Norway: WWII Battles in the Fjords
German Invasion of Norway (April 1940)

At the beginning of the Second World War, Norway was a neutral country and uninvolved in the conflict; her geographic location soon made her a target for invasion, however. For Germany, her location north of the British Isles would provide clear access to the Atlantic for U-boats, but more important was the ice-free port of Narvik--an important port for the export of Swedish iron ore, which was a vital natural resource for Germany's war effort. Great Britain was also keenly aware of Norway's importance, and contemplated an occupation of her own.

Germany sent an invasion force north in early April with planned simultaneous landings all along the Norwegian coast, from Oslo to Narvik. Coincidently, the British sent a naval force to lay mines along the Norwegian coast in the hope of sabotaging German trade routes at the same time; neither force was initially aware of the presence of the other. The weather was awful, with extremely rough seas and at times near-zero visibility due to blinding snow squalls. The German force to Narvik consisted of 10 destroyers (Wilhelm Heidkamp, Hans Ludemann, Hermann Kunne, Diether von Roeder, Anton Schmitt, Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim, Erich Giese, Erich Koellner and Georg Thiele) and four support ships (Alster, Kattegat, Jan Wellem and the ammunition ship Rauenfels). Entering the harbor at Narvik early on the morning of April 9 with their destroyer force, the German's attempted to get the Norwegian coastal defense ships Eidsvold and Norge to surrender; refusing, both ships were torpedoed with a heavy loss of life. The destroyers were carrying German troops which landed and quickly captured the port of Narvik. Meanwhile, the British had gotten wind of the German landings at Narvik, and sent five destroyers (Hardy, Hunter, Havock, Hostile and Hotspur) into the fjords to attack the Germans, setting up the First Battle of Narvik on April 10.

First Battle of Narvik (April 10, 1940)

The British aimed to achieve surprise in their attack, which they did brilliantly, arriving at the harbor entrance in the early dawn light of April 10. The harbor was obscured by poor visibility, but filled with merchant ships at anchor, and German destroyers refueliing from the tanker Jan Wellem. HMS Hardy was first in line, with Hunter and Havock behind, while HMS Hostile and Hotspur were detached to patrol outside the harbor entrance. Hardy entered Narvik harbor alone, with the other two warships waiting for their turn. Making a 180° pirouette through the harbor entrance, Hardy unleashed a brace of torpedoes at the sleepy sitting ducks, hitting a merchant ship and the Wilhelm Heidkamp's magazine. As Hardy completed her run and headed out of the harbor, Hunter took her turn performing the same maneuver, firing guns and torpedoes into the target-rich anchorage. Havock then followed Hunter; more torpedo hits struck both merchant ships and the destroyer Anton Schmitt. Next it was Hostile and Hotspur's turn, and they unleashed nearly blind torpedo and gun salvos into the now smoking and crowded harbor, followed by more circling and firing from the other three British ships; more merchant ships and German destroyers took damaging hits. The German Diether von Roeder managed to unleash eight torpedoes at the British, but all missed or failed to explode. There was a lull in the action as the British discussed whether to continue or withdraw; continue was the decision, and the five destroyers reformed in line ahead for yet another run 'round the harbor entrance; this time both sides unleashed deadly torpedoes at each other. As the British destroyers finally withdrew, the scene inside Narvik harbor was one of destruction: "There were ships with their bows in the air, their sterns in the air; ships with only lolling masts and funnels in the air; ships with little to show that they had ever been; marble slabs of ships...Over them all hung a sepulchral, acrid mist." (Reference 1, p. 74).

The British forces were not destined to get away undamaged, however, and as they made their way westward and away from Narvik harbor three fresh German destroyers, Wolfgang Zenker, Erich Koellner and Erich Giese descended upon them from the east. Gunfire was exchanged with hits on both sides. Suddenly, two more German ships appeared in front of the British and they found themselves surrounded. Georg Thiele and Bernd von Arnim opened fire with Thiele ultimately connecting with Hardy, destroying her bridge. Torpedoes criss-crossed the waters of the fjords, ships maneuvered desperately to comb torpedo tracks and fire guns. Hunter was sunk outright and Hardy largely demolished and driven aground, while Havock and Hotspur were damaged, as was Georg Thiele on the German side. The three remaining British destroyers withdrew to the west, while those Germans left afloat withdrew back to Narvik. One last encounter remained: the British destroyers came across the German ammunition ship Rauenfels and stopped her with a couple high-explosive shells. Boarding her for inspection, the British were unaware that the shells had started a fire in her cargo hold below. Realizing their mistake, they quickly abandoned the vessel, then fired two more rounds into the Rauenfels; "The result must have been one of the most shattering explosions of those good old days before nuclear weapons; Mr Leslie Millns, Torpedo Gunner, saw a bright flash in the center of the ship which expanded until she shone from end to end; it seemed that it was not just the cargo which detonated but the whole ship." (Reference 1, p 94) The conclusion of the battle left both sides with two fewer destroyers than they had begun the action with; the Germans had lost Wilhelm Heidkamp and Anton Schmitt, with many of the remaining eight damaged and short of fuel and ammunition; the British had lost both Hardy and Hunter; in addition, nearly a dozen merchant ships in the harbor were wrecked or sent to the bottom.

