Operation Naumburg

(German town)

'Naumburg' was the German landing at Narvik on the north-west coast of Norway within 'Weserübung' (9 April 1940).

During this difficult undertaking, Kommodore Friedrich Bonte’s Gruppe I (battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and 10 destroyers, each of the latter carrying 200 mountain troops) reached Narvik with 2,000 men of the 139th Gebirgsjägerregiment of Generalleutnant Eduard Dietl’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision earmarked for the capture and occupation of Narvik. This was the Norwegian end of the railway line used to transport iron ore from the mines of northern Sweden.

The destroyers were Georg Thiele of Fregattenkapitän Fritz Berger’s 1st Zerstörer-Flottille, Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim, Erich Giese and Erich Koellner of Fregattenkapitän Erich Bey’s 2nd Zerstörer-Flottille, and Diether von Roeder, Hans Lüdemann, Hermann Künne, Wilhelm Heidkamp (Gruppe I flag) and Anton Schmitt of Fregattenkapitän Hans-Joachim Gadow’s 3rd Zerstörer-Flottille, which had departed from Bremerhaven on 6 April.

Support equipment for the landed troops and warships was embarked in the 7,569-ton freighter Bärenfels loaded with army equipment, guns, and ammunition, but this ship was diverted to Bergen and later sunk by air attack; the 8,460-ton freighter Rauenfels loaded with army equipment, guns, and ammunition, but sunk by the British destroyers Havock and Hostile while entering the Ofotfjord; the 8,514-ton cargo liner Alster loaded with motor transport and military stores, but captured by British warships near Bodø; the 11,776-ton tanker Jan Wellem which reached Narvik; and the 6,031-ton tanker Kattegat which was scuttled by her crew after being stopped by the Norwegian patrol boat Nordkapp during the early morning of 9 April.

The Gruppe I destroyers passed the Vestfjord and reached the Ofotfjord, leading to Narvik, in conditions of fog and heavy snow. In the Ofotfjord they captured the Norwegian patrol boats Senja, Michael Sars and Kelt.

The destroyers Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Hermann Kunne landed their embarked troops in the Herjangsfjord (part of the Ofotfjord) so that they could capture the Norwegian supply base in Elvegaardsmoen. Hans Lüdemann and Hermann Künne also landed their troops in order to engage what were believed to be nearby Norwegian forts, but which did not in fact exist. Diether von Roeder remained in the Ofotfjord in order to ensure German control of the sea, and Erich Giese was delayed by engine trouble and did not join the main force for some time.

Then moving closer to Narvik, the German destroyers were spotted by Norwegian vessels, which promptly reported the sighting and alerted the old coast-defence ships Eidsvold and Norge, which both prepared for action. At about 04.15 the Germans spotted Eidsvold, which immediately signalled the leading German destroyer by lamp. When the Germans failed to respond to the signal, a warning shot was fired across their bow while Eidsvold flew a two-flag signal ordering the destroyer to halt. The Germans had orders to occupy Norway peacefully if at all possible, so the German flag vessel, Wilhelm Heidkamp, stopped and signalled that she would send an officer to negotiate. From a distance of about 220 yards (200 m), a small launch ferried Korvettenkapitän Gerlach to Eidsvold. Gerlach and a signalman were taken to the bridge to speak to Captain Willoch. At the same time, the gun crews of both the 210- and 150-mm (8.27- and 5.91-in) guns of Eidsvold remained trained on the German destroyer at point-blank range. Gerlach tried to convince Willoch that the Germans had arrived as friends and that Willoch should surrender peacefully. Willoch pointed out that he was duty bound to resist, but asked for 10 minutes in which to consider the matter. He used this time to contact his superiors, including the captain of Norge, farther inside the fjord, informing them of his intent to engage the German forces.

In the meantime, a second German destroyer crossed behind Eidsvold and took position 765 yards (700 m) from the vessel, ready to fire her torpedoes. Gerlach tried once again to convince Willoch to surrender, but without success. As Gerlach left Eidsvold, he fired a red flare indicating that the Norwegians intended to fight. At this point Eidsvold turned toward the closer destroyer and increased speed, while the gunnery officer ordered the port battery of three 150-mm (5.91-in) guns to open fire. The Germans, afraid that Eidsvold might ram the destroyer, fired two or four torpedoes from Wilhelm Heidkamp at the old ship. Two or three of the torpedoes hit before the port guns could fire, according to Norwegian sources: one under the after main turret, one amidships and one in the bow. It is likely that the torpedoes ignited one of the magazines, because Eidsvold was blown in two and sank in seconds at about 04.37. Only six of the crew were rescued by the Germans, and 175 died in the freezing water.

