Chapter 14: The Evacuation of North Norway 
See Map 11, facing page 228
The telegram ordering the evacuation of his forces was received by Lord Cork on the night of 24th/25th May, nearly three days before the attack on Narvik. It ranked the destruction of the railway and Narvik port facilities as objects which made the capture highly desirable, and noted that evacuation operations would be made easier by the destruction or capture of enemy forces. Nevertheless the telegram, which envisaged the sacrifice of most of the equipment, emphasised that ‘speed of evacuation, once begun, should be of primary consideration’. General Béthouart, for whom the news from France made the dilemma even more painful than it was for the British commanders, was brought into consultation, and after he had reflected for a brief half-hour he agreed with them that the attack on Narvik should be continued, even though it kept French troops far from their own country in its hour of need. It was important to make sure that the means of shipping iron ore had in fact been destroyed. A successful attack would do much to conceal the intention of, and preparations for, withdrawal. To these General Béthouart adds in retrospect a third consideration, the importance of a victory from the standpoint of Allied morale. The secret was closely guarded, not least from the Norwegians, and the capture of Narvik duly followed.
One problem of the evacuation, however, the disentanglement of our forces in front of Bodö, had no need to wait, and steps had already been taken to inform Brigadier Gubbins of the changed situation by 26th May, the day our troops made the withdrawal from Pothus over the headwaters of the fjord.1 Their new position was at Finneid, at the south-eastern extremity of the Bodö peninsula, where it was at first intended to establish a firm defence line with the help of the reinforcements which had been accumulating round Bodö, some forty-two miles west by road but with easier communications along the fjord. At Finneid the road north crosses a bridge (which was duly blown) over the outlet from the lowest of a chain of lakes about a dozen miles in length, beyond which a great glacier, Blaamannsis,
effectively bars the way. But on account of the new turn of events the British line was suddenly moved back behind Finneid on to the Fauske isthmus, the name given to the flat, ten-mile wide neck of the Bodö peninsula, which was palpably less defensible but closer and handier for a withdrawal on Bodö.
The Norwegians, who had only recently transferred a battalion to this area from Bardufoss to reinforce the remnants withdrawn from Mo, found the decision quite inexplicable and therefore sinister. They did not, however, feel strong enough to fight at Finneid on their own, so they joined under bitter protest in the withdrawal to the isthmus, which was divided into two sectors, the Norwegians defending the northern half. At the same time they were almost equally distressed and alarmed by the failure to bring forward reinforcements from Bodö, the more so as we had recently had Gladiators operating from there to give air cover. These local difficulties were cleared up to some extent when news of our intention to evacuate Bodö came through from Norwegian Divisional Headquarters to their local commander. The reason for this evacuation was still unknown to any Norwegian, and it naturally seemed madness to them because of the resulting threat to Narvik. All that their representations could achieve, however, was a promise that our evacuation would not take place for three days. This would enable them to withdraw their own troops from the northern half of the Fauske isthmus to Rösvik, which was then the terminus of the main road north, and to arrange for their evacuation in fishing boats to the Lofoten Islands. Unfortunately the movement of the British troops westwards into the Bodö peninsula, which necessarily preceded our evacuation but of which the timetable had been kept secret, at once exposed the Norwegians to attack. They lost a small number of prisoners in consequence, but their rearguard succeeded in holding up the Germans, a motor-cycle detachment, ten miles short of Rösvik. In the end they got away safely except for one company, which had been posted on the extreme left wing of the abortive Finneid position and made a brave but belated march back across the Blaamannsis.
The move to the west, referred to above, was achieved by one long day’s march along the narrow coast road, under the protection of a small rear-guard and the demolition of bridges, after which the troops could be transferred to Puffers. When the Irish Guards and Independent Companies left the Fauske isthmus in the early morning of 29th May, an enemy force, estimated to be 1,200 strong, was within twelve miles. But they passed unmolested through to Bodö, making no contact with the enemy until the evening of the 30th, when a company of Scots Guards at Hopen, eleven miles from Bodö, blew up the bridge as cyclist troops entered the village. The Hopen position, which seemed a strong one, was believed to have been turned during
the night, but its defenders were able to fall back on the main line south of Lake Solöi, which was occupied by the rest of their own battalion and by the South Wales Borderers. It is described by the Scots Guards as ‘the first really good defensive position which the battalion has occupied and on which the Germans could have been held’. However, there was no further clash with the enemy, though local tradition affirms that the twenty-eight cyclists to whom Bodö was surrendered were coming into sight when our last troops withdrew to the quay.
