170: Narvik


While the German invasion was occurring in central and southern Norway, the northernmost German forces were going ashore at Narvik.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 170 - The Invasion of Norway Part 8 - Narvik. This week a big thank you goes out to Nicholas, Matthew, and Jordan for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Over the last several episodes the podcast has looked at the various areas of Norway that the Germans would target during the opening hours of their invasion. This episode will continue that process with a look at the German efforts to land an amphibious force at Narvik in northern Norway. Narvik is an interesting area to discuss for many reasons, but one of them was simply that it was also the area that the British and French were most concerned with taking control of during their discussions in the months before the German invasions. It was an important port because it was on the route that Swedish iron ore took on its way to Germany during the winter months when the ports in the Baltic were frozen in. While the Norwegians would not know how close those British and French plans came to being put into action, they were still concerned that something might be done. And so those concerns, when coupled with concerns about possible Soviet action would cause the 6th Norwegian Division in northern Norway to be partially mobilized in January 1940. These actions were not targeted at any individual threat but just the general threat posed by all of Norway’s possible enemies, in the belief that Narvik would be a target for any nation that was looking to attack Norway. The partial mobilization would put the Norwegian troops in northern Norway in a much better place to meet the German aggression in early April. The most important way in which this was felt was on a supply and support perspective, allowing the Norwegian troops to be prepared not just to mount a resistance, but a more prolonged defense of northern Norway.

While the Norwegian troops in Northern Norway were more prepared, in Narvik itself they were also able to take advantage of some defenses that had been built before the war. Over the previous 50 years there had been various coastal artillery batteries put in place on the approaches to Narvik, unfortunately for the troops in 1940 many of these were no longer active at the time of the German invasion. In other cases the guns had been sent to other areas of Norway where it was felt they were more needed. The man in charge of the defense of northern Norway, Major General Fleischer, would tour the defenses of Narvik on March 7th and he was of two minds about those defenses. On one had over the previous 2 months the troops available had been working on hard to improve the defensive positions around Narvik and on the approaches into the city. There was still alot more work today and right up to the German invasion there was work being done, with some defenses not even getting started until late March 1940, when there were orders put out for bunkers and artillery positions to be added on the path into Narvik. While this short term work was making an improvement, it could not undo the decades of neglect to the defenses around Narvik, neglect that Fleischer had been trying to undo over the previous months. During that time he had asked multiple times for more resources to complete some of the planned fortifications, particularly some planned defenses at the entrance at Ofotfjord. However, these requests were turned down due to a lack of resources, men, and money. Due to these defenses not being completed, the general plan for the defense of Narvik was not focused on stopping an invader on the beaches. Any troops in or near the city would likely be completely vulnerable to naval fire from the fjord, and so the greatest emphasis was placed on creating prepared positions to fall back on to the east of the city along the railway to Sweden. One of these would be near Sildvik 20 kilometers to the east, with positions created back during the First World War in this position, with artillery and machine gun positions along with an armored train with a 75mm artillery gun. Because the plan was to mount the main land defense to the east of Narvik in the days before the German invasion there were not many infantry units in Narvik and most of the soldiers in the area were either their as construction engineers or manned the anti-aircraft batteries that had been installed to ward off any air attacks. The commander in Narvik itself was Colonel Sundlo, but he had fully committed to the plan of evacuating the city as soon as an enemy began serious landing operations.

Just like other military leaders all over Norway, Fleischer began to get information about possible German action on April 8th. Throughout the day reports began to arrive from both the British and then from other sources that German troops had been spotted and were possibly on their way to Norwegian targets including Narvik. But these reports were also mixed in with reports that the British had mined the waters near Vestfjord which made the entire situation even more confusing. This advanced warning did provide some additional time for the Norwegian forces to prepare, and additional reinforcements were moved into Narvik. However, and what would turn out to be critically, the reinforcements that arrived at 9PM on April 8th, which was just hours before the German invasion began, were not moved into defenses immediately. Instead Sundlo would play the long game with these troops and instead have them move into quarters for the night under the theory that they were wet and cold after traveling and they would be better served by being given a few hours to rest and dry out. The troops were kept at high readiness though, with their uniforms and equipment on, and with their officers with them to allow for them to move out of quarters as quickly as possible. One of the reasons for this more cautious decision was that the Norwegian military leaders did not expect that the Germans would launch an attack on Narvik was part of an operation against southern Norway. Instead, when the information was passed to Fleischer that the British were reporting German ship movements, that information came along with the comment that it did not seem likely that Narvik would be a target.

We of course know that the Germans were absolutely on their way directly to Narvik, with the naval troops under Task Force 1 consisting of 10 destroyers on their way. Each of the destroyers would carry around 200 troops, making for a total of 2,000 men of the 139th Mountain Regiment of the 3rd Mountain Division. These troops would be under the command of Major General Dietl when they landed, and his orders were somewhat different than what had been given to another units around Norway. The orders provided by Falkenhorst to Dietl included firm statements that the general economy and infrastructure around Narvik should be disrupted as little as possible during the invasion, and in fact it was stressed that all objectives should be achieved with the minimal required amount of violence and destruction. This included that any captured Norwegian troops should simply be disarmed and sent home, instead of detained. Similar orders were also given to the naval commanders, with statements that objectives should be accomplished peacefully if at all possible, and that German ships should only return direct fire, warning shots were not considered justification for engagement. It was always very unlikely that the objectives of the invasion could be met without any destruction and violence, but the goal was to minimize the impact and disruption caused to the iron ore trade. Speaking of the objectives of the attack on Narvik, there were three key areas of focus for the German troops. The first was the destruction or disablement of the fortifications that the Germans believed existed on the approaches to Narvik, these were the defenses that the Norwegians were planning to build, but which were not yet completed when the Germans arrived. The next objective was of course the capture of Narvik itself, and then the final objective was the capture of the important Norwegian army depot at Elvegårdsmoen. The German plan was to attack these three objectives as close to simultaneously as possible with three different sets of troops. Group West would focus on the Norwegian defenses, Group Narvik on Narvik, and Group Elvegårdsmoen on, you guessed it Elvegårdsmoen. The German ships on the way to these destinations would enter Ofotfjord a little after 3AM in the morning, and as soon as they made this move they would be spotted by two Norwegian ships, and this information would be communicated via radio to the troops ashore. However, at this time Sundlo would not learn of these reports due to problems with a telephone line, and so instead of having an hours warning of the impending German invasion, Sundlo and the Norwegian defenders would only get a few minutes. The German group that would experience the least resistance would be Group West, who would be put ashore and launch an attack on Norwegian defenses that did not exist. For several hours these troops would then continue to search for the Norwegian defenses, believing that perhaps they were in the wrong place or that they were concealed, but of course it is really hard to find things that do not exist, so at around 7AM these troops would get back aboard their transports which would take them to Narvik. The next German assault would be at Elvegårdsmoen by the cleverly named Group Elvegårdsmoen. Elvegårdsmoen was important as the major mobilization center in the region, with weapons, ammunition, and supplies that were required by the Norwegian military if it wanted to move from a partial mobilization to a full mobilization. This also made it an important target for the Germans not just to prevent the supplies from being used by the enemy, but also so that they could themselves use those supplies. One of the facts of the actions at Narvik was that there was always a risk that a German resupply effort would be delayed due to the British action. This made it important for Norwegian defense to be squashed early, but also made any captured weapons or supplies possibly very important. The German troops would successfully land and the defending troops would have just 15 minutes warning before they arrived. There were two major problems, the first was that the concern about a surprise invasion was so low that the troops did not even have live ammunition, so that would have to be distributed. The much larger problem is that to meet the German attack of there were precisely 17 Norwegians in the depot. Obviously those 17 men could not do much about the German attack, and Elvegårdsmoen would very quickly be in German hands. The interesting part of this attack was that it was at Elvegårdsmoen that the Germans were expecting the most resistance, to the point where of the roughly 2000 men that were to be put ashore, almost 2/3 of them, over 1200 were dedicated to the attack on Elvegårdsmoen. This was a complete miscalculation of the importance that the Norwegians placed on the depot.

While the first two German attacks were going very well, and would experience almost no resistance, back on the water the German destroyers were still on their way to Narvik. They would be able to use periodic snow squalls to help hide their movements, making it more difficult for them to be consistently spotted by the Norwegians. At around 4:15AM the lead German destroyers would be challenged by the Norwegian coastal defense ship the Eidsvold. A signal light was used to present a challenge to the German ship, and then the signal flags were raised that were internationally recognized as the signal to stop. A warning shot was also fired, which was a bit concerning for the German destroyers because while the Eidsvold was old, it still had 2 21cm guns and 6 15cm guns, and then several smaller guns. At the short range that the engagement would occur in the fjord these guns might be very dangerous. This put the captain of the German destroyers, Captain Bonte, in a tight spot. If he followed the part of the orders that he had been given that had demanded that the Norwegians fire the first shot, he risked major damage to his ship, one of those 21cm shells could devastate a German destroyers. But that part of the order was balanced against the order to accomplish his mission was to put troops ashore at Narvik. He made his decision quickly to prioritize the mission, and four torpedoes were ordered to be fired at the Norwegian ship. These torpedoes would hit at exactly the moment that the Norwegians were preparing to fire on the German ship, with the order to fire having been given just as three of the German torpedoes exploded. Three torpedoes against a old, small coastal defense ship was devastating and the ship would sink in just 15 seconds, and only 6 men of the 181 man crew would survive the night. The Eidsvold would just be the first Norwegian ship that the destroyers would encounter, the next would be in the harbor at Narvik where another coastal defense ship, the Norge would take up position near the Iron Ore pier where it could be ready to fire on any German ships that entered into the port. It did not take long for two German destroyers to be spotted and as the Germans moved in closer the Norge would open fire, shots that would be fired just as the German troops were pulling up to a pier to try and get the infantry troops off of the ships. This meant that the destroyers were stationary, and at their most vulnerable, but they also began to return fire, although just like the fire of the Norge the German shells were inaccurate and would not cause any damage. But, the German destroyers had weapons even more deadly than their guns, torpedoes, five of which would be fired at the Norge. Three of the torpedoes would miss, but then two of them would hit and just like the Eidsvold the Norge would very quickly sink, only about a minute after the torpedoes exploded. Only 90 of the 191 men aboard would survive.


While news of the German actions did not reach Colonel Sundlo and the Norwegian defense troops as early as they could have, they would still have time to prepare a response before the infantry landed at Narvik. The exact strength and intentions of the Germans was unknown, but there was a clear understanding of the troops available for the defense. If Sundlo wanted to try and hold the city, and remember that was never the long term goal of the Norwegian forces, but just a delaying action as the real defensive lines were readied further inland, he would have at his disposal around 775 men. The problem was that about 250 of those were not trained infantry troops, but were support and service troops, with little combat training. So the real number was around 530. The problem was that around half of that number were the late arriving reinforcements that Sundlo did not consider to be a real option for deployment as they had spent most of the previous evening traveling through the previous day’s snowstorm on their way to Narvik. Another major problem that Sundlo faced at this time, and that he would discuss at length with his officers, was that the forces under his command were heavily dispersed. Due to the weather the troops had been spread around the town in small groups to allow them to be housed easily, and so it would be challenging to bring them all together so that they could fight as a unit. It was even possible that because of the lack of notice of the German actions there was simply no longer time to actually bring the troops together before they would have to be put into action. This fear very quickly became a reality as the Germans quickly began advancing into Narvik which cut off many of the dispersed Norwegian groups, changing the efforts to concentrate them for a counterattack from difficult to impossible. What would follow was a long list of stories of small units of Norwegian soldiers hearing gunfire, trying to get organized, and then being captured by the Germans before they could really go into action. This is what would happen to the antiaircraft battery, which would be one of the many units that would be alerted to action by the naval gunfire from the harbor. The officer in charge would order his men to their gun positions and they would move to cars that had been parked for that very purpose, only to be captured by a unit of German infantry who were moving through Narvik. A similar story would happen to the crew of one of the 75mm artillery pieces that was positioned to defend the harbor. The problem for the crew of the gun was that it was only positioned to fire into the fjord, but since the German troops had already landed it would have been more useful if it could fire at shore based targets. But this fire was impossible due to the positioning of some rocks that blocked the gun from being able to fire into the city. Even in areas where there were weapons that might have been useful, for example a platoon of mortars that were positioned to fire into the harbor and could have engaged the German ships, orders were confused and it would delay their impact. In the case of the mortar platoon they were ordered to go to their mortars, but then when they arrived they were ordered back to battalion headquarters to participate in a counterattack. The end result of all of these moves, and the continued discussion among the Sundlo and his officers was that there was no real action by the Norwegian defenders. In the case of the defense of Narvik a lack of action was the worst possible action that could be taken, because it gave the German forces more time to get organized, to consolidate their positions, and to move units around the city isolating and neutralizing a growing number of Norwegian troops. While discussions continued a German officer would arrive at Sundlo’s headquarters and deliver a request from the German officer in command of the troops that were ashore for the commander of the Norwegian troops to meet with him. Sundlo decided to meet with the Germans himself, bringing with him one of his subordinates a Major. The Major would later report that at least initially Sundlo handled the conversation with confidence bordering on over confidence, with the Major’s account saying “The German officer stated, as soon as we met him: ‘We will not fire if you don’t fire.’ Colonel Sundlo answered immediately: ‘On the contrary, we will fire. If you don’t withdraw immediately, we will open fire.’” But this very bellicose response was tempered as the conversation continued and eventually the agreement that was made would be for a 30 minute ceasefire while Sundlo contacted his superiors to discuss the situation. The German officer would agree to this, first because of his orders to accomplish his goals with the minimum amount of bloodshed, but also because it was massively to the German advantage. As would be clear time and time again, during an amphibious landing, every minute that the invaders have before they meet major resistance is massively beneficial. More men come ashore, more material comes ashore, more positions are organized, more territory is taken. The only thing that would happen in a 30 minute ceasefire is that the Germans would be even more prepared to either attack or to resist any Norwegian counter attacks. During this time the Germans would move on a few important pieces of terrain and then were also able to place machine guns to cover many obvious avenues of possible attack.

With the ceasefire agreed to Sundlo returned to his headquarters and called his commanders back at the Norwegian Defense District headquarters, with the call being placed at around 6AM. The discussion would revolve around whether or not a defense of the city should be mounted, with Sundlo’s concern being that if there was fighting in Narvik it was very likely that the only outcome would be that there would be heavy civilian casualties. There were also the known problems of Norwegian units being cut off, while others had become hopelessly intermingled with German units, and with civilians who were out and about curious to see what was going on. This made many of the units that Sundlo did still have contact with combat ineffective. While Sundlo was very concerned, the initial call to headquarters was indecisive, with Sundlo believing that the city was probably already lost. The request was made to the German commander for the ceasefire to be extended, but now General Dietl changed tactics. He felt that the first ceasefire had given his troops plenty of time to defend himself, and the Norwegian’s seemed very hesitant. These two facts caused Dietl to escalate instead of de-escalate, to force a decision on Sundlo. This forced Sundlo to make a decision basically immediately, and he the decision he would make would be simply communicated with the phrase “I surrender the city”, with the surrender being completed at 6:15AM. Sundlo was escorted back to his headquarters in the minutes that followed, so that he could inform his headquarters that he had surrendered to the Germans, with the message being delivered to General Fleischer at 6:20AM.

While Sundlo had decided to surrender the city, not all of the Norwegian officers under his command agreed with that decision, and Fleischer would be able to order some of them to try to break out of the city. The senior most officer to be given this order was Major Omdal, and Fleischer informed him that he should get as many troops together as possible and try to bring them out of Narvik along the railway to add to its defense. The result of this order would be that around 180 Norwegian troops being brought together, primarily pieces of the 1st and 3rd Infantry companies and a machine gun platoon. They were quickly assembled with their weapons and ammunition and limited other supplies, and they would begin marching out of the city. As they approached a German unit that was blocking their path the German challenge was met with a response from one of the Norwegian officers of “We are marching, good morning.” the key though was that this response was given in German. The German response confused the German troops enough that they did not react as the Norwegians began marching past their positions. These Norwegians would then occupy some positions near Djupvik to act as a blocking force if the Germans tried to move out along the railway, although they would later move further east to the Nordal Bridge simply because it would be easier to defend. With the retreat of the group of Norwegian troops the attack on Narvik was over only hours after it really began.The Germans had sunk two of Norway’s most heavily armed warships, captured the supplies at Elvegårdsmoen, forced around 600 total Norwegian troops to surrender, and were in complete possession of Narvik.