We’re all familiar with the story. In the summer of 1940, Royal Air Force pilots defeated Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England and saved Britain from invasion. “Our fate,” Winston Churchill wrote years later, “depended on victory in the air.”
The Battle of Britain was a humiliation for the Luftwaffe, which may have lost almost 2,000 aircraft and well over 4,000 airmen killed, wounded, missing, and captured – undoubtedly far more than the British, although figures vary. It was a propaganda triumph for a beleaguered island, with strategic implications, in particular in the US, where Americans considered anew the UK’s will to resist. It was an important victory, and the pilots’ courage was undeniable.
But, in truth, there’s little chance that Germany could have invaded England, even if the RAF had been defeated in the Battle of Britain. That’s because, some weeks earlier, Britain had already, in effect, been saved. It had been saved in the battle of Norway, a now widely forgotten land, air and sea campaign fought between 9 April and 10 June 1940. And Britain’s saviour, as so many times before in what Churchill called its “long island story”, was the Royal Navy.
Supported by French, Norwegian and Polish allies, the British fleet wrought terrible damage on its German counterpart, the Kriegsmarine, in the icy waters of Scandinavia. So sizeable was that damage, it convinced Germany’s naval leaders that the Kriegsmarine was totally inadequate to play a significant role in an invasion of Britain.
Cat and mouse
At the start of 1940, Norway was neutral and almost defenceless. Unfortunately, through its economic activities, it was also incapable of staying quietly ‘beneath the radar’ of the belligerents. That’s because, in winter, the ice-free northern port of Narvik provided the only window on the world for Swedish iron ore – a vital resource for Germany. So, while Hitler conquered Poland and the Allies prepared themselves for a German attack into the Low Countries and France, both sides played cat and mouse in the north. On 16 February 1940, the British destroyer Cossack entered Norwegian waters illegally and a boarding party freed 300 captured British merchant sailors from the German supply ship Altmark, whose presence was also illegal.
But the stand-off wouldn’t last for long. During the brief 1939–40 ‘Winter war’ between Finland and the Soviet Union (who had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany), Britain and France prepared a force to cross Norwegian territory, aid the Finns and seize Narvik. Anticipating this, the Germans drew up plans for a full-scale invasion of Norway and Denmark, codenamed Operation Weserübung. The Allies shelved their plans after the Soviet-Finnish armistice on 13 March 1940, opting instead for a more limited mission to mine Norwegian waters, but in Germany the commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, persuaded Hitler that Weserübung should proceed anyway. On 8 April, the British laid their mines. One day later, the Germans invaded.
Weserübung was an ambitious simultaneous sea and air attack on Norway’s most important ports, accompanied by a rapid Blitzkrieg through Denmark (see our map of the campaign on page 55). The first warning came on the 8th, when the Polish submarine Orzeł sank a German transport and discovered it to be full of armed troops. The following day, the British destroyer Glowworm stumbled across the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and was sunk with heavy loss of life, while the British battlecruiser Repulse fought a brief, inconclusive action against the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the teeth of an Arctic gale.
German paratroops seized the Norwegian capital, Oslo, in broad daylight, although when seaborne reinforcements came up the Oslo fjord, a Norwegian coastal defence battery sank the heavy cruiser Blücher.
The cities of Bergen and Kristiansand fell after brief firefights. Trondheim was also taken without difficulty. At Narvik, 600 miles to the north, German destroyers landed elite mountain troops who easily seized the port. After one day, the Germans held Norway’s key towns, but the garrisons were isolated and under-supplied. Much depended on the Allied response at sea.
That response, when it came, was devastating. Allied submarines were first on the scene. They wrought havoc on German transport ships along the Norwegian coast, and also sank the cruiser Karlsruhe and seriously damaged the pocket battleship Lutzow. They were followed by Fleet Air Arm Skua dive-bombers, which sank the cruiser Königsberg in Bergen harbour, history’s first sinking of a major surface ship by air attack.
“The tracer bullets were drifting up towards us like lazy golden raindrops,” wrote Skua pilot Captain RT Partridge. “Now, 2,500 feet, no fear or apprehension, just complete and absolute concentration; mustn’t drop too high and must watch going too low and blowing myself up with my own bomb blast… at 1,800 feet I dropped my bombs and was away towards the sea at nought feet. My observer reported a near miss on the ship’s port bow.”
At Narvik, the German destroyers were stranded through lack of fuel, and the Royal Navy responded immediately and violently. Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee’s 2nd Destroyer Flotilla entered Narvik fjord on 10 April, sinking two destroyers, damaging three more, and sinking seven stores ships.
Warburton-Lee’s action provided more evidence of British naval superiority, but it ended in disaster. While racing for safety, the British flotilla was ambushed and, in a short, bloody engagement, the Germans sank two British destroyers, including Warburton-Lee’s flagship HMS Hardy, which was driven ashore in flames. Warburton-Lee was killed; he later received a posthumous Victoria Cross. Leading Seaman Mason witnessed his last moments: “They had the captain lashed on a stretcher, lowering him feet first, and wanted me to grab him and lay him on the deck. As he came down I saw that his head and face were in a terrible state; he was groaning and breathing heavily… the officers dumped the skipper in the water and dived in after him. He was dead when they got him to the beach.”