Deeper inside the fjord, the explosions were heard by Norge's crew, but nothing could be seen until two German destroyers suddenly appeared out of the darkness and Captain Per Askim of Norge gave orders to open fire at 04.45. Four rounds were fired from the 210-mm (8.27-in) fore and aft guns, as well as seven or eight rounds from the starboard 150-mm (5.91-in) guns, against Bernd von Arnim at a range of about 880 yards (800 m). As a result of the difficult weather conditions, the Norwegian optical gun sights were ineffective: the first salvo fell short of the target and the next ones overshot it. The German destroyers waited until they were alongside the pier before returning fire. Bernd von Arnim opened fire with her 127-mm (5-in) main guns as well as her lighter weapons, but the weather also gave the Germans problems. The destroyer also fired three salvoes each of two torpedoes: the first two salvoes missed, but the last struck Norge amidships and the Norwegian ship sank in less than one minute: 90 of the crew were rescued, but 101 perished in the battle which had lasted less than 20 minutes.

The destruction of Norge signalled the end of Norwegian resistance in the port. The German destroyers were now short of fuel and had only one tanker in support, in the form of Jan Wellem, as Kattegat had been sunk in the Glomfjord during the evening of 9 April: the tanker had been stopped by the Norwegian fishery protection ship Nordkapp, which initially attempted to take the oiler as a prize. The large size of the German crew meant that Nordkapp could not control the oiler all the way to Bodø, however, and finally the Norwegian ship sank Kattegat with four 47-mm rounds fired into the vessel’s waterline. Refuelling from just one tanker was difficult and slow, for only two destroyers could be refuelled simultaneously in a process lasting seven to eight hours.

During the Norwegian campaign, Narvik and its surrounding area also saw significant fighting, initially from 9 April between Dietl’s 3rd Gebirgsivision and Major General Carl Gustav Fleischer’s Norwegian 6th Division and later between the same German formation and British, French and Free Polish forces of an Allied expeditionary force, until 9 June. Unlike those involved in the campaign in southern Norway, the Allied troops in Narvik eventually outnumbered their Norwegian allies, and between 5 and 10 May 1940 the fighting in the Narvik area was the only active land campaign of World War II.

At the outset, the position of the German force under Dietl’ds command was not good as his 2,000 men were outnumbered. After the German destroyers had been sunk, however, about 2,600 beached sailors joined the land force, and another 290 German specialists travelled via Sweden posing as medical workers. During the last three to four weeks, the Germans were also reinforced by about 1,000 men air-dropped over Bjørnfjell in 'Büffel', thus bringing the total number of Germans to around 5,600. Thus the balance between the Germans and the Allies changed periodically, and on occasion the entire German undertaking was controlled directly by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in Berlin, where the mood of Adolf Hitler swung repeatedly and several times considered a withdrawal. Dietl himself considered taking his men across the border to internment in nearby and neutral Sweden until, and only possibly, the German agent Marina Lee infiltrated the Tromsø headquarters of Lieutenant General C. J. E. Auchinleck, the eventual Allied commander in northern Norway, and obtained the British battle plan. The Norwegian force eventually reached between 8,000 and 10,000 men, and the total number of Allied troops in the campaign in and around Narvik reached 24,500 men.

The early phase of the German invasion was aided considerably by the element of operational and tactical surprise. The Norwegian troops in the north of Norway had been called out for a three-month neutrality watch during the winter of 1939/40, and had thus been provided with the opportunity to train together. Between 9 and 25 April, however, the Norwegian forces suffered three catastrophes: first, the forces holding Narvik did not resist the German invasion as their commanding officer, Colonel Konrad Sundlo, was a Quisling and refused to fight the Germans; second, some 200 men of the Narvik garrison who had escaped capture and were blocking the strategic railway to Sweden were caught by surprise while resting at Bjørnfjell, most of the men being captured; and third, the 1/12th Infantry Regiment (I/IR12) sent to hold Gratangsbotn was attacked by surprise in camp, suffering casualties that crashed morale and effectively knocked the unit out of the remainder of the campaign.

The intended Norwegian counterattack on the German beach-head at Narvik was planned on driving the II/IT15 toward Elvegårdsmoen and Bjerkvik through Salangsdalen over the Lapphaugen hill in a frontal attack with artillery support. The objective was the German forward positions on Lapphaugen, which was thought to be held in company strength. At the same time the I/IR12 was to advance on the German main positions in Gratangsbotn by a surprise march across difficult terrain over Fjordbotneidet. An independent infantry unit, the Alta Battalion was in divisional reserve but located in a position from which it could support the I/IR12.

On 24 April, the II/IR15 started its attack on Lapphaugen but was driven back, largely as a result of extremely bad weather conditions and the strength of the German resistance. Even so, the Germans decided to abandon their positions on Lapphaugen and Gratangsbotn, but in the foul weather this retirement was not spotted by the II/IR15, which therefore did not resume its advance.

In conditions of strong wind and heavy snow, the I/IR12 crossed the Fjordbotneidet and reached Gratangsbotn to find the area free of any German presence. The Norwegians were exhausted after their forced march and were permitted to seek rest in the farmhouses and barns of Gratangsbotn. For unexplained reasons, the battalion posted only an inadequate perimeter: this was decisive as Gratangsbotn lies at the bottom of a 'kettle' dominated all around by high ground.

This was an opportunity which the Germans did not miss, and they launched an immediate counterattacked with 165 men and using Norwegian civilians as a 'human shields'. Though undertaken with inferior numbers, the German attack struck the surprised Norwegians with the superior firepower of mortars and heavy machine guns. Some 34 Norwegian soldiers were killed, 64 wounded and 130 taken prisoners. The officer losses were heavy: three out of five company commanders were killed in action, one was wounded, and the fifth was afflicted with snow blindness and took no active part in the action. The Germans suffered only six men killed, 16 wounded and three missing.

The surviving Norwegians retreated from Gratangsbotn. The depleted battalion was later reorganised as a reduced battalion with two infantry companies and one support company.

Despite their sound drubbing of the I/IR12, the Germans saw that their position in Gratangsbotn was untenable. As the fresh Alta Battalion pressed on from the north and the II/IR15 resumed its advance over Lapphaugen, the Germans therefore abandoned Gratangen.

For the Norwegians on the Narvik front, the so-called Battle of Gratangen was their first major lesson in warfare. Before the battle, the inexperienced Norwegians often had hesitated to fire on the enemy, but after Gratangen, the bitterness resulting from the ruthlessness displayed by the Germans, most especially the use of civilians as 'human shields', ensured that all such military reticence dissapeared.

As noted above, in the face of mounting Norwegian pressure and their problems with bringing up supplies needed by forward units, the Germans abandoned Gratangsbotn and withdrew from Lapphaugen hill and the Gratangsdalen valley after the Battle of Gratangen. Early in May, the Norwegians began an advance on Narvik from the north. Once it had become clear that the Allies would attempt to retake Narvik in the middle of May, the Norwegian advanced was realigned toward Bjørnfjell. The British arrived first in 'Rupert' and established their headquarters in Harstad on 14/15 April. In the following days, three battalions were deployed mainly at Sjøvegan, Skånland (where a naval base was established) and Bogen. Later, British troops were deployed to the south of the Ofotfjord at Ballangen and Håkvik.

The British landing force was reinforced on 28 April by a French expeditionary force, led by Général de Brigade Marie Emil Antoine Béthouart. Three battalions of Alpine troops and two battalions of the 13th Demi-Brigade de la Légion Etrangère were deployed to both the north and the south of the Ofotfjord, but the north later became the primary French area of operation. Four Free Polish battalions arrived on 9 May, and were deployed to the north of the Ofotfjord but later redeployed to the area lying to the south of the fjord. Early in June the Free Poles were formed into the Samodzielna Brygada Strzelców Podhalańskich (Polish Independent Highland Brigade) under the command of Général de Brigade Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko.

The Allies continued to have difficulty in deciding how best to retake Narvik and its all-important iron ore railway. There was no unified command for the troops facing the Germans at Narvik: the Norwegians and the Allies retained separate commanders, and as a result co-operation was not always good. Even within the British forces, the army and naval commanders, in the persons of Major-General P. J. Mackesy and Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Cork and Orrery, co-operated only indifferently. Mackesy wanted a cautious approach from both sides of the Ofotfjord, and Cork demanded a swift attack directly from the sea. On 21 April, Cork was given command of all the Allied forces.

