header photo


(One Of The Last Gentlemen Only Hashes in The World)

Jack and the Battle of Narvik

When we remembered Jack back in September I did say at the Crit that I would attempt to find out why Jack's regular outburst "It's the biggest fuck-up since Narvik" came into being? Well it took a bit of investigation as it consists of two invasions, one by the  Germans, one by an Allied Expeditionary Force made up of a British, French, Polish and Norwegian Troops , two Naval Battles, a Land Battle, and an Evacuation! And at no point is any part a defeat for the Allies, it's not until you put the whole lot together that you can understand why Jack came to that conclusion.

Operation Weserubung and the Invasion of Norway

On 9th April 1940 launched Operation Weserubung as a preventive manoeuvre against a planned, and openly discussed, Franco-British occupation of Norway. It was a joint invasion of Denmark and Norway, using the navy in five groups or Taskforces to land troops at six main Norwegian ports. This stretched the Kreigsmarine over a large coastal front very exposed to the British Fleet in Scapa Flow and Rosyth should the element of surprise be lost.

The British and their Allies had come up with Plan R4 to try and interrupt the shipment of iron ore from Sweden via Norway to Germany. In this they would take the main ports of Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen. However; on the 7th April Taskforce One under the command of Vice-Admiral Gunther Lutjens set off to take Narvik; this comprised of Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and 10 troop laden destroyers carrying 2000 troops, once the troops had landed the ships were to return to Germany because of the threat from the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy. Bear in mind that the coast of Norway was only 10 hours steaming away from Scapa Flow. Within hours disaster struck, shortly before 0900hrs a British Reconnaissance plane spotted Taskforce One and relayed it's position to the Admiralty, at 1330hrs 12 Bristol Blenheim bombers attacked the convoy causing no damage but ensuring the Germans that the element of surprise was lost; despite this the Admiralty reacted slowly and the report from the bombers was not reived until that evening resulting in the British Home Fleet not departing port until 2015hrs. The Admiralty believed that they were making a break for the Atlantic to go raiding and harass the Merchant Fleet so set off Northeast rather than in a southerly direction to intercept them! Plan R4 was then abandoned exactly when it was the response that was needed with all the troops disembarked so that the ships could join in the hunt for the supposed raiders. Bad weather then scattered both fleets making the task of locating even more difficult. Taskforce Two took Trondheim without a shot being fired.

Narvik at this point was left undefended by the royal Navy as the set off westwards to intercept the supposed raiders the Admiralty still thinking this was a breakout into the Atlantic. By the time they realised their mistake it was already too late, Taskforce One had already begun their approach to Narvik. As the invasion fleet approached Narvik it was defended by two aging hopelessly outgunned Norwegian Patrol boats; when the Norwegian ships refused to surrender the Germans launched torpedoes, both ships were sunk with the loss of nearly all hands. By the 9th April Narvik was in German hands and the Invasion of Norway well and truly underway.

Three Battalions of Elite Alpine Troops from the  Gebirgsjager Division were landed despite being low on supplies and surrounded by miles of hostile terrain, their commander General Dietl wasted no time in going on the offensive; one Battalion at Narvik, two Battalions were landed at Bjerkvik and went on to take a major Norwegian Stores Depot close by at Elvergardsmoen (and when I say close by, (you can walk from Elvergardsmoen to the Bjerkvik Hotel quite easily; Boot-necks and Sapper Surveyors know only too well!). Now remember these troops were low on supplies; two days later they captured the vital railhead of the border town of Bjornfell and I'm not saying that the Swedes were any way colluding with the Germans but within 48 hours of capture 350 Tons of provisions rolled across the border from Sweden? Enough to sustain 4000 troops for three months! With his supplies now secured, General Dietl ordered his troops to now go on the defensive; setting the stage for the Land Battle that was to come.

