Glorious vs Scharnhorst: 1940 (Book review)



The Loss of HMS Glorious

Book review by John van Gelder

Winton, J. (1999) Carrier Glorious: The life and death of an aircraft carrier. Cassell Military Paperbacks: London. $16.95.

John Winton is a well-known author of many fiction and non-fiction books concerning the Royal Navy and naval subjects generally. In this book he has brought to life a fascinating story of a ship and many, perhaps unusual, people who served in her during a period of massive evolution in the Royal Navy. Regrettably, the end of the story is tragic in the extreme and controversial beyond belief.

Winton’s thoroughly researched book traces the history of Glorious from concept, building, service in World War I as a “big gun cruiser” to her conversion to an aircraft carrier and re-commissioning in 1930. Operation of the ship throughout the 1930s, primarily in the Mediterranean, provides great insight into the frustrations experienced by aviators, both RN and RAF, due to their perceived divided loyalties. The author does point out that the heavy RN/RAF battles were fought in the vicinity of Whitehall rather than at squadron level, where integration appeared to be on a happy note. In fact, during the 1930s Glorious had the reputation of being an efficient, well-run and happy ship.

The final two thirds of the book is concerned with the ship’s operations after the appointment of a new captain on 16 June 1939, until she was sunk twelve months later.

There is no doubt that the arrival of CAPT Guy D’Oyly-Hughes DSO DSC had a profound adverse effect, not so much on the ship’s company, but on the senior command structure of the vessel. The author treats this central character in a fairly even-handed manner in setting out the views of his supporters and detractors. On balance it would appear that the captain suffered from some very severe psychological problems. It is interesting to note that the remarks of the military historian Correlli Barnett, in his book Engage the enemy more closely, is far more forthright and scathing regarding D’Oyly-Hughes’s character. The reader, as in so many literary works, is left to ponder to what degree the captain’s mental state may have had on the subsequent tragic events.

Flawed aviation strategy?

For any person, with or without sea experience in the navy, this is a most absorbing story. The narrative raises many questions that beg answers as to why certain decisions were made in the operational area of Norway 62 years ago. Unfortunately, these questions can only now be answered in one’s imagination.

The evacuation of the two RAF squadrons, 263 Squadron Gladiators and 46 Squadron Hurricanes, from their bases in Norway and their landing on Glorious without arrestor hooks and without incident was a remarkable achievement and well described by Winton.

Leaving aside the issue of conflicts of personalities within Glorious, and there were many, there are two questions of utmost importance. Why was Glorious given permission from higher authority to proceed independently from the operational area back to Scapa Flow escorted by HMS Ardent and Acasta? Glorious had requested this course of action but for what reason? She was certainly not short of fuel.

HMS Glorious
HMS Glorious, showing her 1930s-style “flying off deck” at hangar deck level.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, since the carrier was proceeding independently without any support from heavy surface vessels in good weather and excellent visibility, why was she not flying reconnaissance patrols? Apparently, one Swordfish and a flight of three Sea Gladiators were at ten minutes notice, but they were not even ranged on the flight deck.

The author provides a detailed account of the destruction of Glorious and her escorts by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. There is a clear impression that the first inkling Glorious had of the presence of the German ships was when the first salvoes of 15-inch projectiles crashed around her from a range of 28,600 yards.

Gallant destroyers

The subsequent actions of Ardent and Acasta during the engagement were gallant beyond belief. There was only one survivor from both ships, making it difficult to imagine why posthumous awards for bravery were not made after the event.

In the sinking of Glorious, Ardent and Acasta the casualty list amounted to 1,519 killed, with only 34 survivors.

This is a well-written book. It is historically informative and contains lessons for both naval personnel and politicians, even in this missile age.

(Ed.note: Some of the blame for the reckless mishandling and almost criminal waste of RN aircraft carriers in the early stages of the war has been sheeted home to political interference, probably by Winston Churchill, and an ineffective, probably demented, First Sea Lord.)

Despite leading the world in some aspects, such as damage control and aircraft refuelling systems, the RN was woefully behind with modern aircraft and carrier employment strategies, Taranto notwithstanding. Before and even after the loss of Glorious it had long been argued by the RAF and supported by senior RN officers that modern aircraft were just too fast for the carriers.
The hookless RAF Hurricanes demonstrated convincingly that they could safely take off and land aboard Glorious. This was at a time when the Japanese were building their Zeroes and the USN was experimenting with a number of advanced fighter types.

Winton alludes to a “powerful force” supporting D’Oyly-Hughes and names Churchill as the probable ally. This “connection” might help to explain D’Oyly-Hughes’s arrogance based on ignorance and an evident reluctance of senior flag officers to curb his recklessness.

Churchill himself glosses over the tragedy, yet as he demolishes the “fuel shortage” straw man argument he offers no plausible alternative explanation.

“The Glorious had been detached early that morning to proceed home independently owing to a shortage of fuel, and by now was nearly 200 miles ahead of the main convoy. This explanation is not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. All should have kept together.” (Churchill p. 516)

No British authority satisfactorily explains the apparent failure to act on Glorious‘s enemy report. One nearby cruiser, HMS Devonshire, heard her WT calls, but could take no action, such as relaying the message, for very good reasons. Hundreds of survivors needlessly succumbed to exposure after successfully abandoning ship because the Admiralty initiated no timely search and rescue operation.


Barnett, C.  Engage the enemy more closely: The Royal Navy in WW II. Norton: New York, 1991.
Churchill W.S. The second world war, Vol 1. Cassel and Co: London, 1948.