NAVY NEWS, NARVIK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT APRIL 2010
● All in the valley of death... German destroyers sail up Ofotfjord on April 9, as seen from the Erich Koellner and (right) the people of Narvik stare in disbelief at German mountain troops wandering around their town
THE FIRST CLASH
GLOWWORM vs HIPPER
‘STAND BY TO RAM’
ds just short of HMS Glowworm as the er
the railings, the ladders on the upper deck, a dinghy, and most of the Gebirgsjägers’ motorcycle sidecars went overboard,” recalled
Raeder of the Erich Giese. “For the mountain soldiers the weather posed a great physical and mental test.” Occasionally, the soldiers left
the messdecks and tried to grab some fresh air. “They hang over the railings, swearing,” wrote 36-year- old novelist and war correspondent Otto Mielke. “What little food they have had in the last few hours goes overboard.”
One Austrian non-commissioned
officer was swept into the sea. He was fortunate. After six minutes, the crew of the Erich Giese fished him out of the water. Others were not so lucky. Aboard the Theodor Riedel, escorting the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper to Trondheim, junior officer Kapitänleutnant Peter ‘Ali’ Cremer watched a wave carry away a sailor on a gun platform. “One moment he was standing there, the next the sea had wrenched him down,” he wrote. “Despite the storm I could hear his cries for help. He was wearing a life jacket, but little good did that do him – the destroyer slid past him in a flash.”
Leading Seaman F S Mason was delighted to be in the relative shelter of the Lofoten Islands. HMS Hardy was one of the four Hs – Havock, Hunter and Hotspur completed the quartet – of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla which was escorting four mine-layers about to sow their ‘seeds’ in the Vestfjord, the long approach to Ofotfjord and Narvik. It took maybe an hour to offload the mines, then the destroyers tried to warn local fishermen of the dangers of the freshly-laid minefield. Rough maps were handed out
while the captain’s secretary on Hardy tried to converse with locals in Norwegian. Mason studied their faces as they nodded blankly, then took their boats straight across the minefield – fortunately missing every mine as they did so.
Her job done, Hardy returned to the open waters of the North Sea. The “raging Atlantic weather” made life in the 1,400-ton warship “most uncomfortable” as she struggled to rejoin Renown. After nightfall, she fell into line astern of the battle- cruiser.
HMS Glowworm never did find Renown again. The destroyer had broken off from the Renown group during the seventh to search for a man overboard. The able seaman, a lifebuoy sentry, vanished into the grey wastes. Glowworm turned around and struggled to catch up with Renown through “some very heavy weather”, AB Duncan Blair recalled – “really terrible weather. I’ve never experienced anything like it.” Glowworm’s whaler and motor launch had been carried away by the storm. A little before 8am on the eighth, the klaxons sounded aboard Glowworm, A destroyer had been sighted. Glowworm’s Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr Gerard Broadmead Roope, asked for her identity. The signal lamps flashed through the gloom of a squally North Sea morning: S W E D I S H D E S T R O Y E R G Ø T E B O R G. Gerard Roope was unconvinced.
The ‘Gøteborg’ was some 130 miles north-west of Trondheim. Roope hoisted the battle ensign and engaged. His shots fell short of the ‘Gøteborg’ – actually Hans Lüdemann – which turned and fled into the mist. Another destroyer appeared on the scene, Bernd von Arnim. The two ships traded ineffective blows before the German threw up a smokescreen. Roope gave chase. When Glowworm emerged from the smoke and squalls she found a “bloody great German ship” in front of her: Admiral Hipper. On the bridge of the 14,000-ton
Kapitän zur See Hellmuth Heye
hesitated. There were two destroyers before him. Two German? Two British? One German? One British? Glowworm provided the answer. When she asked for Hipper’s identity, Heye brought his 20cm guns to bear. He hit the British ship with his first salvo.
Stoker Bert Lowman was in the
petty officers’ mess feeding shells to the gun crews when a round from the Hipper exploded, knocking him out. “When I came to, I found that the back of my left hand was gone and I had shrapnel in my left arm and leg,” he recalled. The mess deck was covered in blood – “it looked like a butcher’s shop”. Lowman’s ship was hit repeatedly. The foremast and wireless antennae were carried away, the captain’s cabin wrecked. She struck back. A spread of five torpedoes were fired at the cruiser. All missed. She tried again, suffering fearful damage as she crossed Hipper’s bow to launch another salvo of torpedoes. All missed again.
Gerard Roope played his final card. “Stand by to ram,” he ordered. Glowworm turned sharply and smashed into Hipper’s starboard. She struck amidships, tearing away about 100 feet of the German’s armour- plating, wrecking the starboard torpedo tubes and puncturing two fresh water tanks. Her bow shattered, Glowworm pulled away, drawing withering fire from the Hipper until Heye ordered his guns to cease fire. It was clear his foe was crippled. Gerard Roope ordered his men to abandon ship. With typical British stoicism, the keen sportsman remarked to a senior rate: “I don’t think we’ll be playing cricket for a long time yet.” Legend has it that Roope shook the hands of his
shipmates in gratitude. Others say that his dog, which sat throughout the action between his master’s lap, was killed by shrapnel. Others still say the dog survived. We will never know, for Glowworm’s captain did not live.
