Here's What You Need to Know: It is intriguing to think what might have happened if the British and Norwegians had managed to hold on in extreme northern Norway.
The German mountain troops were dug into their shallow, frozen foxholes waiting for the enemy ski troops to appear across the horizon. Armed with a bewildering array of equipment salvaged from enemy depots and sunken ships, the Germans prepared to hold off yet another assault across the frozen landscape.
In an eerie foreshadowing of the upcoming campaign on the Eastern Front, the outnumbered and under-supplied German force was defending a shrinking perimeter as their only lifeline, the Luftwaffe, desperately attempted to keep the forces supplied. This landscape, however, was not in Russia, and the attacking ski troops were not Siberians but rather Norwegians and Frenchmen trying to drive German forces from their tenuous foothold in northern Norway.
In April 1940, both Germany and Great Britain were looking at the strategic importance of neutral Norway. Aside from its strategic location flanking the sea lanes of the North Sea, it was also an important transshipment point for iron ore from Sweden to Germany. The unique geography of this part of Scandinavia is primarily east-west, whereas the countries of Norway and Sweden are primarily north-south. Thus, the iron ore mined in northern Sweden was more easily shipped from the Norwegian port of Narvik immediately to the west rather than traveling the length of Sweden to Germany. Both Britain and Germany realized how important this ore was to the German war effort, and early in 1940 both sides started to pressure Norway’s strict neutrality. Britain sought to interrupt the flow of iron ore by mining the sea lanes, but both sides realized that, strategically speaking, invasion offered the best prospect for achieving their aims. By April, both the Germans and the British were hastily preparing forces to land in Norway. Despite British preponderance at sea, Germany got there first, and starting on April 9, its forces descended along the length of the country.
Narvik, as the port that was the primary outlet for the Swedish ore, was a key part of this operation, but Narvik also held a lot of operational challenges as far as the Germans were concerned. Its location in the far north placed it outside of effective air support range, and the difficulty of the Norwegian terrain—not to mention the sheer distance involved—necessitated a naval operation to land troops from the sea.
Germany Sends a Flotilla to Narvik
Due to these factors, early on the morning of April 6, elements of the German 3rd Mountain Division were loaded onto 10 destroyers and slipped out of Bremen harbor for the 1,200-mile sea voyage to Narvik. With between 200 and 250 men crammed into each ship, there was not much room for equipment—particularly heavy equipment. The destroyers were an improvisation in any case because Germany had no real amphibious capability. Landings would either have to be accomplished via small boat or by backing up to a pier. In the event of resistance, this operation could quickly turn into a massacre, but the Germans were willing to take the risk because of the importance of Narvik to their war effort.
First, however, this group of destroyers had to make its way across a North Sea largely controlled by the British Home Fleet, which outnumbered German naval forces in just about every category. To provide some measure of cover for the force, the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gniesenau, as well as the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, were assigned escort duty for part of the journey. Until the capture of Norwegian airfields, there was no way to provide the force with air cover once it passed outside the range of German land-based fighters and bombers. Germany had no aircraft carrier force.
Rough weather washed 10 men and significant quantities of equipment and supplies overboard during the three-day voyage. There were also running naval battles with elements of the British fleet, resulting in the sinking of the British destroyer Glowworm on April 8 and the premature dispatch of the covering force to intercept heavier Royal Navy forces trying to head off the small fleet.
An Unknown Welcome Awaits the Germans
By the time the destroyers reached the entrance to Ofotenfjord, which led to Narvik harbor, they were essentially on their own. Intelligence about the defenses in the area was poor, and the German commanders feared that there might be Norwegian shore batteries guarding the narrow entrance to the fjord. Despite the efforts of the local Norwegian commander, Colonel Konrad Sundlo, funding for these batteries had never been approved in Oslo, the Norwegian capital. The only fortifications were a couple of blockhouses armed with machine guns, and these were obviously no match for the guns on the destroyers.
As the destroyers entered the fjord on the evening of April 8, all of this was unknown to the Germans, and there were tense moments as the ships navigated the narrow confines of the fjord. They would have essentially been sitting ducks for any determined resistance at this point.
The next morning, the naval flotilla sighted Narvik and prepared to land its troops—not knowing whether there would be resistance from the Norwegians who up until now had failed to respond to this violation of their neutrality. Just outside the harbor, however, the Norwegian coastal defense monitor Eidsvold engaged the German destroyers by firing a warning shot across their bows. The German destroyer Wilhelm Heidkamp responded by firing a spread of four torpedoes, two of which broke the back of the Norwegian ship. Eidsvold quickly sank, taking all but eight of its crew with it into the frigid waters of the fjord.
Inside the harbor a second monitor, the Norge, engaged the two German destroyers that were attempting to make it to the pier to disembark soldiers already assembled on deck. It took seven torpedoes to dispatch the Norge, but the result was the same and German destroyers proceeded to the docks, which were undefended from land.
The reason for the lack of dockside defense was that Sundlo had failed to concentrate his forces quickly enough and they were still assembling in the town when the German forces quickly appeared on the scene. Sundlo was in the process of moving from one post to the other in the town when he ran into General Eduard Dietl, commander of the 3rd Mountain Division, at the head of a company of German soldiers. After a brief negotiation and seeing the vulnerability of the civilian population and his own forces’ unpreparedness, Sundlo surrendered the town to the Germans without a fight. Some of his forces managed to escape across a railroad bridge into the hills, but essentially the fight for the town itself was over before it began.
The Germans were not to hold it for long.
The British Naval Forces Respond Quickly
Despite the German successes on land, at sea the precariousness of their situation began to manifest itself. The destruction of the Glowworm on the 8th had alerted the British naval commanders about the presence of the German naval forces in the Narvik area, and British military assets were being assembled to deal with the threat they posed.
The German commanders also knew it was only a matter of time before strong British naval forces arrived on the scene. However, several factors delayed the departure of the German destroyers from the Narvik area. Some of the destroyers had developed mechanical problems on the trip from Bremen, and all of them were low on fuel after having fought the rough seas of April 7 and 8. Finally, there was a need to cover the remaining supply ships that were still unloading in Narvik harbor.
Therefore, on the morning of April 10, the destroyers of the German invasion force were scattered about the fjord making repairs or refueling. One destroyer, the Diether von Roeder, was on picket duty at the entrance to the main part of the fjord but it left its post at first light without waiting for relief. This provided an opening for the five destroyers of the 2nd British Destroyer Flotilla under Captain B.A.W. Warburton-Lee to enter the fjord undetected.
The force quickly headed for Narvik harbor and upon entering the crowded estuary shot up everything in sight. In short order, the British turned the German flagship, Wilhelm Heidkamp, into a flaming wreck. The Anton Schmidt was hit by two torpedoes, broke in half, and quickly sank. The Diether von Reoder also paid for its mistake of leaving station, by severely damaged and essentially immobilized in the harbor. The attack also sunk or disabled 14 merchant ships of various types. Within an hour, Warburton-Lee’s force had destroyed most of the shipping in Narvik harbor.
The Germans Turn the Table
The other German destroyers, however, were not in the harbor itself but rather in various arms of the fjord. As the British destroyers withdrew up the fjord, the tables were turned against them. Two German destroyer squadrons emerged from their hiding places among the cliffs surrounding the narrow waterway. Accurate German gunfire quickly crippled the British flagship, Hardy, killing Warburton-Lee, and the ship was forced to beach. The destroyer Hunter was immobilized by German shellfire and rammed by the next ship in line, causing it to immediately sink.