Thomas Frederick Ahearn – bravery, sacrifice and controversy…

Thomas Ahearn was my first cousin, once removed; that is, the son of my grandfather’s sister.

Thomas was born in 1914 and joined the Royal Navy in 1929, aged just 15. After spending his first 18 months at the shore training establishment HMS Ganges, Thomas was transferred to his first ship and spent eight months on the battle cruiser HMS Renown before moving to the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk on 3rd September 1931 just in time for the Invergordon Mutiny that took place on the 15-16 September.

As part of its attempts to deal with the Great Depression, the government decided to implement cuts to public spending. In the Navy this translated into a 10% pay cut for officers, senior ratings, and for junior ratings on the “new rate” of pay, introduced for new entrants in 1925. Ratings below petty officer who had joined before 1925 would have their pay reduced to the same level, amounting to a 25% cut!

When the Atlantic Fleet arrived in Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth on 11th September the men got wind of the cuts through newspapers. On the night of 12th September a group of sailors met at a football field on land where they voted to organise a strike. Crews on the ships decided to carry out essential harbour duties only and not to put to sea.

On the morning of 16th September, Rear-Admiral Tomkinson, in command of the fleet reported to the Admiralty his belief that the mutiny would worsen unless an immediate concession was made. He suggested junior ratings on the old rate should remain on that rate with a cut of 10%. Shortly afterwards, he was informed by the Admiralty that the matter was being considered by the Cabinet, and communicated this to the Fleet.

The Cabinet accepted Tomkinson’s recommendation that ratings on the old rate of pay remain on that rate, with a 10% cut in line with the rest of the service. It was made clear that further acts of insurrection would be severely punished.

(As an aside to this, Len Wincott, an Able Seaman on HMS Norfolk was a leader of the mutiny and subsequently defected to the USSR in 1934. During World War II he survived the Siege of Leningrad but in 1946 he was sent to the Gulag after being accused of being a British spy; he was imprisoned for more than a decade. After his release in the 1950s, he became a friend of Donald MacLean in Moscow.)

In October 1932, Thomas Ahearn transferred to HMS Delhi, flagship of the 8th Cruiser Squadron on the West Indies station.

In 1936, Thomas transferred to a brand new ship, just commissioned, HMS Apollo, a cruiser that sailed to North America via Bermuda and then visited a number of ports in the US and Canada before sailing south to Brazil.

After a six month spell with HMS Diomede, Thomas was at a shore station when war broke out and he was transferred to HMS Ardent in November 1939.

HMS Ardent was a destroyer, working convoy protection from the beginning of the war until the spring of 1940.

After the German invasion of Norway on 9th April, she was transferred to the Home Fleet and on 13th April, the ship joined the escort of Convoy NP1, on passage to Norway with troops for the planned landings at Narvik.

The operations round Narvik ended in disaster and after six weeks the army was in need of evacuation. On 31st May, Ardent and the destroyers Acasta, Acheron, Highlander and Diana escorted the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious from the Clyde to the Norwegian coast to carry out air operations in support of the evacuation.

On 8th June, the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, having embarked fighters based at an airfield in Norway was detached from the main force with Ardent and Acasta as escorts to return home.

What happened next would turn out to be the Royal Navy’s worst single day in WW2. It would tell of heroism in the face of impossible odds, unflinching sacrifice and lastly, enduring controversy.

At 3.45pm, the lookout in the German pocket battleship Scharnhorst spotted the huge silhouette of the Glorious. The Scharnhorst was cruising with the pocket battleship Gneisenau to the north of the Glorious’s route back to the UK and, in tandem, they immediately began to close on the British aircraft carrier and its two small escorts destroyers.

At 4pm, Glorious finally having detected the two enemy battleships descending upon it, turned south east in an attempt to escape. But the carrier couldn’t outrun the German battleships and by 4.30pm the Scharnhorst was within range and began firing at the carrier with its main armament, nine 11” guns. Gneisenau was in range shortly after and similarly opened fire on the British carrier. With just her third salvo Scharnhorst hit Glorious which started a huge fire in the forward aircraft hangar that quickly got out of control.

With Glorious becoming a sitting duck the destroyers sought to buy time for the stricken carrier. They dropped back and sailed a crossing pattern behind the carrier, making smoke in an attempt to hide it from the German gun aimers.

Then HMS Ardent, commanded by Lt. Commander John Barker, burst through its own smoke screen to fire torpedoes at Scharnhorst, one of which passed just feet in front of the German battleship. Scharnhorst took evasive action then, with Gneisenau, caught Ardent in a withering crossfire from their secondary armaments. Within four minutes Ardent had been obliterated, sinking at 5.28pm with the loss of all hands except one. While Thomas Ahearn had been killed, the battle still had its deadly finale to play out.

Shortly after Ardent’s sinking, Glorious emerged from the smoke screen and again came under a hail of fire from the German battleships. By 5.40pm she was a burning wreck, being hit constantly by salvoes from the German ships and slowly sinking into the icy Norwegian sea.

