Bert Harris' Story


Bert 'Curly' Harris was a 20 year old Stoker on the Glowworm that fateful day. His brother Edwin was killed in the action. He now lives in retirement near Weymouth with his wife Joyce. She tells me that he still has nightmares where he throws himself out of bed swimming for his life. Many of the photos that you see on this website were given to me by Bert who got them from a German sailor who photographed the action. Bert kept them hidden all through his years as a prisoner of war. This is his story....

'My Brother and I joined the Navy in Portsmouth on 14th February 1938. I was eighteen years old, my Brother was twenty. We did six months training there and then, commissioned to HMS Glowworm in Portsmouth.

From there we went out to the Mediterranean at the time of the Spanish Civil War. I was there at the start of the Second World War in 1939. In November 1939 we were ordered back to England where we started patrols in the Channel, bringing contraband ships back and also convoy duties. We were based at Harwich for a time when the magnetic mine scare first started. We saw many a ship sunk by this method. Things stayed like this until March 1940 when we went to Scapa Flow. After a short spell there we were ordered to proceed to Sea.

It was on 5th April 1940 that the Glowworm with three other destroyers made up the escort for HMS Renown and steamed across the North Sea, although we never had any idea what the operation was for at that time. It was a rough and very cold journey. All that day rumours kept going around about the German Navy being at sea, and we were hoping it was true so we would get the chance to meet them, as we felt pretty sure of ourselves being with the Renown.

My Brother and I were both young Stokers on the Glowworm. I was twenty and he was two years older. We both lived on the same mess deck and of course we thought a great deal about each other, as we had joined the Navy together and had been together all the time. As we rolled and pitched our way across the North Sea he told me to be very careful whenever I had to go on watch and hang on tight as the sea was washing over us. And so it went on until the morning of 6th April when the alarm went out that a man was washed overboard, he was a torpedo man. A signal was made to Renown. We were told to turn and search for him, it was hopeless in such weather but our skipper turned the Glowworm and began the search. That left us all alone as the rest of the group carried on course. We never saw them again. Needless to say the man was never found. We steamed around all that day hoping to make a rendezvous with the Renown again, but no luck.

The following morning on 7th April our luck seemed to be right out when another man was reported over the side. A search found him tangled in ropes which were trailing over the side. When they pulled him in he was badly injured and there was no hope for him. Well, that was a bad omen indeed. For two consecutive mornings, something nasty had happened and we were all asking what the third morning would bring. We were still on our own in the great North Sea, or at least it seemed that way.

And so I come to the morning of 8th April 1940. I was asleep in my hammock when suddenly the loud ring of alarm bells sounded and all the off watch men scrambled to their action stations. Mine being in the after part of the ship, in the magazine supplying shells for the gun crews. Not a very nice place to be in.

As I made my way along the upper deck I saw another destroyer in the distance and wondered who it could be. After a short while I soon found out. Our Captain, Lt Cdr Roope sent a signal asking her nationality as she flew no ensign. The next moment she answered us with a salvo from her guns. Then the fun started. After exchanging round for round with her she turned and steamed away with us in pursuit. After a while we were told we were chasing her into a squadron of our own fleet who could be seen in the distance. However, we soon found out our mistake as it was a German squadron that we were being led into. But instead of turning and running for it, our Captain took the Glowworm into action against the German Cruiser Admiral Von Hipper and her escort of four destroyers. While we kept hard at it supplying the guns it seemed as if all hell broke loose. The Hipper opened up with her big guns and started to knock us about. She seemed to be hitting us hard as we were chasing around in the heavy sea getting into position.

All our guns were firing, but our torpedoes which we fired missed the Hipper although they went very close to her. Our Captain was a good seaman and he knew how to handle his Ship. By now, we were badly damaged but he kept manoeuvring the Glowworm so that it was easier for the gun crews but this could not go on much longer as we had a very bad list to the starboard side. Most of the guns were soon out of action. I was still in the magazine when the Glowworm gave an extra thrust forward and there was a crash and a shudder. The lights went out, the ship rolled and tossed and suddenly seemed to settle well on her starboard side. Then came the order to abandon ship. We had just made our last big play. Our Captain had done all he could and what was right to the last. He had turned the Glowworm and drove her straight at, and rammed the Hipper. Causing quite a bit of damage to her.

