The battle for Narvik


16 December 2022
German infantry attacking through a burning Norwegian village in April, 1940 German infantry attacking through a burning Norwegian village in April, 1940
Gerald Prenderghast describes how, despite a series of defeats, the Wehrmacht eventually pushed the Allies out of Norway.

Although the most significant land campaigns of 1940 were fought in the Ardennes and on the beaches of northern France, Allied commanders were also concerned with the Scandanavian countries, because Swedish iron ore in particular, was a vital resource for both sides. Transport of this ore from Sweden was problematic, especially for Germany, and consequently the Norwegian port of Narvik, with its ice-free harbour on the north Atlantic coast and good rail connections to the important Swedish mining town of Kiruna, had become the major departure point for that country's iron ore since the start of the war. Its position on the Ofotfjord also rendered it strategically important, the British having considered the town as a possible landing site for their forces moving into Finland to oppose the Russians during the Winter War. More significantly, occupation of the town would also enable the Allies to gain better control of not just Sweden's iron ore, but also the Baltic and North Sea trade routes, which were important for the movement of war materials from German and Soviet harbours.

Map of northern Norway and Sweden, showing the relative positions of Narvik and the ore town of Kiruna So the occupation of Norway, and Narvik in particular, was finally seen as a vital necessity by both sides and on 1 March 1940, Hitler ordered five naval groups to occupy six of the country’s main ports of Narvik, Oslo, Kristiansand, Egersund, Bergen and Trondheim in what was the start of his Norwegian campaign. Gruppe 1, which was responsible for the attack on Narvik, left Bremerhaven on 6 April, escorted part of the way by the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. It was composed of 10 modern destroyers, each carrying approximately 200 troops of the 139 Mountain regiment, all trained specialists in Arctic and mountain warfare with an experienced mountain fighter, Generaloberst Eduard Dietl, in command.

The German warships arrived off Narvik on 9 April in fog and heavy snow, which enabled them to capture the three Norwegian patrol boats in the fjord without difficulty and also land a detachment of troops to occupy the Norwegian army’s supply base at Elvegårdsmoen. Narvik’s main naval defensive force was two old coastal defence ships, HNoMS Eidsvold and Norge, both built around the turn of the century but sufficiently well equipped to have a good chance in a fight with the lightly armoured German destroyers, if deftly handled. The German naval commander, Commodore Friedrich Bonte, had been ordered to occupy Narvik peacefully, but the Norwegians elected to fight and the old ships were quickly out-manuevered and torpedoed by Bonte’s modern destroyer force, sinking with the loss of most of their crews. The destruction of these ships effectively ended resistance in the port and the Norwegian garrison was quickly surrounded and disarmed by German landing parties, this initial German success being helped by, the strongly pro-German C-in-C of the Narvik area, Colonel Konrad Sundlo, who immediately withdrew his forces from the region and began surrender negotiations. In the port itself, 25 ore ships were found riding at anchor, a group which included four Norwegian, five British and 11 German vessels.

Soldiers arriving by dinghy in the fjord at Narvik




Left: Soldiers arriving by dinghy in the fjord at Narvik



However, despite their early success, the Germans were not in a particularly good position. With Dietl’s men ashore and establishing defensive positions around Narvik and in the surrounding country, Bonte’s orders were to begin the Gruppe’s return to Germany the same day. Unfortunately, his destroyers needed refuelling and they had only one poorly equipped replenishment ship, a converted ex-whaler called the Jan Willem, in support, the other two vessels also tasked with replenishment having been sunk. Refuelling began but it was a slow process and only three destroyers were completely replenished by 4am on 10 April when the Royal Navy’s Second Destroyer Flotilla, consisting of five H-Class destroyers, steamed into the fjord under cover of a blinding snowstorm and engaged the German ships. They sank two, the Anton Schmitt and the Wilhelm Heidkamp, the loss of this last ship resulting in the death of Commodore Bonte, commander of the German group. Three other German destroyers were damaged, and the British also fired on the German land forces, but without an embarked landing force, they could not take further advantage of the situation, although before leaving the harbour HMS Hostile also torpedoed and sank 11 of the anchored merchant ships.

German troops arrive and capture Narvik for the first time




Left: German troops arrive and capture Narvik for the first time




Still within the confines of Ofotfjord, the British destroyers were then engaged by five of the remaining German destroyers. In the ensuing battle, the flotilla leader, HMS Hardy, was set alight and had to be beached, resulting in the death of the British flotilla commander, Captain Warburton Lee. HMS Hunter was also torpedoed and sunk, although one German destroyer was damaged and a German ammunition ship sunk before the three remaining British destroyers got out of the fjord, despite having torpedoes fired at them by the submarines, U-25 and U-64. With the Germans short of fuel and ammunition, the British blockaded the fjord entrance and on the night of 11-12 April, two of the remaining German destroyers ran aground, one of them being so badly damaged that the Germans were forced to moor her in place as a static defence ship.