The main enemy threat to the evacuation came instead from the air. The Gladiator pilots sent to the Bodö landing ground on 26th May had begun to give cover to our troops by engaging the enemy in the air. This brought relief to the fighting line, but the Germans switched their effort to Bodö itself. At 8 a.m. next day they took the two surviving Gladiators by surprise with superior numbers, wounded both pilots, and disposed of both aircraft. The runway escaped serious damage on that occasion, but on the same evening the enemy resumed the attack with a force of more than a hundred bombers, which laid most of the town in ashes, put the Bofors guns out of action, and wrecked the runway beyond repair. In these circumstances the evacuation was a precarious operation, which Lord Cork based upon the use of his destroyers rather than await the aircraft carriers and four fast liners promised for 2nd June. Two destroyers brought away troops on three successive nights—on the first to the Vindictive lying in the offing, and on the others to the Harstad area. On the third night an extra destroyer was sent to cover the withdrawal of the Norwegians farther north, though this was in fact completed before the destroyer arrived. The advancing Germans, as we have already seen, made no serious attack, and we were able to destroy all our guns and the motor transport as well as the oil installations in the port. It is more remarkable that German bombing had missed the embarkation quay and failed to injure the troops embarking or embarked. Two Gladiators and two Hurricanes were maintaining a patrol over the town in the final stages, and the Gladiators originally based on Bodö had taken some toll of the Germans; this may have induced caution. Two of the Independent Companies went in the Vindictive direct to Scapa. The rest of the forces from Bodö were disembarked at Borkenes, west of Harstad, to await the final evacuation. Our losses had amounted to 506 officers and men, including some small casualties in the Narvik area as well as what had been suffered in the long retreat.
Meanwhile, the German mountain troops had split into two groups, one for Bodö and the other for Rösvik, whence they proposed to proceed by boat to the head of the Leirfjord, so as to march across country through what a Norwegian historian terms ‘one of the wildest
mountain districts2 to the relief of General Dietl on Björnfjell. The route had been prospected by German ‘scientists’ before the war and a system of airborne supplies was carefully worked out. By 7th June the vanguard of the three nominal battalions had reached Tysfjord, which meant that they had another fortnight’s march between them and their goal, though—under altered circumstances—two patrols accomplished the feat in seven and eight days respectively. They could only have enabled Dietl to stave off surrender if the Germans had proved able to follow up with another project, which envisaged the occupation of the Bardufoss area from the north by a glider attack on the airfield and a landing in Lyngenfjord from the big liners Bremen and Europa. But this project was still at the discussion stage as late as 4th June, though it figures in an Air Force order, dated the 5th, which emphasises the importance of interim measures for keeping General Dietl supplied and reinforced. In the meantime the Norwegians had observed the move across the fjord from Rösvik and, while assembling some troops to hold a line farther north, had asked for British help. The last vessel to leave Bodö was a small Norwegian passenger steamer, s.s. Ranen alias Raven; this had been taken into use as a British decoy ship, manned by a mixed party of naval ratings, Irish Guardsmen, and South Wales Borderers, and sent in search of information and chances of surprise attack as far south as Sandnessjöen. She returned to the Rösvik area on 3rd June, when her concealed armament of one Bofors, one Oerlikon, and numerous machine guns held up part of the German advance northwards across the fjord. The Raven was again employed north of Tysfjord to cut the telephone cables by which the Germans were believed to report progress to General Dietl.
The next problem was the more complicated one of disentanglement from the fighting east of Narvik. On the morning of 1st June our military mission at Tromsö reported that the Norwegian Government was so perturbed by the evacuation from Bodö that it might decide to ask for a separate armistice, irrespective of the military situation. The position was the more difficult because of the success with which the capture of Narvik had been exploited. General Dietl had indeed received orders to hold out to the bitter end in North Norway, since considerations of prestige had given Hitler a passionate interest in the event, and the Germans (as we have seen) did not altogether despair of effecting a relief. But in the days immediately following the fall of Narvik they could take the offensive only in the air.
