172: Allied Reactions


As the Germans invaded Norway, in Paris and London decisions had to be made about how to respond.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 172 - The Invasion of Norway - Allied Reactions. This week a big thank you goes out to Stuart for the donation and to Ryan for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member, you can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. The Germans would have the initiative in the Norwegian campaign, and they would catch the Norwegians and the western Allied powers off guard with their actions, but that did not mean that there was not a reaction from the British and French in the opening days of the invasion. The first reaction to the German invasion was by the Royal Navy, and on both April 8th and 9th there would be naval actions in the North Sea, with the events on April 8th resulting in the sinking of the British destroyer HMS Glowworm. There would be the possibility of a much greater naval battle on April 9th, as the Royal Navy reacted to the large German fleet presence in the North Sea. While the Royal Navy was attempting to prevent the Germans from doing whatever they might be trying to do, in London and Paris the first days of the invasion would be ones of confusion as the leaders of the two governments tried to determine what exactly was happening in Norway and then tried to determine how they should react.

The first action that British forces would take to meet the German invasion was dispatch of the Royal Navy into the North Sea. This move was not done specifically to prevent an invasion of Norway, but instead simply as the Royal Navy’s response to any major German naval vessels doing anything. In this case there were confirmed reports of multiple German naval formations moving out of ports in Germany, and so the British Home Fleet was dispatched to try and intercept them, under the theory that they were probably trying to make their way into the Atlantic to attack British shipping. These forces, built around several battleships, would be making their way north when the reports of the Glowworm came in, reports that were discussed back in episode 166. At that time the battlecruiser Repulse, the cruiser Penelope, and 4 destroyers were sent on ahead of the slower British battleships in an attempt to intercept the German ships. Over the next several hours the ships of the Royal Navy would proceed to miss every single opportunity to intercept the various German task forces that were escorting the invasion forces to areas in Western Norway. They would be sailing north west away from Trondheim when Task Force 2 moved against the Norwegian port, while the cruisers that were sent to patrol the Norwegian coast between Stavanger and Bergen was positioned too far off the coast, allowing the German ships of Task Force 3 to move on Bergen unmolested. After missing these opportunities, early in the morning of April 9th news would arrive that the Germans had attacked Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen, ans Stavanger and this left Admiral Forbes in an awkward spot. His largest concentration of ships was still trying to intercept the large German surface ships that had attacked the Glowworm, the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, but they were just a distraction from the real German efforts to get troops ashore. But he also had to contend with incomplete and at times wildly inaccurate intelligence about German fleet movements. Piecing together all of the intelligence reports, which did contain solid information about all of the various areas that the German fleet was attacking, although their force estimates were often incorrect, the best course of action for the Home Fleet seemed to be a quick strike against Bergen. A few different facts made this seem like the best option, the first simply being that the fleet was relatively close to Bergen, and there were reports that there were only cruisers and destroyers at Bergen, with the two German battleships now being reported to be at Narvik and Trondheim. Just after 6AM on the morning of the 9th conversations between Admiral Forbes, the commander of the Home Fleet, and the Admiralty in London would begin, with the Home Fleet just 90 miles from Bergen. Forbes suggested an attack on the German forces near the city, and sent out orders to some of the cruiser and destroyer formations that had been dispatched for patrols to join back up with the main body of the fleet. The Admiralty evaluated the idea and gave its approval, with secondary approval also arriving for the cancellation of a possible cruiser operation against Trondheim. The focus on a single objective was felt to be required because the German battleships were still not 100% accounted for, there had been some reports of their positions, but it was felt that isolated groups of cruisers would be too vulnerable to possible interception by those battleships while the rest of the Home Fleet was in action against Bergen. It would take some time before the attack could be launched though, the ships were close to the target, but with the need to concentrate the fleet, and the relatively slow speed of advance it was likely that the attack would not occur until after nightfall. The slow speed was actually, in this case, not caused by the old battleships which would be a problem for the Royal Navy for the entire war, but instead the destroyers. Due to the weather the seas were very heavy, and this forced the destroyers down to a maximum speed of just 16 knots to avoid possible damage, their battle speed would have been faster, but when it came to cruising 16 knots is all they could do. As the Home Fleet was moving to Bergen, new reports based on aerial reconnaissance arrived that there were two German heavy cruisers in the port, which causes some concern among the leadership back at the Admiralty. They were concerned that in the restricted waters leading up to Bergen these cruisers would cause a lot of problems for the British attack plan, which involved destroyers moving into the harbor to make their attacks, with the larger ships of the fleet staying out in more open waters. This amplified already existing concerns about the state of the coastal defenses around Bergen that might have been re-manned by German gun crews. I think that the situation with the shore batteries is an interesting area of comparison between the decision making on the German and British sides. Both sides knew that there were Norwegian shore batteries in place to protect the approaches to cities like Bergen but they made two different choices around how to react to this information. On the German side they hoped that the speed of their action would reduce the damages caused by the shore installations, believing that it was worth sustaining some damage to make their attack. On the British side, when concerns of the shore batteries were added to other information they decided to pull back and cancel their planned attack even though their naval forces were drastically more powerful than anything that the Germans had available. This risk averse decision making would, in many instances, be the hallmark of Allied decision making in the early years of the war. But on the afternoon of April 9th the most important decision was made not by Admiral Forbes who was with the fleet but instead back in London, when the Admiralty cancelled the Bergen operation as the destroyers of the fleet were approaching the start of their attack. Churchill, who was still First Lord of the Admiralty, would later write that “Looking back on this affair, I consider that the Admiralty kept too close control upon the Commander-in-Chief, and after learning his original intention to force the passage into Bergen, we should have confined ourselves to sending him information.” Instead of a bold thrust into Bergen the Fleet would instead just patrol off shore. If they had attacked Bergen what they would have found, instead of two German cruisers ready to fight, was one heavily damaged cruiser, one damaged support ship, and four motor torpedo boats….not exactly a strong opponent.

