The two naval battles in the Ofotfjord on 10 April and 13 April were fought between the British Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine, while the two-month land campaign was fought between Norwegian, French, British, and Polish troops against German and Austrian mountain troops, shipwrecked Kriegsmarine sailors and German Fallschirmjäger from 1st battalion of the 1st Regiment, 7th Flieger Division. Narvik provided an ice-free harbour in the North Atlantic for iron ore transported by the railway from Kiruna in Sweden. Both sides in the war had an interest in securing this iron supply for themselves and denying it to the enemy, setting the stage for one of the first large-scale battles during World War II, since the invasion of Poland.
Prior to the German invasion, British forces had considered Narvik as a possible landing point for an expedition to help Finland in the Winter War or to take control over the Swedish mines. French politicians were also eager to start a second front as far away from France as possible.
On 1 March 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Norway, codenamed Weserübung. This operation would involve most of the German navy (Kriegsmarine). Participating units were divided into six groups, which were to occupy the main Norwegian ports.
Group I departed Bremerhaven on 6 April. It consisted of ten German destroyers of the 1934A and 1936 classes (the Georg Thiele, Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim, Erich Giese, Erich Koellner, Diether von Roeder, Hans Lüdemann, Hermann Künne, Wilhelm Heidkamp (flagship) and Anton Schmitt, commanded by Commodore Friedrich Bonte. Each of the warships carried around 200 soldiers (a total of 1,900 Austrian mountain troopers (Gebirgsjäger) from the 139. Gebirgsjägerregiment commanded by General Eduard Dietl).
On 9 April in the early morning, the destroyers of Group I passed Vestfjord and arrived at Ofotfjord leading to Narvik, in fog and heavy snow. In Ofotfjord they captured three Norwegian patrol boats (Senja, Michael Sars and Kelt). The German ships Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Hermann Kunne landed their soldiers in Herjangsfjord (part of Ofotfjord) in order to capture a supply base in Elvegaardsmoen. Hans Ludemann and Hermann Künne also landed their troops in order to engage the nearby Norwegian forts (which turned out to be non-existent). Diether von Roeder remained in Ofotfjord in order to ensure German control of the sea. Erich Giese was delayed by engine trouble and did not join the main force for some time.
The destroyers, moving closer to Narvik, were spotted by Norwegian vessels, which promptly reported the sighting and alerted the old coastal defence ships HNoMS Eidsvold and HNoMS Norge. Both Norwegian ships prepared for combat: the guns were loaded and life preservers issued to the crew. Around 04:15am, the Germans spotted Eidsvold, and Eidsvold immediately signalled the leading German destroyer with an aldis lamp. When the Germans failed to respond to the signal, a warning shot was fired across their bow while the Eidsvold flew a two flag signal, ordering the destroyer to halt.
The Germans had orders to occupy Norway peacefully if at all possible, so the German flagship Wilhelm Heidkamp stopped and signalled that it would send an officer to negotiate. From a distance of about 200 metres, a small launch ferried Korvettenkapitän (lieutenant commander) Gerlach over to Eidsvold. Gerlach and a signalman were taken to the bridge to speak to Captain Willoch. At the same time, the gun crews of both the 21 cm guns and the 15 cm guns aboard Eidsvold kept the German destroyer in their sights, at point-blank range.
Gerlach tried to convince Willoch that the Germans had arrived as friends and that Willoch should surrender peacefully. Willoch pointed out that he was bound by duty to resist, but asked for a ten-minute break to consider the matter. He used this time to contact his superiors, including the captain of Norge, further inside the fjord, informing them of his intent to engage the German forces. In the meantime, a second German destroyer crossed behind Eidsvold and took up a position 700 metres from the vessel, ready to fire her torpedoes.
Gerlach tried once again to convince Willoch to surrender, but Willoch refused. As Gerlach left Eidsvold, he fired a red flare, indicating that the Norwegians intended to fight. At this point, Captain Willoch shouted: "På plass ved kanonene. Nå skal vi slåss, gutter!" ("Man the guns. We're going to fight, boys!"). Eidsvold turned towards the closest destroyer and accelerated, while the battery commander ordered the port battery (three 15 cm guns) to open fire.
The Germans, afraid that Eidsvold might ram the destroyer, fired two or four torpedoes from Wilhelm Heidkamp at the old ship. Two or three of the torpedoes hit before the port guns could fire, according to Norwegian sources: one under the rear turret, one midship and one in the bow. It is likely that the torpedoes ignited one of the magazines aboard, because Eidsvold was blown in two and sank in seconds around 04:37am, propellers still turning. Only six of the crew were rescued by the Germans, 175 died in the freezing water.
Deeper inside the fjord, the explosions were heard aboard Norge, but nothing could be seen until two German destroyers suddenly appeared out of the darkness and Captain Per Askim of Norge gave orders to open fire at 04:45am. Four rounds were fired from the 21 cm guns (one from the fore gun and three from the aft) as well as seven or eight rounds from the starboard 15 cm guns, against the German destroyer Bernd von Arnim, at a range of about 800 metres. Due to the difficult weather conditions, the guns' optical sights were ineffective: the first salvo fell short of the target and the next ones overshot it.
