Through Fire and Water – HMS Ardent, June 1940

HMS Ardent in 1939

The A-class destroyer Ardent commissioned in March 1930. Like her ten sister ships, HMS Acasta among them, Ardent was capable of a very speedy 35 knots, carried four 4.7 inch guns and a pair of quadruple 21-inch torpedo tubes. Ardent spent much of 1937 and a part of 1938 under refit in Sheerness. Once free of the yard, the destroyer remained in Home Waters, mostly at Plymouth, for training and preparation in view of the pending war.

Ardent was joined by Able Seaman Roger Hooke in March 1939 as she was employed in the role of training ship for boy sailors and reservists. At the outbreak of war she was tasked to patrol and escort convoys through the English Channel out to the Southwestern Approaches beyond the Lizard Peninsula and back. The ship was transferred to the Western Approaches Command in October where she frequently operated together with Acasta. Just 15 months into the future there would be only one man from each of the two destroyers left alive: Leading Seaman Cyril Carter of Acasta and Able Seaman Roger Hooke of Ardent.

Ardent and her crew were kept busy during the first months of the war. According to a brief memoir written by AB Hooke, Ardent witnessed the torpedoing of the merchant vessel Teakwood on the destroyer’s second convoy. The damaged ship was able to reach port safely with the loss of just one crewman. Soon afterwards the destroyer was assigned to a submarine hunting force that included the aircraft carrier Courageous. Although not credited with a U-boat sinking, Ardent was present for the destruction of a Nazi submarine by land-based aircraft, and, not long afterwards, the destroyer was a part of a group that managed to sink a submarine near Dover. Ardent was also once called upon to assist with the towing back to port of a fellow destroyer that had suffered a serious collision. During a brief yard period at the end of 1939 Hooke was granted Christmas leave on which he, “… had an enjoyable week with my wife and baby, who was seven months old.”

“And Very Soon Bombs and Guns Started Exploding”- AB Roger Hooke and HMS Ardent

In April 1940 the ship was sent to Norway where she was to carry and support ground troops in countering the German invasion of that country. The mission resulted in a mix of calm days and frantic ones. Hooke’s memoir describes his ship’s activities as she ferried troops ashore and patrolled against possible enemy attacks by sea or by air.

… (We) found ourselves with a convoy of five transport ships and quite a few of our warships. The most outstanding were the (battleship) Valiant and Protector (a net laying ship) … As our journey progressed it began to get colder as our course was nearly due north. We steamed for five days before sighting land, and, believe me, it was cold by then. It was a lovely morning as we all steamed up one of the many fjords for which Norway is so noted. Then the transports separated and went to different berths to anchor. Some of the destroyers began patrolling the fjords while others went alongside the transport ships to disembark the troops. That was our duty and the ship we went alongside was the Rio del Pacifico and the moving of the soldiers started immediately. After loading up with about two hundred and fifty soldiers and stores, we steamed for about forty minutes, which brought us to a town called Harstad, where we went alongside the jetty. After unloading, back once more for some more troops. During the first day’s operations everything went well, but the following day, I am afraid things were a bit different.

The German aircraft made a visit, and very soon bombs and guns started exploding and ships moving about to make it harder for the aircraft to keep a good watch on them. We came in for our share of target practice, but sometimes the bombs dropped too close to be comfortable. One of the bombs that fell into the town started a house on fire and killed a soldier …

Then we did some patrolling of the fjords for likely submarines for some days before being detailed for another duty. This time we embarked on two trips about five hundred Scots Guards for passage to Narvik where, previously, some of our destroyers had done such good work. One thing, even though it was war, one could not help but admire the lovely scenery which one saw on these trips through the fjords. During these trips, on nearing our destination, we went to Action Stations in case of meeting some unexpected enemy ships, but nothing ever showed up to worry us. Once more, we did some patrolling and, believe me, when I say it was cold, but we all remained cheerful, just waiting for our return to England, as we knew it would not be long

The ship returned to Greenock, Scotland during the first week of May for repairs to her underwater sound detecting gear. Seaman Hooke remembered that Ardent arrived so low on fuel that she required the assistance of a tug to reach her berth. As several days were needed to complete the repairs, leave was granted. Hooke had neither enough money nor time for the train trip home, so he remained in Scotland. He took a little time off from the ship to enjoy the sights of Glasgow. He was pleased to receive free items from a “Jock’s Box” which was a sort of canteen established for servicemen during the war. The men would typically get free cigarettes, chocolates, and small things for personal hygiene. Once repaired, Ardent escorted troops to the Faroe Islands. When that duty was done, the destroyer was assigned to accompany the newly built light cruiser Bonaventure as she underwent trials.

