Operation Rupert (i)

'Rupert' (i) was a British and French attempt to take the port of Narvik in northern Norway from the German forces commanded by Generalleutnant Eduard Dietl (15 April/8 June 1940).

The Germans had taken the important port on 9 April at the beginning of 'Weserübung' in the 'Naumburg' sub-operation by the 2,000 men of the 139th Gebirgsjägerregiment of Dietl’s own 3rd Gebirgsdivision, ferried to the port in the 10 destroyers of Kommodore Paul Bonte’s Gruppe I naval force. The town was surrendered by a Quisling, and Dietl was able to secure the area (and its arsenal) against the efforts of General Major Carl Gustav Fleischer’s Norwegian 6th Division. It had been planned that the Gruppe I destroyers would withdraw after landing Dietl’s force, but the oiler Jan Wellem with the fuel they required for passage to the south was sunk, and the destroyers thus had to remain in the Ofotfjord.

In this area Fleischer’s 6th Division faced the German invasion force at Narvik, and following the invasion Fleischer assumed the position as commander of all the Norwegian forces in northern Norway. The Norwegian counter-offensive against the Germans at Narvik was hampered by Fleischer’s decision to retain significant forces in eastern Finnmark to guard against a possible Soviet attack in the far north.

Along with the Allied landings at Åndalsnes and Namsos, aimed against Trondheim, further forces were deployed to the north of Norway. These forces were tasked with the objective of recapturing Narvik. Like the campaign in the south, the Narvik expedition also faced numerous obstacles.

The German position was precarious in the extreme, however, and had the Allies moved with speed it is likely that they would have retaken Narvik without difficulty. Plans had been laid as early as December 1939 for an operation against Narvik, the main exit for Swedish iron ore during the winter when the Baltic is frozen, but the operation had been postponed for fear that it would prompt a German counter-landing, and was revived only on 10 April, with Major General P. J. Mackesy and Admiral the Lord Cork and Orrery respectively in command of the land and associated naval forces, of which the latter had already been in action in the 1st Battle of Narvik.

On the day after the German invasion, Commodore B. A. Warburton-Lee’s 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, comprising the destroyers Hardy, Hotspur, Havock, Hunter and Hostile, steamed up the fjord in the early morning. The German picket ship, Diether von Roeder, had left her post as a result of a misunderstanding and, as they approached Narvik, the British ships surprised and engaged a German force at the entrance to the harbour. Though smaller and more lightly armed than their opponents, the British destroyers sank two German destroyers, Wilhelm Heidkamp (in which Bonte was killed) and Anton Schmidt, heavily damaged Diether von Roeder and inflicted lesser damage on two other destroyers. They also exchanged fire with German invasion troops ashore, but carried no landing force and therefore turned to depart.

The British ships were then tackled by three more German destroyers, Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Erich Giese, which steamed from the Herjangsfjord under the command of Fregattenkapitän Erich Bey, and then two more, Georg Thiele and Bernd von Arnim, from Ballangen Bay under the command of Fregattenkapitän Fritz Berger. In the battle which now took place, the British lost two ships, in the form of Hardy, which was beached in flames and on which Warburton-Lee had been killed, and Hunter, which was torpedoed and sank. A third destroyer, Hotspur, was also damaged badly by a torpedo. Hotspur and the surviving British destroyers then departed, damaging Georg Thiele as they did so.

Now short of fuel and ammunition, the surviving German destroyers did not pursue and the British warships were able to sink seven German or German-seized transport ships outside the port of Narvik, this tally including the all-important 8,460-ton ammunition supply ship Rauenfels.

Soon the German naval force was blockaded in Narvik by British reinforcements, which included the light cruiser Penelope. On 11 April the German capability in Narvik was further degraded when Erich Koellner sustained more damage when she ran onto uncharted rocks. As the British destroyers left the Vestfjord outside Narvik, U-25 and U-51 fired torpedoes at them, but German torpedoes at the time had severe problems with their magnetic detonators: all of the torpedoes failed, either not detonating at all or detonating well before they reached their intended targets.