Early on 13 April, the British battleship Warspite, with nine destroyers, arrived to wreak more havoc – Warspite’s float plane almost immediately sank the German submarine U-64. The day did not improve for the Germans, who were unable to either fight or flee due to their lack of fuel and ammunition, as the British sank or drove ashore all the surviving destroyers, leaving the German mountain troops isolated and vulnerable.
But for all their successes in the waters around Norway, the Allies couldn’t prevent German ground forces advancing north from Oslo. The Allied high command was under pressure to respond, but was unsure whether to retake Trondheim or go for Narvik. Eventually, it made the questionable decision to undertake both operations simultaneously. The Trondheim force landed at two small ports to the north and south of the city on 17 April and advanced inland, but both forces were poorly organised and equipped, and had almost no air cover. John Hodgson of the 49th West Riding Division recalled how “we did not see any German soldiers, but saw plenty of German planes which bombed and strafed us throughout the long hours of daylight”.
Pushed steadily backwards and under round-the-clock aerial bombardment by Luftwaffe aircraft operating out of Denmark and southern Norway, the troops were evacuated after just two weeks.
The Allies now focused their efforts on Narvik alone, launching an assault on the town on 12 May. Under sustained pressure from British, French and Polish forces, Narvik fell on the 28th, the Germans withdrawing east towards the Swedish frontier.
But, with German armies sweeping through France, the victory at Narvik was irrelevant. Given that Allied forces were crumbling in the west, keeping more than 24,000 troops in Norway would have been ridiculous. And so, once more, the decision was taken to evacuate.
In deploying most of the Kriegsmarine to Norway, Hitler allowed the Royal Navy and its allies to score a vital victory
By 6 June, troopships had taken off 15,000 troops, and the first group was on its way home. The following day, HMS Devonshire evacuated Norway’s government and king from Tromsø, further north. Finally, on the 8th, the RAF contingent left, the pilots skilfully landing their aircraft on HMS Glorious, despite being entirely untrained in deck landings, and the carrier headed home. It never made it. Its deck cluttered with RAF fighters, Glorious was almost defenceless, and on being found by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, was sunk with the loss of around 1,500 lives.
Britain’s vital victory
The sinking of the Glorious was the final act of the battle of Norway – and a grim one for all that. But it couldn’t mask what was obvious to everyone – the battle had been a chastening experience for the Kriegsmarine. In deploying most of his navy to Norway, Adolf Hitler allowed the Royal Navy and its allies to score a vital victory.
Admiral Raeder, with Hitler’s blessing, had planned for a war in 1946, writing later that the tiny fleet was so ill-prepared in 1939 that “it could do little more than show that it knew how to die valiantly”. In Norway, it was eviscerated – its only two modern capital ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were torpedoed, and the pocket battleship Lützow seriously damaged, leaving her sister Admiral Scheer as Germany’s only big-gun ship.
The rewards for Great Britain were immediately apparent, first during the evacuation from Dunkirk, which the Kriegsmarine failed to impede, and then when naval weakness became perhaps the single determining factor undermining proposals for the invasion of England.
When the German army proposed a broad invasion front stretching from Lyme Bay in the west to Ramsgate in the east, the Kriegsmarine rejected it, arguing that it could only defend the invasion fleet if it was restricted to a narrow front, and the shortest possible route, across the Strait of Dover. Even then, strong coastal gun batteries and control of the air were a prerequisite, and for all the hyperbole, the evidence indicates that the Luftwaffe alone could not have hoped to defeat the Royal Navy in 1940.
The Royal Navy’s defining purpose was to defend the United Kingdom, alongside which all other tasks paled into insignificance. To do this, at the start of the war it boasted 15 battleships, seven aircraft carriers, 66 cruisers, 184 destroyers and 60 submarines, with more under construction. Despite serious losses sustained in Norway and elsewhere, much of this force remained intact – the British could simply endure far higher losses than the Germans.
Even if the most modern ships were initially kept out of range of the Luftwaffe in the event of a German invasion after an RAF defeat in the Battle of Britain, this would still have left hundreds of 1914–18 vintage warships, which could have been thrown into the defence. And even if the Luftwaffe had sunk half of them, enough would have survived to massacre the motley array of improvised ferries and converted Rhine barges in which the Germans hoped to cross the Channel (especially at night, when German dive-bombers could not operate). Furthermore, evidence suggests that the Luftwaffe would have struggled to achieve this ambitious level of destruction.
German bomber crews had been trained to act as precision flying artillery to support the army. Sinking ships that were manoeuvring fast in open water was a different skill, particularly if they were shooting back, and it was a skill the Luftwaffe had not mastered in 1940. To take just one example: on the first day of the Norway invasion, nearly 100 German bombers attacked five British cruisers and seven destroyers steaming without air cover. They sank just one destroyer, HMS Gurkha, after she became detached from the main force. Based on this and similar incidents, it is, I believe, without question that enough British warships would have survived to destroy the invasion force, regardless of whether the Germans controlled the air.
Admiral Raeder confirmed this on 19 July, when he wrote to Hitler explaining that: “The task allotted to the navy [in the invasion] is out of all proportion to the navy’s strength.” In doing so he was effectively admitting that, during April and May 1940, the Royal Navy had saved Britain.
Nick Hewitt has an MA in war studies from King’s College, University of London, and is head of exhibitions and collections at the National Museum of the Royal Navy
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This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine