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HMS Bittern Ablaze – Charles McCain

HMS Bittern Ablaze



HMS BITTERN ablaze in Namsos Fjord after having suffered a direct hit in the stern by a bomb. (official photograph by War Office photographer Major Geoffrey Keating courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

Royal Navy sloop HMS Bittern was set ablaze in Namsos Fjord 30 April 1940 after repeated attacks from Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. The ship had been on station attempting to protect other British warships and merchant ships in the fjord from attack by U-boats and German aircraft.


Bittern 1

HMS Bittern: a view from the port quarter showing the stern almost blown off


In common with all other British warships, HMS Bittern was equipped with the Royal Navy’s High Angle Control System (HACS) for its anti-aircraft guns. This system proved to be a disastrous failure in defending ships from air attack. In the Norwegian campaign, this failure was responsible for the loss of a British aircraft carrier, two cruisers, and seven destroyers.

Further, numerous RN Patrol Service trawlers used for mine sweeping and anti-submarine duty were also sunk. Other ships were badly damaged. (While not well known, the RNPS did outstanding work and suffered significant losses in men and ships during the war. You can read more about them here: /

In the late 1920s, poorly trained ordnance officers of the Royal Navy who lacked the necessary scientific skills failed in their duty to correctly evaluate the different AA systems and chose a far inferior system. Indeed, according to Corelli Barnett, “in 1938 the Admiralty’s Director of Scientific Research described HACS as ‘a menace to the service.’ ” Obviously not a strong endorsement.

“… the Admiralty had gone for the wrong sort of control system-one in which enemy aircraft movements were in effect guessed instead of actually measured and the measured results used to provide the required control data. This latter, called a tachymetric system, was the proper answer…,” Wrote Stephen Roskill, RN, official historian of the Royal Navy in Naval Policy Between the Wars.



HMS Bittern on fire in Namsos fjord viewed from the stern


Naval historian Corelli Barnett adds that British engineering firms may have also pressured the Admiralty in making the choice for the HACS because the firms “…were incapable of designing and manufacturing such sophisticated precision equipment as the tachymetric system…”

After the captain ordered ‘abandon ship,’ the ship’s company of HMS Bittern were taken off by the destroyer HMS Janus which came alongside in a dangerous maneuver. After all the men had been rescued, HMS Janus stood off and fired a torpedo which sank the ship, this done to prevent HMS Bittern from drifting to shore and being seized by the Germans.


HMS_Janus_(F53)_IWM_FL_003695 (1)

British destroyer HMS Janus, underway on contractor’s sea trials, 5 August 1939. The ship was sunk by a German glider bomb on 23 January 1944. 

(official Royal Navy photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29)



Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War by Corelli Barnett.

Norwegian Campaign WW Two

HMS Bittern

author’s research

About the Author:

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: