The Narvik campaign of April-June 1940 began with a dramatic German success, saw the first Allied land victory of the Second World War, before coming to an anticlimactic ending when events in France and the Low Countries forced the British and French to evacuate Norway.
Control of Narvik was one of the main objectives of the German campaign in Norway. Most German iron ore came from mines in northern Sweden, and just of half of that iron ore travelled to Germany via the ice-free port of Narvik. Germany and the Allies were both aware of the importance of Narvik and the Swedish iron ore. The British and French had hoped to occupy the area early in 1940 so they could provide aid to the Finns in their war against the Soviet Union, but these plans had come to nothing. It was then planned to lay a minefield in Norwegian territorial waters, just outside Narvik, to force merchant ships to sail in international waters (Operation Wilfred). This plan was finally carried out on 8 April, only one day before the German invasion.
The Germans had two reasons for invading Norway. The first was to secure their iron ore supplies, although this did not meet with the approval of the German naval staff, who felt that Norwegian neutrality was a better protection of the trade. The second German aim was to use bases on the Norwegian coast to bypass the British naval blockade of Germany. In 1940 this aim soon came to seem redundant after the Germans gained bases on the Atlantic coast of France, but it would come back to the fore after the German invasion of Russia, when the main British supply line to Russia passed around the northern coast of Norway.
While the British were laying their minefields off the coast of Norway, the Germans had an invasion fleet at sea. Force I, consisting of 2000 mountain troops under General Eduard Dietl, carried on ten destroyers and supported by the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were heading towards Narvik. Before entering the approaches to Narvik, the battlecruisers were detached and sent off to the north west, while the destroyers approached Narvik.
On the morning on 9 April the German expedition entered Ofotfjord, the western approach to Narvik. They encountered and sank the elderly Norwegian coastal defence vessel Eidsvoll. Three German destroyers then sailed into Narvik harbour, where they sank her sister ship Norge. Dietl landed, and was able to convince the Norwegian commander at Narvik, Colonel Sundlo, to surrender without a fight.
The first British counterattack came on the following day. A force of five British destroyers reached Narvik undetected, sank two German destroyers in the harbour and damaged three more (first battle of Narvik). On their way out of the fjord, the British were attacked by the remaining five German destroyers, losing two ships themselves.
The British returned three days later (second battle of Narvik). This time they attacked with nine destroyers and the battleship HMS Warspite. All eight remaining German destroyers were destroyed, although 2,500 of their crew were able to escape, and would play a valuable role in the defence of Narvik.
10 April also saw Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery appointed the flag officer at Narvik. He had been involved in expedition to help the Finns, and was known to be an aggressive attacking officer. Unfortunately the same could not be said of Major General P. J. Mackesy, the commander of the ground forces. The two men both departed for Narvik on 12 April, Mackesy from Scapa and Cork from Rosyth. Neither men met before leaving Scotland, nor did they exchange plans until their first meeting in Norway.
On 11 April a convoy of three liners left the Clyde, heading for Narvik. It was later joined by two more liners and the cruisers Manchesterand Birmingham, but on 14 April one infantry brigade was detached from the convoy to go to Namsos. This left the 24th Guards Brigade for the attack on Narvik. Mackesy set up his base at Harstad, arriving on 14 April. There Cork and Mackesy met for the first time to discuss and if possible coordinate their plans.
All hopes of an early attack on Narvik were ended by Mackesy’s attitude towards the venture. He wanted to conduct a careful campaign after waiting for the campaign to end. Cork had a more aggressive attitude. His first suggestion was for an immediate amphibious attack on Narvik, supported by the guns of the fleet. Mackesy responded to all such suggestions by comparing them to either Gallipoli or Passchendaele. Neither comparison was valid. The Germans in Narvik were isolated, badly supplied and soon outnumbered. A determined amphibious assault carried out soon after the British had destroyed the German destroyer flotilla at Narvik may well have succeeded. The British victory on 13 April had certainly triggered a crisis in Berlin, where Hitler demonstrated the first signs of weakness under stress, and even agreed to allow Dietl to intern his force in Sweden (this permission was soon withdrawn).
The relationship between Mackesy and Cork began badly and never recovered. In the circumstances of 1940 there was little to be gained by the sort of cautious approach that Mackesy wished to use. It can only have based on the false assumption that the British and French would be able to maintain their position in central Norway, giving the troops around Narvik the time they would need for such a slow paced attack. Instead, by the start of May the fighting was over in central Norway, and it was becoming clear that something was about to happen on the western front.
Mackesy’s overly cautious attitude was clearly demonstrated after the arrival of General Marie Emile Béthouart at the head of the 1st Chasseur Light Division (28th Chasseur Demi-Brigade, 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade and 1st Carpathian Chasseur Demi-Brigade). Béthouart was much more willing to carry out amphibious attacks, and on 13 May the Foreign Legion carried out the first opposed amphibious assault of the war, capturing Bjerkvik, at the top of Nerjangs Fjord, north of Narvik, without taking heavy casualties.
This attack took place two days after the arrival of General Claude Auchinleck, officially on an inspection mission, but with orders to replace Mackesy if he felt it was necessary. Having seen the poor relationship between Cork and Mackesy, he decided to do just that. The fighting around Narvik finally began to move towards a conclusion. Norwegian troops had been fighting the Germans in the mountains, and they now began to threaten Dietl’s supply line, the railway into Sweden. On 28 May the Foreign Legion, supported by Norwegian troops, finally launched the attack on Narvik, landing north of the town. After a unsuccessful counterattack Dietl was forced to pull back east along the railway.
Heartening though this success was, it came too late for there to be any chance of retaining Narvik. German relief forces, containing parts of two mountain divisions, were approaching from the south. Auchinleck attempted to delay their advance, but his inexperienced troops had little chance of success against trained mountain troops. More importantly, in France and Belgium the German army was winning stunning victories. Even before the final attack on Narvik, Auchinleck had been ordered to prepare for an evacuation. The main purpose of the final attack on the port was to make the evacuation easier. King Haakon of Norway was informed of the decision to withdraw on 1 June. The king was evacuated from Tromso on 7 June, and the last British and French troops left the Narvik area on 8 June.
The British would suffer one final blow after the Narvik campaign was all but over. The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was on her way home, escorted by two destroyers and carrying a number of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft that had managed to land on her decks when she ran into the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Despite a brave defence by the two destroyers, the Glorious was lost with heavy loss of life.