“Then We Knew They Were German Battleships”- With HMS Glorious in June 1940

On 31 May 1940 Ardent was attached to a force of destroyers and the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious at Scapa Flow. Seaman Hooke wrote, “Once more we made for Norway, but what we were to do, we did not know …”

As Hooke recalled, the force arrived at Hartsad on Monday, 03 June. He then learned that Ark Royal and Glorious were to provide air cover for the withdrawal of British troops from Norway and that the destroyers were to act as an anti-submarine screen for carriers. From midnight of the day they arrived through Saturday, 08 June, the carriers launched relays of six planes for air cover every two hours. The last of the troops embarked onto transports on Saturday, and “very early Saturday morning we (Ardent) had orders with the Acasta to go as escort for Glorious who was returning to England.” 31.

Hooke noted that the crew was excited and pleased to be headed out of the Arctic cold for home. Most of Saturday went well, but in the late afternoon things changed when the German battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst appeared on the horizon.

(At) about half past four in the afternoon all of us were enjoying a nice cup of tea when Action Stations was sounded. Everyone was quite taken by surprise; some saying it must be a submarine about. When we were at our stations we could see on the horizon, two ships. 32. To whom they belonged, we did not know. The Glorious then told us to go and investigate and ascertain who they were. We, therefore, steamed off in their direction, until we could see them much plainer. (We) then challenged them which they also did to us. Then we knew they were German battleships, and then the fun started.

They very soon began to open fire on all three of us. The very first salvo at us went into number one boiler room which, naturally, reduced our speed. We endeavored to put them off by zig-zagging and making a smoke screen, but it was of no avail, time after time we were hit, and, considering the range between us, it showed the accuracy of their guns and range finders. Our guns were really of no great hindrance to the German ships, and we got into position for firing torpedoes to see if there was a chance of putting them off, even if only for a little while. We fired four torpedoes at them, but (the Germans) did not seem to make any alteration in course at all.

We could see the other two ships of ours off to the westward and plenty of steam escaping from Glorious. What we could not at first make out was why the aircraft carrier did not send up any aeroplanes. It was to be learned afterwards that the first salvo of the enemy’s big guns had landed on the flying deck and, therefore made it impossibility for aircraft to take off. Well, all this time we were being constantly hit, and men were being injured so that it was a case of every man for himself. The ship was listing well over to port and still doing fifteen knots … there seemed no way of stopping her so that boats could be lowered to pick up men who had already jumped for it. What with the smoke and steam escaping everywhere, it was impossible to do very much or to see anything. After about half an hour of this ordeal the ship began to sink and I had given help to get a raft over the side on which I managed to scramble. From that raft I saw the end of a good ship, officers, and men. 

“We Settled Down to Our Fate as Best We Could”- From Six to Two, Then Just One

Hooke recalled events that followed his departure from his sinking ship,

Well, (of the) four of us (who) decided to cut a raft from the torpedo tubes and get it in the water … I am afraid I did not see any of the other three after that. Owing to the ship not being able to stop, she was quite a few hundred yards away from me when she finally sank. Five men and myself eventually got on the raft, but it was impossible to help any of the others as we could not get the paddles from underneath the raft in time to be of any use in helping to rescue some more of our shipmates … (W)e settled down to our fate as best we could as the raft we were on was very small and, therefore it was a bit crowded with six men on it. Where we were there was no darkness at night, so one had to guess whether it was day or night.

After one day on the raft, one man died from the cold and sea. He was a stoker. Then, during the day, another man also passed away – an AB (able seaman) this time … We were beginning by now to wonder if there was any likelihood of anything coming to our aid, as with no food or water, things were not too good for us. Another man passed away the next day which left three of us. That man was an engine room artificer.