The German destroyers waited until they were alongside the pier before returning fire. Bernd von Armin opened fire with her 12.7 cm (5 inch) guns as well as with machine guns, but the weather gave the Germans problems as well. The destroyer also fired three salvos of two torpedoes each. The first two salvos missed, but the last struck Norge midships and she sank in less than one minute. 90 of the crew were rescued, but 101 perished in the battle which had lasted less than 20 minutes. The destruction of Norge signaled the end of Norwegian resistance in the port.
The German destroyers were now short of fuel and had only one fuel tanker in support (the 11,776 tonne Jan Wellem); a second tanker, the 6,031 tonne Kattegat had been sunk in the Glomfjord in the evening of 9 April. Kattegat had been stopped by the Norwegian fishery protection ship Nordkapp, the Norwegian ship first trying to take the tanker as a prize, but due to the large German crew could not control it all the way to Bodø, in the end sinking Kattegat by firing four 47 mm rounds into the tanker's water line. Refueling with just one tanker was difficult, only two destroyers could be refuelled simultaneously, taking seven or eight hours.
In the meantime, British forces had tried to engage the German navy, but for the most part, unsuccessfully. On 8 April, the British G class destroyer HMS Glowworm engaged the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and two destroyers, and was lost, ramming and damaging Hipper in the battle. On 9 April, the British battlecruiser HMS Renown exchanged artillery salvos with the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were screening the destroyers, causing light damage to Gneisenau. The destroyers' main mission had been completed, however, as they had succeeded in landing the invasion force.
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 comprising five H class destroyers (HMS Hardy (flagship), Hotspur, Havock, Hunter and Hostile (British H class destroyers were smaller than the German destroyers) moved up the fjord in the early morning. The German picket ship (Diether von Roeder) had left its post due to a misunderstanding and, as the British flotilla approached Narvik, they surprised and engaged a German force at the entrance to the harbour and sank two destroyers Wilhelm Heidkamp (killing Commodore Bonte) and Anton Schmidt, heavily damaged the 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. During the British sortie into the harbour six ore laden cargo ships were also sunk. In total 25 ore ships had been riding at anchor in Narvik at the outset of the fighting, 10 of which were German.
The British flotilla was then engaged by three more German destroyers (Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Erich Giese) emerging from the Herjangsfjord, led by Commander Erich Bey, and then two more (Georg Thiele and Bernd von Arnim) coming from Ballangen Bay, under Commander Fritz Berger. 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 sank. A third, HMS Hotspur, was also damaged badly by a torpedo. Hotspur and the other 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 8,460 tonne ammunition supply ship Rauenfels which they encountered on their way out the fjord. Soon the German naval forces were blocked in by British reinforcements, including the cruiser HMS Penelope. On 11 April, Erich Koellner sustained further damage when it ran onto uncharted rocks.
As the British destroyers left the Vestfjord 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, Commodore Friedrich Bonte (on Wilhelm Heidkamp), and the British commander, Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee (on Hardy), had been killed in the battle. Warburton-Lee was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Bonte the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
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, 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 (Commander) Erich Bey, were virtually stranded due to lack of fuel and were short of ammunition.
During the opening stages of the battle, a Fairey Swordfish launched from Warspite bombed and sank the German submarine U-64, at anchor in a side-fjord 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.
In the ensuing battle, three of the German destroyers were sunk by Warspite and her escorts, and the other five were scuttled by their own crews when they ran out of fuel and ammunition. First to go was Erich Koellner which was trying to ambush the Allied forces, but was spotted by Warspite's Swordfish and subsequently torpedoed and shelled by the destroyers and battleship. 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 unsuccessfully attempted 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, fired a torpedo which hit Hermann Künne, setting her on fire. Whether the German's own depth charges or the torpedo from Eskimo was the source of explosion, nobody knows . 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 and the remaining German destroyers were scuttled soon after. The only German ship which survived within the port area was the submarine U-51.
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 Germans lost over 1,000 men and the destroyers Hermann Künne, Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner, Georg Thiele, Bernd von Arnim, Erich Giese, Hans Lüdemann and Diether von Roeder, in addition to U-64.
Many of the shipwrecked Germans were shot upon by British artillery and machine guns, and about 2,600 survivors were organised into an improvised marine infantry unit, the Gebirgsmarine, and fought alongside 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 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.
At the outset, the position of the German commander, 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 3-4 weeks the Germans were also reinforced by about 1,000 men air dropped over Bjørnefjell, thus bringing the total number of Germans to around 5,000. Their position and outlook changed from good to dire several times. Hitler's mood was reportedly swinging heavily and he repeatedly contemplated withdrawal. On occasions, the entire operation was controlled directly from the German High Command in Berlin.
The Norwegian force under General Fleischer eventually reached 8-10,000 men after a few weeks. The total number of Allied troops in the campaign, in and around Narvik, reached 24,500 men.
