The Battles of Narvik were pivotal naval engagements early in World War II, where the Royal Navy sought to disrupt the German occupation of Norway and its vital iron ore supply from Sweden.

The first battle on April 10, 1940, marked by surprise and ferocity, saw the British inflict significant damage on the German fleet but failed to secure the port.

The second battle on April 13 led to the destruction of the remaining German destroyers by a reinforced British fleet, though it ultimately did not prevent the strategic occupation of Norway by German ground forces.

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Background

The significance of Narvik in World War II cannot be overstated. Located in the northern reaches of Norway, above the Arctic Circle, the town of Narvik was far from the major theaters of war in Europe. However, its strategic importance was derived from the rich iron ore deposits found in Kiruna, Sweden. During the harsh winter months, when the Baltic Sea was often frozen, Narvik’s ice-free harbor became the primary port for the exportation of this critical industrial resource.

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The iron ore was essential for the German war machine, which relied on it for the production of steel necessary to build tanks, ships, aircraft, and weapons. Given the port’s capacity to handle large quantities of this ore and its rail connections to Sweden, the control of Narvik was of considerable interest to both Germany and the Allies.

Before the outbreak of war, Britain and France had planned for the possibility of securing Scandinavian neutrality or assistance. Their strategies included the idea of helping Finland in the Winter War against the Soviet Union and cutting off German access to Scandinavian resources.

Although the Winter War ended before this plan could be executed, the strategic thinking persisted. The Germans, fully aware of their reliance on Swedish iron ore and wary of Allied intentions, conceived Operation Weserübung—the invasion of Denmark and Norway—to preempt any Allied move and secure their supply lines.

In the dawn of 1940, as Europe reeled under the strain of war, the importance of Scandinavian resources became increasingly apparent. The British began to lay plans for mining Norwegian waters to force transport ships into international waters where they could be intercepted. However, before these plans could come to fruition, Germany launched its invasion on April 9, 1940.

An aerial view of Narvik.

Operation Weserübung was characterized by its boldness and surprise, involving paratroopers, ship-borne infantry, and swift naval movements. Germany’s swift and decisive action aimed to secure key ports and airfields along the Norwegian coast, including Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, and, crucially, Narvik.

The invasion met with limited initial resistance from the under-prepared Norwegian forces. German troops quickly captured the town of Narvik and secured the iron ore shipments, achieving their primary objective.

The Allied response was swift. Britain and France, recognizing the strategic blow of a German-controlled Norway and the potential for the Scandinavian front to draw German attention away from Western Europe, mounted a counter-operation. Their strategic goals were twofold: to assist Norway in repelling the German invasion and to cut the flow of iron ore to Germany.

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They hoped that by seizing key ports and establishing a presence in Norway, they could both throttle the German supply of Swedish iron ore and establish a northern front from which to pressure Germany.

Thus, Narvik became the focal point of a significant naval and military campaign. The Allies, particularly the British and French, were under no illusions about the difficulties they would face. The remote location, severe weather conditions, and the formidable German navy were all factors that would test the resolve and capability of the Allied forces.

Despite these challenges, the naval battles for Narvik would demonstrate the Allies’ willingness to confront the Axis powers in distant and difficult theaters, setting the stage for the dramatic and consequential encounters that unfolded in the icy waters of the Norwegian fjords in April 1940.

The First Battle of Narvik – April 10, 1940

The first battle of Narvik, occurring on April 10, 1940, was a defining moment in the early stages of the Norwegian Campaign. This naval engagement was not merely a confrontation at sea; it was a direct assault on German forces that had secured a crucial lifeline for the Nazi war effort. The objective for the British Royal Navy was clear: disrupt the German supply chain by taking Narvik and its valuable shipments of iron ore.

Admiral William Whitworth, commanding the British flotilla, understood that surprise and decisive action were essential to dislodge the entrenched German forces. Whitworth led a group of five destroyers: HMS Hardy (his flagship), HMS Havock, HMS Hostile, HMS Hotspur, and HMS Hunter.

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Their mission was to navigate the treacherous waters of Ofotfjord and launch a surprise attack on the German destroyers that had docked in Narvik. These German ships, under the command of Commodore Friedrich Bonte, were responsible for securing the port after the initial invasion and were largely unprepared for an immediate naval counterattack.

The element of surprise was indeed on the side of the British. The German destroyers were caught off guard, with some crews ashore and others not fully manned. The attack commenced under the cloak of darkness and amidst a heavy snowstorm—a common weather pattern in the fjords, which can offer both hindrance and cover. The British destroyers pushed into the fjord aggressively, using the poor visibility to their advantage.

As the Royal Navy vessels engaged the German ships, the battle turned into a chaotic maelstrom of gunfire and explosions within the narrow confines of the fjord, an arena that presented its own dangers aside from enemy fire.