While the Home Fleet was moving about the North Sea, the Luftwaffe was keeping tabs on its movements when possible. The weather hampered air operations at various points throughout the day, but the Germans were still able to keep touch with where the Home Fleet was and in the middle of the afternoon they were able to take advantage of that information to launch an air attack. The attacking forces would be comprised of 47 Ju-88s flying up from Westerland in Germany and 41 He-111s that were already being based out of the captured Norwegian air field at Sola. The German aircraft would begin their attack on the group of ships that had been dispatched to move into Bergen, before that action was cancelled, before turning their focus towards the larger capital ships, with the first attack beginning at around 2:30 in the afternoon and then continuing for over an hour. For the first attacks on the force of cruisers and destroyers near Bergen with only minor damage to the cruisers in attendance, however the destroyer HMS Gurkha would be the target for focused German attacks after it moved away slightly from the other ships. The Gurkha would eventually sink due to the damage that it would sustain, with the loss of 16 British sailors. After the attack on the Cruisers and destroyers the German aircraft would shift their focus to the larger grouping of British ships, including the two battleships. Once again the damage was minimal, with some near misses causing some very minor damage. There was however one very lucky break, and that was when a 500 kilogram bomb hit the Rodney. Fortunately for all of those aboard, the bomb did not explode when it hit the battleship’s armored deck. After the attack was complete Admiral Forbes would take his fleet north and west, away from the Norwegian coast, only turning east again after his collection of ships was joined by the battleship Warspite and the aircraft carrier Furious. The fleet would then move into position for the Furious to launch an air attack against Trondheim on the morning of the 10th before Forbes made the decision to move the entire collection of ships north. The primary reason for this decision was due to concerns about further German air attacks, with it being known to the British that the Germans had captured several Norwegian air fields that could be used to launch further air attacks on any Royal Navy ships within range. By moving north Forbes hoped to reduce this danger by pushing out the range, from air fields in northern Germany and southern Norway.

While Forbes and the Home Fleet had been oscillating between pursuing action and caution off the coast of central and southern Norway, near Narvik British ships that had been perfectly positioned to prevent the German invasion at Narvik would find themselves out of position at the critical moment. These British ships were the 8 destroyers that were near the entrances to Narvik at Vestfjord. The destroyers had been guarding the entrances to the fjord for 48 hours when an order arrived from the Admiralty that they should forfeit their position and instead join the forces of Admiral Whitworth further off the coast. This order arrived on the morning of April 8th, and about 15 hours later the 10 German destroyers on the way to Narvik would move through the exact area that the Royal Navy destroyers would have been in if they had not moved. The orders were rooted in concerns that the British destroyers might be attacked by some of the larger German ships that were known to be operating off of Norway during this time. Whitworth was in command of the battlecruiser squadron and had both the Renown and Repulse at his disposal along with the cruiser Penelope and several additional destroyers. Adding the Narvik destroyers to his command gave him even greater strength, but also provided the destroyers with the protection of the much larger guns of the battlecruisers. Whitworth would take his command ever further away from Norway over the course of the 8th under the belief that the Germans would be sailing even further north around the Lofoten Islands. Just before 7PM on the 8th, another order would arrive from the Admiralty, making it clear that Whitworth should endeavor to prevent the Germans from moving into Narvik, with the order stating “To Vice-Admiral Commanding Battlecruisers, repeat to Commander-in-Chief. Most immediate. The force under your orders is to concentrate on preventing any German force proceeding to Narvik. May enter territorial waters as necessary.” Even with this order, Whitworth did not immediately change course, and in fact he would continue on his previous course, to the west and away from Narvik, until midnight, over 5 hours after the order was received. This additional distance from Narvik became an even greater problems over the night of the 8th into the 9th

due to the high winds that the British would experience, and which would be felt by many other ships in the North Sea on that night. These winds caused seas that were almost too much for the British destroyers and the entire British squadron was forced to pay far more attention to simply keeping their ships on the surface of the sea than making good time toward Narvik. It was only really at about 2:40AM that the seas died down and Whitworth was able to move his ships towards Narvik at any real speed. While they were on their way back to Narvik the British ships would essentially just stumble into the Germans. These were the ships commanded by Admiral Lütjens, the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Lutjens had been dispatched into the North Sea not to engage Royal Navy ships but instead to act as a diversion, with the hope that any news of the German battleships would cause the British to dedicate some of the Royal Navy’s ships to hunting them down. With these orders in mind the German battleships would discover the British ships at around 4AM, with the British also discovering the presence of the German ships at roughly the same time. Whitworth would close on the German ships until the range was about 17,000 yards and then the Renown opened fire at 4:08AM. The firing from both sides would not prove to be very accurate at this range, partially due to the continued heavy seas, but also due to snow squalls that were moving through the area at the time which reduced visibility. Between the first shot and when Lutjens ordered the German ships to turn away from the British only 3 German shells would hit the Renown, none of which caused any serious damage. The same number of shells from the Renown hit the Gneisenau, with the larger 15" British shells causing a bit more damage, particularly one of the shells that destroyed the forward fire control system which put her guns out of action for a brief period. After losing sight of the German capital ships, Whitworth continued on his way to Narvik, and would finally place his ships in a position to prevent any movement of German ships in and out of Narvik, which was good, but was also almost 12 hours too late to prevent the most important ships from entering into Narvik, the 10 destroyers that had been transporting the German ground troops. Whitworth being in this position would set the stage for the First Naval Battle of Narvik, which we will discuss in a future episode. There has been criticisms leveled against Lütjens for not continuing his attack on the British ships, but in his mind he was fulfilling his core mission, not of getting into a knock down drag out fight with the Royal Navy, but simply continuing to exist and hopefully pulling Royal Navy resources away from the landings.


While the ships of the Royal Navy were active in the North Sea, back in London and Paris the atmosphere on April 9th could best be described with the word confusion. During the early morning hours the information available to the British government was fragmentary, and also at times contradictory. To try and sort through the available data the Chiefs of Staff Committee would get together at 6AM London time for discussions in advance of a meeting of the full British War Cabinet at 8:30. There would be multiple meetings of both groups throughout the day, and while the exact topics of discussion would change the one common theme was that the British were almost entirely reactive to what the Germans were doing. Throughout the early days of the invasion the British would develop plans or ideas based on the incomplete information that they had available, but then before that plan could be put into action other information would arrive that made that plan or risky or totally unworkable. This gives the British actions during this time on one level a feeling of inaction, but on another level the feeling of something approaching panic as operational plans were created and destroyed in the time it takes to drink a single cup of tea. There were a few major assumptions that were made by the British which would be the basis for their various plans throughout the day. The first was that the Royal Navy would be able to exercise almost complete control over the seas on the approaching to Norway. This meant that, at least theoretically, the British could land troops anywhere because the ships were available to get those troops anywhere. At the same time the British remained very focused on Narvik, very focused on the access to iron ore, even though the German operation was now focused on the entirety of Norway. The reason that both of these assumptions would be important, and would be so directly attacked by the German actions, was due to fact that German control of particularly central Norway completely changed the situation in the North Sea and in Narvik. Airfields in central Norway would allow the German aircraft the range to attack British ships on their way to Narvik, an ability that would be on full display when Forbes’ ships were attacked when they were near Bergen. The presence of strong German air groups in Norway also made it much more challenging for the Royal navy to achieve any kind of surprise landing. And as the Second World War would show, there is a large difference in the difficulty between an unopposed and strongly opposed amphibious landing. The facts of German air power and their first mover advantage would be known by the time that the Supreme War Council met at 5:30PM on the 9th. The council, being the top level collaborative body between the British and French had important decisions to make around how to react to the new German actions. There were two different basic ideas discussed at the Council. The first, and championed by the French, was that Allied effort should focus on retaking and controlling Narvik, it had already been identified as an important objective and it was now in German hands, and controlling the port would still prevent the movement of the iron ore. The second idea was pushed for by the British, and it involved attacks against Trondheim and Bergen in central Norway. These attacks would, according to British planners, making it easier to isolate Narvik while also helping the Norwegians both in morale and in the physical presence of the British and French troops to remove the German invaders and prepare to defend against the possibility of German troops moving up from the south. The Council would not be able to agree on a unified theory of action, and instead there would be several operations launched to land troops in multiple different areas in Norway. The two main areas of focus over the following days would be Narvik and Trondheim, with planning and preparations for landings in both areas proceeding.

