Gallant ships: 5 underdogs of the seas that punched above their weight

There are times in naval history when small or lightly armed ships have turned the tables on their attackers in the most glorious fashion.
Christopher McFadden
Naval history is full of stories of plucky little ships refusing to surrender, despite horrendous odds against them.


  • Throughout naval history, stories of indomitable warships and mighty fleets destroying their enemies tend to take center stage.
  • Yet, all too often, the stories of lesser-known ships tend to be relegated to the shadows.
  • So, let us introduce you to some of the greatest examples of gallantry at sea by ships that were outclassed but decided to fight anyway.

From surprise tactics to unbreakable crew spirit, the following "Gallant Ships" not only held their own but also "punched well above their weight" in the heat of battle. Here, we'll explore some of the most thrilling tales of these audacious underdogs, celebrating their remarkable achievements against all odds on the vast, unforgiving expanse of the world's oceans.

Gallant ships: 5 underdogs of the seas that punched above their weight
Painting of the battle between HMS Speedy and El Gamo.

What is a "Gallant Ship"?

A "Gallant Ship" is a merchant ship awarded a U.S. "Merchant Marine Gallant Ship Citation" for outstanding service during times of crisis or conflict. The U.S. Merchant Marine was crucial in supporting the war effort during World War II, transporting troops, equipment, and supplies across dangerous waters often plagued by enemy submarines and surface raiders.

The United Kingdom's version of the Gallant is the "Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service." This is awarded to those on Merchant Navy ships who go above and beyond their duty in times of war.

Other nations have their own equivalents, like the Canadian "Merchant Navy Veteran and Civilian Service Medal" and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) "Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea."

Of course, mariners may also be given other awards, such as the U.S. Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, or the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration of the British military honors system.

But what would it take to get one of these awards? Let's look at some prime examples of merchant-ship gallantry throughout the ages.

1. HMS Glowworm took on the Admiral Hipper

Perhaps the most famous ship "punching above its weight" was the HMS Glowworm. A G-class destroyer built for the Royal Navy in the mid-1930s, her early career included enforcing the arms blockade during the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, she was transferred to the Home Fleet in March 1940 to participate in the Norwegian Campaign, where she encountered German destroyers transporting troops to invade Norway.

During the engagement, the Glowworm managed to chase off several German destroyers while taking damage. She eventually ran into the German heavy cruiser, the Admiral Hipper. After launching all ten of her torpedoes (all of which missed), she was hit by salvoes from the much bigger ship, raised smoke, and attempted to flee. The Admiral Hipper gave chase, and eventually, the two ships made visual contact again, but they were now much closer than either commander had expected.

Noticing an opportunity, and out of options, HMS Glowworm's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Rooper, gave the order to ram the Admiral Hipper. The collision destroyed the bow section of the much smaller ship, effectively sealing its fate. However, the Admiral Hipper suffered enough damage to take on around 500 tons of water.

Of the Glowworm's full crew complement of 149, around 109 sailors went down with their ship. The Admiral Hipper attempted rescue of the others, however, several of those rescued would later die from their wounds.

Lieutenant Commander Rooper succumbed to exhaustion and drowned while attempting to get his men onboard the Admiral Hipper. He was posthumously awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross (VC) at the recommendation of the commander of Admiral Hipper, one of just three occasions in the Second World War when a VC was awarded at the enemy's request.

2. The final sacrifice of HMS Jervis Bay

Another example of unbelievable bravery by a heavily outclassed warship and her crew was the HMS Jervis Bay. An ocean liner converted into an armed merchant ship, she was the only line of defense available for a convoy of thirty-seven merchant ships, Convoy HX 84, en route to mainland Britain from Bermuda in November of 1940.

When the Jervis Bay and its convoy encountered the German pocket battleship, Admiral Scheer, Captain Edward Fegen ordered the convoy to scatter. He then set his ship on an intercept course towards the German warship to draw its fire.

Although Jervis Bay was hopelessly outgunned and outranged, it attacked the larger ship with its array of inferior guns, firing more to distract the German ship from the merchantmen than with hopes of doing any damage. The German shells ravaged Jervis Bay, and Fegen was wounded, but he and the surviving crew fought until their ship was sunk. Captain Fegen and many of the crew went down with the ship.

Jervis Bay's noble sacrifice resulted in the German warship sinking only five merchant ships, and the remaining convoy escaped. Sixty-eight out of 254 crew members of Jervis Bay were rescued by the neutral Swedish ship Stureholm. Due to his heroic actions, Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded the VC.

