The First Victoria Cross of The Second World War

It could be argued that Winston Churchill was ultimately responsible for putting the unfortunate HMS Glowworm in harm’s way. Neither Germany nor Britain should really have had ships near the port of Narvik in Norway, since Norway had declared itself to be a neutral country in the war. However, the eminent city, located on the banks of the Ofotfjorden, an inlet of the Norwegian Sea, was important to the Germans since the port was used to transport iron ore from Sweden to fuel home industry. Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, therefore proposed laying a minefield along the coast of Norway and landing troops besides. According to the Reader’s Digest’s ‘The World at Arms’ the government had been warned by British Intelligence that German warships were in the area, but, at a time when the real fighting was yet to start and a lot of the battles being waged were psychological rather than physical, chose to ignore the report and make its move. Glowworm was one of the ships ordered to lay mines and the Germans, aware of the British plan, rushed to try and intercept the Royal Navy.

Most of the British ships were in and out before the Kriegsmarine turned up, but Glowworm was unlucky. A terrible storm had led to rough seas and heavy waves, and one of her crew had been swept overboard. In searching for the afflicted sailor she became separated from the rest of the fleet, and soon encountered the German destroyer Bernd von Arnim (which, if reports in F. Gordon Roe’s ‘The Bronze Cross’ are to be believed, first claimed to be Swedish and then fired upon her). Little did she know, Bernd von Arnim was part of a large German assault group heading for Trondheim. Shortly before a second German destroyer sailed into view, Glowworm fired back. After a brief skirmish, during which two more of her crew were swept overboard and several injured, one of the destroyers was hit and wheeled away from the fighting. As Lieutenant Robert Archibald Ramsay, the sole surviving officer, later reported, it was “obviously trying to lead us onto something more powerful”. Instead of being spooked, Roope was curious; he hoped to find out what sort of force the Germans had in the area, and potentially shadow it. However, he had banked on the ‘more powerful’ ship being considerably less impressive than the mighty craft that soon met his startled eyes; none other than the feared German cruiser Admiral Hipper.

Comparing the two ships shows just how uneven a face-off this was. ‘The Bronze Cross’ explains that Admiral Hipper had 10,000 tonnes on Glowworm’s 1,345, and that while the latter was equipped with just four 4.7in guns, the former had eight 8in guns, twelve 4.1in and another dozen 37mm guns. HMS Glowworm had no chance, and her commander knew it. Nonetheless, Roope refused to be cowed. After being given a preliminary battering by the cruiser’s long guns, and returning fire with torpedoes once close enough, he did try to escape behind a smoke screen. When flight failed (Admiral Hipper shot off after the retreating destroyer, and Roope knew the screen would soon disperse and leave him exposed), he went straight on the offensive and resolved to inflict as much damage before he could before the ship was disabled (already one gun was out of action, the range finder had been hit and the siren wire damaged, so that the ship’s siren roared on and on). Accordingly, he steered directly for Admiral Hipper and rammed the starboard side of her hull, before retiring and firing the remaining guns at her one more time.

The impact tore away 40m of her armour belt, and although it neither sank nor permanently disabled her, forced her to retire to Trondheim immediately after the battle for repairs. For her troubles, Glowworm was crippled. Lieutenant Commander Roope had just enough time to radio a warning that the Germans were in the area before the ship exploded, split and sank. Of the crew, 109 were killed and just 40 recovered by the cruiser. Roope was not among them, but according to Vice-Admiral Helmuth Heye, commander of the Admiral Hipper, he could have been.

Initially it was reported that Roope had last been seen swimming, and the Admiralty assumed that had been overcome by the freezing sea like so many of the others. Heye, however, told a different story in August 1945 once the war had ended, and it was this tale that earned Roope his Victoria Cross. According to him, Roope could have climbed aboard immediately but instead remained in the water and helped to save the lives of several of his men. By the time he was satisfied that there was no more that he could do, and was tossed a rope, he hadn’t strength enough left to hold onto it. Instead, he disappeared beneath the waves. He was just 35 when he drowned, and left behind his parents and his wife Faith. He is commemorated on panel 36, column 3, of the Portsmouth Naval Memorial in Hampshire, though he died so many miles away.

Although it was Roope that Heye most admired, he was impressed by all the men who worked so hard to keep the ship on the attack, although they knew that she was doomed and likely so were they. After the war Lt. Ramsay, returned to Britain after five years as a Prisoner of War, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, while three surviving ratings were granted the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for their parts in the battle. No doubt Heye approved of each and every one of these awards, for though it was the lives of his own crew that were placed in danger by their actions, he no doubt hoped that he would have had the courage to act in the same way, had the positions been reversed. “In my opinion,” he said, “the bearing of the commander and crew of the Glowworm was excellent.”

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