In early April 1940, in an attempt to stop a German naval force from capturing the Norwegian port of Narvic a small Royal Navy force was ordered to intercept the ships of the German Reichsmarine.
But before this happened things had changed, as Churchill writes in The Gathering Storm:
“ Lord Chatfield’s office as Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence [established in 1936 to oversee rearmament] had become redundant, and on the 3rd [April] Mr. Chamberlain accepted his resignation, which he proffered freely. On the 4th a statement was issued from №10 Downing Street that it was not proposed to fill the vacant post, but that arrangements were being made for the First Lord of the Admiralty [Churchill], as the Senior Service Minister concerned, to preside over the Military Co–ordination Committee. Accordingly I took the chair at its meetings, which were held daily, and sometimes twice daily, from the 8th to 15th of April. I had therefore an exceptional measure of responsibility, but no power of effective direction. Among the other Service Ministers who were also members of the War Cabinet I was ‘first among equals.’ ”
Although Churchill had no executive power other than within the Admiralty, his elevation to chairing the Military Co-ordination Committee gave him a certain sway with Prime Minister Chamberlain who would effectively take the First Lord’s advice and recommendations.
On the evening of the 5th of April the German Embassy in Oslo put on a film show for members of the Norwegian government showing the ferocious attack on Poland by the German Army and Air force in September 1939, and the partial destruction of the city of Warsaw. The Germans explained, with irony and unsmiling faces, that the invasion and destruction of Poland lay at the door of Norway’s English and French friends. It was an undisguised warning.
In the grip of a dilemma the Norwegian government became extremely worried when, between 4.30 and 5.00 am on the 8th of April, the Royal Navy laid mines off the entrance to the West Fjord, the narrow sea channel to the port of Narvic.
“ At 5 a.m. the news was broadcast from London, and at 5.30 a note from His Majesty’s Government was handed to the Norwegian Foreign Minister. The morning in Oslo was spent in drafting protests to London. But later that afternoon the Admiralty informed the Norwegian Legation in London that German warships had been sighted off the Norwegian coast proceeding northwards, and presumably bound for Narvic. About the same time reports reached the Norwegian capital that a German troopship, the Rio de Janeiro,had been sunk off the south coast of Norway by the Polish submarine Orzel.”
The Orzel escaped from Polish waters soon after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The sub was badly damaged by German minesweepers and sought refuge in Tallin, from where, after repairs, it made a daring escape under the command of its First Officer (the captain had been taken to hospital injured) eventually making it to Scotland in the October where it was put under the control of the Royal Navy, serving in the 2nd Submarine Flotilla from January 1940.
Most of the German soldiers on board the Rio de Janeiro were rescued by Norwegian fishermen, who were told that the ship had been heading for Bergen, with the soldiers part of a larger force who’s job it was to help Norway defend its ports against an invasion by the British and French. The fishermen didn’t believe a word of it.
Churchill goes on to write:
“ That night German warships approached Oslo. The outer [shore]batteries opened fire. The Norwegian defending force consisted of a mine-layer, the Olav Tryggvason, and two minesweepers. After dawn two German minesweepers entered the mouth of the fiord to disembark troops in the neighbourhood of the shore batteries. One was sunk by the Olav Tryggvason, but the German troops were landed and the batteries taken. The gallant mine — layer however held off two German destroyers at the mouth of the fiord and damaged the cruiser Emden. An armed Norwegian whaler armed with a single gun also went into action at once and without special orders against the invaders. Her gun was smashed and the commander had both legs shot off. To avoid unnerving his men, he rolled himself overboard and died nobly.”
It was the start of another violent and bloody attack by the Germans. Norway was at their mercy.