Thirty of his men did, however. Bert Harris reached the upper deck of the destroyer to find shipmates were already jumping over the side. He also found the Hipper – “a huge ship with her swastika painted on her foremost deck” – before him. He crawled on hands and knees to grab a lifebelt from a locker. Despite his captain’s orders, Harris was reluctant to leave Glowworm behind and throw himself at the mercy of the North Sea – and the Germans. He comforted one stoker who had lost his leg. Another locked himself in the galley out of fright. A third jumped over the side, only to be carried back onboard by a wave. He refused to jump again – the waters were too cold. In the
DIETL AND BONTE
‘WE’RE GOING TO FIGHT’
Harris’ decision for him. She rolled to starboard, forcing the sailor to scramble down the destroyer’s port side and into the water. After swimming away from the stricken vessel he let his lifebelt take the strain and bobbed up and down. With shipmates still standing on the mangled hull, Glowworm’s boilers exploded and she plunged beneath the waves.
Hipper picked up what survivors there were. Gerard Roope was among them. He reached the side of the cruiser and hauled himself half-way up a rope until his strength failed him. He fell back into the water and drowned.
Gerard Roope would earn the posthumous VC for his verve that Monday – but not until 1945. The recommendation for that decoration for bravery would come from his former adversary, Hellmuth Heye.
WARNING SIGNS IGNORED
The mining of Vestfjord, the clash between Hipper and Glowworm, the sinking of a German trooper, Rio de Janeiro, in the Skagerrak by a Polish submarine later that morning – all signalled that an invasion of Norway was imminent. Yet in London and Oslo, Monday April 8 was a confused and confusing day. The Norwegians were more preoccupied with the Allied threat than the German one – although they still failed to order general mobilisation. Neither the head of the Navy, Commanding Admiral Henry Diesen who told one of his commanders “war is coming”, nor the Army’s Chief-of- Staff Rasmus Hatledal, who was convinced his land would become a battlefield, took decisive action. The latter retired to bed after a fruitless day trying to persuade politicians to mobilise. He was only to be woken if hostilities broke out.
In the Admiralty, intelligence officers tried to piece together the fragmentary reports from radio intercepts, sightings, RAF reconnaissance flights and agents’ reports. By dusk, it decided the Germans were bound for Narvik – and had to be stopped. Too late. Renown and her escorts were heading south towards Glowworm’s last reported position. In the North Sea storm – now at its height – there was no hope of reaching the approaches to Narvik; the destroyers were doing their best simply to stay afloat.
end, Glowworm made
By 10pm on the eighth, the destroyers of Naval Group I were finally out of the storm and enjoying the comparative shelter offered by the Lofoten Islands. Aboard the flagship Wilhelm Heidkamp, Eduard Dietl gathered the leaders of his 3rd Gebirgs Division. Dietl was a veteran Nazi – he joined the Party in its earliest days – and as hard and unforgiving as the Bavarian landscape from which he came. The general had been unaffected by the ferocious seas. Not so his men. As Dietl issued orders to his commanders in the destroyer’s wardroom, platoon leader Hans Rohr lay on his stomach, a bucket at his side. His general spread out a detailed map of Narvik, detailing the plan of attack. “All the time there’s the mighty crack of thunder, the small destroyer creaks and moves from side-to-side,” wrote Rohr. “All this is accompanied by flurries of snow which sweep across the ships and intermittent fog which envelops the entire armada.” It was, the mountain infantryman observed, “unbelievable what the ships have to endure here – and what is demanded of the sailors.”
His briefing done, Dietl returned Heidkamp’s bridge
stood next to the group’s leader, Kommodore Friedrich Bonte. Until three days ago, the general had never seen the sea. He was moved by its power – and by how Bonte’s force had coped with the battering. To Eduard Dietl, the occupation of Narvik was running entirely to plan. “A masterpiece in every sense of the word,” he remarked to Bonte. The commodore dampened the general’s euphoria. “Don’t be too quick with your praise,” he warned Dietl. “There must be some Norwegian warships somewhere.” There were. Two to be precise, guarding Narvik harbour. Shortly after 5am on April 9, Wilhelm Heidkamp encountered the first of them.
The coastal defence ships Eidsvold had been laid down the previous century by the
Armstrong-Whitworth yard on the Tyne. Despite her age, she was the most potent warship in the Norwegian arsenal.
The Heidkamp lowered her boat into the water and sent two officers, led by one of Bonte’s staff Heinrich Gerlach, to negotiate. “The German Armed Forces have taken over the military security of Norway in the face of English warships,” Gerlach explained aboard the Eidsvold. “Germans come to Norway not as enemies rather as protection against a common foe.” Eidsvold’s captain, Odd Willoch,
was in no mood to negotiate. “I will shoot if you do not leave the harbour immediately,” he told the German emissaries bluntly.
Crestfalen, Gerlach and his comrade returned to their launch to cross Narvik bay. As they did, one of the men fired a red flare from his Very pistol while the Eidsvold manouevred into position.
“På plass ved kanonene. Nå skal vi
slåss, gutter!” Willoch told his men. “Man the guns. We’re going to fight, boys!”
Friedrich Bonte also reacted in a flash: “Full speed ahead with both engines!” The Heidkamp lurched forward, then brought her torpedo barrels to bear before the venerable Norwegian colossus could open fire. It took the salvo just seconds to cover the 330 yards to their target. Three torpedoes struck the Eidsvold. One struck the ammunition hold, tearing the ship apart. She sank in just 15 seconds, taking all but six men with her.
With the ‘obstacle’ out of the way, the occupation of Narvik could begin. Bernd von Arnim came alongside the mail pier in a driving snowstorm. Georg Thiel anchored a few yards offshore. As they began to offload men and material, the crash of guns reverberated around the fjord. “What was that?” Dietl snapped. That was the Eidsvold’s sister
Norge, opening fire with her 21cm and 15cm guns. In the blizzard, not one of her shells hit the von Arnim, which responded with a clutch of torpedoes. Only the third salvo struck the Norge. She lasted barely any longer than her sister, capsizing in under a minute. Her propellers were still turning as she went under, condemning more than 100 men to a watery grave.
on the water to an end. On land, the mountain infantryman faced no resistance – the occupation of Narvik caught civilians and soldiers by surprise.
The latter were still mustering in a school when they were surrounded by Germans. Dietl was quickly driven to the school to meet the town’s commandant, Colonel Konrad Sundlo. The German was formal but polite, the Norwegian curt, his face red with anger. Dietl told him the guns of the German fleet were trained on Narvik and were prepared to open fire. “Resistance would only mean futile bloodshed.” Sundlo pleaded for time to negotiate. Dietl would give him none. “Surrender the town immediately!” he demanded. Sundlo’s red face turned white. “I surrender the town,” he meekly responded.
Dietl’s men quickly occupied the rest of Narvik. The barracks at Elvegaardsmoen surrendered without a shot. The hospital was occupied. As the German troops set up machine- guns and mortars around its grounds, a truck carrying the first Norwegian dead from the Eidsvold and Norge arrived. Hospital staff flashed their eyes angrily at the Germans in their midst.
The destruction of the two coastal brought resistance
fjords. They would sight any British force – and sink it.
“powerful and superior British and French naval forces” were gathering in the North Sea. Within 24 hours, Bonte would be dead. Within 96, his flotilla would cease to exist.
THE FIVE Hs
‘INTEND ATTACKING AT DAWN’
Aboard HMS Hardy, the staff of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla waited anxiously. Their commanding officer had retreated to his cabin after a council of war to determine his course of action. Few men understood destroyer actions better than 44-year-old Capt Bernard Armitage Warburton Warburton-Lee. A sailor for a quarter of a century, 2nd Destroyer Flotilla was his sixth command. His quiet and perhaps somewhat aloof nature belied the fact that he was a man of action. He opened his cabin door and told his staff to signal the Admiralty: “Intend attacking at dawn.” Hardy’s sailors gathered in her forward messdeck where a blackboard had been set up, a sketch of the waters around Narvik marked in chalk. “Surprise was the keyword of success,” recalled torpedoman F A Mason. “We hoped to sneak close into the harbour at the very first light of day and blast away.” By the small hours of April 10th,
Warburton-Lee’s force – Hardy, Havock, Hunter, Hotspur, Hostile – had passed the first of Bonte’s traps, U25, and steamed into Ofotfjord. By 2.30 he had evaded a second U-boat, U46, even though the waters were barely two miles wide. There was still one final sentry to avoid, the Dietrich von Roeder, patrolling the harbour entrance on a diagonal course. Warburton-Lee hugged the southern shore of the fjord. In the pre-dawn half-light and intermittent flurries of snow, German did not see Briton – and Briton did not see German. Hardy’s crew enjoyed a final drink
before action – tea laced with rum – before their ship ghosted into the harbour entrance. They found Narvik
Continued on page iv
The commodore did not know his masters knew – that
As for the rest of Narvik’s residents, they wandered around their town in stunned disbelief. The swastika flew over the market square. And the telegraph office. The town hall too. Signs began to appear: the liquor store must be closed; disloyal merchants will have their stores confiscated.
At 8.10am, Friedrich Bonte signalled his
Wilhelmshaven: “Narvik surrendered to the German Army commander.” Bonte had no intention of staying in Narvik any longer than he needed to – one night, perhaps two – as he refuelled his ten destroyers for the journey back to Germany. It was a slow process. Four warships clustered around his tanker Jan Wellem, the rest patrolled the approaches to Narvik to fend off any attack, while three U-boats
. It was a stood guard in the
● The conservative – and ambitious – Erich Raeder who warned that ‘war with England would mean Finis Germania!’ yet risked his fleet to seize Norway
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