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THE morning of Monday February 19 1940 was bitterly cold. A crisp layer of snow covered the grounds of the 140-year-old church in the picture-postcard village of Sogndal. The wind was funneled up the Sogn valley, sandwiched between two fjords in south-west Norway, as the ship’s company of the Altmark stood to attention.

Three days earlier British sailors had stormed the tanker in nearby Jøssingfjord and freed nearly 300 prisoners. To Fleet Street, the Altmark was

a ‘hell ship’, her captain “a bullying shrimp forever bleating ‘Heil Hitler!’”

As seven of their shipmates were laid to rest on Norwegian soil, Kapitän Heinrich Dau addressed them.

was a rather stiff character, never particularly popular with his men. This morning, however, he captured their mood perfectly. “We believed we were safe from a British attack in a neutral harbour but we have learned the opposite all too well,” he said bitterly.

The goatee-bearded Dau

“But the German people will now quite rightly strive to ensure that British pirate methods are banished from the world once and for all.” Dau’s words were measured, forthright. Not so those of Curt Bräuer. The German minister in Norway had made the 200-mile journey from Oslo less to address the Altmark’s crew than to address the world: in neutral Norway, British reporters jostled with their German counterparts, American newsmen, fi lm crews, photographers. Curt Bräuer did not disappoint. “These comrades of ours met their death at the hands of murderers,” he snarled. He wasn’t the only angry German. In his year-old Chancellery building in Berlin’s government quarter, Adolf Hitler tore a strip off his chief military adviser, Alfred Jodl. “No resistance, no English losses,” he raged, ordering the general to accelerate plans for an operation codenamed Weserübung – the occupation of Norway and Denmark. The fuse on the Scandinavian

powder keg had been lit. Within four months, Adolf Hitler would command a domain stretching from the North Cape to the Pyrenees. But in doing so, he would sacrifice his Navy. Half of it lies in the deep, icy waters of the fjords around one Norwegian town: Narvik.



Erich Raeder tottered ashen faced out of Hitler’s study in his Chancellery in Berlin. The Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy had spent the summer of 1939 in the doghouse following a petty squabble with the Führer over the scandalous behaviour of the wife of his naval adjutant. Neither Hitler nor Raeder had backed down. Not once as he finalised his plans for the invasion of Poland did Adolf Hitler seek the counsel of his most senior naval officer. When it was sought, Raeder’s counsel was unequivocal. A deeply religious, conservative man, he knew better than any man in Germany that “war with England would mean Finis Germania!” And now there was war with England – Germans never referred to their mortal enemy as Grossbritannien, always England. Shortly after mid-day on Sunday September 3 1939, listening stations picked up a signal broadcast en clair by the Royal Navy:


● ‘On the surface, everything was peaceful’... The Norwegian port of Narvik – dominated by a red-brick church – in the winter of 1939-40 and (right) a Nazi propaganda poster published in the wake of the ‘Altmark incident’ decrying ‘global pirate England’

Back in his offi ce, Erich Raeder collected his thoughts. He possessed fi ve battleships, one heavy and six light cruisers, plus 22 destroyers. The Royal Navy alone possessed 15 capital ships, more than half a dozen aircraft carriers, and in excess of 60 cruisers. His fl eet, Raeder lamented, “can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly”.




It wasn’t merely the size of their fl eet which troubled Germany’s senior naval offi cers, but her strategic position. Even when she had possessed a mighty fl eet – the second most mighty on the Seven Seas – a generation before, her ships had been bottled up in their North Sea bases; the Royal Navy commanded the gateways to the Atlantic – the Strait of Dover or the Norwegian Sea. It had troubled the strategists of the Kaiser’s Navy, chief among them one Wolfgang Wegener who realised Germany had to “force open the gate to the Atlantic”. He continued: “In the struggle for survival between great nations, a small state simply cannot be allowed to neutralise the power of a fl eet built by years of hard work.”

That small state, Erich Raeder determined in the autumn of 1939, would be Norway. Raeder greedily eyed-up the Scandinavian nation. At a stroke, seizure of Norway would improve his fleet’s strategic position. It would also safeguard one raw material vital to the German military machine, Swedish iron ore. That ore – more than four million tons in 1939 – was transported by rail then shipped to the Reich via the port of Narvik.

everything was peaceful, flying the Union Jack or the Swastika.”

army officer and defence minister who had cast aside democracy to form the Norwegian fascist party, Nasjonal Samling – National Unity. Mimicking Hitler, his followers called him Fører – leader. And in December 1939, Fører met Führer. Quisling boasted 300,000 followers – one in ten Norwegians (the reality was nearer one in 50...) – and claimed the country was ripe for plucking by the British. It would he argued, be a disaster for his nation and for Germany. Adolf Hitler agreed – and ordered his military to study the occupation of Quisling’s native land.

Much as he covetously looked upon Norway and Narvik, Erich Raeder’s hopes remained just that – until a treacherous Norwegian intervened. To this day in Norway the word is synonymous with traitor: Quisling. The Earl of Sandwich gave us a lunchtime snack, the Duke of Wellington gave us boots. And Vidkun Quisling gave us the ultimate definition of a traitor, a man who sold his soul to the devil. Vidkun Quisling was a former

already at sea, hunting the tanker: five destroyers and two cruisers. Barely an hour later, the force sighted the Altmark.

Heinrich Dau sought shelter in Jøssingfjord, 200 miles southwest of Oslo. It was no sanctuary. After dark on February 16, British task force fl agship HMS Cossack entered the narrow waters with orders to board and seize the German tanker and free the prisoners – with or without the Norwegians’ co-operation.

Studie Nord – Study North – as it was uninspiringly codenamed, stuttered along with few in the upper echelons of the German military machine convinced it would ever be carried out. An incident in a Norwegian fjord late on February 16 changed their minds.




Narvik was a boom town. Just four decades before its inhabitants numbered barely 600. In 1940, the town counted some 10,000 residents. Iron ore had been the catalyst for growth. The Swedish mines at Kiruna, little more than 80 miles away, needed an ice-free port to ship their ore. Sweden had none. Instead, the mine owners chose to create one. They chose the ancient Norwegian fishing village of Narvik.

Sitting on a promontory at the end of the 30-mile-long Ofotfjord, Narvik was blessed with a large and deep natural harbour and waters which were kept ice-free thanks to the Gulf Stream. When the railway to Kiruna and the imposing ore quay opened in 1906, Narvik thrived. And now, the northern port was in the eye of the storm. “Steamers flying the flag of the belligerent nations lay side-by-side,” wrote Narvik’s

Broch. “On the surface mayor Theodor

There was a palpable sense of relief on the bridge of the Altmark. For more than 24 hours, the tanker had hugged the Norwegian coast from Trondheim, past Bergen, escorted by patrol boats.

August, Altmark’s crew had never set foot on land. They had seen only one ship in all that time – the Admiral Graf Spee. In her hold were 299 British sailors, victims of the pocket

battleship’s guerre de course against

merchant shipping – until she was snared off the River Plate.

the Altmark was within touching distance of the Reich. “If we can avoid the British Navy for just a few more hours, I think we will be safely home,” her fi rst offi cer Friedrich Paulsen observed.

After her six-month odyssey, Since leaving Texas the previous

The Norwegians did not co-operate. Nor did Heinrich Dau. First he gave orders for the boats to be swung out and Altmark to be scuttled, but subsequently had second thoughts and decided to try to break out of the fjord. Then he tried to manoeuvre his tanker so he could drive Cossack on to the shore. He failed. Instead, a boarding party “steel helmets on their heads, pistols, machine-pistols and carbines in their hands” stormed the Altmark. For a few minutes there was “wild shooting”. Two German stewards and a stoker fell down. A handful of Altmark’s crew tried to fl ee across the ice. Cossack’s searchlights fell upon them, as did bullets. Some Germans fell through holes in the ice, others made it to the shore. As for their ship, she was swiftly in the hands of Cossack’s three-dozen- strong boarding party. In the tanker’s hold, the 299 merchantmen had heard the crack of gunfire but had little idea what was going on. It was a good ten minutes before the door was flung open.

“Are there any Englishmen down there?” a voice inquired. “Yes – we’re all English!” came the response. “Well, the Navy’s here!” The prisoners cheered. By midnight they were aboard the British destroyer and bound for Leith. Within a day they would be free men, “the whole English-speaking world thrilled” by their rescue. “The Navy’s here” became a rallying cry (and even a popular song).