The German invasion of Norway was a crucial development in those early days of WWII, not least for Winston Churchill at the Admiralty who describes the escalation of events in The Gathering Storm:
“ On the night of Sunday, the 7th [April], our air reconnaissance reported that a German fleet, consisting of a battle-cruiser, two light cruisers, fourteen destroyers, and another, probably a transport, had been seen the day before moving towards the Naze across the mouth of the Skaggerak. We found it hard at the Admiralty to believe that this force was going to Narvic. In spite of a report from Copenhagen that Hitler meant to seize that port, it was thought by the Naval Staff that the German ships would probably turn back into the Skaggerak.”
Despite what his staff thought Churchill ordered the Home Fleet to move against the Germans, and writes:
“ The Home Fleet, comprising Rodney, Repulse, Valiant, two cruisers and ten destroyers, was already under steam, and left Scapa at 8.30 p.m. on April 7; the Second Cruiser Squadron, of two cruisers and fifteen destroyers, started from Rosyth at 10 p.m. on the same night. The First Cruiser Squadron, which had been embarking troops at Rosyth for the possible occupation of Norwegian ports in the event of a German attack, was ordered to march the soldiers ashore, even without their equipment, and join the Fleet at sea at the earliest moment.”
In fact Churchill ensured every available naval vessel was ordered out for a ‘major emergency.’
Churchill’s record of the events of early April 1940 often reads like a film scenario, which I can’t improve on:
“ When the War Cabinet met on Monday morning I reported that the minefields in the West Fiord had been laid between 4.30 and 5 a.m. I also explained in detail that all our fleets were at sea. But by now we had assurance that the main German naval force was undoubtedly making towards Narvik. On the way to lay the minefield ‘Wilfred’ one of our destroyers, the Glowworm, having lost a man overboard during the night, stopped behind to search for him and became separated from the rest of the force. At 8.30 a.m. on the 8th the Glowworm had reported herself engaged with an enemy destroyer about 150 miles south-west of West Fiord. Shortly afterwards she had reported seeing another destroyer ahead of her, and later that she was engaging a superior force. After 9.45 she had become silent, since when nothing had been heard from her.”
In that clearly written and presented report, of which the above is just a small part, the War Cabinet was convinced Hitler had his mind set on capturing Narvik and instructed Churchill to inform the Norwegian government of the German naval movements. This was done, but it was all too late.
A few days before this, on the 4th of April, Churchill flew to Paris, with the blessing of Chamberlain, to try and put some backbone into the Socialist Prime Minister of France, Edouard Daladier. Churchill was accompanied by his old friend and French born Major General Edward Spears, who wrote:
“ We were shaken in our old de Havilland as if we were a salad in a colander manipulated by a particularly energetic cook.”
On arrival the pair were taken for lunch, by French General Alphonse Georges (the C in C of the French North East Front), to the Lapérouse restaurant on the Quai Grands Augustins. The restaurant had been a favourite of Proust’s, and was for Spears “… one of the few pleasant occasions I experienced in the war.” And although General Georges seemed confident, and was keen to order the food, Churchill nevertheless laid it on the line militarily, stressing the dangers of delay.
Back in London, on the day of the Paris luncheon, General Ironside, the CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), rather stupidly announced that Hitler had “…thank goodness, been late at the bus stop.”, suggesting that the Royal Navy and scuppered Hitler’s plans. On the following day Prime Minister Chamberlain compounded the myth when he told a Conservative National Union meeting that Hitler “…had missed the bus.”
Those bus jokes were to haunt them.
A day or so after the Paris luncheon Churchill managed to get to see Premier Daladier who thought the overall situation was not so urgent, and that the planned mine laying of the Rhine to help stop a German invasion, should be postponed. Churchill had little choice but to go along with it. He had other priorities.
Churchill returned to London on the 6th of April and, as described at the start, became totally consumed by the German naval activity which, by the time HMS Glowworm came up against that ‘superior force’ the fate of Norway and Denmark was sealed as Hitler unleashed operation Weserübung, as Andrew Roberts, describes:
“ It was brilliantly executed: the Germans swiftly occupied Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, securing all the major ports and airfields. The brave but small Norwegian Army was taken by surprise. Oslo was captured by only six companies of German paratroopers before Junkers 52 transport aircraft brought in 29,000 soldiers in 3,000 sorties. Hitler had clearly not missed the bus.”
