Operation Leader (ii)

'Leader' (ii) was a British and US carrierborne air attack on shipping in Bodø harbour and the nearby coastal waters of German-occupied Norway (2/6 October 1943).

The raid was executed by aircraft flying from the US light aircraft carrier Ranger, which was currently attached to the British Home Fleet. The US airmen located many German and impressed Norwegian ships in this area, and are believed to have destroyed five and damaged another seven. The Germans losses also included two German aircraft that were searching for the Allied forces and were shot down. Three US aircraft were destroyed in combat during the operation and another crashed while landing.

The attack followed a two-year lull in Allied aircraft carrier operations against Norway, and thus took the German occupation forces by surprise. The choice of target was guided by 'Ultra' intelligence gained from the decoding of German radio signals, as well as reports from Norwegian agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Two Norwegian airmen flew with the attack force to provide advice on the local geography. While it has provided difficult to determine exactly the number of ships sunk, 'Leader' damaged the German war effort by considerably disrupting the local convoy system and reducing shipments of iron ore from Narvik.

During middle and later parts of 1943 the British Home Fleet was augmented by two forces of US Navy warships to replace British ships dispatched to the Mediterranean and Pacific theatres. These reinforcements were considered necessary to ensure that the Home Fleet retained the capacity to counter the German surface warships based in Norway, which was built around the battleship Tirpitz, the battle-cruiser Scharnhorst and the heavy cruiser (ex-'pocket battleship') Lützow.

The initial US Navy task force arrived in May, and comprised the battleships Alabama and South Dakota, the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa and five destroyers. This force was commanded by Rear Admiral Olaf M. Hustvedt and undertook patrols into the Norwegian Sea in company with British warships, but did not make contact with the German forces. The two battleships and the destroyers were withdrawn in August, and proceeded to the Pacific.

The second task force built round the carrier Ranger, which replaced the two battleships in September 1943. The other elements of this force were the heavy cruisers Augusta and Tuscaloosa, as well as five destroyers; Hustvedt remained in command. Ranger's air wing comprised three squadrons: VF-41 with 27 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, VB-41 with 27 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, and VT-41 with 18 Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. Before Ranger's arrival, the Home Fleet was assigned only a single aircraft carrier, the elderly Furious, which was unavailable for operations at the time as she was undergoing a refit. Ranger had last seen combat against Vichy French forces while supporting the 'Torch' landings in Morocco during November 1942, and had later been used to ferry aircraft to North Africa and train aircrews off the US east coast.

On 8 September 1943 the main body of the Home Fleet, including the US task force, sortied in response to reports that Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and nine destroyers had put to sea. The Allied force returned to the Home Fleet’s main base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group on the following day after it had been learned that the German ships had returned to port after briefly attacking Allied positions on Spitsbergen island.

On 22 September the German battle group in Norway was attacked by several British midget submarines. This raid inflicted significant damage on Tirpitz, leaving the battleship unable to proceed to sea until repairs had been effected. Once this was known to the Allies, the commander of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, judged that the changed balance of forces would allow his fleet to assume a more offensive role by attacking German shipping off Norway and restarting the Arctic convoys to the USSR.

Following the 'Source' midget submarine operation, Fraser decided to despatch the main body of the Home Fleet to undertake an air attack against ports and German shipping in northern Norway. Ranger was assigned responsibility for attacking the port of Bodø, which was an important rendezvous point for German and German-controlled Norwegian shipping. (At th time World War II began in September 1939, Norway had the world’s fourth largest merchant navy. Following the German 'Weserübung' conquest of Norway in 1940, some 15% of the Norwegian merchant marine’s tonnage was caught in German-held territories. Those ships were then operated in occupied Norway and between Norway and other German-occupied countries, exporting Norwegian products and bringing supplies back to Norway. On the Norwegian coast the Norwegian merchant ships brought supplies and passengers to coastal communities. Many of the vessels were confiscated by the Germans, and others forced to carry German troops and military supplies, making them targets for the Allied war effort. During the war years 237 Norwegian ships in occupied territories were lost, along with 1,071 people.)

Fraser also initially planned to use the aircraft carrier Formidable to attack shipping in the port of Brønnøysund to the south of Bodø, but this element of the operation was cancelled as a result of unfavourable weather: the slow-flying Fairey Albacore attack aircraft carried by Formidable required cloud cover to operate over hostile territory. While several German air bases were located near Bodø, most of the aircraft previously stationed in northern Norway had been transferred elsewhere and those that remained posed little threat to the Allied fleet. In the event that no shipping was located for attack, the US pilots were given as alternative targets Bodø air base, the oil depot in Bodø, and radar installations at Røst.

The Home Fleet’s plans were informed by the considerable volume of intelligence that was available on German shipping movements and forces in northern Norway. The Royal Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre collated information on these topics, and regularly provided assessments to the Home Fleet and other commands. The decision to attack the Bodø area was made on the basis of 'Ultra' intelligence obtained by decoding German radio signals, from which the Allies learned that the ships in the region included the large oil tanker Schleswig, which was carrying fuel for the German battle group in the Altafjord. In addition, at the time of 'Leader', two groups of Norwegian agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service were operating radio transmitters on the coast of Helgeland: 'Crux III' on the island of Renga and 'Pisces' on Lurøy.

(During World War II, the SIS co-operated with exiled Norwegian authorities in despatching more than 100 radio transmitters with Norwegian operators to German-occupied Norway. The first transmitter became operational on 10 June 1940, the very day that fighting ceased in Norway. Almost exclusively sited along the coast, the SIS agents reported primarily on shipping movements. In all, some 200 Norwegian SIS agents operated clandestinely in occupied Norway, supported by around 2,000 members of the local population. Of the people involved, 26 agents and at least nine locals lost their lives, either by being killed in action with German troops, being executed, or dying in captivity.)

Both the groups mentioned above provided reports to the Allies on the weather and shipping movements in the target area in the lead-up to the attack. From 3 October onward, 'Crux III' transmitted weather reports every 30 minutes.

'Leader' was rendered feasible by the damage inflicted on Tirpitz in Norwegian waters by the 'Source' midget submarine attack of September 1943, the crippling of this single most potent German warship in northern waters making it possible for Allied naval forces to be switched to a more offensive role.

As noted above, Fraser responded swiftly to the new tactical and operational position enjoyed by his forces, and on 2 October sailed with his main strength (battleships Anson and Duke of York, US light fleet carrier Ranger, US heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa, light cruiser Belfast, and destroyers Milne, Opportune, Teazer, Vigilant and US Capp, Corry, Forrest, Fitch and Hobson), supplemented on the following day by the destroyers Savage, Scourge and Scorpion from the Skálafjørður in the Færoe islands group, to a position 160 miles (255 km) off the Norwegian port of Bodø.

There 30 attack aircraft (SBD Dauntless dive-bombers and TBF Avenger level/torpedo-bombers), all armed with bombs, were launched from Ranger on the morning of 4 October with an escort of 14 of the carrier’s fighters. Fraser had also intended to send aircraft from his own carrier, Formidable, to attack shipping in another harbour farther to the south, but this part of the overall scheme had to be cancelled as a result of unfavourable weather.

At Bodø the US Navy’s air crews, the majority of them making their first operational sortie, achieved very considerable success. They attacked in two waves at very low altitude, sinking the Norwegian steamer Vågan and damaging the 5,042-ton Norwegian steamer Topeka. They also sank the steam vessels Kaguir, La Plata and Rabat as well as the 5,472-ton loaded troop transport Skramstad, and furthermore damaged the tanker Schleswig and steam vessels Kerkplein and Ibis. The steam vessel Malaga was also damaged by a bomb which failed to detonate. The results, which included the sinking of some 20,750 tons of shipping, were a striking vindication of the US Navy’s dive-bombing and low-level bombing techniques.

Only three of the attacking aircraft (one Avenger and two Dauntless machines) were lost, all of them to anti-aircraft fire, and these were avenged later in the day when Ranger's fighters shot down two German aircraft (one Heinkel He 115 floatplane and one Junkers Ju 88 landplane) which had started to shadow the Allied warships.

By 6 October the whole Allied force had returned safely to Scapa Flow. It had also been intended to attack shipping in another harbour farther to the south, but this part of the overall scheme had to be cancelled as a result of the arrival of unfavourable weather.

'Leader' had revealed a serious weakness in the composition of the German armed forces in occupied Norway, which lacked sufficient numbers of warplanes to respond effectively to Allied attacks. After 'Leader', the Germans searched the area for radio transmitters, arresting several local Norwegians and narrowly missing the agents of the 'Pisces' group. The two members of the 'Pisces' team were evacuated to the UK by Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat on 24 November 1943. The last SIS agents of the 'Crux' group were evacuated from Renga by a Catalina of the RAF’s No. 330 Squadron on 6 June 1944, but the transmitter on the island continued sending reports to the UK for the duration of the war, manned by a local volunteer who had been trained by the agents.