The First Naval Battle of Narvik

On 10th April the day after the German invasion, the Royal Navy took an opportunity to defeat the Kriegsmarine. The 2nd Destroyer Flotilla—under Commodore Bernard Warburton-Lee and comprising five H-class destroyers (HMS Hardy (flagship), Hotspur, Havock, Hunter and Hostile—moved up the fjord in the early morning. The German destroyers Hermann Künne and Hans Lüdemann were anchored alongside the tanker Jan Wellem and refuelling when the British destroyer attack began at 04:30. The German picket ship (Diether von Roeder) had left its post to refuel, and as the British flotilla approached Narvik, they surprised and engaged a German force at the entrance to the harbour and sank the two destroyers Wilhelm Heidkamp and Anton Schmitt, heavily damaged Diether von Roeder and inflicted lesser damage on two others. They also exchanged fire with German invasion troops ashore but did not have a landing force aboard and therefore turned to leave. Before the destroyers left the scene, Hostile fired her torpedoes at the merchant ships in the harbour. In total, eleven merchant ships (six German, one British, two Swedish and two Norwegian) were sunk during the British sortie into the harbour.

The British flotilla was then engaged by three more German destroyers (Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Erich Giese) emerging from the Herjangsfjord, and then two more ships (Georg Thiele and Bernd von Arnim) coming from Ballangen Bay. In the ensuing battle, two British destroyers were lost: the flotilla leader HMS Hardy, which was beached in flames and HMS Hunter, which was torpedoed and sunk. A third—HMS Hotspur—was also damaged badly by a torpedo. Hotspur and the remaining British destroyers left the battlefield, damaging Georg Thiele as they did so. The German destroyers—now short of fuel and ammunition—did not pursue and the British ships were able to sink the ammunition supply ship Rauenfels which they encountered on their way out of the fjord. Soon, the German naval forces were blocked in by British reinforcements, including the cruiser HMS Penelope. During the night of 11–12 April, while manoeuvring in Narvik harbour, Erich Koellner and Wolfgang Zenker ran aground. Wolfgang Zenker damaged her propellers and was restricted to a speed of 20 knots. Erich Koellner was much more badly damaged, so the Germans planned—when she was repaired enough to move—to moor her at Tårstad in the same capacity as Diether von Roeder, as an immobile defence battery.

As the British destroyers left the Vestfjorden outside Narvik, two German submarines—U-25 and U-51—fired torpedoes at them but German torpedoes at the time had severe problems with their magnetic detonator systems—possibly due to the high northern latitude: all of them failed and either did not detonate at all or detonated well before their targets. Both the German naval commander—Kommodore Friedrich Bonte (on Wilhelm Heidkamp)—and the British commander—Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee (on Hardy)—were killed in the battle. Warburton-Lee was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Bonte the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

Second Naval Battle of Narvik

The Royal Navy considered it imperative, for morale and strategic purposes, to defeat the Germans in Narvik, so Vice Admiral William Whitworth was sent with the battleship HMS Warspite and nine destroyers; four Tribal-class (HMS Bedouin, Cossack, Punjabi, and Eskimo) and five others (HMS Kimberley, Hero, Icarus, Forester and Foxhound), accompanied by aircraft from the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. These forces arrived in the Ofotfjord on 13 April to find that the eight remaining German destroyers—now under the command of Fregattenkapitän Erich Bey—were virtually stranded due to lack of fuel and were short of ammunition.

Before the battle, Warspite launched its catapult plane (a float-equipped Fairey Swordfish, L 9767), which bombed and sank U-64, anchored in the Herjangsfjord near Bjerkvik. Most of the crew survived and were rescued by German mountain troops. This was the first U-boat to be sunk by an aircraft during the Second World War and the only instance where an aircraft launched from a battleship sank a U-boat.[37]

In the ensuing battle, three of the German destroyers were sunk by Warspite and her escorts and the other five were scuttled by their crews when they ran out of fuel and ammunition. First to go was Erich Koellner which tried to ambush the Allied forces but was spotted by Warspite's Swordfish and subsequently torpedoed and shelled by the destroyers and battleship. The destroyer's commander, Alfred Schulze-Hinrichs, and the surviving members of his crew, were captured by Norwegian forces. Then Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim, Hans Ludemann and Hermann Künne engaged the British forces but only managed to lightly damage HMS Bedouin. British aircraft from Furious tried to engage the German destroyers but were unsuccessful; two were lost. Wolfgang Zenker tried to torpedo Warspite.

Finally, when the German destroyers were low on ammunition, they retreated, except for Hermann Künne, which had not received the order. Hermann Künne was fired upon by the pursuing HMS Eskimo, but she took no hits. Out of ammunition but undamaged, Hermann Künne was scuttled by her crew in Trollvika in the Herjangsfjord. After scuttling the ship, the crew placed demolition depth charges on the ship, attempting to sink her in Trollvika's shallow waters. Eskimo, still in hot pursuit, launched a torpedo which hit Hermann Künne, setting her on fire. Whether the German ship's own depth charges or the torpedo from Eskimo was the source of the explosion is unclear. Eskimo was in turn ambushed by Georg Thiele and Hans Ludemann, losing her bow but surviving. Diether von Roeder and Erich Giese, both suffering engine problems, fired upon the British forces while still docked, damaging Punjabi and Cossack but they were both sunk before they could cause further damage. That was the last German counter-attack.

Shore batteries and installations were also very badly damaged by Warspite's guns. On the Allied side, the damage to HMS Eskimo kept her in Norway until 31 May 1940. German submarines again suffered torpedo failures, when U-46 and U-48 fired at the departing Warspite on 14 April. The remaining German destroyers (Wolfgang Zenker, Georg Thiele, Bernd von Arnim and Hans Lüdemann) retreated into Rombaksfjord and were scuttled soon after. The only German ship which survived within the port area was the submarine U-51. The Germans lost over 1,000 men, a U-boat, and eight destroyers. With the losses from the previous battle this constituted 50% of the Kriegsmarine's destroyer strength.

About 2,600 survivors were organised into an improvised marine infantry unit, the Gebirgsmarine and fought with the 139. Gebirgsjägerregiment in the subsequent land battle. Although unsuited for combat in the mountainous terrain around Narvik, the shipwrecked sailors manned the two 10.5 cm (4.1 in) Flak guns and the 11 light anti-aircraft guns salvaged from the ships sunk during the naval battles and conducted defensive operations. The sailors were armed from the stocks captured at the Norwegian army base Elvegårdsmoen, more than 8,000 Krag-Jørgensen rifles and 315 machine guns intended for the mobilisation of Norwegian army units in the Narvik area.

The Land Battle for Narvik

At the outset, the position of the German commander—General Dietl—was not good: his 2,000 troops were outnumbered. After the German destroyers had been sunk, however, about 2,600 German sailors joined in the land battle. Another 290 German specialists travelled via Sweden posing as health care workers. During the last three to four weeks, the Germans were also reinforced by about 1,000 men air dropped over Bjørnfjell, thus bringing the total number of Germans to around 5,600. Their position and outlook changed from good to dire several times. On occasions, the entire operation was controlled directly from the German High Command in Berlin; Hitler's mood was reportedly swinging heavily and he repeatedly contemplated withdrawal. Intelligence agents captured later in the war also stated that Dietl himself had been considering crossing the Swedish frontier with his troops to be interned. The Norwegian force eventually reached 8,000–10,000 men after a few weeks. The total number of Allied troops in the campaign—in and around Narvik—reached 24,500 men.


The initial British detachment was reinforced on 28 April by a French expeditionary force. Three battalions of Alpine troops and two battalions of 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion were deployed both north and south of the Ofotfjord, but later, the north would be the main French area of operation. Four Polish battalions arrived on 9 May. They were first deployed north of the Ofotfjord, but later redeployed to the area south of the fjord. In early June they were formed into the Polish Independent Highland Brigade.


In addition, the Allies had difficulty in deciding how best to retake Narvik and the iron ore railway. There was no unified command for the troops facing the Germans at Narvik: the Norwegians and the Allies retained separate commanders and cooperation between them was not always smooth. Even within the British forces, the Army and Navy commanders—Major-General Mackesy and Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork—had difficulty cooperating: Cork advocated a swift and direct attack from the sea while Mackesy advocated a cautious approach from both sides of the Ofotfjord. Consequent to this, on 21 April, Lord Cork was given supreme command of all Allied forces.