The German destroyer Herman kunne on fire on 13 April 1940, after a successful attack by Royal Navy destroyers




Left: The German destroyer Herman kunne on fire on 13 April 1940, after a successful attack by Royal Navy destroyers




The situation could not be left in this temporary stalemate however, and on 13 April the battleship HMS Warspite, nine destroyers and the aircraft carrier HMS Furious sailed into the fjord, where Warspite sank three of the remaining destroyers, leaving the other five to be scuttled by their crews after they ran out of fuel and ammunition. Warspite's Fairey Swordfish also sank the U-64, the first U-boat to be sunk by an aircraft in WWII, the battleship’s guns badly damaging shore installations and the hastily erected German gun batteries. German losses between 9-13 April were: 10 destroyers sunk or scuttled (half the Kreigsmarine's destroyer force), one U-boat sunk and approximately 1,000 men killed or wounded, while the British had six destroyers sunk or damaged and 83 men killed or wounded.

Dietl, the German land commander, immediately organised the 2,600 naval survivors into a marine infantry unit, the Gebirgsmarine, to man the anti-aircraft guns salvaged from the sunken destroyers. With these men, some scanty reinforcements and his own 2,000 mountain specialists, Dietl set about defending an almost hopeless position against odds of about five to one (his force finally numbered around 5,600 men against 24,500 Allied troops). To add to his problems, Hitler was vacillating over how the battle for Norway should be conducted. The Führer was thought to have contemplated withdrawing Dietl’s men on several occasions, although Dietl himself was not sure his position was particularly tenable until he allegedly received information about Auchinleck's plans from Marina Lee, a female spy who claimed to have penetrated the headquarters of the British commander.

Admiral Hipper disembarking German troops at Trondheim




Right: Admiral Hipper disembarking German troops at Trondheim





The German crews had landed from their sunken vessels on 13 April, but hampered by a number of setbacks and missed opportunities, General Carl Fleischer's Norwegians did not begin their southerly advance on Narvik until two weeks later, at the beginning of May. They had previously forced the Germans to retreat from their positions around Gratangsbotn and eventually stabilised their lines around Bjerkvik and Narvik. With the Allied commanders now intent upon delaying the main attack against Narvik until mid-May, the Norwegians were diverted to move against Bjørnfjell. A month earlier, the British had established their HQ in Harstad, near the mouth of the fjord on the island of Hinnøya, and, in preparation for the attack on Narvik, they immediately began moving troops towards Ofotfjord, finally reaching positions on the southern shore of the fjord, at Ballengen and Håkvikat. French reinforcements arrived on 28 April, three battalions of Alpine troops and two battalions of the 13 Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, commanded by General Antoine Béthouart. Deployed initially on both sides of the Ofotfjord, the French were concentrated later on the northern shore, the four Polish battalions which arrived on 9 May initially also moving to the north of Ofotfjord, before being re-deployed to the opposite shore.

Narvik burning after German bombing in June 1940




Left: Narvik burning after German bombing in June 1940




Cooperation between these groups proved difficult, each national unit having retained their individual commanders and as a consequence, the force lacked a coherent strategic plan. The British commanders were especially at odds, Lord Cork, the naval chief advocating an immediate, risky landing in Narvik as early as 14 April to take advantage of the German’s inevitable early disorganisation, while General Pierse Mackesy, commanding British land forces, advised a more cautious approach. This unfortunate situation was partially rectified on 21 April when Cork was appointed Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in Norway, although by that time Dietl’s preparations had made a surprise attack impractical. Despite this rearrangement and some success by the Norwegians and French Alpine troops in the Laberg valley, by the end of the second week in May progress around Ofotfjord had stalled.


German destroyers docked in Narvik, April 1940




Right: German destroyers docked in Narvik, April 1940







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The Allies attack

Bethouart now insisted upon some decisive move and, with backing from both London and Paris, the previous cautious approach was abandoned and an amphibious attack on Bjerkvik launched at midnight on 12 May, preceeded by a naval bombardment from ships in Herjangsfjord. The French legionaries, with their Hotchkisss H35 tanks in support, reached the vicinity of Bjerkvik without mishap following the bombardment and, after exiting their landing craft, occupied Bjerkvik and the nearby Elvegårdsmoen army supply depot. After securing their positions, the legionaires advanced south along the east side of

Herjangsfjord and also followed up the retreating German forces who were moving north east. Elsewhere, the attack was less well co-ordinated. Polish forces advancing from the west to reinforce the French arrived too late to participate in the attack on Bjerkvik and French and Norwegian detachments assigned to prevent Dietl's men from escaping to Narvik also moved too slowly to keep them from entering the town. Despite this partial failure, the way still seemed clear to launch what should have been the final assault on the town across the Romsbaksfjord.

