Winston Churchill was so proud of the fact that he had once been First Lord of the Admiralty – the top dog of the British Royal Navy – that he signed all his telegrams to President Roosevelt as “Former Naval Person.”
With this is mind it is not surprising that Churchill took a special interest the naval aspects of the struggle for Europe. One month after the outbreak of war in 1939 Churchill began to urge the Government to permit the Navy to lay mines around Norway’s offshore islands – the Leads. Thoughts of attacking Germany through Norway were never far from his mind. Plans for mining The Leads were approved with a target date of April 5th. However, at the last moment, Operation “Wilfred”, as it was called, was postponed until the 8th. Postponement and uncertainty seemed to be the order of the day at the Admiralty. Concrete information and diplomatic rumours of German naval activity had been flowing into British hands since April 1st but the fleet’s final sailing orders were delayed until the evening of the seventh.
During the First World War a submarine flotilla under the command of Commander Max Horton sailed into the Baltic, joined up with the Imperial Russian naval forces and played havoc with enemy shipping. Amongst enemy commanders, the Baltic became known as “Horton’s Sea”.
The same man, but now Vice-Admiral Max Horton, commanded the British Submarine Services in April 1940 so he knew what his crews had to face when he put them on patrol in the narrow waters of the Kattegat and Skagerrak. On April 8th, one of these, the Polish submarine Orzel, gave the first definite warning of an imminent German invasion when she sank the “Rio de Janiero.” The first survivors, picked up by Norwegian fishing boats, proved to be German soldiers who said that they were on their way to Bergen “to defend the city from the British.”
The ‘Rio de Janiero’ had sailed from the Polish port of Stettin loaded with 3761 men, 672 horses,1377 vehicles and almost 6000 tons of supplies.
Another submarine, the ”Trident,” intercepted the tanker Posidonia on her way to Stavanger with 8,000 tons of fuel, ordered her to stop, gave her crew time to abandon ship, (and to send an SOS!) and then destroyed her with one torpedo. The ‘gentlemanly’ way of conducting war compared with the German ‘unrestricted warfare,’ allowed many German ships to sail unhampered to their destinations. In the afternoon of April 9th, however, Horton got permission to advise his commanders that any German merchant ship in the area might be sunk without warning. Minutes after this order was received the submarine ‘Sunfish’, on patrol in the Kattegat, torpedoed and sank the cargo ship ‘Amasis’ – the first of four similar kills.
Outside Kristiansand the British submarine ‘Truant’ spent most of the day keeping quiet and avoiding detection from German anti-submarine craft. In late afternoon, during a lull in the search, Capt. Hutchinson of the ‘Truant’ got a periscope fix on the light cruiser ‘Karlsruhe’. After following her zig-zagg course for twenty minutes he managed to so severely damage the light cruiser that the accompanying torpedo-boats hastened the end her with a salvo from their own torpedoes. The torpedo-boats then turned their attention to the ‘Truant’ and only after 19 hours was the submarine able to limp out of range.
On the surface, at 2300, on April 8th the captain of Pol III, one of three small patrol boats criss-crossing the outer Oslofjord, sighted two unlighted warship heading towards Oslo. One of the ships stopped after a warning shot across the bow, the other continued. Pol III was close enough to be able to hear German voices so Poll III’s captain, Naval Reserve Capt. Welding Olsen sent up a signal light “Foreign warship forcing entry.” The radio operator started to send a warning message to his Horton base but before he could finish the ‘Foreign warship’ opened fire. Shrapnel wounded Capt Welding Olsen in the legs and shells damaged the life-boat lowering mechanism. A reserve rowing boat was lowered but it capsized almost immediately. The German ship picked up a few survivors but Capt. Welding Olsen, injured as he was, slipped under the waves – the first Norwegian to fall during the German invasion. The signal flare was seen and the unfinished radio message from Pol III was forwarded promptly to the Admiralty in Oslo and from there to the Defence Department. 1)
Fog shrouded the seas around Kristiansand where the invading group, depleted by the loss of the ‘Karlsruhe’, met heavy fire from Odderøya fort. Six Heinkel aircraft tried in vain to silence the fort’s guns but they only succeeded in making a direct hit on the ammunition dump. The explosion shook the town. A second attempt by the naval flotilla to enter the harbour was again repulsed. Finally, the Germans reverted to subterfuge, signalled a fake message, and landed their troops under cover of the ensuing uncertainty.