He spoke too soon. Shortly after mid-day on February 16, an RAF Hudson reconnaissance aircraft spied the tanker, the name A L T M A R K – painted in brilliant white on her stern – clearly visible. A Royal Navy task force was

● Lt Cdr Gerard Roope VC who ‘fought his ship to the end against overwhelming odds, fi nally ramming the enemy with supreme coolness and skill’

(IWM A29585)

In Berlin there was feigned indignation at the breach of Norwegian neutrality. Plans for the occupation of the country switched from contigency to reality overnight and Studie Nord – now renamed Weserübung, Weser Exercise – was hurriedly completed. And if Norway could be seized, why not Denmark too, to secure Germany’s northern fl ank? Some trumped-up casus belli would be found. By the first day of April 1940, the German military machine was ready. At 5.15am on April 9, German troops would set foot on Norwegian soil by sea and air; paratroopers would capture strategic points in southern Norway, those further north

● A shell from the Admiral Hipper land destroyer manoeuvres to ram the cruise

would fall to soldiers ferried by the Kriegsmarine.

This was an operation for which

Erich Raeder had lobbied. He knew the stakes. Weserübung was “one of the boldest operations in the history of modern naval warfare,” he recorded in his diary.

It was also as much about exorcising demons as occupying a country or securing iron ore. “The operation goes against all the principles of naval warfare,” he continued. “The conduct of the war at sea rests in enemy hands because the British Fleet is far superior.” The shackles had to be cast off. “Germany’s conduct of the war at sea will never succeed if we do not make a conscious effort to break free from the psychological pressure of a much superior enemy.” Surprise was the key. And perhaps a little luck. In the first week of April 1940, Erich Raeder rolled the dice. He did so just in time.

London and Paris too had designs on Norway. They too realised the importance of the Scandinavian nation to the German war effort. They had a good idea that Germany would invade. Berlin just needed a little push.

The push was Plan R4, the mining of the approaches to Narvik. The Germans would respond, not with diplomatic protests as after the Altmark affair, but with force. “The moment the Germans set foot on Norwegian soil,” the Chiefs-of- Staff in Whitehall determined, the Allies would dispatch a force to seize Narvik and other important ports along Norway’s west coast. On April 5, the War Cabinet gave R4 its lukewarm approval. The Royal Navy would mine Norwegian waters in three days’ time. By then the German Navy was already at sea.

Long after nightfall on April

6, ten destroyers headed out of Bremerhaven and into the Weser estuary. The tankers and transporters had already sailed ahead of the faster destroyers of Naval Group I, bound for Narvik, more than 1,100 miles away. Other ports in north- west Germany were emptying as task groups and U-boats made for Trondheim, Bergen, Kristiansand and Oslo.

Across the North Sea, the veteran battle-cruiser HMS Renown

was bound for the Lofoten Isles, shepherded by a quartet of destroyers and a secondary force of mine-layers and their escorts, determined to carry out Plan R4. As the groups ploughed east through heavy seas, the Admiralty flashed a signal:

Recent reports suggest a German expedition is being prepared. Hitler is reported to have ordered unostentatious movement of one division and ten ships by night to land at Narvik.

The Admiralty was somewhat sceptical. It placed little value on the intelligence. Hitler was simply ratcheting up his war of nerves.




Wilhelm Heidkamp, Anton Schmidt and Erich Koellner, Erich Giese, Hermann Künne, Diether von Röder, Georg Thiele, Hans Lüdemann, Bernd von Arnim, and Wolfgang Zenker were racing northwards, carrying the mountainmen of 3rd Gebirgs Division, most of whom had never seen the sea before. In glorious sunshine, the destroyers sped through the North Sea in Kiellinie – long lines of ships as if they were at Kiel Week. In the calm, the fast-moving destroyers left thick white wakes streaking the ocean, while their funnels belched black smoke into a clear sky. Below decks, the mountain infantryman sat or lay in their sturdy Kraxlhuber outdoor clothing. Every nook, every cranny, every flat was filled with luggage, tools, machine- guns, chests of ammunition. As Sunday April 7 progressed, the weather worsened. By nightfall, the German destroyers were being buffeted by the wind and waves. The night was pitch black, but the ships attempted to maintain their Kiellinie, the bridge teams struggling to follow the weak blue stern light of the ship in front.

By dawn on the eighth, the storm was raging. Breakers crashed over each ship, foaming, washing the deck, tearing at everything which stood in their way, before rushing through the railings on the leeward. “Cases of life jackets, almost all

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