In early 1940, Britain badly needed a victory to give heart to the country in the face of the seemingly unstoppable German Blitzkrieg. It came with a series of daring attacks on the Kriegsmarine as they invaded Norway and typifies the British fighting spirit at a time when Europe was a German Empire and we stood alone. As one newspaper headline said at the time, "Let them all come"
On the 1st of March 1940, Hitler ordered the invasion of Norway codenamed “Wesereubung”. The long Norwegian coastline would give his aircraft and warships an ideal base from which to attack northern Britain and the year round ice free port of Narvik would be used to transport Swedish iron ore to Germany.
The invasion fleet was divided into five groups tasked with capturing Norway’s six main ports and on the 6th of April, Group One, commanded by Kommodore Bonte and consisting of 10 destroyers, each carrying 200 assault troops, set sail for Narvik, escorted by the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
On the 9th of April, Group One arrived in Ofotfjord leading to Narvik, in fog and heavy snow. In the fjord they captured three Norwegian patrol boats, but failed to stop their commander from sending a warning signal to two coastal defence ships guarding Narvik. When the German destroyers arrived they attempted to negotiate the surrender of the two defence vessels and when this failed, the Norwegians opened fire on the attackers. The Germans retaliated and torpedoed both ships.
The German destroyers were now short of fuel. Plans had been made to send three tankers with the destroyer group but only one had managed to reach the fjord. One had been sunk by a suspicious Norwegian patrol ship and one had been intercepted by the British cruiser HMS Suffolk. The surviving tanker began refuelling the destroyers, but could only handle two at a time in a process taking some seven hours. The rest of the group were stationed around the fjord in various inlets.
The Royal Navy had meanwhile been seeking to engage the Kriegsmarine and on the 8th of April, the British destroyer Glowworm attacked the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and two destroyers, but was badly damaged. In true naval tradition she rammed Hipper before going down. The next day, the British battle cruiser HMS Renown exchanged salvos with Scharnorst and Gneisenau, causing some damage, but the main German mission had been completed and the invasion force was successfully landed.
The day after the invasion, a British flotilla of five H class destroyers, Havoc, Hardy, Hotspur, Hunter and Hostile, under the command of Commodore Bernard Warburton-Lee, was sent into the Ofotfjord and at 4.30 am, in driving snow, they caught the enemy by surprise and in the ensuing fire fight, sank two German destroyers and damaged three others. They went on to bombard the invasion troops on the shore, but lacking a landing force, began to withdraw, but not before launching torpedoes at the merchant shipping in the harbour, sinking eleven of them.
They were then themselves attacked by three German destroyers emerging from the inlets and in some heavy fighting, the flotilla leader HMS Hardy was beached in flames and Hunter was torpedoed and sunk. One other destroyer was badly damaged. The Germans being low on fuel and ammunition did not continue the pursuit and the British were able to sink a German ammunition ship on their way out of the fjord. The commanders of both groups were killed during the action. Commodore Warburton-Lee was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership and the German Kommodore Bonte was awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross.
The Royal Navy was determined to defeat the Germans at Narvik and sent a powerful task force comprising the battleship HMS Warspite with nine destroyers accompanied by aircraft from the carrier HMS Furious. They arrived in Otofjord on the 13th of April to find the remaining eight German destroyers, all low on fuel and ammunition. Warspite then launched its Fairy Swordfish float plane which bombed and sank the German submarine U- 64. This was the first instance of a U-Boat being sunk by aircraft in the war.
The German destroyer, Erich Koeliner tried to ambush the task force, but was spotted by the Warspite’s seaplane and promptly sunk by gunfire and torpedoes, while the survivors of the crew were captured by Norwegian forces. Two others were sunk in the fighting and the five remaining, now out of ammunition, scuttled themselves in the fjord. The only German ship to survive in the port area was the submarine U-51. Warspite’s guns pounded the German shore batteries and installations before heading back out to sea where she was attacked by German submarines U-46 and U-48, but the subs magnetic fused torpedoes malfunctioned probably due to the high northern latitude.
The battles had cost the Germans ten destroyers, one submarine and a number of supply ships, plus the loss of some 1,000 lives. The surviving crew members of the scuttled ships were formed into an improvised marine infantry unit and fought alongside their army comrades in the land battle that followed.
Image Source: Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-63-07 / CC-BY-SA
About The Author
Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »