The most decorated ship in Royal Naval history, H.M.S. WARSPITE battles German Naval ships in the Second Battle of Narvik, Norway. Giving and taking heavy fire from the German Kriegsmarine, WARSPITE would lead Britain to one of the most important British victories in the early war. Sinking or grounding half of the German Navy's fleet of destroyers, the Battle of Narvik would go down as the most successful operation by British destroyers during WWII.
HMS WARSPITE was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship built for the Royal Navy during the early 1910s. Her thirty-year career covered both world wars and took her across the Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Pacific Oceans. She participated in the Battle of Jutland during the First World War as part of the Grand Fleet.
During the WWII, she was involved in several major engagements, including battles in the North Sea and Mediterranean, earning her the most battle honors ever awarded to an individual ship in the Royal Navy. For her long and distinguished service the ship was nicknamed "Grand Old Lady" and often went into battle as the flagship of an admiral.
Despite this great victory, Britain would give up on liberating Norway a month after this action. The loss of Norway would lead to the resignation of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was succeeded by Winston Churchill. Still, history records that the Battles of Narvik gave the British people hope in an otherwise bleak period of war, reminding the world that Britannia still ruled the waves.
In 1940 Dawson's representing gallery Frost and Reed of London created prints of this painting. The fact that this was not a limited edition, unlike so many others created by the gallery for Dawson's works shows that there was a desire to make this image available to the public in memory of the great showing by the Royal Navy.
The First and Second Battles of Narvik
When WWII broke out in September of 1939, Norway declared itself neutral. Less than a year later, it was action around the port of Narvik which pulled the country into the conflict.
Narvik's harbor is ice-free, offering year round ship access to Ofotfjord, through which both Germany and Great Britain transported iron ore from mines in Sweden. Each wanted the vital resources or to at least to keep the other side from obtaining them. Sweden provided half of Germany's iron, so the loss of port access would have done major economic damage to the country and to the war effort.
Norway was a rich prize for both sides- Germany wanted Atlantic ports to head off a repeat of the British blockade which so hampered their efforts in WWI. France and Britain were openly discussing their own potential occupation of Norway to position troops and block German access to rail and supply lines. Fearing this occupation, Hitler ordered the invasion of Norway and Denmark on March 1st, 1940. The plan was that German forces would occupy the six main Norwegian ports with Narvik as the most important goal.
On April 9, a group of German destroyers sailed into Ofotfjord heading for Narvik. Their orders were to occupy Norway peacefully if possible, as Germany felt that Norwegians were a fellow Germanic race. Though the Norwegians on land and at sea fought valiantly, sinking the German flagship and damaging a few other ships, overall Norway was unprepared for a large scale invasion and German troops occupied the ports including Narvik.
After the invasions Germans informed the governments of Denmark and Norway that the Wehrmacht had come to protect the countries' neutrality against Franco-British aggression. When the news broke the same day in London, that Germany had invaded Norway, military observers said it hit London like "live shells exploding at a picnic." A day earlier, the British Government had gloated about the successful mining of the approach waters to Narvik, missing the German forces by a few hours. Now it seemed they had dithered in indecision, spending months internally arguing for and against breaching Norway's neutrality.
The subsequent campaign to dislodge the German invaders from Norway presented the British Armed Forces with their first real test of the war. In emergency council Britain quickly decided to focus their efforts in Northern Norway and Narvik seemed like the perfect focal point. Relatively isolated from the main fighting forces, the port was also out of reach of the German Luftwaffe. Also, British intelligence had reported that only one German ship had taken Narvik, rather than the actual ten German destroyers who landed that day.
In the best position to engage Germany, Britain's 2nd Destroyer Flotilla was sent to Narvik with orders to destroy the enemy. Under the command of Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee, the flotilla included flagship HMS HARDY, along with destroyers HMS HOTSPUR, HAVOCK, HUNTER, and HOSTILE. The decision whether to land troops and engage forces in the city was the commander's to make.
As he neared Narvik, a stop at a pilot station near Tranöy, locals informed Warburton-Lee of six remaining German destroyers seen at Narvik and that he'd need twice as many ships to have any chance of success against the larger and better armed German vessels. Despite the odds the commander decided to press on and engage the enemy.
Warburton-Lee timed his arrival at Narvik perfectly. He arrived outside the port at just before 4am on April 10th, hidden by snowstorms. At 4.30am he led his ships into the harbor and with a combination of torpedoes and gunfire sank two of the German destroyers, damaging the other four. The British pressed a second attack which sank a number of nearby German merchant ships and supply vessels, including one carrying fuel for the German Naval ships. Incredibly, the British ships were unharmed. Thinking he'd just quickly taken out most of the ships at Narvik, Warburton-Lee then withdrew outside the harbor. The remaining German vessels however, radioed others nearby and they were on their way within the hour.
Warburton-Lee decided to remain at Narvik long enough to make one more attack, but before he could reenter the harbor, three German destroyers attacked from the northwest, followed soon after by two more from the west and the British forces were under attack from both sides in open waters where the larger German ships had tactical advantage. HMS HARDY was badly damaged and had to be beached while HMS HUNTER was sunk outright. Captain Warburton-Lee was among those killed in the fight. All five of the German ships were damaged and retreated. Of the remaining three British ships, HMS HOTSPUR was badly damaged but was aided by the relatively sound HAVOCK and HOSTILE who escorted her out of the fjord.
The Second Battle of Narvik – April 13th, 1940
The Royal Navy considered it imperative, for morale and strategic purposes, to defeat the Germans in Narvik, so Vice Admiral William Whitworth was sent with the battleship HMS WARSPITE and nine destroyers; four Tribal-class (HMS BEDOUIN, COSSACK, PUNJABI, and ESKIMO) and five others (HMS KIMBERLEY, HERO, ICARUS, FORESTER and FOXHOUND), accompanied by aircraft from the aircraft carrier HMS FURIOUS. These forces arrived in the Ofotfjord on April 13th to find that the eight remaining German destroyers were virtually stranded due to lack of fuel, but still ready to fight for control of the port. However the Germans were able to call in several support vessels including several U-boats and the victory was still hard fought.
In the ensuing battle, three of the German destroyers were sunk by WARSPITE and her escorts and the other five were scuttled by their crews when they ran out of fuel and ammunition. A catapult plane lunched from WARSPITE sank a German U-boat in the battle, the first U-boat to be sunk by an aircraft during the Second World War.
WARSPITE was lucky to escape unscathed given the number of submarines and other torpedo-armed enemy warships present in the narrow confines of the Norwegian fjords. Though she remained in Norwegian waters for a few weeks, there was no way to retake Narvik, as no Allied ground forces were available to occupy the city. For the surviving German sailors, it was just the beginning. The crews of the ships that sank formed a marine detachment comprising 2,600 men that successfully fought side by side with Germany's 3rd Mountain Division against the Allied forces in the surrounding region. The marine engineers also had their part to play—together with sappers they restored Narvik's port, and repaired transport links, rolling stock, and armament.
The Battles of Narvik and the Occupation of Norway would play a major role the direction of Britain's war effort. The invasion and eventual loss of Norway provided the shock that shook the British nation out of any illusions that the war could be won with half measures. An all-out effort and great sacrifice would be required to compete on equal terms with a totalitarian enemy.
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