongest fleet that Germany had sortied into the North Sea since the First World War. This movement would be discovered by the RAF when a reconnaissance flight spotted them on their way north a few minutes before 9AM on April 7th, although the exact count and type of the German ships were not known, and they would be somewhat misreported by both the reconnaissance flight and the later bombers. The crews of the Bristol Blenheims of Squadron 107 were informed that they needed to be ready to launch a strike later in the day. Then just before 11AM they received the orders to launch along with the coordinates of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. 12 Blenheims would find their way to the German ships and they would attack the German vessels in three waves. In total the 12 aircraft would drop a total of 45 125 kilogram bombs, but the amount of antiaircraft fire made it challenging for the British aircraft to get low enough and just made it more difficult to drop the bombs accurately. As a result all 45 of the armor piercing bombs would damage only the water that they hit, and the German ships continued steaming north completely unharmed. I’m sure the water did not feel great though.

As would always occur when any German military ship was sighted, especially cruisers or battleships, the information made its way to the Admiralty over the course of April 7th. The first information would arrive early on April 7th, and then after the Blenheim bombers attacked their after action report would arrive. At this point the Admiralty did not really consider that the Germans might be making a move against Norway, primarily due to the fact that they did not believe that it was possible for the German Navy to protect an invasion from the actions of the Royal Navy. But what the German ships were doing only sort of mattered, because anytime large German ships moved into the North Sea the Royal Navy would answer, and they knew that there was at least one Scharnhorst class battleship among the ships moving into the North Sea. Therefore, at about 5:30 in the evening the ships of the Home Fleet under the command of Admiral Forbes were ordered to prepare to put to sea. A bit after 8PM the fleet would put to sea with 2 battleships, the Rodney and Valiant, the battlecruiser Repulse, two cruisers Sheffield and Penelope and 10 destroyers. The challenge that all of the ships in the North Sea would face was that late in the afternoon of April 7th a new weather system moved into the area from the Atlantic, bringing with it low clouds and rain showers. This was heavily cut visibility, and make flying very difficult. The rough seas made the German troops on their way to Norway very seasick, but it was perfect weather under which to conceal an invasion force. In fact, this weather system had been predicted by German meteorologists, aided by weather reports from the Atlantic, and it was generally welcomed by the leaders of the German Navy, even if some of the men on board were less than thrilled.


While the Home Fleet was putting to sea, there were already British warships in the North Sea, and most importantly for the events that would follow this included the battlecruiser Renown ad a collection of British destroyers including the HMS Glowworm. These ships had been sent to cover the minelaying operation of Norwegian waters, and were on their way north to Narvik when the Glowworm was detached from the other ships to search for a man overboard. While the Glowworm was alone it was sighted by two German destroyers, the Bernd von Arnim and Hans Lüdemann which were accompanying the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. The destroyers would then engage in a relatively brief gun dual. The weather at this time was about as far from ideal as was possible, with rain, fog, and heavy seas making it very challenging for the destroyers to engage in proper gunnery and none of the ships involved at this stage of the fight actually hit anything. One thing that became apparent very quickly was that the British destroyer was far more seaworthy in the conditions that they were experiencing. The heavy seas caused damage to the german destroyers if they tried to run at too high of a speed, and in fact during this action the German destroyers would take on damage just from the weather and sea conditions. The Glowworm did not encounter the same problems due to design differences. Even though neither side was able to cause damage with its guns, the most important impact of this engagement was the information that it gave to other ships in the area, with the German destroyers sending a signal to the Admiral Hipper just before 9AM. Back on the Hipper, a ship would be reported at about 9:50, although the exact identity of the ship was not determined at that time. The problem was still the weather, and there was some hesitation to open fire in case the destroyers was a German destroyer that might be out of expected position, with heavy seas making that a real possibility. However, just a few minutes later when the ship was only about 8,400 meters away the British white ensign was clearly seen to be flying from the ship and the Admiral Hipper’s guns would open fire. In what could only have been a lucky break given the weather, the British destroyer was hit on the forth salvo, with the shell hitting the starboard side of the British destroyer between the bridge and the funnel. The most important impact of this hit was that the radio room and wireless antenna was destroyed, preventing any further information from being sent from the Glowworm to other Royal Navy vessels. The Glowworm’s captain would order a torpedo salvo at the German ship and then the Glowworm was hit with some additional shells that hit its hull and caused some flooding. This is the moment where things start to get fuzzy as to not what happened by why they happened. What we do know is that the Glowworm would hit the Hipper in the forward starboard side of the ship, the Glowworms bow would break off after being pushed under the German cruiser. The Hipper would experience damage, with about 150 of the cruiser’s outer armor plating pulled off the ship, and the torpedo tubes in the area destroyed. The Glowworm would continue floating for a few minutes, but the ship had a large fire raging amidships and it was really only a matter of time. At around 10:24 the destroyers boilers would explode and the ship would rapidly sink. Those are all solid facts, but the question that remains is whether or not the Glowworm was actually trying to ram the Hipper. There would be many British sailors rescued from the Glowworm, but the captain and most of the officers were not among those who were rescued. The only surviving officer, Torpedo Officer Lieutenant Ramsey would claim that the helm and the emergency rudder were not manned at the time that the Glowworm made its turn toward the Hipper meaning that it was not done on purpose but was instead simply accidental. British sources at the time claimed that the Glowworm’s captain instead made the decision to ram the German cruiser, an adversary that it had no hope of overcoming or outrunning, as a last act of defiance. Such an action was of course a very good story, and the reasons that it was attractive to the British at the time is apparent. This is an instance where I leave it up to you listener to decide what you wish to believe.

