vi NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2010
NAVY NEWS, NARVIK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT APRIL 2010
● (Above) The capsized remains of the Bernd von Arnim, scuttled after expending her ammunition at the head of Rombaksfjord
● ‘A ship graveyard with wreckage wherever one looked’... (Left) The hulks of sunken merchant ships and German destroyers in Narvik harbour
● (Right) Her bow torn off by a torpedo hit from the Georg Thiele, the battered HMS Eskimo is inspected after the battle
Continued from page v
open water. As they did, they came across the steamer Rauenfels making her belated way to Narvik with supplies for the mountain troops and destroyers – shells, field guns, flak. The transporter was driven aground, then destroyed by the British guns. “The German ship literally erupted and a column of flame and debris rose to over 3,000 feet,” recalled Havock’s Lt Cdr Courage. So high was the cloud of smoke and ash that it towered above the mountains and could be seen by the Hardy’s survivors. It was the last act of the first battle of Narvik.
“When the sun finally breaks through the swaths of fog this morning, it casts light on a scene of destruction,” German war correspondent Otto Mielke wrote. Only two of the ten destroyers of Naval Group I had not been hit. Wilhelm Heidkamp and Anton Schmitt were sinking, Diether von Roeder was a floating wreck, Bernd von Arnim and Georg Thiele needed extensive repairs, the rest of the now-dead Bonte’s force required lesser attention. The battle in the confined waters of Narvik harbour had turned it into what the Germans called the Schiffsfriedhof – ship’s cemetery. “A large number of freighters lying by the quay have been hit by torpedoes or have been riddled with English shells,” Mielke noted. “They have sunk so that only the funnels and tips of masts stick out of the water, or lie burning at their berths. Thick black smoke rises over them and rolls gently across the harbour basin.”
In Narvik, there were so many German dead piled up in the small hospital, staff could not cope. Mayor
summoned to the Royal Hotel by Eduard Dietl. On his way, Broch noticed yet more posters appearing, hurriedly pasted up by the town’s new Nazi overlords: the Germans were here for Norway’s protection, any resistance would be broken, the perpetrators shot as traitors. In the hotel, Broch begged the general for permission to evacuate the town. Dietl refused. “The British have already sustained one defeat,” he snapped. “It is not likely they will return for another.” Eduard Dietl was wrong – on both
counts. Theodor Broch was
STAY OF EXECUTION
HUN SHIPS TRAPPED
For matelot and Matrose, there was now a brief respite in the struggle for the fjords. The Germans attempted to repair battle damage while their new commander, the chubby-faced Erich Bey, contemplated his position. Bey’s performance on the tenth had been underwhelming. The three ships he led out of Herjangsfjord – Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Erich Giese – could have tipped the battle in the Kriegsmarine’s favour, or at the very least evened the ‘score’. They did not – but they did expend half their ammunition and were all out of fuel. Wilhelmshaven demanded Bey’s battleworthy destroyers return immediately. That night, the Zenker and Giese headed down Ofotfjord. The weather, which had helped the British sneak up on Narvik now ensured the two German destroyers were sighted. Bey ran into one cruiser, HMS Penelope, and two destroyers. He immediately turned about and scurried back for Narvik. Despite more urging from Germany, Erich Bey refused to attempt break out – even when the weather closed in. His lack of dash condemned his flotilla to death.
In the small hours of Saturday April 13, the flag of William ‘Jock’ Whitworth was hoisted aboard His Majesty’s Ship Warspite some 100 miles to the west of Narvik. The vice-admiral’s mission was singular – “destruction of German warships, merchant ships and defences in Narvik area” – his means overwhelming. Nine destroyers mustered around the dreadnought, veteran of Jutland. HMS Hood may have been mighty, but Warspite was Britain’s greatest battleship. No single ship would acquire more battle honours than the eighth ship to bear a name which dated back to the days of the Virgin Queen.
