Operation Alphabet (i)

'Alphabet' (i) was the British seaborne evacuation of elements of the expeditionary force in Norway from the region of Narvik (4/8 June 1940).

The operation signalled the German success in 'Weserübung' and marked the end of the British and French campaign in Norway.

The evacuation was prompted by the continued advances of the German forces in their 'Gelb' and 'Sichelschnitt' assault on the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France from 10 May 1940, which in British and French eyes reduced the Norwegian campaign’s significance to that of a sideshow. Given the success of 'Sichelschnitt' right from its start, the UK decided on 24 May to pull its forces out of the campaign against the German forces still advancing to the north through Norway, but only after capturing Narvik so that the railway line from Sweden and the port’s loading plant could be totally destroyed as a means of delaying the resumption of German shipment of high-grade Swedish iron ore. Orders to this effect were transmitted on the following day to Lieutenant General C. J. E. Auchinleck and Admiral the Lord Cork and Orrery, commanding the British land and naval forces in Norway.

The first task was the evacuation from Bodø, reinforced only on 15 May by two battalions of the 24th Guards Brigade commanded temporarily by Lieutenant Colonel W. D. Faulkner and from 23 May by Brigadier C. McV. Gubbins, but where the German pressure was now acute. The evacuation began on 29 May and all 4,000 troops had been embarked by 31 May, so ending the 'Scissors' subsidiary landings designed to delay the German advance to the north. The route to Narvik was now open to an unimpeded German advance and, perhaps more importantly, Bodø airfield had just become ready for use.

It was plain that even if the British decision to leave Norway had not been dictated by the changes in the strategic situation in France, the British could not have held the Vestfjord area for much longer. The final assault on Narvik, for which much less naval support was now available, was timetabled for 27/28 May after the improvised airfield at Bardufoss had reached operational capability, but the danger of the whole undertaking became evident at about 04.00 on 28 May, when German bombers arrived overhead while the defending British fighters could not take-off as Bardufoss was covered with fog. Fortunately, most of the troops had been disembarked and only the anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo, in which the naval and military commanders and their staffs were embarked, was damaged.

Again the attack was stalled as the Allies waited for air support to be re-established from Bardufoss. At 23.40 on 28 May a naval bombardment began from the north to soften the German defence. One Norwegian and two French battalions were transported across the Rombaksfjord to drive on Narvik from the north, while in the south the four Polish battalions advanced toward Ankenes and the inner Beisfjord. The maximum capacity of the landing barges was 290 men, and the men landed in the first wave could not be reinforced for 45 minutes. Even so, they were able to gain a foothold on Ornes by the time the rest of the French and the Norwegians were landed. The French moved to the west in the direction of Narvik and to the east along the railway in the direction of Sweden. The Norwegians moved toward Taraldsvik mountain, circled round it and then moved toward the town. By 07.00 the German commander, Generalleutnant Eduard Dietl, had decided to evacuate his forces, which were based on the 139th Gebirgsjägerregiment of his own 3rd Gebirgsdivision, from the area in and around Narvik along the Beisfjord, and by 22.00 Narvik was in Allied hands.

To the Germans and indeed the Norwegians it now seemed that it was only a matter of time before the Germans in northern Norway would have to surrender, for they were being pressed from the north by the Norwegians, from the west by the French and from the south-west by the Poles, and it seemed that Bjørnefjell would be the location of a German last stand.

Events elsewhere in Europe now effected the rescue of the German plan, however. As noted above, the British had secretly decided on 24 May to evacuate Narvik, the relevant orders being sent to Cork during the night of 24/25 May, but Cork was instructed first to proceed with the attack on Narvik in order to disguise the withdrawal and allow the destruction of the harbour facilities.

The Norwegian government and commanders were first told of the Allied plan only at a time early in June, the information being met with incredulity and then bitterness. The Norwegians had still hoped to defeat the Germans and, as late as 5 June, one of the two Norwegian brigades was ordered to attack. The Norwegian government also explored the possibility of creating a neutral but free northern Norway. This plan was futile and on 7 June King Haakon VII of Norway and his government were evacuated to the UK.

Meanwhile, the capture of Narvik was immediately followed by the start of work on the already damaged ore quays, the electric power supply and the railway, and the limited objective of the whole undertaking was thereby achieved.

In the Narvik area there were some 24,500 Allied troops, and the task was now to evacuate these as swiftly as possible. As the troops were being delivered to Norway, many British merchant ships and warships had made crossings of the Norwegian Sea in several highly vulnerable convoys with only light escort. Yet the Germans had not reacted at all with their major surface ships and to only a limited extent with their U-boats, and as a result no troopships or storeships had been lost or damaged on the way to and from the Vestfjord, and only one on the way to central Norway.

It seemed, therefore, that the British had total command of the open sea, but on 30 May Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, commanding the Home Fleet, asked the Admiralty to keep him informed of all ship movements, and in particular those by groups of troopships. Next day Cork told Forbes that he would appreciate the provision of covering forces from the Home Fleet. On 2 June the fleet carriers Ark Royal and Glorious, sent to provide fighter protection for the evacuation and later to embark the shore-based fighters of the RAF, arrived off the coast of Norway, soon followed by 15 troop transports. Cork expected to have only the light cruiser Southampton, light anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry, cruiser-based repair ship Vindictive and 10 destroyers, which was by any standard a decidedly small force with which to shield the evacuation of so many men and so much valuable equipment.

The transports were sent to the base at Harstad to load, and the Allies then started the evacuation of Narvik. In five successive nights up to 7/8 June, 4,700, 4,900, 5,100, 5,200 and 4,600 men were embarked on vessels assembled off Harstad under the command of Captain E. B. K. Stevens on board the destroyer Havelock. The first convoy, comprising the 22,424-ton British Monarch of Bermuda, 14,287-ton Polish Batory, 11,030-ton Polish Sobieski, 20,175-ton British Franconia, 16,243-ton British Lancastria and 27,759-ton BritishGeorgic, departed Harstad on 4 June, accompanied only by Vindictive, and reached Scapa Flow on 8 June without loss.

As a result of a false report from the Q-ship Prunella about two unidentified vessels proceeding toward the Iceland/Færoes passage, Forbes feared that German capital ships were attempting to break out into the North Atlantic, and accordingly diverted the battle-cruisers Renown and Repulse, heavy cruiser Sussex, light cruiser Newcastle and five destroyers, leaving only the battleship Valiant to provide cover for the evacuation convoys.

On 7 June the second troop transport convoy, comprising the 20,043-ton British Oronsay, 14,982-ton British Ormonde, 14,694-ton British Arandora Star, 3,244-ton British Royal Ulsterman, 3,791-ton British Ulster Prince, 3,791-ton British Ulster Monarch and 20,021-ton British Duchess of York, escorted by the light cruisers Southampton and Coventry and the destroyers Beagle, Delight, Fame, Firedrake and Havelock, departed Harstad together with a slow convoy comprising the transports and oilers Blackheath, Oligarch, Harmattan, Cromarty Firth, Theseus, Acrity, Cotswold and Conch escorted by the destroyers Arrow and Veteran, sloop Stork and 10 armed trawlers.

The major convoy had taken on board much more equipment than Auchinleck had thought would be possible. Rear Admiral J. P. G. Vivian in Coventry had supervised the embarkation arrangements and shepherded the troopships, and the troops had been ferried to the ships mainly at night, in every type of flotilla vessel and small craft, from a mass of embarkation points in the fjords, while naval aircraft from the carriers and RAF fighters kept watch overhead.

The heavy cruiser Devonshire had departed Tromsø with King Haakon VII of Norway on board. The fleet carrier Ark Royal was also available to intervene if necessary. The elderly fleet carrier Glorious, after taking the last British aircraft on board, departed Bardufoss independently with her last two destroyers, as too did some independents from the Vestfjord and the transports Orama and Van Dyck, British vessels of 19,770 and 13,223 tons respectively, which had not been ordered to Harstad. Thus on 4, 5 and 6 June 15,000 men sailed in six large troopships and Vindictive to one of the two rendezvous points appointed by Cork some 205 miles (330 km) off the Norwegian coast. They were then to sail for home as an organised group escorted by Vindictive and destroyers sent over for that purpose by Forbes.

On 7 and 8 June 10,000 more men were embarked in seven more troopships, and by the morning of 8 June the embarkation had been completed. The first group was met by the battleship Valiant and destroyers of Admiral Sir Charles Forbes’s Home Fleet at 01.00 on 8 June, and had an uneventful passage to the Clyde.

On the following morning the second group left its rendezvous under escort of Southampton, in which Cork was flying his flag, Coventry and the five remaining destroyers. Ark Royal and the three destroyers of her screen joined this convoy and these ships too reached home waters without incident.

So far the operation had proceeded smoothly and according to plan, but the Germans now intervened in 'Juno' (i). This had been planned in mid-May with the object of diverting British warships from the inshore shipping routes and thus of threatening the poorly defended Allied bases in the Vestfjord area. Originally scheduled for 25 May, to relieve pressure on the German forces at Narvik by attacking British ships and shore installations, the German plan was bold and, in light of the great reduction in Cork’s naval strength at that time, might well have succeeded in causing severe British losses.

The battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, together with the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and four destroyers, were to carry out the operation, but left Kiel only on 4 June with the revised task of striking at Harstad on the night of 8/9 June. The Germans did not know of the Allied evacuation or of the major convoy movements then in progress. But on 7 June air reports of two groups of ships were passed to the German commander, Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Marschall, who thereupon decided to attack the southernmost of those groups. This led to the sinking, on the morning of 8 June, of the 5,666-ton British tanker Oil Pioneer and her escorting trawler, Juniper, and also of the troopship Orama, which was returning to England empty and independently. The immunity of the hospital ship Atlantis, which was in company with Orama, was respected.

Marschall was now ordered to leave the attack on the convoys to Admiral Hipper and the destroyers, and to proceed with to the planned attack on the British naval forces and shipping around Harstad. Assessing that an evacuation was in progress, Marschall did not carry out these orders. Admiral Hipper and the destroyers were detached to Trondheim on 8 June as they could not be refuelled at sea, and he himself continued with the two battle-cruisers to search for other quarry in the open sea. Here the two German warships chanced upon the aircraft carrier Glorious and her escorting destroyers, all of which were sunk.

Meanwhile warships of the Home Fleet reached the second group of evacuation ships on 10 June and escorted them home. Several nights after the final military evacuation, the civilians of the town were rescued by Sub-Lieutenant Patrick Dalzel-Job who, against orders, organised local fishing boats to remove the population just before a German reprisal bombing. The town was largely destroyed, but only four people were killed.

A consequence of the evacuation of the Allied troops from Norway was that the positions of Sweden and Finland vis-à-vis Germany were considerably weakened. Germany was thus able to arrange in June 1940 for the large-scale movement of unarmed German troops on the Swedish railway network (probably Sweden’s chief digression from a policy of neutrality in World War II), and in August Finland concluded a secret agreement by she could acquire weapons through Germany and Germany could transfer (armed) troops by truck through the very north of Finland.