The scene inside Narvik harbor after the battle

Second Battle of Narvik (April 13, 1940)

Having inflicted considerable damage on the Germans, the smaller British force withdrew from the scene, but their job was left unfinished--the Germans still occupied the iron ore port of Narvik, and still had eight warships afloat. Three days later, on April 13, the British returned in force. In a risky maneuver they sent the battleship Warspite, along with nine destroyers, into the confined waters of the fjords, where the eight German destroyers were licking their wounds; also present were no less than five U-boats. Warspite was armed with 15-inch guns capable of devastating the German destroyers; she was also equipped with a catapult-launched Fairey Swordfish aircraft, carrying bombs and providing vital observation capabilities. Before the looming battle had even begun, the Warspite's aircraft bombed and sank one of the German submarines, U-64. The ensuing naval battle was a mis-matched, chaotic affair, with many of the German ships short of fuel and ammunition and damaged from the first battle. The immense firepower of the British battleship outmatched anything the German destroyers could throw back--with the exception of the always dangerous torpedoes. Yet the battleship's 15-inch armor-piercing shells mostly failed to explode as they passed through the thin-skinned destroyers, robbing them of their lethality. Three of the German destroyers, Erich Koellner, Erich Giese and Diether von Roeder were sunk outright. The remaining five, out of ammunition and defenseless, were scuttled by their crews. Hermann Kunne missed a critical signal, and found herself alone in Herjangsfjord nearly out of ammunition, and drove herself aground with the intention of scuttling. Timed depth charges were set and the seacocks opened before the crew abandoned her; before the charges could explode, however, HMS Eskimo fired a torpedo at the stranded destroyer, and it is unclear whether the ensuing explosion was due to the torpedo or the scuttling charges, but the effect was the same--Hermann Kunne was finished.

The four German warships left afloat, Hans Ludemann, Wolfgang Zenker, Bernd von Arnim and Georg Thiele fled into nearby Rombaksfjord, knowing the end was inevitable. "Rombaken; 800 yards wide of deep, dark water, steep-sided to 1,000 feet of rock and scrub on which the snow could only lodge in patches; a place for trolls rather than humans, for it led to nowhere on earth and deterred intruders by its grimness; a place set aside by the god of war for arms to clash unsoftened by any kindly influence; a place where the only amenity was a narrow beach at the ultimate extremity, a mortuary slab where sh[ps went to die." (Reference 1, p. 142) Georg Thiele hung back at the entrance to the long, narrow fjord, fighting to the last in a sacrifice that allowed the other three to beach themselves at the head of the fjord and effect their own destruction. The eight German warships that had invaded the far northern port were gone. The British destroyers did not escape unscathed, however, and suffered significant damage in the fight, including Eskimo's bow being blown off by a torpedo.

Diving the Narvik Battlefield

The two battles left behind numerous hulks on the bottom of the Norwegian fjords. The harbor was eventually cleared of much wreckage, but much remains. Three of the German destroyers,Wilhelm Heidkamp, Anton Schmitt and Dieter von Roeder were dragged out of the harbor and left on the bottom in shallow water. At least four of the merchant ships remain: Martha Hendrik Fisser, Neuenfels, Romanby and Strassa. The destroyer Hermann Kunne is in nearby Herjangsfjorden and is a fantastic dive; the Georg Thiele is off-limits to divers but her entire bow is out of the water where she was scuttled in Rombakken, and the Rauenfels lies both on the bottom and scattered all over the hillside in Ofotfjord.

Handrawn map of the Narvik area and some of the remaining wrecks (August 2002)The Georg Thiele's bow aground in Rombaksfjord (August 2002)


Wilhelm Heidkamp, Anton Schmitt and Dieter von Roeder

Scenes from the three German destroyers, all lying parallel to one another outside the entrance to Narvik harbor, where they were dragged after the war; Wilhelm Heidkamp sits upright, Anton Schmitt lies on her starboard side and Dieter von Roeder lists to port (August 2002)


Hermann Kunne

Scenes from the wreck of Hermann Kunne lying on her starboard side in Herjangsfjord (August 2002)


Merchant ships Romanby, Nuenfels and Strassa

Scenes from the wreck of Romanby sitting on the bottom of the harbor entrance (August 2002)
Nuenfels (left) and Strassa (right, both August 2002)

Ammunition supply ship Rauenfels

The wreck of the ammunition supply ship Rauenfels is both a dive (upper left) and a hike. The explosion was so intense that debris was reported to have gone 3,000 feet in the air, a fact that is born out by wreckage still strewn all over the hillside (bottom left and right). In the photo at right, the dive boat can be seen at the bottom of the hillside, anchored over the underwater portion of the wreck (all August 2005)


All underwater images were shot on film in 2002 and 2005 with a Nikon N90 in an Aquatica housing with Nikon 18mm and 16mm lenses, as well as a Nikonos camera with a 15mm lens. Films used were Kodak TMX100 (on tripod), TMY400 and TMZ3200, as well as Kodak Ektachrome 100S and Kodachrome 200.