During May’s second week, the Norwegian advances to the east of Gratangseidet were the most significant movements on the Narvik front. In addition, on the Norwegians' right flank French alpine troops advanced up the Laberg valley, supported by a company of Norwegian ski troops. In the south, the Allies did not have much success, and to the the north of the Ofotfjord they made no progress. The Norwegians continued their successful campaign in the mountains, and in the middle of May the Allies took the initiative and achieved significant victories. Both Paris and London had been growing impatient with the slow progress in Narvik, and Béthouart had urged more decisive action.

The cautious land approach was abandoned and an amphibious attack began in the middle of the night of 12/13 May. This assault was directed at Bjerkvik and preceded by a naval bombardment from British warships in the Herjangsfjord. Landing craft then put ashore French legionnaires, supported by five Hotchkiss H-35 light tanks. The French took Bjerkvik and the Elvegårdsmoen army camp, and advanced to the north-east toward the point from which the Germans were withdrawing, and to the south along the eastern side of the Herjangsfjord. The Allied plan also required Polish troops to advance in the direction of Bjerkvik along the western side of the fjord, but the difficulty of the terrain delayed the Poles, who did not reach Bjerkvik before this had been taken. It had also been part of the plan for French and Norwegian troops to advance from the north in order to box in the Germans, but problems of co-operation between the Norwegian and French commanders left a gap through which the Germans managed to make their escape. Despite this, the Allies had a clear path to the north of Narvik and planned to attack over the Rombaksfjord.

It had been anticipated in London that as the build-up of troops in Narvik slowly continued, a corps headquarters would be needed to exercise effective control. On 11 May, Auchinleck arrived in Narvik, and on 13 May assumed command of the Allied land and air forces as the North-Western Expeditionary Force under Cork’s overall command. It was clear to the Allies that once Narvik had been taken, its long-term retention would depend on the permanent retention of the town of Bodø to the south in Nordland as this lay on the route of the German advance from Trondheim. Auchinleck therefore redeployed all the British troops so that they could concentrate their strength on this southern undertaking, and appointed Béthouart, who was an expert in both mountain and winter warfare, to command the French and Polish troops in operations in the Narvik area in conjunction with the Norwegian forces.

Once again, though, the attack was delayed as the Allies waited for the full provision of air support from Bardufoss. At 23.40 on 28 May, a naval bombardment began from the north as two French battalions and one Norwegian battalion were carried across the Rombaksfjord and advance on Narvik from the north, and in the south the Polish battalions drove toward Ankenes and inner part of the Beisfjord. The maximum capacity of the landing barges was 290 men, and any reinforcement would require 45 minutes. These first troops were able to get a foothold on Ornes by the time the rest of the French and Norwegian units were landed. The French moved to the west in the direction of the town and to the east along the railway. The Norwegians moved toward the Taraldsvik mountain, circled round it and moved down toward the Narvik. In the face of these concentric attacks, Dietl decided to evacuate before 07.00 and ordered his men to pull back along the Beisfjord. This was the first significant Allied land victory of World War II.

It now appeared that it was only a matter of time before the Germans would have to surrender as they were compressed from the north by the Norwegians, from the west by the French and from the south-west by the Poles, and it seemed that Bjørnfjell would be the Germans' last stand. However, events elsewhere in Europe came to the Germans' rescue. London had already secretly decided to evacuate all of the Allied forces on 24 May in 'Alphabet', and this decision soon became evident. On the night of 24/25 May, Cork received orders to retreat in an undertaking that the Germans would not perceive. The Allied commanders thus agreed that an attack on Narvik would disguise the retreat and allow the destruction of the harbour from which the Germans trans-shipped Swedish iron ore to Germany.

The Norwegian government and commanders were first told of 'Alphabet' at a time early in June, and the news was met with disbelief and bitterness. The Norwegians still hoped to defeat the Germans alone 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 proved futile, and on 7 June the king of Norway and his government were evacuated to the UK. All the Allied troops were evacuated from Narvik between 4 and 8 June.

On 8 June Dietl’s forces retook Narvik, and on 10 June the last Norwegian forces in Norway surrendered.