In the second week of May, the Norwegian advances against the Germans east of Gratangseidet were the most significant movements on the Narvik front. In addition, on the Norwegians' right flank French alpine troops advanced up the Laberg valley, supported by a company of Norwegian ski troops. In the south, the Allies did not have much success, and in the north of the Ofotfjord, they were not making any progress. The Norwegians continued their successful mountain campaign, and in mid-May the Allies took the initiative and achieved significant victories. Both Paris and London had been growing impatient with the slow progress in Narvik, and the French commander—Béthouart—had pressed for more action.


The cautious approach on land was abandoned and an amphibious attack was launched at around midnight on 12 May. This was directed at Bjerkvik and was preceded by a naval bombardment from British warships in Herjangsfjord. Then landing craft put ashore French Foreign Legionnaires, supported by five French Hotchkiss H35 light tanks. The French took Bjerkvik, the Elvegårdsmoen army camp and advanced northeast to where the Germans were withdrawing and south along the east side of Herjangsfjord. The plan also required Polish troops to advance toward Bjerkvik from land on the west side of the fjord, but heavy terrain delayed them and they did not arrive before Bjerkvik was taken. It had also been part of the plan for French and Norwegian troops to advance from the north in order to box the Germans in, but cooperation problems between the Norwegian and French commanders left a gap through which the Germans escaped. Despite this, the Allies had a clear path north of Narvik and planned to attack over Rombaksfjord.


It had been anticipated in London that as the buildup of troops in Narvik slowly continued, a corps headquarters would be needed to exercise effective control. On 11 May, Lieutenant-General Claude Auchinleck arrived in Narvik, and on 13 May assumed leadership of the Allied land and air forces (under Lord Cork's overall command), which at this time was designated the North-Western Expeditionary Force. It was clear to the Allies that once Narvik was captured, its long-term retention would depend on permanently holding the town of Bodø to the south in Nordland which was on the route of the German advance from Trondheim. Consequently, Auchinleck redeployed all British troops to concentrate on this southern enterprise, and appointed French Brigadier-general Béthouart—an expert in both mountain and winter warfare—to command the French and Polish troops, which would be responsible for operations in the Narvik area in conjunction with Norwegian forces.


Again, the attack was stalled while the Allies waited for air support to be fully established from Bardufoss. At 23:40 on 28 May, a naval bombardment commenced from the north. Two French and one Norwegian battalion would be transported across the Rombaksfjord and advance on Narvik from the north. In the south, the Polish battalions would advance toward Ankenes and inner Beisfjord. The maximum capacity of the landing barges was 290 men, and these troops could not be reinforced for 45 minutes. These first troops were able to get a foothold on Ornes by the time the rest of the French and the Norwegians were landed. The French moved west toward the city and east along the railway. The Norwegians moved toward Taraldsvik mountain, circled around and moved down toward the city. The German commander decided to evacuate before 07:00 and retired along Beisfjord. This was the first major Allied victory on land.


It seemed now that it was only a matter of time before the Germans would have to surrender. They were pushed from the north by the Norwegians, from the west by the French and from the southwest by the Poles. It appeared that Bjørnfjell would be the Germans' last stand, but events elsewhere in Europe came to their rescue. London had already secretly decided to evacuate on 24 May and that became apparent in the following days. On the night of 24/25 May, Lord Cork received orders to retreat, but under cover so the Germans would be prevented from interfering. The Allied commanders agreed that an attack on Narvik would disguise the retreat and allow the destruction of the iron ore harbour. The Norwegian government and commanders were first told in early June and the news was met with disbelief and bitterness. The Norwegians still hoped to defeat the Germans alone and, as late as 5 June, one of the two Norwegian brigades was ordered to attack. The Norwegian government also explored the possibility of creating a neutral, but free Northern Norway. This plan proved futile, and on 7 June the King and government were evacuated to Britain. All Allied troops were evacuated from Narvik between 4 and 8 June. On 8 June, General Dietl retook Narvik, and on 10 June the last Norwegian forces in Norway surrendered.


So to summarise;

Two Naval Battles both resulting in Victory for the Allies, wiping out half of Germany's Destroyer Force!

One Land Battle resulting in Victory for the Allies.

One Sneaky Evacuation when the Germans were on the point of Surrender!

Snatching defeat from the jaws of what would clearly have been a very early victory for the Allies!

It truly was "The biggest Fuck-Up since Narvik!"


On, On, Jack!