By Leading Seaman Ron Dowle – one of the very few survivors, and the last one living. A member of the Naval Association at Ballina, NSW, he has granted permission for NHS to publish his memoirs, while a recent visit to UK enabled the Editor to obtain a recently released expose of the hitherto secret Admiralty Board of Enquiry (which was originally not to be released until 2040) from which the official findings have been made public.
HMS GLORIOUS was one of the Royal Navy’s four big aircraft carriers at the outbreak of WW2, with a well worked up air group from her initial period in the Mediterranean Fleet. A sister ship, HMS Courageous, had been sunk by U-boat in the first weeks of the war.
During the Norwegian campaign Glorious had been operating together with the more modern carrier, HMS Ark Royal, providing air cover to Fleet units and the Army (British, French and Norwegian forces) expeditionary force ashore battling the German Nazi invasion and blitzkreig. Owing largely to the superiority of the Luftwaffe air power and the rapid territorial advances made by the Germans, the British Government decided to evacuate their forces from Norway, at the same time as they were forced to do so in France at Dunkirk. This was achieved successfully through the efforts of the Royal Navy, including the landing on (onboard HMS Glorious) of two squadrons of RAF fighters from airfields ashore.
Glorious herself detached from the main body escorted by two destroyers for independent passage back to the Fleet base at Scapa Flow, but was surprised shortly afterwards and intercepted by two German battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who had put to sea in anticipation of a British withdrawal. In the memorable words of the German lookout who sighted the British carrier ((BBC 4 documentary screened 1994)): ‘I had never seen an aircraft carrier before this moment – then we sank her!’
Unable to escape or fly off any aircraft, Glorious was doomed, and by superb German gunnery she was hit, rapidly and repeatedly and set on fire, while her escorting destroyers (HM Ships Ardent and Acasta) desperately tried to shield her with smoke screens and suicidal torpedo attacks. During this action both were sunk with guns still blazing defiantly to the last, although one torpedo struck the Scharnhorst aft causing serious damage. Subsequently, the German ships gave Glorious the coup de grace, but did not pick up any survivors, and withdrew from the area.
Ron Dowle writes:
‘My Action Station was in the ‘B’ Transmitting Station (TS) which was directly alongside the ‘B’ Gun Director Tower, which was about half a dozen steps down from the flight deck (approx 100ft above sea level) (waterline). Making my way to the TS I had to pass the tower, but before entering the TS I spent about 30 seconds or so talking to the Director Layer, and what he then made of the enemy sighting, which was on our starboard quarter. As I looked in the direction to which the Director was trained I could just catch sight of two masts and the upperworks of what I could only guess were very large ships, especially when the Layer was looking in the direction in which the crew of the tower were directing their telescopes. It was then that I could pick out two masts and the superstructure of at least two large ships. He also told me that the range was estimated at 18 miles. While I was still chatting to the men in the tower I distinctly saw the flash of the (enemy) guns opening fire – within a matter of seconds I was through the armoured door and into the TS. We realised we were in real trouble and unable to do anything to help.’ Later Dowle commented on the situation in the liferafts, after abandoning ship:
‘I know that when I was finally helped onto the raft after (previously) clinging on to the raft lashings, one of the men I took to be a senior rating took count at that moment and made it 47. Quite a large number had already succumbed to the bitter cold, thereby creating room for us latecomers.’ Generally, he agrees with the figures given in John Winton’s book (see p192). ‘Our raft, when found by the trawler at approx 0230 (from the Norwegian sailor’s watch) with just seven of the original 47 – and I believe they reckoned we were more dead than alive. I know that I was one that had to be lifted out of the raft by the wonderful Norwegian sailors, who also acted as our nursemaids’. Of the Board of Enquiry, Dowle thinks that some facts have not come to light because pertinent questions were not asked:
‘So were the right questions asked at the time? Chatting amongst ourselves (that is, the 30 plus survivors) for the 10 months we were in the Aberdeen hospital was very enlightening, of course. None of what was said went further than our ward, after the dire warnings we had been given. The only other person that survived who was in any position to know how things really were was Lieutenant Commander Hill – he would have known the actual state the ship was in. (Incidentally, he was the officer who gave me the order to ‘Abandon Ship’).
An extract from an actual copy of his part in the Board of Enquiry can be quoted:
RONALD GEORGE DOWLE, Able Seaman O.N. JX147675, HMS GLORIOUS – Called and Cautioned.
445 When action stations were sounded off where did you close up?
In ‘B’ TS , sir.
446 What was your specific duty in the TS?
Range Clock, sir.
447 Were any orders passed through from the GCT with regard to engaging the enemy? Or opening fire?
No, sir. At the beginning we were in ‘A’ control, the ‘Á’ could not get through to the ‘B’ group guns. We switched into group(?) control and then we could not get through to the forward director. We could also not get through to the ADT. After 10 minutes the after director manned the TS and it was Stand By Control from the TS. This was due to the fire on deck, as flames and fumes were getting into the Director.
448 What happened next?
Lieutenant Commander Hill gave the order ‘Prepare to abandon Ship’ and that is all till I went over the side. That morning Glorious had recovered ten RAF Hurricanes and ten Gladiators (fighters) of the Fleet Air Arm from Bardufoss airfield in north Norway, where they had been operating in support of the Army. When the German heavy ships were sighted no aircraft were on patrol, on deck alert or even ranged on the flight deck. The ship was at the fourth degree of readiness (Cruising Stations) with air crew at ten minutes alert. There was no radar fitted and no lookout closed up in the crows nest, despite perfect visibility. The Board of Inquiry later determined that not all the boilers were connected and that ready use shells at the guns were only for AA attack.