In 1929 a German admiral named Wegener published a book entitled The Sea Strategy of the World War (i. e. World War I). In this book he put forward the theory that the British sea blockade and stranglehold over the North Sea could and should have been broken by German seizure of the ports in Norway. He had good reason to pen such ideas, for the German nation had indeed suffered through the British naval blockade which had prevented many imports from reaching Kaiser Wilhelm’s countrymen. In that war, the German Army had not taken over all its neighbouring territories and, unlike in the second great conflict, Germany did not manage to expropriate or import to anything like the same extent. But Admiral Wegener’s book was dismissed by the chief of Germany’s small post-war navy, the Reichsmarine, though it provoked much interest among lesser officers.
Both Norway and Sweden were of great importance to Germany in both wars, the latter because of its vital supply of iron ore, the first owing to its convenient ports, especially Narvik, for in winter the Baltic sea often froze over, which meant that ore trains had to be routed to the northern port in Norway to be shipped down the coast to Germany. Of the ten million tons of ore exported by Sweden to Germany in 1939, only one million tons travelled directly to the German ports. Narvik remained ice-free from January to April and was the best port of transit.
Another obvious fact was that with ports such as Narvik in German hands, the Navy would stand a much better chance of breaking out into the Atlantic, where its surface warships could wreak havoc with Allied convoys. Which is precisely what happened on several occasions in World War II. Although the `pocket’ battleship Graf Spee was eventually lost, it did, with the Scheer and Deutschland (later renamed Lutzow), create some panic at the British Admiralty and sink a worthwhile number of British ships. These were early operations; the Germans had already sent these heavier ships to sea before war came. With Norway occupied, the threat would and did multiply. Risks were taken to interrupt the Germans’ ore supplies – mines were laid in Norwegian waters – and when the German prison ship Altmark anchored in a fjord the destroyer Cossack sailed in to rescue all the British seamen aboard.
British explanations for these breaches were met with strong protests from the Norwegian government and, of course, rage from the German side. This situation enlivened the `Phoney War’ in the early spring of 1940, crisis looming when both the Germans and the British prepared expeditions to occupy at least the port of Narvik. German warships were sighted moving northwards along the Norwegian coast, and the Polish submarine Orzcl sank the German supply and troopship Rio de Janeiro off southern Norway, large numbers of German soldier survivors being rescued by Norwegian fishing boats. The enemy were reported as saying they had been heading for Bergen to help the Norwegians defend them¬ selves against British aggression.
Hitler was sensitive to his northern flank throughout the war; this fear was encouraged by the British, who maintained various fictional threats towards Norway. But the notion that the British and French could seize and hold Narvik in 1940 was a fantasy thought up by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the future Prime Minister, fond as he was of dreaming up grand expeditions. On the German side, the Kriegsmarinds Grand Admiral Raeder did all he could to promote the scheme of taking over Norway, for he was a `big ship man’ who still believed in the might of the battleship.
As for the Norwegians themselves, they had been at peace for hundreds of years; not since the days of the Vikings had that nation indulged in war. But the Nazis had been pursuing a relentless campaign of unsubtle propaganda designed to thoroughly undermine Norwegian minds and convert them to the idea of a benevolent, protective Reich. As a result, when invasion came the country was quite unprepared. The Nazi theme of `Nordic brotherhood’ had some effect in various quarters. Hitler Youth groups and others made many visits to Norway, bearing gifts and propaganda in an attempt to win over Norwegian opinion to the National Socialist cause. The complete lack of subtlety on the Germans’ part was made clear when, during the evening of 9 April 1940, the German minister in Oslo invited many distinguished guests, including members of the host government, to a special film show at the German legation. If the guests had expected a Hollywood western or musical, then their hopes were rudely shattered; the one long feature film shown was the propagandist record of the subjugation of Poland by the Wehrmacht. Included in this epic was the bombing of Warsaw, the inhabitants, so the grating commentator assured, having only the Allies to thank for it. The guests filed out in a state of shock and bewilderment; the show had obviously been intimidatory, a warning to Norway, despite all the assertions of Nordic neighbourliness. It was clear the Nazis would mete out similar treatment to any who dared oppose them.
Over the following days the drama escalated as both Britain and Germany despatched military expeditions to Norway. Despite the rushed and in some ways bungled nature of the British-French arrangements, some success was achieved: a foothold was made at Narvik and heavy losses were dealt out to the German Navy during several encounters in the fjords and at sea. But lack of experience at that stage in combined operations, and above all the lack of air cover, brought ever-increasing difficulties for the Allied corps as the enemy succeeded in occupying much of Norway, having already invaded Denmark. During these hard weeks, following Prime Minister Chamberlain’s ill-judged assertion that `Herr Hitler’ had `missed the bus’, and no matter how much supremacy the Royal Navy maintained at sea, fuddled thinking and lack of swift decision-making in London enabled the enemy to gradually squeeze the Allied forces into an impossible position. At least so it seemed to the Allies, the British bearing much of the burden since neither the French Navy nor Armee de I’Air did anything to assist. Some success was achieved at the two major Norwegian ports of Trondheim and Narvik, but in the air a handful of obsolete Gladiator biplanes were soon lost, while in the north some Hurricanes ferried over with pilots and ground crews prepared for evacuation from Narvik. In fact, as the Heinkels swept over unopposed to bomb and strafe the Allied troops the decision was made to evacuate all forces from Norway. This, at a time when the German General Died had himself decided his troops were unable to succeed at Narvik, surprised the enemy.
The Allied expeditionary corps had landed at Narvik on 15 April 1940 and had fought valiantly for weeks, well past 10 May, when the Wehrmacht attacked in the west. On 10 June the last Allied troops left Norway. The Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm had inflicted very heavy losses on the Kriegsmarine – the destruction of ten German destroyers practically crippled the enemy’s destroyer fleet – but on 8June the Royal Navy suffered its own grievous loss.
Unknown to the Admiralty, the German Navy’s B-dienstradio listening service had been reading most of the Royal Navy’s signals. The larger German warships carried such personnel aboard, and all British wireless traffic was monitored so that captains could be kept abreast of enemy ship movements. By breaking British naval codes the Germans learnt that on 5 June the battleships Renown and Repulse were being sent north with destroyers and cruisers to intercept two German raiders believed to be trying to break into the Atlantic via the Faroes Passage south of Iceland. The Kriegsmarine also learnt that the carriers Ark Royal and Glorious were at sea off Norway. In view of General Dietl’s belief that he was losing the battle for Narvik, two of the heaviest German Navy units, the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, plus the cruiser Hipper and four destroyers, were despatched to support Dietl’s men by bombarding the Allied troops battling around Narvik. Died would soon be hailed in Germany as the `hero’ of that battle, which the Germans actually won because of the unexpected Allied withdrawal (a German victory would in all probability have come later had the troops opposing them not been evacuated).
However, the German naval task force was diverted en route to attack British shipping. A tanker and the empty liner Oriana were sunk, 274 of the latter’s crew being rescued; the hospital ship Atlantis was allowed to sail on unharmed. The German fleet commander, Admiral Marschall, then received news from his B-dienst officer that more enemy ships were positioned to the north, these believed to be the cruiser Southampton with the two carriers mentioned. The temptation to intercept the latter prizes was great. Forgetting his primary task for the moment, Admiral Marschall ordered full speed ahead, his intention to sink the two British carriers before going on to support the Germans ashore. But the warships were no longer needed around Narvik, for the Allied forces were busily embarking for home. The only way General Diet! could notify the Navy of this event was by using a Norwegian telephone via Sweden back to Trondheim where `Admiral Norway’ – Captain Theodor Krancke – had installed himself in the Britannia Hotel. Dietl’s report never reached Admiral Marschall, whose small fleet sailed on northwards.
At 16.45 a midshipman in the crow’s nest of Scharnhorst reported ships off the starboard bow. At first he saw only smoke, but gradually, through his powerful rangefinder, he made out a masthead, the range forty-six kilometres. The German crews were already on alert; they were now brought to action stations, everyone aboard the ships aware that if a more powerful British force appeared they would have to turn tail.
Not until 17.10 was the first enemy vessel seen to be an aircraft carrier, wrongly identified as the Ark Royal, a ship Nazi propaganda had claimed was destroyed the previous year. Then came news that the carrier was escorted by only two destroyers. In fact, the carrier was the older-type Glorious, which according to the official line, much disputed since, had been allowed to head straight for home owing to a fuel shortage, 200 miles ahead of the main convoy leaving Narvik. Even Winston Churchill, close as he was to the staff at the Admiralty, found this hard to believe, and obfuscation continues to this day. The Admiralty archivist insists that a signal sent by Glorious to the cruiser Devonshire reporting heavy German units was not received, a vital point flatly contradicted by a surviving telegraphist from the cruiser who swears he delivered such a signal to the bridge staff. This is important, since Devonshire had aboard King Haakon of Norway, and most likely his entourage, probably important archives and perhaps even state funds. At all costs, the British government and Admiralty were anxious this party should reach Britain safely – not that this is meant to imply they used Glorious and its meagre escort as bait or sacrifice. In fact, no reports of German warships moving north had been received by the Admiralty, whose intelligence at this time seems to have been inadequate.