Regardless of why the Glowworm collided with the Hipper, the result was the same, with the destroyer rapidly sinking. The captain of the Hipper, Heye, would order that the Hipper slow and begin rescue operations. It wasn’t possible to lower boats due to the height of the seas, but ladders and ropes would be thrown over the side for any sailor who could to climb aboard, or just hold on while the German sailors, and even some of the sailors on their way to Norway, pulling others aboard. Unfortunately, of the 149 men who were aboard the Glowworm only 38 would be rescued, with the Glowworms commander, Lieutenant Commander Roope not among them. While he was in the water Roope would be seen helping other men to the ropes to be pulled aboard the German ship, but after helping so many he would not have the strength to hold onto the ropes himself, and would fall in his attempt, never to be seen again. For his efforts Roope would receive the Victoria Cross after the war when the Glowworm’s survivors were finally brought back to Britain. While the death of so many men on the Glowworm was tragic, and the loss of a destroyer never welcomed, the British destroyer did still get contact reports off. These reports would be sent first to the British battlecruiser Renown with the information that the Glowworm was engaging enemy destroyers along with a position report. Renown and the destroyer Greyhound would turn south and begin moving towards the reported contacts from the north. At the same time the sighting would be reported to Admiral Forbes who was at sea with the bulk of the Home Fleet. The Home Fleet, anchored on the battleships, was relatively slow due to the age of some of those battleships, and so Forbes made the decision to dispatch the battlecruiser Repulse, two cruisers, and 4 destroyers to move north at top speed to try and engage the German ships. Meanwhile on board the Admiral Hipper Admiran Lütjens was very concerned that the Glowworm’s reports had given up the game for the Germans and that the British would know that some kind of operation against Norway was underway. What Lütjens did not know is that the actions of his ships, and other reports of actions of the German Navy did have a serious impact on the future events in Norway just not in the way that he expected.

On April 8th, just before the start of the German invasion, the British were already quite far with their own plans to put troops ashore in Norway. Due to German actions, this was proceeding under the more defensive plan R4, under which groups of British soldiers would be landed at various areas in Norway to help defend from an impending German attack. However, a very important decision was made to cancel R4 on April 8th. This decision was made by Churchill and the Admiralty without a full discussion with the War Cabinet, with their justification being that due to German naval activities the Royal navy needed all of its strength to focus on the actions at sea. This was important because as part of Plan R4 the British would use cruisers and destroyers to move troops to Norway, needing their speed in the same way that the Germans were also using their military vessels to make the transit to Norway faster than merchant ships would allow. In fact, at the time that the R4 was cancelled the 1st Cruiser Squadron had already embarked the troops that it was to carry to Bergen and Stavanger later that same day. But with the cancellation these troops, which would be so badly needed in Norway just a day later, were taken off of the cruisers so that they could put to sea to pursue the German naval component of the invasion. This decision can, and should be criticized, as it represented a moment where the leadership of the Royal Navy lost sight of the larger picture. Instead of focusing on the larger problem, preventing a successful German invasion of Norway, the Admiralty shifted all of its resources into the pursuit of an attack on the German Navy, which would be good for the future war, but would be counteracted if the occupation of Norway should occur. And they could not know this at the time, but some of the actions of R4 would have set up the Royal Navy to gain a greater victory over the German naval forces than they would over the following days. For example if the 1st Cruiser Squadron would have just stuck with the plan it would have been in a perfect position to put its troops ashore hours before the Germans, and then to attack the German ships just as they were trying to get their own troops ashore. It was overall a missed opportunity, which would only become truly apparent after the German invasion began, which we will begin to discuss next episode.