Norway – Battleground for Battleships
By Mike Creasy
So how did Norway become such a hotbed of battleship action?? Like the real estate folks say – location, location, location.
A bit of geography. The North Sea, between Britain and Denmark, is connected to the Atlantic by the English Channel to the south and the Shetland Passage to the north. The Baltic is an inland sea, cut off from the North Sea by the south tip of Sweden and Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula.
Any ship bound for a German port must transit the English Channel or go north past the Norwegian coast to escape detection. On top of that, Norway is a major producer of iron ore; a valuable resource when fighting a war.
By 1940, both Britain and Germany had decided that Norway was strategically critical and in April, Germany launched operation Weseruburg. This invasion plan called for the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to sortie to the far north with the objective of drawing British attentions away from the Norwegian Coast.
Meanwhile, 10 destroyers would land 2,000 troops at Narvik, the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and four destroyers would land 1,700 more troops at Trondheim, the light cruisers Koln and Konigsberg would land 900 men at Bergen and a further 2,000 would be landed at Oslo by the heavy cruiser Blucher and the pocket battleship Lutzow.
On April 5, the British battlecruiser HMS Renown sailed from Scapa Flow to search for and destroy the German force. One of her screening destroyers, HMS Glowworm (Lt.Cdr. G.B. Roope) became separated while searching for a man overboard in heavy weather.
While pounding around looking to find and rejoin Renown’s battle group, the 1,300 ton Glowworm instead met up with the Hipper, a well armed and armoured heavy cruiser – 13,900 tons, with eight 8” guns.
In the raging seas, Glowworm couldn’t outrun Hipper and came under heavy fire. Battered and ablaze, Captain Roope made a desperate run straight for the enemy. Glowworm was sunk, but not before she inflicted a 120 foot gash in Hipper’s side. Roope received a posthumous Victoria Cross, while Hipper was laid up for months.
Meanwhile, Renown had met up with Scharnhorst and Gniesenau. Following orders, the German ships ran north to divert the British away from the Norway landings. Renown pursued and a brief gun battle ensued, with three 15” hits on Gniesenau.
By April 10, three British battleships, two battlecruisers and an aircraft carrier were heading into Norwegian waters to strike at German landings.
On April 12, the battleship HMS Warspite and destroyers entered the long fjord leading to Narvik. It was target practice for her big guns – eight German destroyers and a U-boat were sunk.
HMS Warspite firing on D-Day
By June however, despite their losses, German occupation of Norway had succeeded and the British withdrew. Norway would quickly become a staging area for ongoing German naval operations in the North Sea and the north Atlantic. In response, Britain was forced to maintain sizeable forces in the Home Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, to guard against the possibility of a direct attack and to support the increasing number of merchant ship convoys heading north to Murmansk.
On June 8, some 200 miles west of Narvik, the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered the 19,000 ton aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two destroyers, HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent. In a two-hour engagement, all three British ships were sunk.
In late September the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer (Capt. Zur See Theodor Kranke) sortied from Norway into the north Atlantic. Scheer had a successful cruise, sinking 16 ships in a cruise that lasted until April. One of the most notable sinkings was that of the SS Jervis Bay (Capt. E.S.F. Fegen).
HMS Jervis Bay on escort duty
Jervis Bay was an armed merchant ship - a freighter with a small gun on the foc’sle, and a very brave crew. She was the sole escort for convoy HX84 (37 ships) out of Halifax for England. On November 5, 1940, lookouts spotted the approaching pocket battleship. Captain Fegen gave the order to scatter, but it was obvious that the slow freighters and tankers needed more time to separate before being run down by the speedy Scheer.
Fegen turned towards the Scheer and began firing his old 4” gun. There was no hope against Scheer’s armour and 11” guns, but she was forced to take the time (22 minutes) to deal with Jervis Bay. As a result the scatter manoeuvre worked and Scheer managed to sink only 4 more ships of the convoy.
Captain Fegen was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Norway served as the staging area for several more battleship actions, including the Bismarck’s famous sortie in May 1941, Tirpitz’ uneventful Atlantic operation in March 1942 and an almost bizarre battleship and U-boat operation that took place in June 1942.
A 33 ship supply convoy set sail from Iceland June 27 bound for Archangel. At the time, U-boats and Luftwaffe bombers controlled the Barents Sea, so PQ-17 had a huge escort of an aircraft carrier (HMS Victorious), four cruisers, four corvettes and two anti-aircraft flak ships. By July 4, the convoy was north of Bear Island in the Barents Sea, having lost three ships to Luftwaffe attacks.
That same afternoon, British aerial recon spotted the Tirpitz battle group (Tirpitz, Hipper, Scheer, Lutzow and 4 destroyers) on move from Trondheim, and the order was sent for PQ-17 to scatter. Incredibly, three of the four destroyers and the cruiser Lutzow ran aground leaving port! The scattered merchantmen were now sitting ducks for U-boats and 23 of the 33 ships were sunk. Tirpitz’ battle group never came close.
By the spring of 1943, the war had started to turn. German warships were crippled both by shortages of fuel oil and spares as well as a growing reluctance from High Command to risk naval resources in northern waters. Allied losses on the Murmansk run were down, although U-boat and aircraft raids continued.
Finally, in December, a major surface operation was approved. On December 23, the battleship Scharnhorst and five destroyers were cleared to sail in pursuit of the northbound convoy JW-55B.
As Scharnhorst’s Admiral Erich Bey sailed north from Altenfjord, he was unaware that British intelligence had already sounded the warning – Admiral Bruce Fraser was following the convoy in the battleship HMS Duke of York in company with the cruiser HMS Jamaica and four destroyers. In addition, the cruisers HMS Norfolk, HMS Belfast and HMS Sheffield were in the area, shadowing a westbound convoy.
German communications and intelligence reports were very poor and Admiral Bey sailed straight into Admiral Fraser’s trap. A running gun battle in high seas and darkness lasted for several hours, as Scharnhorst tried in vain to withdraw. At 7:45pm on December 26, 1943 the battleship Scharnhorst rolled over and sank with 36 survivors out of 1,839.
This was the last true battleship-to-battleship fight, and the last time German capital units would face allied forces. Tirpitz remained at anchor in various Norwegian fjords until November 1944, when she was sunk by “Tall Boy” bombs dropped from Lancaster bombers.
Norway’s run as the battleship battleground was over.
The War at Sea, Vol 1 and 2, Capt S.W Roskill, HMSO, 1956
Hitler’s High Seas Fleet, Richard Humble, Ballantyne, 1971
Sinking of the Scharnhorst, Fritz-Otto Busch, Futura, 1976
Battle of the Atlantic, Barrie Pitt, Time-Life Books, 1980
Jane’s Fighting Ships of WW 2, Jane’s Publishing, 1946