Meanwhile, the heavy British units despatched to intercept `two raiders’ heading for the Atlantic drew a blank. Both Devonshire and Glorious were virtually helpless against the far mightier Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, which carried eleven-inch guns. Even though the cruiser Hipper and the destroyers had turned back, the two German battlecruisers would have had little trouble destroying the British cruiser, but fortunately for this ship and its royal cargo they were beyond danger. Not so Glorious, which came under fire from the enemy as soon as the range closed. Despite the great bulk of the carrier, the first eleven-inch shells fired by Scharnhorst at 17.21 from twenty-six kilometres failed to hit, but by 17.38 both German ships were on target. Gneisenau had also been shooting at the destroyer Ardent, which was soon set ablaze.
Admiral Marschall and his staff, watching the Glorious through their binoculars, believed the British were trying to get their torpedo planes readied on deck, but shellfire soon put paid to this attempt. The German B-dienst team were listening carefully for any distress calls from Glorious, and at 17.52 hrs picked up a rather mangled, oscillating signal which was unreadable. A further, much clearer, message was intercepted at 18.19 hrs and immediately jammed by the German signallers.
German shells wrecked all the Hurricanes and naval aircraft ranged on the carrier’s deck, and fires took hold below among the aviation fuel and other stores. The German battlecruisers had first opened fire at maximum range – 27,000 yards, or fifteen miles – their eleven-inch guns fully elevated, the range closing steadily as the enemy drew closer until a rain of heavy missiles reduced the British carrier to a blazing wreck. By 18.30 Glorious was listing so badly the remains of its aircraft were sliding off the flat top into the sea. One can imagine the chaos and carnage below. Yet the ship struggled to remain afloat for a further half an hour before finally slipping beneath the waves.
The destroyer Ardent was also sunk, but the captain of the other escorting destroyer, Acasta, drove his little ship hard at Scharnhorst, whose lookouts reported three or four torpedoes fired at the battleship from bows-on. Scharnhorst’s Captain Hoffmann altered course drastically while the warship’s great guns blazed away at the impudent attacker. On Acasta, the captain, Commander C. E. Glasford, had broadcast to his crew before turning towards the enemy: `You may think we are running away from the enemy – we are not! Our chummy ship [Ardeni] has sunk, the Glorious is sinking, the least we can do is make a show. Good luck to you all!’ Leading Seaman Carter would be the sole survivor from this unequal and suicidal attack; David would not prevail against Goliath. It was Carter who fired two of the torpedoes, commenting later that he thought the enemy very surprised at the audacity of it all, Acasta emerging very suddenly from its own smoke screen. `They never fired a shot at us!’ Carter recalled. This soon changed as the enemy crew recovered their poise and began shooting at the destroyer with all the weapons that could be brought to bear. According to Carter, Acasta got in close before its missiles were launched, yet according to a German account nine minutes elapsed before one torpedo struck Scharnhorst. Meanwhile, German shells were peppering the destroyer and a big explosion seemed to lift Acasta out of the water. When last seen, the surgeon lieutenant was trying to tend his captain; both men went down with the ship. Some 1,474 Britishers were lost on the carrier and two destroyers (1,515 according to one source). Captain D’Oyly-Hughes of Glorious also went down with his ship, and only thirty-nine men were saved by the Germans; another thirty-six were picked up by a Norwegian ship later and returned to Britain.
The torpedo struck the German battleship’s starboard quarter, tearing a 36 x 12ft hole in its bow. Again, according to German sources the time elapsed (nine minutes) seemed to indicate quite clearly that the British torpedoes had missed, which was why Captain Hoffman had his ship resume its original course – with disastrous results. Forty-eight German sailors lost their lives as sea water and oil from a ruptured fuel tank gushed into the forward compartments of Scharnhorst.
Despite Hitler’s continued doubts, Grand Admiral Raeder sent Gneisenau and Hipper to sea again on 20 June. Close in to the Norwegian cliffs lay the British submarine Clyde (Lt Commander D. C. Ingram), which put one of its torpedoes into the German battlecruiser, the explosion blowing a hole as big as a house in the warship’s bow. The only remaining German battleship serviceable, Gneisenau was put out of action for months. In fact, at the close of the Norwegian campaign the greater part of the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet was out of action: apart from those sunk, twenty-four ships were in dock for refurbishment, a further fifteen were being serviced, and seven more had had their crews paid off while refitting was carried out, these including the pocket battleship Lutzow (exDeutschland). The Germans had suffered greatly at sea, their small fleet virtually incapacitated, yet in propaganda terms the victory seemed the enemy’s: Norway was lost to Hitler, the Allied corps had withdrawn. The recriminations were muted, overborne perhaps by the far greater disaster in France and Belgium. Hitler secured his ore supplies from Sweden and threw the British off the continent.
All the airmen aboard Glorious were lost. None had been sent aloft to watch out for enemy vessels. Such lessons were hard learned; as was proved against Bismarck, even antiquated biplanes could deliver deadly torpedo attacks. Aircraft carriers should never have been sent across the North Sea without battleship escort.