3. USS Johnston: the plucky destroyer that refused to die

USS Johnston (DD-557) was a Fletcher-class destroyer named after Lieutenant John V. Johnston, an officer of the US Navy during the American Civil War. She was built for the United States Navy during World War II and launched on March 25, 1943. She entered active duty in October of that year and was assigned to the US Pacific Fleet under the command of Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans.

During the "Battle of Samar," Evans ordered the Johnston to speed directly towards the Japanese fleet, laying smoke to shield the U.S. escort carriers. Johnston then launched torpedoes, striking and damaging the heavy cruiser Kumano.

Despite being hit multiple times by enemy fire and causing significant damage, the Johnston bravely continued to fight. However, it eventually succumbed and began to sink, with Commander Evans and many of his crew going down with the ship.

The wreckage was discovered in 2019 and officially identified in 2021. It was the deepest shipwreck ever surveyed until 2022. The Johnston was awarded six battle stars and a "Presidential Unit Citation" for the actions at Samar. Commander Evans received the "Medal of Honor" posthumously for the same action.

4. SS Stephen Hopkins sunk an enemy warship

Purpose-built as a "Liberty Ship" (a special freight ship built to support Allied Forces during WWII), SS Hopkins was destined to spend the war ferrying cargo to support the war effort. However, shortly after her completion in 1942, she would go down in history as one of the only cargo ships to sink an attacking warship.

After completing her first cargo run to South Africa, she encountered a heavily armed German commerce raider, the Stier, and her tender, the Tannenfeis, in heavy fog. This came as a surprise to all, as visibility was low, and the ships were less than 2 miles (3.2 km) apart when hostilities began. Refusing to surrender, SS Hopkins was badly damaged by salvoes from the Steir, but her gun crew bravely soldiered on, replacing fallen gunners with other crew as needed.

Armed only with a single 4-inch (102 mm) gun, she managed to severely damage the Stier and her tender before succumbing to the horrendous damage she had sustained during the engagement. Of her crew, only 15 survived. They drifted in a lifeboat until reaching Brazilian waters a month later.

The ship's captain, Paul Buck, was killed in action, but was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. Further, Liberty Ships were even named in honor of some notable crew members. As for the Steir, she was so badly damaged that her crew was forced to scuttle her after the surviving crew were transferred to the Tannenfels.

5. HMS Speedy versus the El Gamo was a real David versus Goliath moment

And finally, no list of this kind would be worth its salt (yes, pun intended) without a mention of the HMS Speedy. A 14-gun Speedy-class brig of the Royal Navy, she was launched in 1782 and went on to serve in the French Revolutionary Wars. After being captured and retaken by French and Then British forces, she eventually came under the command of Commander Lord Cochrane, one of the most talented naval seamen in British history. Despised and respected by Napoleon Bonaparte, Cochrane earned his reputation through bold and decisive action that often surprised the enemy.

One such action was HMS Speedy's engagements against the much larger Spanish frigate, El Gamo. At dawn on May 6th, 1801, HMS Speedy encountered the El Gamo, and despite having only 54 men on board, Cochrane decided to close on the frigate instead of evading her. El Gamo, carrying 319 men and armed with 8- and 12-pounder guns and 24-pounder carronades, fired two broadsides at Speedy, but Cochrane evaded them both. He then locked his ship's yards in El Gamo's rigging and opened fire with his 4-pounders double- and treble-shotted. The first broadside killed the Spanish captain and boatswain.

After pulling away briefly to prevent a Spanish boarding action, Cochrane decided to board the El Gamo with his entire crew split into two parties. The British rushed the El Gamo from the bow and waist, and bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued between the two crews until Cochrane ordered Spanish colors to be torn down while loudly commanding one of the Speedy's crew members to "send over another 50 men." This cunning bluff convinced the Spanish crew that the ship had been surrendered by its commanding officers, and the British carried the day.

The British lost three men killed and nine wounded, while the Spanish lost 14 killed and 41 wounded. Cochrane and the Speedy's crew were honored with a special Naval General Service Medal. This action would later inspire the blockbuster book (and film) "Master and Commander."

And that is your lot for today.

These are but a fine selection of some of the greatest acts of gallantry at sea by ships that would normally be considered the "underdog." However, as we've seen, there are times when size does not matter.

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