The early phase of the invasion was marked by the German advantage of surprise. Norwegian troops in northern Norway had been called out on a three month neutrality watch during the winter of 1939/1940 and so they had trained together. During 9 April - 25, the Norwegian forces suffered three catastrophes. First, the forces protecting Narvik were unable to resist the Germans due to the commanding officer, the later NS Hird commander Colonel Konrad Sundlo, refusing to fight the invaders; second, around 200 soldiers from the Narvik garrison who had escaped capture and was blocking the railway to Sweden was caught by surprise while resting at Bjørnefjell, most of the men being captured; third, the so-called "Trønder battalion" sent to hold Gratangsbotn was attacked by surprise while in camp, suffering casualties that ruined its spirit and effectively knocked it out of the remainder of the campaign.
Due to mounting Norwegian pressure and difficulties with bringing up supplies to the forward lying troops the Germans abandoned Gratangsbotn and withdrew from Lapphaugen and the Gratangsdalen Valley, following the Battle of Gratangen. In the beginning of May, the Norwegians started an advance southwards towards Narvik. Once it became clear that the Allies would mount the main invasion of Narvik itself, in mid May, the Norwegian direction altered towards Bjørnefjell.
The British arrived first and set up headquarters in Harstad on 14 April. In the following days three battalions were deployed mainly at Sjøvegan, Skånland (where a naval base was established) and at Bogen. Later they were deployed south of Ofotfjord, at Ballangen and Håkvik. In May most British troops were withdrawn from the Narvik area and redeployed southwards to Nordland, in order to delay the German advance there.
The initial British detachment was reinforced on 28 April by a French expeditionary force, led by General Antoine Béthouart. Three battalions of Alpine troops and two battalions of 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade 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 under Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko.
In addition, the Allies had difficulties in deciding how best to retake Narvik and the iron ore railway. There was no unified Allied command for the troops 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 Pierse J. Mackesy and Admiral William Boyle) had difficulties cooperating: Boyle advocated a swift and direct attack from the sea while Mackesy advocated a cautious approach from both sides of the Ofotfjord. In the end, the British Naval commander, Boyle, was given command of all Allied troops.
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 Norwegian's 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 movements. The Norwegians continued their successful mountain campaign and in mid May the Allies took the initiative and achieved the 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 attack was directed at Bjerkvik and was preceded by a naval bombardment from British warships in Herjangsfjord. Then the French Foreign Legioneers were put ashore supported by five light French tanks. The French took Bjerkvik, Elvegårdsmoen army camp and advanced north east to where the Germans were withdrawing and south along the east side of Herjangsfjord. The plan also required Polish troops to advance towards 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.
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 towards 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 westwards towards the city and eastwards along the railway. The Norwegians moved towards Taraldsvik mountain, circled around and moved down towards the city. The German commander decided to evacuate already before 07:00am and retired along Beisfjord. This was the first major allied victory on land.
The Norwegian government and commanders were first told in early June and the news were 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 was futile and on 7 June the King and government were evacuated to Britain. All Allied troops were evacuated from Narvik between 4 June and 8 June 1940.
Three Polish passenger ships, MS Sobieski, MS Batory and MS Chrobry, took part in the evacuation operation. Chrobry was sunk on 14/15 May by German bombers. On 8 June, General Dietl retook Narvik and on 10 June the last Norwegian forces in Norway surrendered.
The Scharnhorst was badly damaged by a torpedo from Acasta, and both German vessels took a number of medium shell hits. The damage to the German ships was sufficient to cause the Germans to retire to Trondheim, which allowed the safe passage of the evacuation convoy through the area later that day.
The cold and snow was a common enemy for all troops at Narvik, but most of the Allies were poorly prepared for it. The Norwegians were the only ones fully equipped with skis and able to use them. The British attempted to use skis, but their troops were largely untrained and supply was scarce. German sailors faced the same problems. Even within the German and French mountain specialists, only a few units were equipped with skis.
Most troops were untested in battle. The German mountain specialists had participated in the invasion of Poland and some of the troops that had been air dropped over Bjørnefjell had fought in the Netherlands. Some of the French Foreign Legioneers came directly from fighting in North Africa and some Polish officers had participated in the defence of Poland.
The Allies had sea and air superiority until the very last stage of the operation, but did not take full advantage of that.
The Germans lost the naval battle, but achieved the main goal of their operation - the successful invasion and occupation of Norway.
Around Narvik, German naval losses were high: they lost 10 destroyers (half of their entire destroyer force), one submarine and several support ships. In exchange, they sank two Allied destroyers and damaged several others. The reason for this defeat lay in the German plans which made it impossible for the destroyers to retire quickly, even if they had had adequate supplies. This was compounded by the design of German destroyers: despite their relatively large size and armament they had inadequate fuel and ammunition storage.
On the other hand, British forces, while achieving an indisputable local naval victory, were unprepared to follow it up with any land operation. This allowed the Germans to consolidate their foothold in Norway and made the subsequent Allied counter invasion more difficult.
The Narvik Peace Foundation was established in 1990 with the events of 1940 as a background.