171: The Naval Battles of Narvik


After the German assault on Narvik it was only a matter of time until the Royal Navy responded.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 171 - The Invasion of Norway - The Naval Battles of Narvik. This week a big thank you goes out to SJD and Mary for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members. You can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. At Narvik in Northern Norway the opening hours of the German invasion had went about as well as any German officer could have hoped. The first risk was the Norwegian shore batteries that the Germans believed existed to guard the approaches to Narvik, they did not cause any damage because they did not exist. The second risk was that the Norwegians would mount a strong defense of the depot at Elvegardsmoen, which would prevent the German troops from utilizing the supplies and weapons there for their own purposes. The third risk was that the city of Narvik itself would not be captured in the opening hours of the invasion, preventing the Germans from using the harbor facilities to resupply their troops and defend their gains. None of these risks would result in a problem, as discussed back in Episode 8. The German units were very fortunate that the invasion went very well, but they were not out of danger, and in fact the Germans at Narvik, both on the sea and on land, would be the only units of German troops that were in real danger in the days after April 8th. This episode is about that danger. Over the course of April 10-13 there would be two separate but linked naval engagements would occur in the approaches to Narvik and in the harbor itself. The end result of these battles would be the destruction of the German destroyers.

While the initial invasion of Narvik had went very well, even right from the beginning there were some problems that would lead to disaster for the German destroyers that had been instrumental in the operation. The first problem was around fuel. Due to the range of Narvik from the ports in Germany, the destroyers had arrived in Narvik dangerously short of fuel, which was expected. The plan was for three supply ships to arrive in Narvik before the invasion started, with the three ships loaded down with supplies, including fuel, for the destroyers. This put the destroyers in a very rough spot because on average they needed 600 tons of fuel before they could begin their trip back to Germany. There was one German merchant ship in Narvik, the Jan Wellem, and it did have extra fuel, but it was not exactly what the German destroyers needed. But without other options the fuel began to be moved into the destroyers, although it all had to be mixed with diesel oil before it could be used. The refueling, and instead of leaving Narvik on April 9th, which is what the plan called for, by the end of the day only 3 of the destroyers, out of 8 total, had been refueled. The good news for the German ships is that they were not out of fuel, and they would have more than enough for defensive actions in the waters around Narvik. The second problem that the German plans did not foresee was the situation with the defenses at the entrances to the Ofotfjord. German intelligence believed that there were strong Norwegian shore batteries sited to fire out over the fjord, and there had been a dedicated landing specifically to capture them and to prevent them from firing at German ships. They then also planned to use those guns to defend against the expected attack from the Royal Navy. This was important because the German forces that had been landed in Narvik did not have any real heavy weapons, as they could not be transported aboard destroyers. There was just one problem that the Germans would have to contend with: the Norwegian coastal batteries did not exist, and in fact there were no defenses at the entrances to the Ofotfjord. Instead there were only Norwegian plans to eventually build the positions, which did not exactly help the German forces as they would soon be forced to hold off an attack from the Royal Navy.

That attack would be launched by the 2nd Destroyer flotilla, commanded by Captain Warburton-Lee. The destroyers under Warburton-Lee had established a patrol line across the entrances to Narvik on April 9th, which would have prevented any German ships from leaving, but was too late to prevent them from getting to Narvik in the first place. Beyond just patrolling the entrances the path forward for Warburton-Lee was difficult to determine. What was known was that he had 5 destroyers under his command, but the exact number and size of the German ships that he faced was unknown. He believed that he was outnumbered and that there was a much superior force in Narvik that he would have to contend with, and this fact made him more cautious. But back in London there was slightly less caution being applied to the orders given to Warburton-Lee, with the following message send from the Admiralty at around mid-day on the 9th “Press reports state one German ship has arrived Narvik and landed a small force. Proceed Narvik and sink or capture enemy ship. It is at your discretion to land forces if you think you can recapture Narvik from number of enemy present. Try to get possession of battery if not already in enemy hands.” Just before 6PM Warburton-Lee would send the following signal back to the Admiralty, as a way of both recognizing the desire of those in London to see him attack, while also making it clear that he believed he would be outnumbered “Norwegians report Germans holding Narvik in force, also six destroyers and one U-Boat are there and channel is possibly mined. Intend attacking at dawn high water.” The response from the Admiralty would end with the simple phrase “Attack at dawn: all good luck." Shortly after the British destroyers began their attack up the fjord after midnight there was another message that arrived from the Admiralty: “Norwegian defense ships Eidsvold and Norge may be in German hands. You alone can judge whether in these circumstances attack should be made. We shall support whatever decision you make." This seems to show clear signs of hesitancy from the Admiralty, even after their firm messages for action just 6 hours before. In this case it did not matter because Warburton-Lee had committed to the attack, but the inability of the Admiralty, and other British leaders, to stay the course after a decision had been made would be the one of the major British challenges during the Norwegian campaign. The British had tried to time their movement up the fjord so that they arrived shortly after first light, and they would largely be successful in this. As they arrived at the harbor entrance there was just enough light to see that there were a large number of ships at anchor in Narvik harbor, but it was difficult to determine the position of the German destroyers. The plan of attack was for the British destroyers to enter the harbor one at a time and launch their attacks, and the first ship in was the Hardy, commanded by Warburton-Lee himself. It would find two German destroyers stationary in the harbor, and a set of torpedoes were launched. After firing its torpedoes the Hardy turned and headed back to the entrance. The first torpedo would miss the German destroyers and hit a merchant ship anchored nearby, but the second would hit the Wilhelm Heidkamp. When the torpedo impacted the German destroyer the resulting explosion was a wakeup call to everybody nearby, because the aft magazine of the German destroyer detonated, blowing off a huge chunk of the stern of the ship, killing the entire 82-man crew of the destroyer instantly. The next British ship in was the Hunter, with its commander mostly just throwing all of his torpedo at the large groups of ships in the harbor before beginning to fire with the destroyers guns. One of the torpedoes would hit the German destroyer Anton Schmitt. The Anton Schmitt did not immediately explode or sink like the Wilhelm Heidkamp had, but it would then be hit by another torpedo, this time from the third British destroyers, the Havock. After the second torpedo hit the German destroyer the ship broke into two pieces, with the forward piece rolling over and getting hopelessly entangled with the upper works of the Hermann Künne. After firing a few rounds at the Hermann Künne the Havock also exited the harbor and the five British destroyers began to just circle around the entrance to the harbor. They would continue to fire at the German ships whenever they came around to the entrance, but they had to keep moving due to the number of German torpedoes that had been fired toward the entrance. During this time the remaining German destroyers also began to enter into a gun duel with the British ships. At this point the faulty British intelligence that Warburton-Lee was operating under became a serious problem. The British believed that there were 6 German destroyers at Narvik, and they knew that they had destroyed or incapacitated at least 4 of them with torpedoes and guns. Therefore Warburton-Lee decided now was the time to press home the attack and the British destroyers moved into line ahead formation and moved into the harbor at 20 knots. In the harbor they mostly just circled and fired at anything that looked threatening for several minutes before exiting. Up until this point the British destroyers had very good luck, they had not been serious damaged by German gunfire and they had dodged many torpedoes, they had even had multiple instances of German torpedoes running too deep and passing under their keels. The decision was made to go into the harbor for a third time, again with the intent of ensuring that they had finished off all German opposition. It would be this exact decision that would turn a spotless British victory into a much more costly battle.

All of the British actions after the first trip into the harbor had been dictated by the belief that they had disabled or sunk all but maybe 1 or 2 German destroyers, but that was absolutely not the case, and on their third trip into the harbor they were confronted with their error. There were in fact five German destroyers that were not in the Narvik harbor, with three of them to the northeast and two to the southwest. They would make their presence known as the British destroyers exited the harbor from their third attack, and as the British destroyers moved west the German destroyers were in hot pursuit. The first German destroyers were the three from the northeast, which would enter into a gun duel with the retreating British destroyers. Both sides would be largely ineffective with their gunfire during this phase, partially due the smoke screen put down by the British ships. But then the second group of German destroyers, the two from the southwest in the Georg Thiele and the Bernd von Arnim appeared, coming from the west. Suddenly the British ships found themselves in a equal fight in terms of numbers, but in a much worse position due to the arrangement of the forces. Due to the smokescreen that the British destroyers had been laying down, only the first two ships in the British line, the Hardy and Havock, even knew that the German destroyers had appeared in front of them. It was at roughly this exact moment that British luck, that had served them so well over the previous hours, ran out. Just before 6AM Wraburton-Lee would signal to all of the British destroyers “Keep on engaging the enemy” but time was running out. The Georg Thiele would hit the Hardy with its fourth gun salvo, hitting the bridge and the wheelhouse and then destroying the forward turrets. Everyone on the bridge was either killed or wounded and the ship went out of control, eventually running ashore on a rocky beach near Virek. The gun duel continued, with the British also landing some shots on their German foes, on board the Georg Thiele one of the boilers was knocked out, and another hit required the flooding of the aft magazine to prevent its explosion by fire. The British destroyers were worse off though, with the Hunter and Hotspur being hit several times by German fire, and the Hunter catching fire. The Georg Thiele would move in and pump round after round into the Hunter until eventually it was a flaming wreck that came to a stop. The Hotspur was the next to be hit, with a German shell destroying communications and hydraulics, including to the steering. This resulted in the Hotspur taking a violent and uncontrolled turn right into the Hunter. After this final bit of destruction the Georg Thiele would exit the battle, after being hit at least 7 times, on fire, and with two magazines flooded. The Hostile and Havock were the only two fully functional British destroyers at this point, but the was still able to move west after regaining control of its steering. It was still heavily damaged, but the Havock and Hostile moved in behind the damaged destroyer and were able to escort it out of harms way. The German victory could have been greater, but due to the fuel situation the German destroyers were forced to call off the chase, with a few of the German ships down to their last gallons of fuel. Mostly be complete accident, as the British destroyers were leaving the fjord they encountered the German supply ship Rauenfels which was making its way into Narvik with the explicit purpose of resupplying the German destroyers, but the British destroyers fired their guns at the ship after it refused signals to stop, the German supply ship caught on fire and the crew abandoned it. The British destroyers would actually stop and put a boarding party onto the German ship, although they would soon return to their British destroyers so that the ship could be destroyed. Two more shells were fired into the German ship, which apparently exploded quite spectacularly. With the explosion of the Rauenfels the first naval battle of Narvik was over. Both sides had lost 2 destroyers, with several others destroyers damaged, the Germans had lost a few more men 176 to 147, but more importantly for the overall course of the campaign, the ability of the German destroyers to mount a defense of Narvik had been drastically reduced, there were less of them still afloat, they had used large portions of their ammunition, and their fuel situation had deteriorated further.


