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Group I of the German force for the invasion of Norway consisted of ten large destroyers under the command of Commodore Friedrich Bonte, which were transporting General Dietl and two thousand mountain troops, for the seizure of the iron ore port of Narvik.

At 0515 on the morning of 9 April 1940, Bonte’s force was sighted and challenged by the Norwegian coast defence ship Eidsvold, a 4000-ton armoured vessel built in 1900, armed with two 8.2in, 6 × 5.9in and 2 × 76mm guns, plus 20mm, 12.7mm and 7.92mm AA weapons. She and her sister Norge were old — in fact the admiral commanding the Norwegian navy had always referred to them as his ‘old bathtubs’ — but their powerful armament could cause serious damage to the German flotilla.

Eidsvold fired a warning shot across the bows of the German flotilla leader, Wilhelm Heidkamp. Bonte hove to, and sent a boat with Lt Cdr Gerlach, to parley with the Norwegians under a white flag. Eidsvold’s commander, Lt Cdr Willoch, refused Gerlach’s demand that he surrender, and kept Commander Askim, on Eidsvold’s sister ship Norge inside Narvik harbour, informed of the negotiations by radio.

Gerlach headed back to his own ship, but when halfway he fired a red flare, the signal that negotiations had failed, and took his boat out of the line of fire, still flying the white flag. On the Heidkamp, Commodore Bonte turned to General Dietl and asked if the action they were committed to was absolutely necessary. Dietl reminded Bonte of Raeder’s orders to carry out the operation with complete ruthlessness, and Bonte gave the order to fire torpedoes. Two hit Eidsvold amidships, she broke in two and immediately sank with heavy loss of life.

Ross Watton’s painting of Norge and Eidsvold at gunnery practice in Narvik Fjord. (Courtesy of Ross Watton at navalarteheryn.demon.co.uk)

Her sister ship Norge now opened fire on the German destroyers, and manoeuvred to avoid the first five torpedoes launched from Berndt von Arnim, but the sixth and seventh torpedoes found their mark and she went down. In all, 276 Norwegian officers and men were killed on the two coast defence ships.

Nemesis for the German duplicity was not long in arriving. While the German destroyers were slowly refuelling from the one small tanker available, one other having failed to arrive, Captain Warburton-Lee of the Royal Navy was leading a flotilla of five British destroyers up Narvik Fjord to attack the German forces reported in control of the town. He had under his command the Hardy, Hunter, Havock, Hotspur and Hostile, armed with eight 21in torpedo tubes apiece.

At 0430 on 8 April 1940 Warburton-Lee’s ships launched torpedoes and opened fire on the German destroyers and iron ore ships at Narvik. The first torpedo to hit exploded Heidkamp’s aft magazine and destroyed the ship, causing heavy casualties, including Commodore Bonte himself. Then the Anton Schmitt was hit by two torpedoes, broke in half and sank. Other torpedoes found their mark among the anchored iron ore ships. After a fierce gunnery duel, the British destroyers turned to withdraw, seeing several German torpedoes pass directly beneath their ships without exploding. As they withdrew down the fjord, they were pursued by three German destroyers, and then a further two appeared, cutting off their retreat. The flotilla leader, HMS Hardy, was badly hit and driven ashore, with Warburton-Lee mortally wounded. HMS Havock astern of her managed to avoid a salvo of German torpedoes seen to be running on the surface. Then two of the British ships collided, and Hunter was sunk. The three survivors fought their way out to sea and safety.

Although the eight remaining German destroyers had fought off their attackers, they had suffered badly in the engagement, and several had shot off most of their ammunition. One of the retiring British destroyers had sunk their ammunition supply ship making her way up the fjord to Narvik. The officer next in command, Captain Erich Bey, hesitated fatally, holding back his undamaged ships which could well have escaped from the coming British retribution.

On the night of 10 April a patrolling U-boat, the U 25, fired a salvo of torpedoes at British destroyers sighted off Ofotfjord. Two torpedoes detonated prematurely, because of failure of the magnetic pistols in the northern latitudes.

While Bey still hesitated, British Admiral Whitworth led the battleship HMS Warspite and nine destroyers up Narvik Fjord to attack on the morning of 13 April. In a fierce exchange of gunfire, all eight German destroyers were sunk, but not before they had inflicted damage on two of the Tribals, Punjabi and Cossack. A third sister-ship, Eskimo, pursued the Hans Lüdemann and Georg Thiele into the dead-end Rombaks Fjord. Before her captain ran her onto the rocks, Lüdemann fired her remaining three torpedoes at Eskimo. They missed, but running on down the narrow entrance to the Fjord they headed for the two following British destroyers, Forester and Hero. With no room to turn, both destroyers went full astern and managed to outrun the German torpedoes. Eskimo, meanwhile, failed to avoid one of the last four torpedoes launched by Thiele, and had her bows blown off.

All damaged British ships were eventually recovered to safety, but their action had resulted in the loss of the entire German flotilla of ten large destroyers. This loss, together with the cruisers sunk by submarines and dive-bombers, so crippled the Kriegsmarine’s offensive power that it was clearly a major factor in Hitler’s failure to launch Operation Seelöwe later the same year, the planned invasion of Great Britain.

Narvik after the first British attack. Torpedoed iron ore ships litter the harbour, and the German destroyer at the right of the jetty may be the immobilised Diether von Roeder.


Two rare examples of mishaps involved French warships which literally torpedoed themselves.

Maillé Brézé pre-war.

Maillé Brézé was a large destroyer (or ‘contre-torpilleur’ in French nomenclature) of the Vauquelin class, ordered in the 1928/1929 programme. Laid down in 1930 at Penhöet in St-Nazaire, she was launched on 9 November 1931 and was commissioned in 1932. Displacing 2441 tons (3140 tons full load), length 129.3m (424ft 2in), beam 11.84m (39ft), she could reach 35 knots. Her armament comprised five 138mm (5.5in) LA guns, four 37mm and four 13mm AA weapons, plus seven 550mm (21in) torpedo tubes, a triple aft of the fourth funnel and two pairs between the second and third funnels. After escorting convoy FS2, Maillé Brézé returned to the Clyde on 27 April 1940, and anchored off Greenock. Three days later, in the early afternoon, the crew carried out a simulated torpedo firing practice, using the remote launching controls on the bridge. At the end of the exercise the starboard twin tube mounting was realigned fore and aft, and a leading seaman began greasing the tubes, not suspecting that the powder launching charge was still in place in the № 1 tube. For some reason this fired, and the torpedo was launched into the rear of the forecastle.



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