For reasons of morale as much as strategy, the Royal Navy thought that it was now essential to destroy the remaining German destroyers in Narvik, so Vice Admiral W. J. Whitworth, commander of the Battle-Cruiser Squadron, was sent with the battleship Warspite and the destroyers Bedouin, Cossack, Punjabi, Eskimo, Kimberley, Hero, Icarus, Forester and Foxhound, supported by aircraft from the elderly fleet carrier Furious. These forces arrived in the Ofotfjord on 13 April to find that the eight remaining German destroyers, now under the command of Bey, were virtually stranded as a result of fuel shortage, and also very short of ammunition.

During the opening stages of the 2nd Battle of Narvik which now began, a Fairey Swordfish biplane from Warspite bombed and sank Kapitänleutnant Georg-Wilhelm Schulz’s U-64, which was lying at anchor in a side-fjord near Bjerkvik, most of the boat’s crew surviving and being rescued by German mountain troops: this was the first U-boat sunk by an aeroplane in World War II.

In the 2nd Battle of Narvik three of the German destroyers were sunk by Warspite and the lighter British ships, and the other five were scuttled by their own crews when they ran out of fuel and ammunition. The first to succumb was Erich Koellner, which was trying to ambush the British force but was spotted by Warspite's Swordfish and then torpedoed and shelled by the destroyers and the battleship. Then Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim, Hans Lüdemann and Hermann Künne engaged the British force, but managed to damage only Bedouin, and then only slightly. Aircraft from Furious tried to engage the German destroyers but were unsuccessful, and two were lost. Wolfgang Zenker tried to torpedo Warspite, but failed. Finally, when they had expended almost all of their ammunition, all but one of the surviving German ships fell back toward Narvik. The singleton was Hermann Künne, which had not received the order and was then torpedoed and sunk by Eskimo, herself then being ambushed by Georg Thiele and Hans Lüdemann, losing her bow but surviving.

Diether von Roeder and Erich Giese, both suffering engine problems, fired upon the British forces while still docked, damaging Punjabi and Cossack, but were both sunk before they could cause further damage. That was the last German counterattack and the remaining German destroyers were scuttled soon after this.

The only German vessel which survived within the port area was U-51. Shore batteries and installations were also very badly damaged by the fire of Warspite's 15-in (381-mm) guns.

On the Allied side, the damage to Eskimo kept her in Norway until 31 May. German submarines again suffered torpedo failures when U-46 and U-48 fired at the departing Warspite on 14 April.

The Germans lost more than 1,000 men and the destroyers Hermann Künne, Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner, Georg Thiele, Bernd von Arnim, Erich Giese, Hans Lüdemann and Diether von Roeder, as well as U-64. In addition to their three damaged destroyers, the British lost 28 men killed and 55 wounded in the 2nd Battle of Narvik.

Most of the remaining 2,600 German sailors were then used in the establishment of five improvised 'mountain marine' battalions armed with captured Norwegian weapons.

One of the major problems faced by the Allies at this time was the fact that their command was not unified, or indeed organised along effective lines. As noted above, the naval forces in the area were commanded by Cork, who was under orders to clear the area of the Germans as soon as possible. In contrast, Mackesy, the commander of the ground forces, had been ordered not to land his forces in any area strongly held by the Germans, and also to avoid damaging populated areas. The two commanders met on 15 April to determine the best course of action: Cork argued for an immediate assault on Narvik but Mackesy countered that such a move would lead to the decimation of his attacking troops. Cork eventually conceded to Mackesy’s viewpoint.

Mackesy’s land troops were originally designated as 'Avon' Force, later changed to 'Rupert' Force, and comprised Brigadier the Hon. W. Fraser’s 24th Guards Brigade, as well as French and Polish units under the command of Général de Brigade Antoine Béthouart. The main force began landing at Harstad, a port town on the island of Hinnøya, on 14 April. The Germans flew their first air attacks against Harstad on 16 April, but the Allied anti-aircraft defences prevented serious damage. Only at a time late in May did the Germans succeed in causing major destruction in Harstad: a raid on 20 May destroyed oil tanks and civilian housing, and another raid on 23 May hitting Allied shipping in the harbour.

On 15 April, the Allies scored a significant victory when the British destroyers Brazen and Fearless, which were escorting the NP.1 troop-carrying convoy, managed to force Kapitänleutnant Kurt von Gossler’s U-49 to the surface and scuttle herself in the Vågsfjorden. Found floating around the sinking U-boat were documents detailing the dispositions, codes and operational orders of all U-boats in the Norwegian operational area, providing the Allies with an efficient and valuable tool when planning troop and supply convoys to the campaign in northern Norway.

The Allies now anticipated that the German forces in northern Norway could now be dislodged without difficulty as they had been cut off from seaborne resupply and reinforcement, and were effectively at the mercy of the British naval forces, which were free to operate in the Ofotfjord.

Narvik and the area round it had been the scene for considerable fighting since 9 April and the launch of 'Weserübung', initially between German and Norwegian forces and then, until 9 June, between German and Allied forces.

The first British troops sailed for Harstad, on the island of Hinnøya which that been selected as the staging point for the Narvik forces, in the NP.1 convoy which departed the Clyde river and Scapa Flow on 11/12 April. The convoy divided on 13 April. The transports Chrobry and Empress of Australia proceeded to Namsos for 'Henry' with Brigadier C. G. Phillips’s 146th Brigade, escorted by Vice Admiral G. Layton’s force (light cruisers Manchester and Birmingham, light anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo and three destroyers). There, on 14 April, advance parties were landed from the light cruisers Glasgow and Sheffield and the destroyers Afridi, Somali, Nubian, Sikh, Matabele and Mashona. On 15 April there followed the transports, which had initially made their passage farther to the north because of the threat from the air. An attack by U-34 on the British destroyers on 15 April failed because of torpedo defects.

The rest of the NP.1 convoy, comprising the troop transports Batory, Monarch of Bermuda and Reina del Pacifico, continued to Harstad, where Cork’s cruisers Southampton (unsuccessfully attacked by U-38 on this day) and Aurora arrived on 14 April. The battleship Valiant and nine destroyers covered the convoy. U-65 missed Batory and U-38 missed Valiant.

The landing of the 24th Guards Brigade proceeded without difficulty. During the night 15/16 April U-47 fired two salvoes of four torpedoes at the anchored troop transports and cruisers, but achieved no success. On 15 April Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, commanding the Home Fleet, returned to Scapa Flow with the battleship Rodney, battle-cruiser Renown and six destroyers, and the battleship Warspite and fleet carrier Furious were ordered to a location to the the west of the Lofoten islands group. Further reinforcement for the Allied force was provided by the arrival in Harstad of the FP.2 convoy carrying Lieutenant Colonel Valentini’s 27th Demi-Brigade des Chasseurs Alpins on board the transports Djenne, Flandre and President Doumer, escorted by the French destroyers Chevalier Paul, Milan and Tartu and the British destroyers Codrington and Fame. The FS.2 supply convoy, comprising the freighters Brestois, Château Pavie and Firmin, arrived on 28 April.

Unlike the campaign in southern Norway, where the Allied forces were considerably outnumbered by the Norwegian forces, the Narvik campaign saw the deployment of Allied forces (British, French and Polish) greater in number, at an eventual 24,500 men, than those of the Norwegians, which peaked at between 8,000 and 10,000 men. At the beginning of the Narvik campaign, the German position was poor, for although Dietl’s forces had gained possession of Narvik they were outnumbered by the Norwegians outside the town. But as noted above, the initial 2,000 German troops were supplemented, after the destroyers of Gruppe I had been sunk, by some 2,600 German naval personnel. Another 290 German specialists reached Narvik overland from Sweden, which they had entered in the guise of health care workers, and during the later stages of the campaign Dietl’s force was boosted by another 1,000 or so men dropped by parachute over Bjørnefjell in 'Büffel', so bringing the German strength to about 5,000.

The outlook for Dietl’s force swung between good and bad several times during the campaign, and Adolf Hitler swayed for and against the continued prosecution of the German effort several times, a withdrawal being considered on more than one occasion.

The early phase of the invasion was characterised by clever German use of the element of surprise. The Norwegian troops in the northern part of the country had been called out on a three-month neutrality watch during the winter of 1939/40, in the period of the 'Talvisota' winter war between the Finland and the USSR, and had thus trained together. But in the period between 9 and 25 April, the Norwegians had suffered three major setbacks. First, the forces holding Narvik had been unable to check the German capture of the town as a result of the refusal of their commander, Colonel Konrad Sundlo, a Quisling, to combat the invaders. Second, some 200 men of the Narvik garrison who had escaped capture and were blocking the rail line between Narvik and Sweden, were taken by surprise while resting at Bjørnefjell and had most of their party captured. And third, the extemporised 'Trønder Battalion' despatched to hold Gratangsbotn was also taken by surprise and suffered casualties heavy enough to make the remnants of the battalion useless for the rest of the campaign.

Because of the steadily mounting Norwegian pressure and difficulties with delivering supplies to their forward units, the Germans abandoned Gratangsbotn and withdrew from Lapphaugen and the Gratang valley. At the start of May, the Norwegians started an advance to the south in the direction of Narvik, but once it had become clear that the Allies would mount the main assault on the Germans in and around Narvik, some time in the middle of that month, the Norwegians switched the axis of their advance toward Bjørnefjell.

After their failure in central Norway, which allowed the Germans to advance more rapidly into northern Norway, the Allies devoted greater attention to their northern forces, where air cover was finally provided by two RAF squadrons delivered aircraft carrier to operate from Bardufoss airfield: these units were No. 263 Squadron with Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and No. 46 Squadron with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters.

While the Norwegian and Allied forces were advancing on Narvik, German forces were moving rapidly to the north through Nordland to relieve Dietl’s besieged troops. The captured airfield at Værnes near Trondheim was rapidly expanded and improved to provide the Luftwaffe with a base from which to support the Narvik sector, and as they continued to move to the north, the Germans also gained control of the basic facilities at the airfield in Hattfjelldal to support their bomber operations.

Late in April, 10 independent companies had been created in the UK under the command of Lieutenant Colonel C. Gubbins. On 2 May, four of these companies were formed into 'Scissors' Force and despatched, under the command of Gubbins, to forestall the Germans at Bodø, Mo-i-Rana and Mosjøen. Although its ambushed the leading German units to tghe south of Mosjøen, 'Scissors' Force was outmatched by the German main body and was accordingly withdrawn to Bodø, which was to be defended by the 24th Guards Brigade.

As this brigade moved to Bodø, the destroyer Somali, which was carrying Fraser, the brigade’s commander, was bombed and was forced to return to the UK. Elevated to the rank of acting colonel, Gubbins assumed command of the brigade. On 15 May the troopship Chrobry, carrying the 1/Irish Guards, was bombed and the embarked troops suffered heavy casualties, and two days later the cruiser Effingham went aground while carrying much of the equipment of the 2/South Wales Borderers. Both battalions returned to Harstad to be re-formed and re-equipped before departing once more for Bodø.

As the Germans advanced to the north from the railhead at Mosjøen, the Mo-i-Rana garrison (a mixed force based on the 1/Scots Guards, third battalion of 24th Guards Brigade) withdrew on 18 May, altogether too soon and too quickly in estimation of Gubbins. The 1/Scots Guards' commanding officer continued the retreat of his battalion despite orders to hold successive positions which, given the delayed arrival of the rest of the brigade, left Gubbins no time to prepare a defensive position at Storjord. The brigade withdrew under heavy pressure across the Skjerstadfjorden on 25 May, covered by a rearguard from the 1/Irish Guards and several of the independent companies under the command of Major Hugh Stockwell.

In the evening of 27 May Bodø was bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe. The bombing raid destroyed the recently constructed improvised airstrip, the radio station and 420 of the town’s 760 buildings, killing 15 people and leaving another 5,000 persons homeless.

The Allies had already decided, in the light of the German 'Sichelschnitt' onslaught into the Low Countries and France, to evacuate their forces Norway, where the situation was also deemed impossible, and Gubbins’s force was evacuated from Bodø between 30 May and 2 June. During these three days, low cloud prevented the Luftwaffe from interfering. The British-operated improvised air strip which had been hit during the 27 May air raid now fell into German hands, and provided the Germans with an air base much closer to the Narvik fighting, and this was of great significance for their continued advance to the north.

In the northern theatre there had been major differences between the British land and naval commanders, Mackesy and Cork, however, after the former insisted that an assault landing could not be made on Narvik. It was for this reason, therefore, that the British advance guard had been landed at Harstad on Hinnøya, leaving Fraser’s 24th Guards Brigade with the prospect of a 60-mile (100-km) advance across two fjords before it could close on Dietl’s force. In the following days the three British battalions were deployed mainly at Sjøvegan, Skånland (where a small naval base was established) and at Bogen. British forces were later deployed to the south of the Ofotfjord, at Ballangen and at Håkvik.

With the rest of Norway now mostly in German hands, it had been decided that the Narvik operation had gained in strategic importance as the only realistic way left to the Allies of blocking a large portion of Germany’s iron imports. For this reason, therefore, Auchinleck’s force had been reinforced by Béthouart’s French 1st Division Légère des Chasseurs comprising Valentini’s 27th Demi-Brigade des Chasseurs Alpins and Lieutenant Colonel Magrin-Verneret’s 13th Demi-Brigade de Légion Étrangère. This French formation had landed at Ankenes, Bjerkvik, Elvenes and Foldvik between 28 April and 7 May. On 9 May four Polish battalions had been delivered for deployment first in the area to the north of the fjord and then to the area south of the fjord. Early in June these four Polish battalions were grouped as Général de Brigade Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko’s Polish 1st 'Carpathian' Demi-Brigade des Chasseurs Alpins.

In May most of the British troops were withdrawn from the Narvik area and redeployed to the south toward Nordland, in order to delay the advance of Generalleutnant Valentin Feurstein’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision moving to the north from Trondheim.

It took the Allies some time to ready themselves, and this gave the Germans time to reinforce Dietl, who received an airdropped parachute battalion on 15 May, and later the hurriedly retrained 137th Gebirgsjägerregiment was also airdropped in 'Büffel'. This relief of the German forces in Narvik was slowed by part of the 24th Guards Brigade, which landed at Bodø on 15 May and blocked the Germans.

By this time the 10 German battalions in the Narvik area were faced by 13 Allied battalions. The problems of the forces facing the Germans in the area of Narvik were many, and exacerbated by difficulties in deciding how best to retake Narvik and the railway line from the Swedish iron mining region, and by the lack of any unified command as the Allies and the Norwegians retained separate command structures, and co-operation between them was not always smooth. Even within the British camp there remained the major differences between Cork and Mackesy, the former demanding a swiftly launched assault from the sea on Narvik, and the latter preferring, for valid military and humanitarian reasons, a more cautious approach along both sides of the Ofotfjord. In the end, Cork was given overall command of the Allied forces after Mackesy had been replaced, at Cork’s insistence, by Lieutenant General C. J. E. Auchinleck, who reached Narvik on 11 May and assumed command of the local land forces two days later.

During the second week of May, the Norwegian advances against the Germans to the east of Gratangseidet were the most significant movements on the Narvik front. In addition, on the Norwegian forces' right flank the 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 north of the Ofotfjord were making no progress. The Norwegians continued their successful mountain campaign, and in mid-May the Allies took the initiative and made significant advances.

Both Paris and London had been growing impatient with the slow progress in Narvik, however, and the French commander, Béthouart, had pressed for a more committed offensive effort. The methodical land approach was therefore abandoned and an amphibious attack was launched on the Narvik area at around midnight on 12 May. This attack was directed at Bjerkvik and was preceded by a naval bombardment from British warships in the Herjangsfjord: this destroyed most of the village and killed 14 civilians, unfortunately. Then the French Foreign Legionnaires were put ashore with the support of five French light tanks. The French took Bjerkvik and Elvegårdsmoen, and advanced to the north-east onto the Germans' line of retreat, and to the south along the eastern side of the Herjangsfjord. The plan also required Polish troops to advance toward Bjerkvik from territory on the western side of the fjord, but the difficult nature of the terrain delayed the Poles to the point at which they arrived only after Bjerkvik had been taken. It had also been part of the plan for French and Norwegian troops to advance from the north in order to trap the Germans, but problems of co-operation between the Norwegian and French commanders left a gap through which the Germans escaped.

Despite this, the Allies had a clear path to the north of Narvik and planned to attack over the Rombaksfjord. But the attack was delayed as the Allies waited for the establishment of air support from Bardufoss.

At 23.40 on 28 May there started a naval bombardment from the north as two French and one Norwegian battalions were transported across the Rombaksfjord and advanced to the south toward Narvik. In the south the Polish battalions advanced toward Ankenes and the inner part of the Beisfjord. The maximum capacity of the landing barges was 290 men and these troops could not be reinforced for 45 minutes. These first troops were able to secure an initial foothold on Ornes by the time the rest of the French and the Norwegians were landed. The French then moved to the west in the direction of Narvik and to the east along the railway line. The Norwegians moved toward Taraldsvik mountain, circled around and then moved down toward the town. By 07.00 Dietl had decided to fall back from Narvik along the Beisfjord.

It now seemed to the Allies that it was only a matter of time before the Germans would have to surrender as their position was crushed from the north by the Norwegians, from the west by the French, and from the south-west by the Poles. There was every likelihood that the Germans would make their last stand at Bjørnefjell before attempting to fall back to the east and internment in neutral Sweden, but then events elsewhere in Europe saved them as the Allied position in France became ever more parlous.

On 24 May the British had secretly decided on an evacuation, a fact which became increasingly evident to the French, Poles and Norwegians over the next few days. It was during the night of 24/25 May that Cork received his orders, and the Allied commanders agreed with Béthouart on 28 May that the best way to achieve this was to capture Narvik and then to evacuate their forces from its harbour before all its iron ore facilities were destroyed.

The Norwegian government and commanders were first informed of the Allied decision early in June, and their initial disbelief soon turned to bitterness at what they saw as a desertion. 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 free but neutral small state in northern Norway, though a later reassessment revealed the futility of the concept.

On 7 June King Haakon VII and his government were evacuated to the UK. All of the 25,000 remaining Allied troops were evacuated from Narvik to Scotland between 4 and 8 June in 'Alphabet' (otherwise 'Klaxon II'). Three Polish passenger ships, Sobieski, Batory and Chrobry, took part in the evacuation operation, the last being sunk on 14/15 May by German bombers. On 8 June Dietl retook Narvik and on 10 June the last Norwegian forces in Norway surrendered. Despite the Allied demolitions, the Germans shipped their first load of iron ore from Narvik during January 1941.

An immediate result of the evacuation of the last Allied troops from Norway was that the positions of Sweden and Finland with regard to Germany was weakened. Late in June, therefore, Sweden agreed to the movement of significant number of German troops, without weapons, on the Swedish railway system: this was probably Sweden’s most significant departure from its policy of neutrality in World War II. Then in August Finland concluded a secret agreement with Germany whereby Finland could acquire weapons through Germany and Germany could transfer armed troops by truck through the extreme north of Finland in preparation for eventual operations against the USSR. In the shorter term, moreover, Germany and the USSR, still linked by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, had managed to exclude all other international powers from being able to influence the course of events in the far north of Europe.