In the evening of April 8th in Stavanger, a Customs officer approached two policemen and said that they should take a look at the German freighter ‘Roda’ that had arrived earlier in the day. “Supposedly she is carrying coke for Sigval Bergesen but Bergesen has never before had use for coke and we cannot get down in the holds to inspect the cargo” he told them. The policemen advised him to check with the Customs Inspector but he replied: “That’s no use – he is a Nazi.” The policemen reported the incident to their supervisor who, in turn, warned the naval authorities. At 0100 on the 9th, customs officers boarded the Norwegian cruiser Æger under Captain Nils Larsen Bruun who brought his ship alongside ‘Roda.’ He decided that since the situation was so uncertain, he would arrest the ‘Roda’ but the captain of the German ship made no effort to comply with his command. Bruun decided to sink the ship. The gun crew had never fired a shot at a real target before and it took three commands before they fired off 25 rounds into the German ship. The crew took to the lifeboats and the ‘Roda’ veered away and finally rolled over. Shortly afterwards, the Æger was attacked by German aircraft. A 250 kilo bomb struck the ship amidships and she sank with the loss of 8 men. It turned out that the ‘Roda’ was one of seven German ‘Trojan Horses.’ She carried heavy anti-aircraft artillery and supplies for the defence of Sola Airport, strategically the most important airfield in Norway. 2)
At 0200 on April 9th the captain of the Norwegian destroyer ‘Draug’ in Haugesund harbour received news that the forts in Oslofjord were under fire from foreign ships. Two hours later the German merchantman ‘Main’ was observed heading north in the Karmsundet. ‘Draug’ sailed out and escorted the German ship into the harbour. According to the loading documents, the vessel’s cargo was 7000 tons of coke but the captain would allow no inspection. News of the attacks on Bergan and Stavanger now reached Haugesund and Captain Horve of the ‘Draug’ decided to sink the German ship and escape to Britain. He arrived in the Shetland Isles several days later.
Fog was a welcome cover, hiding the German group heading for Bergen from the British naval forces patrolling the area. The group, with heavily loaded transports and the cruisers ‘Köln’, Könisberg and ‘Bremse’ in the lead, managed to reach the inner harbour to unload their troops and occupy the town but not before both ’Königsberg’ and ‘Bremse’ had been damaged by coastal batteries. The ‘Königsberg was so badly damaged that she was unable to avoid the bombs of a British aircraft that sank her the next day.
On the morning of April 8th the British Naval forces in four groups were patrolling, or on their way to, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik The destroyer ‘Glowworm, trying to catch up with the group heading for Narvik was west of Trondheim when out of the mist and rain, loomed an enemy ship. The ‘Glowworm’ opened fire, another ship appeared and the salvoes continued. The German destroyer, ‘Bernd von Arnim’ was soon in difficulties and called for help. Answer came in the shape of the battleship ‘Hipper’ that soon out-shelled the ‘Glowworm’. The skipper of the ‘Glowworm’, in desperation rammed into the’Hipper’ tearing away part of her armour plating and torpedo mountings before sinking. Only 38 survived and the captain, Lt. Commander Roope, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The damage to the ‘Hipper’ did not put her out of action and the unprepared fortresses guarding Trondheim were no match for guile and speed of the German onslaught. They occupied Trondheim on schedule.
Because of the combination of bad weather and poor positioning of ships the ‘Glowworm’ was the only British ship to make contact with the German group that had to make the long, daylight journey up the west coast. This group under Commodore Bonte, carried troops of General Dietl’s mountain division was able to navigate the narrow fjords and enter the crowded harbour of Narvik precisely on time – at 0515. Two veteran Norwegian ships, the Eidsvold and the Norge tried to hinder the ships from entering and berthing but both were sunk, the one by treachery, the other by superior firepower. The commander of the Norwegian land forces turned out to be one of Quisling’s followers so the garrison surrendered without a fight.
Thus, all the German objectives had been secured, and when the sun finally set on April 9th the German occupation of Norway was well under way. The ‘Blucher’ was the German’s only major loss but the minor victories noted above reduced the invader’s momentum. Confrontations on the return and problems of supplies to the bridgeheads had yet to come.