The proximity to the surrounding mountains meant that the usual maneuvering expected in a naval battle was severely limited. The British ships had to navigate carefully to avoid grounding on the rocky shores while maintaining a relentless offensive against the German destroyers.

In the heat of battle, two German destroyers were quickly sunk. The German crews fought back, but the surprise attack had tilted the engagement in favor of the British. HMS Hardy and HMS Hunter, however, paid a heavy price. HMS Hardy, with Admiral Whitworth aboard, sustained critical damage.

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The ship ran aground after the bridge took a direct hit, causing severe casualties and leaving the vessel inoperable. HMS Hunter was sunk during the fierce exchange, with the loss of many sailors.

Despite their losses, the British managed to inflict significant damage on the German fleet. However, as ammunition ran low and the element of surprise faded, the remaining British destroyers were compelled to withdraw from the fjord. The withdrawal marked the end of the first battle, a pyrrhic encounter, where both sides could claim a measure of success and failure.

The Second Battle of Narvik – April 13, 1940

The first naval battle of Narvik had left the port town still in German hands, but the Royal Navy had inflicted considerable damage on the Kriegsmarine’s destroyer fleet. With the strategic importance of Narvik still critical, the British returned with a reinforced naval group, determined to dislodge the Germans completely. This second battle, which took place just three days later, was to be a more decisive engagement.

On April 13, 1940, under the cover of the persistent Arctic gloom, the British returned to the Ofotfjord. This time, they came with a significantly bolstered force, headlined by the battleship HMS Warspite. Accompanying her were nine destroyers, including the Bedouin, Cossack, Eskimo, Punjabi, and others, forming a formidable flotilla that aimed to deliver a finishing blow to the German destroyers that had survived the first encounter.

HMS Warspite firing on shore positions during the Second Battle of Narvik.

The Germans, under the command of Captain Erich Bey after the death of Commodore Bonte in the first battle, were at a significant disadvantage. The destruction and damage to their ships had been severe, and many of their vessels were low on both fuel and ammunition, leaving them ill-prepared for a sustained engagement with a renewed British offensive. The German ships were effectively trapped in the fjord, with little opportunity to escape into the open sea and evade the British onslaught.

The British fleet, led by the formidable Warspite and its experienced commander, Captain Vian, entered the Ofotfjord with caution but with determination. Warspite’s presence was not merely an increase in firepower; it was also a strong psychological statement. The British approach was methodical; they cleared the entrance of mines before the destroyers moved in, supported by Warspite’s heavy guns.

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Once the British ships were engaged, the battle unfolded with ferocity. The Royal Navy’s destroyers, drawing upon the lessons of the first battle, were well-coordinated and executed a pincer movement on the German forces. Warspite’s 15-inch guns provided devastating firepower from a distance, while the destroyers closed in for the kill.

The German destroyers, despite their dire situation, did not surrender easily. They fought back with everything they had, managing to inflict considerable damage on the British destroyers. The HMS Eskimo had its bow blown off by a torpedo, but remarkably, the ship remained afloat.

The damage sustained by HMS Eskimo.

In the end, the overwhelming firepower and tenacity of the British fleet proved too much for the beleaguered German destroyers. The second battle of Narvik resulted in the sinking of eight German destroyers, effectively wiping out the German naval presence in the fjord and ensuring British control of the waters around Narvik. It was a clear-cut tactical victory for the Royal Navy.

However, this success at sea did not directly translate into an immediate Allied victory on land, as the German army still held Narvik and the surrounding areas. The naval victory was unable to prevent the eventual occupation of Norway by German ground forces.

Aftermath

The Battles of Narvik were significant for several reasons and had a lasting impact on the course of the Second World War, particularly in the naval theater. The immediate aftermath of the conflict saw the Allies gaining a temporary upper hand in the region, but this would not last long. Although the British had achieved a notable naval victory, the situation on land was far more complex.

The destruction of the German destroyers in the fjords of Narvik deprived the Nazi war machine of its most direct route to the precious iron ore supplies from Sweden. This, in theory, should have had a significant impact on German war production. However, the Germans were quick to adapt their logistics and soon resorted to alternate routes through occupied Norway to continue the shipment of iron ore, which remained a crucial resource throughout the war.

The wreck of the German destroyer Bernd von Arnim which was beached and then scuttled during the battle.

On a broader scale, the battles highlighted the importance of airpower in supporting naval and land operations. Despite their success at sea, the Allies were unable to establish air superiority, which greatly hampered their efforts on land. The German Luftwaffe controlled the skies and was able to provide effective support to their ground forces, which eventually led to the recapture of Narvik and the occupation of all of Norway.

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The Norwegian campaign, which included the Battles of Narvik, was also a severe strategic blunder for the Allies. It diverted precious resources away from the main theater of war—France. Just as the Allies were focusing their attention on the far north, Germany was preparing to unleash its Blitzkrieg on Western Europe. The fall of France in June 1940, merely weeks after the battles at Narvik, was a stark indication that the Allies had misjudged their priorities.