In the spring of 1940, just two had been added to her honours board: Jutland 1916, Atlantic 1939. By the day’s end, Narvik 1940 would join them.
cloud, but that offered the senior rating and his two colleagues, observer Lt Cdr ‘Bruno’ Brown and telegraphist LA Maurice Pacey, as good a view of the battle as any men this Saturday. Within ten minutes, the Swordfish
had spied Bey’s nightwatchman, Hermann Künne, patrolling in the middle of the fjord, shortly followed by the Erich Koellner further east. She opened fire on the biplane, while the destroyers in Narvik harbour gathered steam for the impending battle.
EXCITEMENT AND FEAR
Aboard Warspite, Royal Marine Duff Cooper was filled with “a combination of excitement and not a little fear” as the men closed up in the turrets.
“The sweet, sickly smell of cordite permeated the turret as the silk bags of explosive were rammed behind the huge 15in shell,” he recalled. “The breeches closed, we stood – and waited.”
Above, Rice scoured the inlets of Ofotfjord, turning up Herjangsfjord around 1220. It took three minutes to hug the northern shore of the bay and there, right at the tip of the fjord, was the unmistakable outline of a submarine, on the surface, anchored a few yards from a jetty. It was Rice, not the aircraft’s commander Lt Cdr Brown, who was determined to “have a go” at the U-boat. Which he did. From 300ft, he dropped two 100lb bombs while Pacey traded bullets with the German submarine: the latter from its 37mm flak, the former from his machine-gun. It was the bombs which did for the boat, however. One hit its bow, the other struck at the base of the conning tower.
U64, which had left Wilhelmshaven
just a week before, sank by her bow in under a minute. The waters were sufficiently shallow that her stern stuck out. All but eight of her 46 crew scrambled to safety.
Through scattered snowstorms, ‘mother hen’ Warspite charged up Vestfjord at 22kts, protected by her ‘chicks’. Whitworth spurred his destroyers on. “I am sure that any resistance on the part of the enemy will be dealt with in the most resolute and determined manner,” he signalled from his flagship. “I wish you all every success.”
Perhaps it was signaller Donald Auffret who flashed Whitworth’s message from Warspite’s bridge. To the young sailor the narrow confines of the fjord, its sides “all grey with snow”, looked “a very, very grim place”.
Grim or not, the weather did not prevent Warspite from sending her seaplane aloft. Shortly before mid- day, and some 30 miles from Narvik, her Swordfish was catapulted into the sky over the entrance to Ofotfjord.
the redoubtable aircraft east at 85kts. He could fly no higher than 1,000ft thanks to the low
Pilot PO ‘Ben’ Rice steered
The Swordfish had yet more to offer. The Erich Koellner – unseaworthy after accidently running aground in the fjords – lay in wait in a cove near Djupvik, her guns and torpedo tubes directed into the fjord. She was sighted by ‘Bruno’ Brown, reported, and the danger was averted. As for Bey’s other guardship, Hermann Künne, she was scurrying east down the fjord laying a smokescreen over the water while her comrades emerged from Narvik harbour to join her. That they did.
Wolfgang Zenker and Hans Lüdemann zig-zagged furiously across Ofotfjord, posing a tricky target for Whitworth’s advancing force.
For the first ten or so minutes, this was a destroyer’s battle, but one minute to 1pm, the 15in guns of the Warspite entered the fray. In the confined waters of the fjord, the morale effect alone was awesome. “The cumulative effect of the roar
of Warspite’s 15in guns reverberating down and around the high mountains
● The lacklustre Erich Bey to whom command of the remaining destroyers fell after Friedrich Bonte was killed
of the fjord, the bursts and splashes of these great shells must have been terrifying,” the vice-admiral wrote. And it was. The crippled Erich Koellner was the first to feel the force of the battleship’s guns. The German destroyer had already been battered by four British warships before the dreadnought trained her turrets on her. “Imagine, if you can, four 15in shells, each weighing a ton, packed with high explosive, hitting a thin- skinned destroyer,” recalled AB H Banks on Warspite. And we can only imagine, for none of the Koellner’s crew has left an account of the battering she received. Donald Auffret watched half a dozen 15in shells crash into the ill- starred destroyer simultaneously. “She was literally lifted out of the water, up on to the beach, and then slid down again,” he recalled. Some of the Koellner’s crew did
survive. They scrambled up the fjord side, but without the proper mountaineering kit, most struggled. Some
the snow, others tore their fingers and jackets to shreds on the rocky outcrops. Most abandoned their attempts to escape the British guns and simply dug into the snow, awaiting the end – or awaiting the silence of the guns.
THE FIGHT RAGES
‘A MESS FROM START TO FINISH’
There were now five German destroyers in battle. Bernd von Arnim and Georg Thiele had belatedly raised steam to join battle. In all there were more than a dozen men o’war in Ofotfjord, their guns belching fire and steel, their torpedo tubes occasionally hurling their weapons into the water. Their quarries took evasive action, maneouvring sharply despite the restricted waters. It went on like this for a good half hour. In the midst of all this chaos, ten Swordfish from carrier HMS Furious swept down and threw their 250lb bombs at the German destroyers from less than 1,000ft. They hit none. Indeed, for all the bluster, it was
all huff and puff. Apart from the Koellner, there was no significant damage. “The whole thing was a mess from start to finish,” HMS Foxhound’s CO Lt Cdr Peters drily observed.
sank up to their arms in
THE DEATH RIDE
In Narvik harbour, Erich Giese – dogged by engine problems – was finally under way. It was too late to join the remainder of the flotilla making for Rombaksfjord. She would face the entire British force alone. Her captain, Karl Smidt, was no death and glory leader either, but he understood his bitter duty. Smidt had only enough ammunition
for a ten-minute fight. He could have scuttled his destroyer in harbour and put his men ashore. Karl Smidt chose to fight, as Gerard Roope had chosen to fight, in the face of overwhelming odds, determined “to inflict as much damage on the enemy as possible”. He knew his ship would not survive the battle.
In fact, Erich Giese struggled to enter battle. Barely had she cast off than she broke down, stuck in the harbour entrance for 13 minutes. Despite being at the mercy of the British guns and torpedoes, she fought valiantly – but to no avail. Her torpedoes scored no hits, while the Royal Navy response – a cluster of torpedoes from Bedouin and Punjabi raced past the Giese and smashed into the quay, rocking the crippled Diether von Roeder, berthed alongside.
had used up all their ammunition and made for the end of the 14-mile fjord where they were run aground. The Georg Thiele covered the flight, throwing smoke across the fjord’s mouth before snaking her way up the waterway, through the Straumen narrows. The Royal Navy pursued. Not Warspite – these waters were too treacherous for the battleship – but five destroyers. HMS Eskimo led the charge, knowing – thanks to the sterling service of Warspite’s Swordfish – the Germans were lying in wait. Her captain, Cdr St John Mickelthwait acknowledged that he was “running a certain amount of risk” entering the beast’s lair. It was a risk he readily accepted.
As she passed through the narrows,
Hans Lüdemann sent her four remaining torpedoes racing down the fjord and opened fire simultaneously. The torpedoes missed – by inches thanks to some particularly deft manoeuvring from Eskimo. In avoiding Lüdemann’s ‘fish’, Mickelthwait presented the Georg Thiele with an unmissable target. Her
torpedo officer, Oberleutnant zur See
Sommer, aimed and fired his ship’s very last torpedo.
Sommer could not have fired
a truer shot. The torpedo struck Eskimo’s forecastle beneath No.1 turret. The devastation was tremendous.