1. Dickens, Capt. Peter, RN. Narvik, Battles in the Fjords. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1974.

2. Rohwer and Hummelchen. Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939-1945. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1972.


Other Wrecks in the Norwegian Fjords

Dronning Maud (May 1, 1940)

The steamship Dronning Maud was a passenger-freight vessel employed along the Norwegian coast before the outbreak of the Seond World War. Built in 1925, the ship was put into service as a troopship after the German invasion of Norway in April 1940. After two missions transporting troops, Dronning Maud was tasked to carry a medical company, and had a number of red cross flags placed aboard. Arriving at Foldvik Norway on May 1, 1940, she was bombed by a number of German aircraft just off the pier. Two direct hits set the ship on fire and blew a hole in her bottom. Norwegians were understandably upset at the sinking as they considered her a marked hospital ship and non-combatant. (left-Dronning Maud on fire after being bombed by German aircraft)

The steamship Dronning Maud sits upright and intact on the bottom near the wharf where she sank. She has funnels, vents and masts still standing, and makes a spectacular dive. (Nikon N90 and Nikon 15mm lens in Aquatica housing, TMX100 on tripod, August 2005)


Mira (March 4, 1941)

In early March 1941 British commandos raided the Norwegian Lofoten Islands. The raid was supported by British destroyers and troop transports, and included landings by special forces to destroy fish oil production, which was aiding the German war effort. A number of merchant ships were sunk, including the Norwegian passenger-cargo ship Mira. (Nikon N90 and Nikon 15mm lens in Aquatica housing, TMX100 on tripod, August 2005)


Elise Schulte (January 10, 1942)

The German cargo ship Elise Schulte ran aground on January 10, 1942. (Nikon N90 and Nikon 15mm lens in Aquatica housing, TMX100 on tripod, August 2005)


Rabat (October 4, 1943)

The German ore carrier Rabat was sunk in Bodo harbor by Dauntless bombers flying off the USS Ranger on October 4, 1943. This was apparently the only US carrier operation conducted in northern European waters during the war. In addition to the US aircraft carrier, Operation Leader was carried out by the British battleships Duke of York and Anson, along with other British and US cruisers and destroyers. Two German convoys were attacked, as well as ships in the harbor at Bodo. The wreck is upright and quite intact, with masts and funnels still standing. There are two gun tubs on either side of the intact bridge, with a large hole, likely bomb damage, just behind the funnel. (Nikon N90 and Nikon 15mm lens in Aquatica housing, TMX100 on tripod, August 2005)


Tirpitz (November 12, 1944)

The battleship Tirpitz was the larget warship built in Germany, measuring 250 m (821 ft) long and displacing 43,900 metric tons. Commissioned in February 1941, she was armed with 8 38 cm (15 inch) guns in four turrets she was capable of 30 knots. In mid January 1942 the big battleship sailed for Trondheim, Norway with the aim of discouraging any Allied invasion attempts, as well as to attack Arctic convoys to Russia. In early July Tirpitz leaves Trondhieim to take part in Operation Rosselsprung to attack the Arctic convoy PQ17. The convoy scatters and Tirpitz's part in the mission is cancelled, and she returns to Norway; U-boats and the German Luftwaffe sink 22 of 36 ships in the convoy. In September 1943 Tirpitz takes part in the bombardment of Spitzbergen, destroying the port facilities, before returning to Norway and anchoring in Kafjord.

Late in September a group of British midget submarines stage and attack on the battleship, damaging her and putting her out of action for six months. The battleship undergoes repairs in Altafjord, but is then attacked by 40 carrier-based bombers on April 3, 1944. She is hit by 10 bombs and heavily damaged. Repaired once again, repeated carrier aircraft attacks on her in August 1944 have only limited success. In September, yet another aircraft attack causes severe damage with a hit on the ship's forecastle with a 5.4 ton bomb. Unseaworthy, the battleship limps to Tromso and anchors off Hakoya Island and is relagated to duty as a floating battery. On November 12, 1944 the Allies finally destroy the resilient battleship with another aerial attack, hitting her with two "Tallboy" bombs and more near-misses, causing her to capsize.

The great German battleship remained where she sank, bottom-up in a shallow grave for the remainder the war. After the conflict was over, the Norwegian government sold the salvage rights to the wreck and salvage operations were conducted from 1948-1957. The wreck was nearly completely salvaged and all that remains is a debris field scattered across the bottom in 20-55 feet of water. (Nikon N90 and Nikon 15mm lens in Aquatica housing, TMX100 on tripod, August 2005)



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