After the first naval battle of Narvik the German destroyers were in a rough spot. Ammunition was low, the possibility of any additional supply ships arriving was very low due to the British control of the entrances to the fjord. A message would be sent to German naval command that there would only be two German destroyers ready to leave the fjord on April 10th, mostly due to only two of the destroyers being refueled and undamaged. These two ships were the Wolfgang Zenker and Erich Giese. Leaving on April 10th was important because it was on that date that the two German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would be on their way back to Germany, which would make the path back to Germany far safer for the destroyers. Even though only two destroyers were prepared, the orders that were given by Naval high command was for them to breakout and meet up with the German battleships. It was already too late, because as soon as the destroyers began to leave Narvik they would find the end of the fjord patrolled by British ships making a breakout impossible. The two destroyers were forced to simply turn around and go back to Narvik. Over the course of the next day three more German destroyers were made ready to leave, unfortunately two of them would then run aground on April 12th. While the Germans were trying to prepare for a breakout, on the British side they had become far more cautious in their approach to Narvik. After the first engagement the surprising strength of the German forces had caused the British to swing the opposite way, and instead of underestimating German strength they were now over-estimating the remaining German ships. By April 12th the belief was that there were two German cruisers and 5 or 6 German destroyers still remaining in Narvik, if this was true a far stronger British force was necessary before another attack was possible. The force assembled would eventually include 9 British destroyers and the battleship Warspite. On April 13th the British ships would move in, preceded by a reconnaissance aircraft launched by the Warspite. The aircraft not only spotted two of the German destroyers, but also was able to execute a dive bombing attack on the U-boat U-64, sinking the German submarine. The spotting of the German destroyers was fortunate because the entire German plan revolved around surprise, and because of the reconnaissance surprise was no longer possible. Three of the British destroyers opened fire on the German ships as soon as they rounded the corner of the island and the Warspite also joined in. The remaining 5 German destroyers would not wait for the British attack in the Narvik harbor but would instead sail out to the west. Fire was opened by both sides at around 17,000 meters, although at such a range it was largely ineffective. Even though the gun duel would continue for over an hour, it would result in almost no damage, but the path of the battle would push the German destroyers further and further into the fjord, and they were eventually going to run out of room. The Erich Giese would eventually bit hit by several shells, and fires would begin burning, which forced the German captain to order the ship abandoned. Three of the British destroyers then entered into the Narvik harbor and would begin firing on the Diether von Roeder, which was immobile due to engine problems. The Warspite joined in on firing on the destroyer and eventually it would be forced to beach itself to avoid sinking, although it would be able to hit the British destroyer Cossack with 7 shells before it was put out of action. While three of the British destroyers had moved into Narvik the other destroyers had continued to pursue the remaining German destroyers. By this point two of the German ships were out of ammunition, and the others were running low. The never several minutes of fighting would mostly just involve the Germans firing the last of their ammunition, launching the last of their torpedoes and then moving up a small fjord and scutting themselves. The George Thiele would act a a rear guard, being the last German ship with ammunition, continuing to engage the British ships as long as possible to give the other German destroyers time to scuttle themselves. The very last torpedo from the George Thiele would hit the British destroyer Eskimo. With the ship under fire from all of the assembled British destroyers the Georg Thiele would run aground.

After the final German destroyer was neutralized there was at least a brief consideration given to trying to land troops in Narvik, but they would have been naval personnel, and they had been in action all day. Instead the assembled British ships would bombard expected German troops concentrations, although there would be no recorded casualties on the German side. The British ships would stay near Narvik over night, and the survivors of the Hardy that had been able to reach the shore during the earlier battle were actually able to board some of the British destroyers and be evacuated, they had been cared for by local Norwegians during the previous days. The end of the second battle would be the end of the German destroyers at Narvik, with all 10 of them either sunk, scuttled, or ran aground to prevent being sunk. This was bad for the sailors, but also bad for the German navy as a whole, the 10 destroyers in Narvik represented almost half of the total destroyers in the German navy, and they would never recover from the losses suffered during the two naval battles of Narvik. All of the survivors, over 2,000 men, were turned into infantry units, armed largely with weapons gained from Norwegian supplies captured during the invasion. This doubled the number of ground troops in and around Narvik, although of course the naval men were not as effective as the dedicated ground troops that they had landed during the invasion.