Then, during the early hours of the following morning, we saw (some ships coming from the direction of) Norway. With the two paddles that we had, we tried to get toward them, but although the ships were quite plain to us, none was able to spot us. After they had passed us, we got down for a little sleep, as owing to the cold and sea, it was not very nice for getting very comfortable. Then later on in the day … we saw an aircraft flying around … Our hopes began to rise as the flying boat, which it turned out to be, came nearer and nearer … then headed towards us, but then she turned away … Still hoping for the best, we carried on waving and shouting … they failed to see us. So once more we were left to the mercy of the sea and cold weather. Then, the same afternoon, another ship came into view, and with all our waving she did not see us. Things by now were beginning to get a bit agonizing. We had to lie down on the side of the raft to get a bit of sleep as our strength was giving out very fast. Once more, another comrade passed away. He was a leading seaman.

By what, according to Hooke’s accounting, would have been the third day an aircraft flew close by to the raft bearing Ardent’s two survivors. It bore German markings but, even so, Hooke was much relieved that the pilot had spotted him. It was a float plane which landed very nearby. As Hooke remembered,

Coming towards us, the pilot got our raft between the floats and the navigator gave us a hand into the rear of the plane. I had enough left in me to ask where we were being taken, and he said, ‘Trondheim’ … Our first words, of course, were to ask for a drink and, after five days without food or water, we could not swallow enough. Once we had been given a drink, we both lay down for a sleep as it was much warmer and one could stretch out quite comfortably. Then we were shaken and told that we were at Trondheim. After being lifted from the plane, I saw a German soldier carrying a pot of coffee and I at once asked for some. Straightaway I was given a cup and enjoyed it. 

“She Fought With a Dash Which Was Outstanding”- A German Report

Very shortly after the war Rear Admiral (Konteradmiral) Günther Schubert wrote a memory based report about the action. He had held the rank of captain and was Scharnhorst’s executive officer at the time. Of HMS Ardent’s initial attack against his ship, Schubert wrote:

(Ardent) attacked with torpedoes, and endeavored in an extremely skilled manner to escape the effective defensive fire of the medium guns of the battleships by constant alterations of course. Finally (Ardent) also opened fire on the battleships.  She fought with a dash which was outstanding in a hopeless situation. The destroyer received numerous hits and finally went down. 

Schubert’s report continued with his account of the attack made by Acasta after Ardent and Glorious had gone down.

(Acasta) closed to attack the battleship force, and at a very close range fired torpedoes at the battleships which took evasive action. At this stage of the battle, at about the time of the carrier capsizing, Scharnhorst received a torpedo hit on the starboard side by the heavy for’ard turret … The ship still continued action with the destroyer which was now very heavily damaged. The destroyer, with her greatly inferior armament, fought a hopeless fight against the battleships. As far as I can remember, she scored a minor hit with her guns on the middle of the second heavy turret … When the destroyer, with her guns out of action, ceased fire the battleships did the same … The two battleships, leaving the destroyer which was damaged but still afloat, proceeded southwards at a greatly reduced speed. 

At the conclusion of his report, Schubert noted:

Not only the tactical handling, but the audacity and pluck of the destroyers were outstanding. Every (German) officer taking part in the action was of the same opinion. The destroyers put their utmost into the task, although in their hopeless position success was impossible from the start.

Hooke and his companion were given good treatment at a local hospital. After a little over a week they were transferred to a hospital in Oslo. It was there that Hooke’s fellow survivor from Ardent died. Hooke remained in German hands as a prisoner of war until October 1943 when he was repatriated due to ill health. While he was a prisoner Hooke made an intricate and detailed tapestry showing his ship’s crest, the Union Jack and the White Ensign crossed, a silhouette of the Ardent, and a banner bearing the words “Royal Navy.” The tapestry is held by the Imperial War Museum.

Photo credits: Both B&W photos provided by Gary Martin whose grandfather perished in the action of 08 June 1940. Tapestry photo from Imperial War Museums, London.

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