We will spend quite a bit of time in the coming episodes discussing the landings at Narvik, so for right now lets focus on the planning and actions around the landings at Trondheim. One of the primary reasons that the landings at Trondheim had any chance of happening was because Churchill wanted them to happen. As soon as the invasion had started Churchill had ordered that all of the information that was coming in from Norway be forwarded directly to him immediately which gave him an advantage in many of the conversations with other leaders because he would have more information that others. However, this was not some kind of rogue Churchill idea, something that he would be famous for, and it did enjoy wide support from others including the British and French ambassadors to Sweden which would be in close contact with the Norwegian government throughout the invasion, even meeting them near the border on April 12th. The concern of the ambassadors, and the Norwegian government, was that they wanted assistance in actually resisting the German invasion. British and French troops at Narvik provided basically no assistance to the Norwegians as they were trying to prevent the Germans from taking over their country. Trondheim was different, because it was further south and closer to the areas that the Germans were already in control of. This fact was expressed in multiple communications in the days that followed the invasion, with the French ambassador to Sweden writing on April 13th: “The Allied missions here, and also the Swedes, are unanimous in their opinion that the most effective Allied help would be the recapture of Trondheim.” While the British ambassador to the Norwegian government " would write “I venture to urge that military assistance at Trondheim is first necessity. Seizure of Narvik was of little assistance to Norwegian government.” Eventually Churchill and the others that supported operations against Trondheim would have their way, however, Chamberlain and others still pushed for operations against Narvik, which would split the focus of the Allies in the days that followed. The basic concept of the operations against Trondheim, codenamed Operation Hammer, was for two landings to occur, one to the north and one to the south of the city. It would be a combination for the British and French, with the French adding half a brigade of alpine troops to the operation. The landings would take place from Åndalsnes in the south and Namsos in the north, with another force landed closer to Trondheim at Værnes. I do not expect you to know Norwegian geography and the exact position of these generally small port cities. But the distance between Åndalsnes and Namsos is around 300 kilometers as the crow flies. The actual travel distance for men trying to move from those areas to Trondheim was much longer due to nature of Norway, and for the troops landing at Åndalsnes they would of had to walk almost 300 kilometers due to the geography which would have forced them to take a long detour inland. Oh, and it was also still April, and there would still be a lot of snow. There were also, of course, some German troops who would not be too thrilled to learn of the British and French landings. Just traversing the terrain, with all of the snow, would have been a major problem for the battalions of British territorial troops that would have been involved, they did not have the proper gear or experience to be moving through the terrain, let alone also fighting the Germans at the same time. And so it is probably good that the operation was cancelled before being put into action. It would instead be filed away as yet another Allied plan that was out of touch with what could actually be accomplished with the forces that were available. However, the fact that it was doomed to failure on the ground was not the primary cause for its cancellation. Instead, the major voices against the operation were the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The Royal Navy was concerned about the vulnerability to air attack for any ship that moved close to central and southern Norway. Meanwhile the Royal Air Force was resistant to any diversion of air resources away from Britain and France. This resistance to providing any real air strength for operations in Norway would be a problem for the entire duration of resistance to the German invasion. It essentially gave the Germans complete control of the air over central and southern Norway, allowing them to use their air power on both land and sea to great effect. While the British were planning, and then cancelling ideas for large operations, the Germans were already moving into the Norwegian interior and the British were executing smaller operations at various areas around Norway, all of which we will discuss next episode.