By this time I and others had made our way to the upper deck. As I passed the place where my Brother's action station was, I called to him but there was no answer, so I went to look for him. I got to the hatchway and looked down, it was pitch black, water swirled around. I kept calling but had to get out as we were well over on our side by now. I reached the Upper Deck and was shocked by the mess we were in. The Germans had shot us to pieces and were still doing so. Only one of our guns was firing now and it seemed strange to me as it was the aftermost gun. He must have been a very brave man as the ship was sinking and men were jumping over the side, but he kept that gun going for quite a time.

As I reached the Upper Deck I got my first look at the Hipper. She seemed to be such a huge ship with her Swastika painted on her foremost deck. They were still firing at us with their big guns and machine guns. I crawled on my hands and knees along the deck to a lifebelt locker and was lucky to find some there. I passed some to others and strapped one around me although I was in two minds whether to jump or stay where I was, as it was a big thing to leave the ship and jump in the North Sea. So I waited and talked to a stoker who had his leg blown off. Another young stoker locked himself in the galley.

One thing struck me as funny at the time, yet another stoker had jumped over and had got washed back again. As he picked himself up he said he would rather stay put as it was too cold in the water.

I remember a young officer shouting "Open all sea cocks", although we were sinking fast now. I never saw him again. Then the Captain came and told us to get off as soon as we could. That was the last time I saw Lt Cdr Roope. By this time the ship had turned over onto her starboard side and the siren was blowing and smoke was belching from the funnels.

I scrambled down the port side and then onto the bottom of the Glowworm, she turned right over in the water. All the time the Germans were pumping shells into us. At last I decided to take the plunge and jumped into the sea and swam as hard as I could from the sinking ship. After what seemed a long time I stopped swimming and just let the lifebelt keep me afloat. I watched the end of HMS Glowworm. The Germans finished her and she began to sink below the waves with men still standing on her.

I felt lost and just could not realise that my ship had gone. I didn't know what to do next, one minute I was tossed onto the top of a huge wave and the next down into a steep valley of water. I was just drifting, swimming made no difference. Then suddenly right in front of me I saw the German ship. I was being carried towards her. I could see some of our chaps being pulled up the side of her. I swam as fast as I could, because I thought if I never reached her I would be lost forever. It was at this moment that I felt the underwater explosion and a kick like a mule. It must have been some depth charges on the Glowworm. I was nearly all in but I managed to look up and see some German sailors who threw a rope. I grabbed it and that was the last I knew for a long time.

I finally came to my senses to find a group of Germans standing around me. When I moved, one of them gave me a cigarette and asked me if I felt alright. I was under a cradle of electric light bulbs which they had put over me to keep me warm. My first words were for news of my Brother, but there was none. I felt sick and stunned as it was weeks before I could realise that he had gone with all the others. All that was left were twenty nine survivors of that grim and terrible day. The following day only twenty seven, two having died of oil fuel poisoning. They were buried at sea.

I must say that they were the best German sailors I ever knew. They looked after us the best they could. Their Captain came to us and told us that our Captain had been a very brave man.

We were all locked below decks with armed sentries. We were there until the following Friday. The Hipper was on her way to Norway where she discharged the troops she was carrying. Her mission completed, she made for the open sea again.

We had been at sea for quite a time when excitement ran high amongst the Germans. Something was happening and before long came the sound of gun fire. We knew that we were being fired on by the Royal Navy. It gave us all a queer feeling not knowing what would happen as we were shut down below with armed sentries on the hatches. But they told us we would get the chance to get out if anything happened.

HMS Renown was chasing us. However, this was not to be. The Hipper got away as she had a good turn of speed and the weather was in her favour.

We were kept below all that week while the Germans steamed full ahead. On the Friday evening they let us come up on the Upper Deck for fresh air and told us we would soon be put ashore. Later that night we were taken off and handed over to the Army at Wilhelmshaven. It was there I knew that I was going to be a Prisoner of war..

Much later we learned that Lt Cdr Roope had been awarded the Victoria Cross. It was a proud day for us all'.


Above: Bert (left) and Edwin when they joined up.

bert 2

Above: A press cutting from April 15th 1940 reporting both brothers missing.


Above: Bert and Joyce at their home today.

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