HMS Acasta, the remaining destroyer, was still making smoke to the rear of Glorious and steaming directly away from the German battleships. On board, Commander Charles Glasfurd addressed his crew over the ship tannoy: “You may think we are running away from the enemy. We are not. Our chummy ship has sunk (Ardent was the sister ship of the Acasta), the Glorious is sinking. The least we can do is make a show. Good luck to you all.”

With that, the 1,350 tonne Acasta turned 180 degrees, steamed back through her own smoke screen and charged at the 33,000 tonne German battleships. Turning hard to port she got in a position to fire her torpedoes at Scharnhorst. One of the torpedoes struck Scharnhorst near her rear main turret, disabling it and blowing a hole in the side of the ship that shut down two of her three engine rooms. But that was to be Acasta’s last moment of glory. Quickly the German ships trained their guns on the destroyer and in five minutes had crippled it.

Glorious sank at 6.08pm and Acasta followed it at 6.16pm.

Leading Seaman Cyril Carter, the only crew member from Acasta to survive, would later recall: “…when I was in the water I saw the Captain leaning over the bridge, take a cigarette from a case and light it. We shouted to him to come on our raft. He waved and said, “Good-by and good luck.””

Of the 900 men who went into the water from the three ships, just 46 would be rescued by a Norwegian merchant ship two days later. In total, 1,531 sailors perished in the action. It was the worst British naval disaster of the war.

And controversy began almost immediately because of unanswered questions surrounding the disaster.

Why were Glorious and her escorts returning home independently of the main force from Norway?

Why was the Home Fleet unaware of the potential threat of a German battle group in the vicinity?

Could HMS Devonshire, a battle cruiser also making its way home independently and not far from the battle site, have gone to the assistance of the stricken ships?

Questions were asked in Parliament as early as 31st July 1940, culminating in a debate on 7th November but, given wartime exigencies, it wasn’t surprising no answers were forthcoming from the Admiralty.

All went quiet on the topic until 1946 when under more pressure the Admiralty released a statement that Glorious was short of fuel and had to return home early. The route chosen was expected to be safe and the ships were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The first to contradict this explanation of events was none other than Winston Churchill who described the fuel reason as “not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. All should have kept together.” Nonetheless, the official story held for the next 30 years. It would be the Navy’s official historian, Captain Stephen Roskill, who finally lifted the lid on the controversy in his book “Churchill and the Admirals” in 1977 and in an explosive article for the Sunday Times in 1980.

Addressing the fuel explanation Roskill said “…the shortage of fuel theory is false.” Essentially backing up Churchill’s view, he stated that had Glorious remained with the main force she would have been steaming at a slower speed and would have consumed less fuel overall for the journey.

Since supported by other historians, Roskill painted a picture of Glorious as a desperately unhappy ship run by a captain whose First World War renown disguised incompetence, tyranny and questionable mental stability. Relations between senior officers had broken down to the extent that D’Oyly-Hughes, commander of the Glorious, had put his senior aviator, Captain J B Heath ashore at Scapa Flow pending a court marshal when the latter could not comply with impossible orders. Recent historians have claimed that D’Oyly-Hughes was so vindictive that the sole reason his ship was racing home independently, completely unready for combat, was in order to bring forward a court martial against his former officer.

Eminent historian Corelli Barnett described D’Oyly-Hughes as “…a throwback to the worst kind of arrogant, authoritarian and choleric Edwardian naval officer.”

Moving on to the issue of the lack of awareness of the German battleship threat, it seems that the Admiralty failed to pass on intelligence warnings to those in a position to react to events. Reports from Bletchley Park in the ten days prior to the battle gave strong indication that German main units were likely to proceed to Norwegian waters but none of this intelligence was passed on to the commander of Home Fleet let alone the ship commanders on the scene.

Lastly, the role, or lack of it played by HMS Devonshire. When Glorious spotted the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau she radioed for assistance twice. The nearest ship was the Devonshire who the Admiralty claimed heard one garbled message that made no sense. Therefore, they claimed, it was purely coincidence that Devonshire exercised her main armaments at 4.25pm, just minutes after Glorious sent its first message (one the Devonshire claimed was not received) and then increased speed from 26 knots to 30 knots for the only time in her voyage just after Glorious’ second signal.

The fact that HMS Devonshire was carrying the Norwegian royal family and government to exile in the UK presumably also had nothing to do with decisions taken by her captain that day.

Ultimately, we will never know the reason why Glorious was sailing home independently, or why she was so unprepared for attack because all those in decision making positions on the ships involved were killed.

As for Thomas Frederick Ahearn, he was just a tiny cog in a much bigger wheel and in true naval fashion his service record ends quite succinctly:

“Presumed DD (Discharged Dead)

9 June 1940

HMS Ardent

Ship lost by enemy action”

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