Lt. Cmdr. Gerard Roope
British Royal Navy
April 8, 1940
One of World War II’s most unusual—and gallant—stories unfolded early in the war off the Norway coast. That the action prompted the award of the first of the conflict’s 182 Victoria Crosses (Britain’s highest decoration for valor in the face of the enemy) makes it important. But that this VC was awarded on the recommendation of an enemy commander makes it historic.
The story, which Winston Churchill called one “to be remembered,” began in early April 1940 when 35-year-old Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gerard Broadmead Roope took his 1,350-ton G-class destroyer HMS Glowworm into the Norwegian Sea. The vessel, armed with four 4.7-inch guns and 10 torpedo tubes, was part of the battlecruiser HMS Renown’s escort for mine-laying operations off Norway. During the night of April 7, however, Glowworm lost a man overboard in rough seas and dropped back to search for him.
The following morning, Roope abandoned the search to rejoin Renown. At about 8:30 a.m., Glowworm encountered the German destroyers Bernd von Arnim and Hans Lüdemann. The vessels were escorting the 14,000-ton heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, en route to land troops at Trondheim as part of the German invasion of Norway. Commanded by Käpitan Zur See Hellmuth Heye, Hipper mounted eight 8-inch guns, 12 4.1-inch guns, 12 1.5-inch guns, eight .8-inch guns and 12 torpedo tubes.
Glowworm and the German destroyers exchanged fire, the British warship scoring at least one hit before the destroyers fled. Giving chase, Roope closed within range of Hipper, which the British commander knew could make short work of his much smaller vessel. Realizing that rough seas and Hipper’s speed and long-range guns would make escape difficult if not impossible, Roope instead chose to attack.
Glowworm headed straight for Hipper while launching its torpedoes, all of which missed. The heavy cruiser then fired at Glowworm, scoring several major hits, knocking out one of the British destroyer’s guns and setting the ship on fire. Roope, knowing it was only a matter of time before Hipper sank his ship, ordered a smoke screen, giving the impression he was going to steam away from the German warship. Instead, he turned Glowworm hard to starboard and, with all remaining guns firing, headed straight for Hipper.
Pounded by the heavy cruiser’s secondary batteries, Glowworm rammed Hipper’s bow, tore away 130 feet of its armor belt and ripped a major gash in the hull, leaving it listing with tons of seawater pouring in. Glowworm kept up a steady fire as it pulled away from the collision, but with its forecastle sheared back to the bridge and fires raging on all decks, the end came quickly. Glowworm drifted briefly alongside Hipper before capsizing and sinking. “[Its] light,” Churchill later wrote, “was quenched.”
One hundred eleven members of Glowworm’s company perished, including Roope. German crewmen tried hauling him up Hipper’s side with a rope, but Roope let go—apparently from exhaustion—and disappeared. His body was never recovered.
Demonstrating a gallantry that was to vanish as the war dragged on, Heye stayed on scene for an hour, picking up British survivors and congratulating the men he saved for putting up a good fight.
“[He] told us that our captain had been a very brave man,” said Bert Harris, a Glowworm stoker who was among the 31 men rescued.
Heye then sent an award recommendation to the British War Office through the International Red Cross. For the Victoria Cross to be awarded, the citation must be issued by a regimental-level officer and supported by three witnesses. Since no British officer of rank had survived the fight, the War Office agreed to accept Heye’s testimony. It is one of few instances in British history the medal was awarded on the recommendation of an enemy.
Though Hipper completed its mission to Trondheim, it was compelled to return to port for repairs that kept it out of action for a month after the encounter with Roope and Glowworm.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.