First battle of Narvik, 10 April 1940

The first battle of Narvik was a drawn naval battle fought between British and German destroyers during the German invasion of Norway. On 9 April the Germans had attacked Norway’s six main ports. Narvik, the most northerly of those ports, had been attacked by a small army group carried on ten destroyers. Although it was remote, Narvik was perhaps the most important German target. One of the reasons for the German invasion of Norway had been to protect the main supply route used to transport Swedish iron ore to Germany. The railway from the mines ran east to the northern Baltic and west to Narvik. The Baltic route was blocked by ice for four months every year, and so half of the German iron ore came from Narvik.

Narvik itself was located at the eastern end of Ofotfjord. Five smaller fjords ran off Ofotfjord, three east of Narvik and two to the west. After capturing Narvik, the ten German destroyers split into three groups. Five, including the squadron Commodore’s flagship Wilhelm Heidkamp, remained in Narvik. Two destroyers moved west, to Ballangen Fjord, while the final three went north, to Herjangs Fjord. All ten German ships were large destroyers, with a displacement when loaded of over 3,000 tons and carrying five 5in guns.

They would be attacked by five British “H” class destroyers, under the command of Captain Warburton-Lee. These were smaller boats – Warburton-Lee’s flagship, the Hardy, was the largest of them at just over 2,000 tons. They were armed with four or five 4.7in guns. On 9 April Warburton-Lee had been ordered to Narvik by the Admiralty with orders to prevent the Germans from landing there. His force contained the “H” class flotilla leader Hardy, and the destroyers Hotspur, Havock, Hunter and Hostile.

By the time Warburton-Lee reached the pilot station at Tranöy at 4pm on 9 April he was aware that the Germans were already at Narvik. He stopped at the station, where he was told that he would need twice as many ships to deal with the six large destroyers the pilots had seen, but despite this news decided to continue on to Narvik.

Warburton-Lee timed his arrival at Narvik perfectly. He arrived outside the port at just before 4am on 10 April, hidden by snowstorms from German eyes. At 4.30am he led Hardy, Hunter and Havock into the harbour, and with a combination of torpedoes and gunfire sank two of the German destroyers, the Wilhelm Heidkamp and the Anton Schmidt. Hotspur and Hostile joined in a second attack which sank a number of merchant ships. Warburton-Lee then withdrew outside the harbour. If the Norwegian pilots had been correct, then he had just sunk two and disabled three of the six German destroyers at Narvik and was in no danger, but in fact there were five undamaged German destroyers still at large, and between 5.30 and 5.40 they all got under way.

Warburton-Lee decided to remain at Narvik for long enough to make one more attack, before making his way back out to sea. Before he could go this, the three destroyers from Herjangs Fjord appeared to his north west (just before 6.00am). Now they were at sea the larger German destroyers had the British at something of a disadvantage, which soon got worse when they were attacked by the two destroyers to their west. The British were now caught between two attacks. The Hardy was badly damaged, and had to be beached while the Hunter was sunk outright. Captain Warburton-Lee was killed in this phase of the battle. He was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. A third British destroyer, the Hotspur was also badly damaged. The five German destroyers had also taken some damage in the fighting, and failed to press their advantage, allowing the two relatively undamaged British destroyers to rescue the Hotspur. On their way out of the fjord, the British sank the German ammunition ship Rauenfels, the only one to have reached Narvik.

Three days later the British returned to Narvik in much greater force (second battle of Narvik, 13 April 1940), with the battleship HMS Warspite and nine destroyers, and quickly sank the surviving German ships. 

 The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill. This first volume in the British official history of the war at sea covers the period from the outbreak of the war through to the first British disasters in the Pacific in December 1941. Amongst other topics it covers the Norwegian campaign, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the first two years of the Battle of the Atlantic. The text is meticulously researched, and is rooted in a detailed study of wartime records, both British and German. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 November 2007), First battle of Narvik, 10 April 1940 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_narvik_first.html

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