The Battles of Narvik: Norway’s Toughest Fight

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The Battles of Narvik refers to the naval offensives and land battle between the Germans and Allied troops in Norway. It was one of the first large-scale missions of World War II and initially looked to be an Allied victory, until things took a turn in Europe, leading to an unexpected withdrawal.

A shared interest

Narvik, Norway was of interest to both the Allied and Axis powers. Located in the North Atlantic, its ice-free harbor allowed for the easy transport of iron ore shipped from Sweden. Both were interested in securing this supply and were willing to breach Norway’s neutrality to obtain it.

Aerial view of Narvik Harbor
Narvik Harbor. (Photo Credit: Peter Krantz / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The resulting combat would be the biggest battle to occur since the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

Operation Weserübung

On March 1, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Norway, codenamed Operation Weserübung. It involved the Kriegsmarine, tasked with occupying six of the country’s ports. A month later, 10 German destroyers of the 1934A and 1936 classes – Anton Schmitt, Wilhelm Heidkamp, Georg Thiele, Hermann Künne, Hans Lüdermann, Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Giese, Erich Koellner, Diether von Roeder and Bernd von Arnim – departed.

German vessel listing in the water
German vessel listing in the Ofotfjord of Narvik during the Battles of Narvik. (Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images)

They arrived at the Ofotfjorden leading to Narvik on April 9, where they captured three patrol boats. They then split up. The Wolfgang Zenker, Hermann Künne and Erich Knoellner landed in Herjangsfjord to capture the regimental supply base in Elvegårdsmoen, while the Diether von Roeder patroled the water.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, one of the captured ships had sent a message to the Norwegian coastal defense. The ships approached, prepared for battle. However, the Germans were told to make the invasion as peaceful as possible, so they attempted to convince a surrender. When that didn’t work, the naval offensive began and the German fleet sank the Norwegian ships. The action was heard by the garrison on land, but they were no match for their invaders.

Ships on fire in the water
Photo Credit: Franz Hollerweger / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

While the Germans were successful in gaining control of Narvik, they soon had another issue: fuel. Their destroyers were running low and had access to only one tanker, instead of the intended two. This forced the fleet to remain in Norway, as opposed to returning to Germany.

First Naval Battle of Narvik

The first of two naval battles at Narvik occurred on April 10, 1940. It was the Royal Navy‘s chance to defeat the Kriegsmarine with its 2nd Destroyer flotilla, consisting of five H-class destroyers.

In the early hours, the British launched a surprise attack, sinking the Anton Schmitt and Wilhelm Heidkamp, heavily damaging the Diether von Roeder and causing limited damage to two other vessels. They also fired torpedoes at the merchant ships near shore, sinking two Norwegian, six German, and two Swedish boats.

Map showing the First Naval Battle of Narvik
The First Naval Battle of Narvik. (Photo Credit: Maxrossomachin / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0)

The British fleet then became involved in engagements with the Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Giese, Erich Koellner, Bernd von Armin and Georg Thiele. They lost two destroyers, while a third was damaged, and made their retreat.

Second Naval Battle of Narvik

The Royal Navy believed it was imperative for morale and strategic purposes to defeat the Germans at Narvik. They sent nine destroyers, one battleship, and aircraft to Ofotfjord, instigating a second naval battle.

Five Norwegian soldiers dressed in winter clothing
Norwegian soliders at Narvik. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the ensuing battle, they sunk three German destroyers. The Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner, Bernd von Armin, Hermann Künne and Hans Ludemann, low on fuel and ammunition, were forced to retreat. They weren’t able to outrun the British, which sunk the Diether von Roeder and Erich Giese and hit the Hermann Künne. They also inflicted damage on onshore batteries and installations. The remaining German destroyers made their way to Rombaksfjord and were soon scuttled.

Sunken ships in the waters off Narvik
Photo Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images

Upon the conclusion of both battles, Narvik remained under German control. This was largely because no Allied forces were available to make landfall. Without a clear objective, the Allies had settled on bombarding the shore.