Damage sustained by HMS Eskimo during the second battle of Narvik. Despite having her bow blown off, she remained afloat and after temporary repair, returned to England



Left: Damage sustained by HMS Eskimo during the second battle of Narvik. Despite having her bow blown off, she remained afloat and after temporary repair, returned to England






Next day, on 13 May 1940, Lieutenant-General Claude Auchinleck was appointed commander of what had now become the North-Western Expeditionary Force, replacing Mackesy and with responsibility for Allied air and land operations under Lord Cork’s overall command. At this point in the campaign, it was becoming increasingly clear that holding Narvik would be impossible unless the German advance from Trondeheim could be also be blocked, so leaving the capture of Narvik to Béthouart and his Polish and Norwegian allies, Auchinleck took the British south to secure the route from Trondheim at the little town of Bodø.

Béthouart organised his own assault in good time, but was delayed again by a lack of air support from the temporary RAF base at Bardufoss and it was not until 28 May that the naval bombardment began. Covered by the shelling, French and Norwegian troops crossed Rombaksfjord by landing craft and headed for Narvik from the north while Polish troops advanced on foot from the south. The French troops then turned and moved against the city from the west, while the Norwegians circled towards the Taraldviks mountains before moving down towards Narvik from the north, forcing Dietl to order an evacuation early on the morning of 28 May, his men retiring in good order along the shore of Beisfiord.


Members of the French and Norwegian armies equipped for skiing in April 1940




Right: Members of the French and Norwegian armies equipped for skiing in April 1940






Victory into defeat

Although this looked like an Allied success, with a German surrender inevitable, events in and around Dunkirk on 26 May forced a different conclusion to the operation. With victory within the Allies' grasp, Lord Cork received orders on 24 May to evacuate, but in such a way that the Germans would be prevented from interfering, in a plan designated Operation Alphabet. The attack on Narvik was only intended to disguise this withdrawal and facilitate the destruction of the harbour after it had been used for the Allied evacuation, thus disrupting Swedish ore exports to Germany. The Norwegians only heard about this plan in early June and despite many seeing the Allied actions as an unwarranted betrayal, they continued fighting. The situation proved hopeless, however and on 7 June, Norway’s King and his government were evacuated to Britain, leaving the last Allied troops to get out the next day. Dietl reoccupied Narvik on 8 June and two days later, the last Norwegians surrendered.

The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, sunk while returning from Norway in 1940, at anchor and with the hanger door open



Left: The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, sunk while returning from Norway in 1940, at anchor and with the hanger door open




In an unfortunate aftermath to the action at Narvik, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau also intercepted and sank the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her escorting destroyers, HMS Acasta and Ardent on 8 June. Glorious had embarked 18 RAF aircraft from Norwegian land bases and was on her way home but her inexperienced Captain failed to take any precaution against the eventuality of an attack, leaving his high crow's nest unmanned, boilers not at full readiness for maximum speed and no Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the group. Caught unprepared by the two German battleships, all three vessels were sunk in just two hours with the loss of 1,519 men, although not before Acasta had torpedoed the Scharnhorst, disabling her aft turret and causing her to ship 2,500 tons of water, damage which kept her out of action for the rest of the year. One bonus did arise from the loss of Glorious however, the damage to the two German battleships being so extensive that it forced their withdrawal to Trondheim, leaving the seas clear for the Narvik troop convoy to enjoy a trouble-free passage to Britain.


How did it happen?

Delay and time wasted by the Allied commanders was probably the biggest contributor to the relative failure at Narvik. With the French army in retreat and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) intent upon its hurried evacuation at Dunkirk, any earlier success would probably have rendered the occupation a futile exercise anyway, forces which would have been redirected after the fall of France being too numerous and well equipped for the combined Allied strength on the fjord. Withdrawal had become inevitable, and with Germany in possession of the industrial and mineral resources of Belgium, the Netherlands, France and particularly Luxembourg, with its huge steel industry, Swedish iron ore was now relatively unimportant to Hitler. More significantly, with the evacuation from Dunkirk underway and Britain desperate for men, the British commanders needed the troops out of Norway to reinforce their own defences. The Norwegians, not surprisingly, took a different view of the Nazi occupation of their country and with Sweden standing neutral, the Norwegians initially tried to negotiate with Germany, in an attempt to establish a neutral, unoccupied free Northern Norway. When these negotiations failed early in June 1940, the Norwegians sent their Royal family to England and settled down to a war of attrition against the Wehrmacht. 


The centre of Narvik after bombing by the Luftwaffe




Right: The centre of Narvik after bombing by the Luftwaffe










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