According to one
The two German vessels directed their ire – and their fire – at the Punjabi, which was hit repeatedly. Finally it became too much for the British destroyer which signalled her flagship forlornly: “Am damned sorry, I have to come out of it.” Punjabi had done her duty, for her foe was dying. “Wounded and dying were lying everywhere” on the Erich Giese. “Firing had ceased – all guns were out of action or short of ammunition.” Smidt ordered his men to abandon ship. They leapt into the fjord where – according to official British reports – “many succumbed to the cold”, while – according to German reports – “the enemy opened machine-gun fire upon the survivors swimming in the water”. There is, at least, no dispute about the fate of some of her crew who made it to shore... “A shell from HMS Warspite struck the face of the rocky cliff, bringing down an avalanche of rock,” the official Admiralty account records.
Mess though it was – and war invariably is – it was a mess increasingly in the Royal Navy’s favour. With ammunition supplies running low, Erich Bey ordered his ships to head for their last refuge, the long, thin Rombaksfjord. It was a Himmelfahrtskommando – suicide mission. There was no escape. In the smoke of battle, not all his flotilla received the order. The Hermann Künne headed alone up Herjangsfjord. There was no fight left in the destroyer – literally. She had even fired her star shells. Her captain, Friedrich Kothe, was not a ‘death and glory’ leader. He chose to beach his ship and scuttle her. Which perhaps he did. For as the seacocks were opened and scuttling charges fired, the Hermann Künne was rocked by an explosion. She died, possibly by her own hand, or possibly by a torpedo from HMS Eskimo.
In harbour, there was still the von Roeder to despatch – and she fought as well as any German ship that Saturday, despite being unable to move. In the space of two minutes, she
Cossack – the Altmark’s nemesis – sending the British destroyer out of control and causing her to run aground. And now too Diether von Roeder bowed out of the fight. Her ammunition expended, her crew set the scuttling charges and ran ashore. The destroyer exploded and settled in the shallow water by the jetty just as a boarding party from HMS Foxhound prepared to leap onboard.
The drama of the Second Battle of Narvik was hurtling towards its dénouement. By 2pm, the four surviving German destroyers – Hans Lüdemann, Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim and Georg Thiele – were steaming into Rombaksfjord from whence there would be no return. Only the Thiele and Lüdemann still had fight left in them; their sisters
sent seven shells into HMS
account “the explosion carried away the bows of the ship and the forward medical station disappeared with its staff.” The destroyer’s bow hung vertically in the water momentarily before breaking off and disappearing into the fjord. Fifteen men died instantly, two more succumbed to their wounds.
And yet Eskimo continued the fight. Her No.2 turret continued firing “as if nothing had happened,” one admiring eyewitness recalled. HMS Hero sailed past the mauled ship. Her sailors cheered the brave men of Eskimo. Aboard the Georg Thiele there was a momentary double celebration.
They had hit the Cossack and avenged the Altmark. They hadn’t. The British ship sank. She didn’t. She
was towed to safety, subsequently repaired, and fought with distinction to the war’s end. The war’s end was nigh for the Thiele as the fire of every British ship was directed at her. “Our gunfire had become irregular
and weak, consisting largely of single shells fired at random,” her captain Fregattenkapitän Max-Eckart Wolff wrote. “With the gunnery officer lying momentarily stunned on the deck, the fire-signaller ordered rapid fire on his own initiative. When nothing happened, the gunnery officer called the bridge and reported: ‘Am receiving no more ammunition!’” Wolff ordered full ahead and ran his ship aground, smashing into the rocks which rose steeply out of the water. Some of his men jumped into the water, others jumped ashore from the forecastle. The captain destroyed confidential papers and equipment, tossing them into the fjord, then left the Georg Thiele as the last man. “Our ship was now burning
brightly forward and aft,” he recalled. “Later she capsized, the stern broken off at the forward funnel, and sank after heavy explosions.”
Despite losing their shoes and coats coming ashore, many of Wolff’s ship’s company scrambled up the fjord side and reached the ore
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