Battle in the mountains

The naval battles occurred alongside a land offensive, which from May 5 to 10, 1940 was the only active theatre on land in the war. German mountain troops, Kriegsmarine sailors, and paratroopers from the 7th Air Division faced the Poles, British, French, and Norwegians, 5,600 to 24,500.

Remains of a sunken ship off shore
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While the Germans were initially successful in their land campaign, they were soon struggling to survive in the mountainous terrain. Despite successfully beating the unprepared Norwegian troops during the Battle of Gratangen, they abandoned Gratangsbotn and withdrew from Lapphaugen and Gratangsdalen.

Not long after, the British were reinforced by a French expeditionary force, made up of three battalions of Alpine troops and two battalions of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion. They were deployed to the south and north of the Ofotfjord.

Smoke rising into the air behind buildings
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The Norwegians began traveling south toward Narvik, before changing direction toward the town of Bjørnfjell. By the second week of May, they’d advanced against the Germans east of Gratangseidet, arguably the most significant move on the Narvik front.

Launching an amphibious assault

With France and Britain growing impatient, the decision was made to launch an amphibious assault at midnight on May 12, 1940. Starting with a naval bombardment, the Allies set their sights on Bjerkvik. The French Foreign Legionnaires were the first to make landfall, supported by five French Hotchkiss H35 light tanks.

Three Polish soldiers smiling
Soldiers with the Polish Independent Highlander Brigade. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The plan was for the Polish troops to aid the French from the west and the Norwegians from the north, boxing in the Germans. After taking Evlegårdsmoen and Bjerkvik, they moved northeast, where the Germans were withdrawing, and south along Herangsfjord.

While the plan worked in theory, it failed to account for the trouble Allied commanders had working together. Disagreements resulted in a gap, giving the Germans a path through which they could escape. Despite this setback, the Allies still planned to attack over Rombaksfjord.

The Bernd von Armin grounded
Bernd von Armin grounded. (Photo Credit: Anders Beer Wilse / Wikimedia Commons)

The next day, British Lieutenant-General Claude Auchinleck assumed control of the Allied land and air forces. His mission was to ensure Allied control of Narvik by maintaining a hold on Bodø, along the German route from Trondheim. He redeployed British troops to the town and appointed French Brigadier-General Antoine Béthouart to command the Polish and French troops as they worked alongside the Norwegian forces.

On May 28, 1940, at 11:40 PM, a naval bombardment commenced. Two French and one Norwegian battalion were transported across Rombaksfjord to Narvik – the French moved east along the railway, while the Norwegians moved toward Taraldsvik Mountain. The Poles advanced toward Ankenes and inner Beisfjord. By 7:00 AM, the German commander evacuated and retired along Beisfjord, marking the first major Allied land victory.

Operation Alphabet

The Allies had managed to push the Germans out of many areas around Narvik. It was believed Bjørnfjell would be their last stand, but it soon became apparent they’d be able to re-establish their control.

It was discovered on May 24, 1940, that the British government made the decision to evacuate its troops from Norway. That night, the fleet received its orders and retreated under the cover of night, so as to not raise the suspicions of the Germans.

Sunken German destroyer in the water
Photo Credit: Franz Hollerweger / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

The Allied retreat was met with disbelief from the Norwegian government, who felt it would have support until the Germans were forced out. It decided its troops would be able to work alone, leading to an attack order on June 5. However, the offensive failed, and the King and government were evacuated to England on June 7.

Operation Juno

In one last naval offensive, the Germans looked to sink as many British ships as possible. On June 7, 1940, the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was loaded with eight Hawker Hurricanes and 10 Gloster Gladiators from 263 Squadron Royal Air Force and 46 Squadron. This was done out of an abundance of caution, as the Allies worried they’d be destroyed during the evacuation.

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HMS Glorious began its journey to Scapa Flow in the early hours of June 8. However, she and her escorts were ambushed by German battleships, destroyers, and a heavy cruiser. The fleet sank the Allied ships, causing the deaths of 1,500 men.

Allied soldiers walking in the Norwegian wilderness
Allied soldiers during the Battles of Narvik. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despite losing the offensive, the British managed to inflict damage to the German fleet. Their two battleships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, had to be retired for repairs, allowing the Allies safe passage through the area later that day.