And although Britain may have had control of the North Sea it did not have control of the air — which Hitler exploited brilliantly — and with no central co-ordination of the three British armed services, the eventual decision to re-capture Narvik was, at best, a very poor one.
“ Our Staff work at this time had not been tempered by war experience, nor was the action of the Service departments concerted except by the meeting of the Military Co-ordination Committee, over which I had just begun to preside. Neither I, as chairman of the Committee, nor the Admiralty were made acquainted with the War Office instructions to General Mackesy…”
Mackesy’s instructions were as follows:
MAJOR-GENERAL P. J. MACKESY, C.B., D.S.O., M.C.
1. His Majesty’s Government and the Government of the French Republic have decided to send a Field Force to initiate operations against Germany in Northern Norway.
2. The object of the force will be to eject the Germans from the Narvik area and to establish control of Narvik itself.
3. (a) You will command the troops including all units of the French Army and any R.A.F. component which may subsequently be added to the force. The force will consist in the first instance of all troops now on board the S.S. Chrobry and Batory.
(b) Should you become a casualty or otherwise be prevented from exercising command of the force, command will pass to the next senior British officer, who will exercise command and, in the event of a French General officer being with the force, assume the acting rank of Major General until another British officer can be appointed.
4. No information is available as to the strength of the Norwegian forces in the area but it is known that Harstad is normally the Headquarters of a mixed brigade and it is supposed that some troops are there now. Their attitude is not known but it is believed that they will be ready to co-operate.
5. Your initial task will be to establish your force at Harstad, ensure the co-operation of Norwegian forces that may be there and obtain the information necessary to enable you to plan your further operations.
6. It is intended to reinforce you with a view to subsequent operations from such base as may be selected by you in consultation with the Senior Naval Officer. Salangen is the only neighbouring anchorage of which the Admiralty have full knowledge.
A timetable showing the time at which these reinforcements might be made available is attached as Appendix ‘A’.
7. It is not intended that you should land in the face of opposition. You may, however, be faced with opposition owing to mistaken identity; you will therefore take such steps as are suitable to establish the nationality of your force before abandoning the attempt.
8. The decision whether to land or not will be taken by the Senior Naval Officer in consultation with you. If landing is impossible at Harstad some other suitable locality should be tried. A landing must be carried out when you have sufficient troops.
9. You will appreciate the importance of the destruction of the railway leading from Narvik to the Norwegian-Swedish frontier should you be able to engineer it. This is the only known means of communication from Narvik into Sweden.
10. Your force will constitute an independent command directly under the War Office. You will keep in constant communication with the War Office and report as regularly as is practicable as to the situation.
11. A duplicate of these instructions has been handed to Brigadier Phillips.
The War Office,
10th April 1940.
for S. of S.
“ …and as the Admiralty directions had been given orally to Lord Cork [commander of the Naval force sent to Narvic by Churchill] there was no written text to communicate to the War Office…”. Why not?
It was a bit of a mess, but Churchill learned a massive lesson he put into immediate use when he became Prime Minister: there’s only one man in charge.
To Be Continued…
Winston Churchill — The Gathering Storm (Houghton Mifflin & Co, Boston, 1948); Andrew Roberts — Churchill :Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane/Penguin Books, London,2018); Roy Jenkins — Churchill (Pan Books, London, 2001); Andrew Roberts — The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (Allen Lane/Penguin Books, London, 2009); Boris Johnson — The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2014); Jon Bew — Citizen Clem: A Biography of Atlee (Riverrun, London, 2016); David Lough — No More Champagne — Churchill and His Money (Head of Zeus, London, 2015)…