The RAF squadrons had their hands full. An operation instruction issued on 29th May required them to give maximum support to the French and Norwegian forces. On the following day a message from Norwegian Headquarters emphasised the need for preventing parachute landings to reinforce the German units in the mountains; the Germans did as a matter of fact plan to send in 2,000 men by this means, but they never arrived. The RAF had also their primary task of defending our bases at Harstad and Skaanland. Shipping was heavily raided on 29th May. Three days later both base and anchorage were methodically assailed by successive groups of long-range bombers escorted by Messerschmitt 110s, but the RAF fought them off in twenty-four actions involving seventy-five separate sorties. The enemy lost at least nine aircraft that day and achieved no substantial result against military objectives, though the high explosive and incendiaries which were rained down on Narvik (where there was no standing patrol) largely destroyed the business quarter of the town.
Nevertheless, the main fact was the retreat of the Germans, who were known to be physically exhausted and were running short of ammunition as well, into the mountains up against the Swedish frontier. They had withdrawn from Narvik along the line of the railway, demolishing the tunnels as they went, towards the head of the Rombaksfjord, with the Foreign Legion following up a little past the narrows at Straumen half-way along the fjord, where supporting destroyers could now penetrate past the minefield. At the same time the Poles, following other German remnants from the head of the Beisfjord, progressed north-eastwards towards the railway line. The two forces linked up on 2nd June. On this side the cancellation by General Béthouart of the encircling movement from the Skjomenfjord (which the Germans had in any case anticipated) left the Germans with one place of refuge, the Björnfjell mountain, south of which the railway passes to the frontier. They also held Rundfjell, which adjoins the frontier farther north, and the large bastion of the Haugfjell; this lies to the west of the other two mountains and overlooks the j north shore of the Rombaksfjord. Here the Germans were hemmed in by the French forces based on Öyjord. To attack Rundfjell and the Haugfjell from the north was a task for which the Norwegians were eagerly preparing. Their positions on the Kuberg plateau were separated from the Germans by a chain of high lakes and morasses, Jernvatnene, which the thaw had now made into a formidable obstacle, and the Norwegian lines of communication were still long and precarious. Three battalions were grouped for a direct attack on Rundfjell, where the German positions had been softened by preliminary air bombing. Once Rundfjell was taken, it was thought that with artillery support a further attack could be made across the lakes
and morasses against Haugfjell; the Germans there would in any case feel themselves trapped by the approach of the French and Poles to their remaining outlet into neutral territory at Björnfjell. Since 25th May, by arrangement between the German and Swedish Governments, four trains had been waiting on the other side of the frontier.
Meanwhile the preparations for evacuation had been conducted by senior British and French officers in closest secrecy and with elaborate and carefully worked out deception. Our naval resources being stretched to the uttermost, the paramount need was to exploit the capture of Narvik in such a way that the Germans might have no inkling of our intention to withdraw until the main convoys were well on the way home. Exaggerated ideas as to the number of quislings in Norway; the lack of discipline—as it seemed to us—among the population; some disagreeable experiences of unintentional leakages of information, one of which had made it necessary to postpone the date of the final assault on Narvik; and fear that natural disappointment might provoke a not unnatural retaliation—all these factors drove us to conceal our intentions from the Norwegians lest they should become known also to the enemy. Moreover, the means lay ready to hand. Lord Cork and General Auchinleck had been negotiating with the Norwegians since the middle of May about the formation of the new base farther north at Tromsö. The movement from Bodö and the intense activity at Harstad and Skaanland were therefore disguised as part of the transfer. To make the story more colourable, the Royal Marines’ base organisation was actually despatched from Harstad for Tromsö, redirected on the way, and its members held incommunicado at Scapa. There being no airfield at Tromsö, the RAF let it be understood that their fighter squadrons were removing to Skaanland, so as to free Bardufoss for Blenheim bombers. The deception was kept up even after the issue on 31st May of the detailed movement order for the withdrawal.
Four days before this, the British and French commanders referred home the question of our relations with the Norwegians. General Béthouart wrote: ‘I am operating with Norwegian troops whom for reasons of national honour I will not abandon in difficulties on the battlefield’.3  But on the 29th the Prime Minister stated at the meeting of the War Cabinet that there must still be a few days’ delay in telling the Norwegians; Lord Cork was instructed accordingly and told to plan for the Norwegian forces either to be evacuated to this country or left in a satisfactory position of defence. The latter was the only real possibility, involving a very nice adjustment between the needs of the French and Poles, who must adhere to a time-table for evacuation, and those of the Norwegians, who must not be exposed in
a disadvantageous position to a sudden German onslaught. In the end, the decision to evacuate was communicated to the Norwegian Government late on 1st June, and on the following day to General Ruge.
As for the military operations in progress in the mountains, evacuation could not be delayed to await the final success which the Norwegians had so long hoped for and might possibly have achieved, had we allowed them to know the urgency of the situation. They now took over the main part of the French line north of the Rombaksfjord and pushed forward on their other flank, where they occupied the frontier post due east of Rundfjell. These efforts were inspired by the vain hope that time would somehow be given for them to make their final attack, which was fixed for 8th June. But it was not to be: all that was possible was to arrange a withdrawal which would enable the Norwegian forces to be demobilised in the back areas before the Germans overran them. This was successfully achieved by General Ruge, who stayed in Norway with his troops, while General Fleischer was to accompany the Government overseas; a preliminary armistice came into effect at midnight on 9th/loth June. All detachments reached demobilisation points the following day, and negotiations for a formal armistice were begun the next night. Meanwhile, nine watch-boats and other small surviving units of the Norwegian Navy were ordered by their Commander-in-Chief to the Shetlands and a handful of Norwegian aircraft made good their escape to Finland.
The withdrawal of 24,500 troops from an improvised base and a dozen smaller embarkation points presented many problems. The area to be covered stretched from Ballangen on the south side of the Ofotfjord as far north as Tromsö, where the cruiser Devonshire had the special mission of embarking the King of Norway and his Government as well as the advance party sent in connection with the base project. Fifteen troopships, of which two were left unused, were sent across in two groups to two rendezvous about 180 miles from the Norwegian coast, passing into the charge of Rear-Admiral Vivian in the Coventry. Thence they came in two at a time with anti-submarine protection to sheltered waters north of Harstad, where the troops were put on board from destroyers, which worked up and down the narrow channels unceasingly to collect the men from quays and Puffers; a couple of small cross-channel steamers alone shipped men and stores at Harstad itself. All this required exact co-ordination, which a small combined headquarters now set up at Harstad successfully achieved; even a ‘bag’ of some sixty captured airmen was not left behind. In addition, the instructions sent to Lord Cork emphasised the need to bring away guns and other material to the extent that
was compatible with the necessary speed of evacuation, the order of priority being determined by the needs of defence at home. The evacuation of his men of course came first, then, successively, light anti-aircraft guns and ammunition, 25-pounders (of which we had in the area only six), heavy anti-aircraft guns and ammunition. In the event, a greater quantity of material was got away than had been contemplated, for it included aircraft.
Throughout the evacuation period, precautions were taken to watch for an enemy advance overland from Bodö, but the terrain was extremely difficult, and no threat developed from the south except for a dozen parachutists in the Ballangen area on the last night of evacuation. A second risk was that of a seaborne or airborne landing on Hinnöy to attack the base at Harstad, but the Germans (lid not try this. Another possibility was the mining of the fairway, which enemy aircraft attempted in the Tjeldsund once (29th May), but they were spotted and the mines promptly swept up. The biggest and most obvious danger, however, was from air bombing, which might have destroyed ships, quays and men during the period of embarkation—and it is to be remembered that there were twenty-four hours of daylight throughout the area concerned. The days of the final embarkation were to our great good fortune uniformly cloudy and overcast, but British counter-measures were also a very important factor.
In the first place arrangements were made to keep our antiaircraft guns in action until the last, although this in many cases meant their abandonment. Second, and more important, the Ark Royal arrived off the coast on 2nd June: her aircraft bombed German troops and communications, not only in the mountains east of Narvik but farther south along their lines of communication beyond Bodö; Bodö airfield was also attacked. Third, and most important, there was the cumulative effect of the work done by the Gladiators and Hurricanes, which remained in action until the very end. Great care was taken to conceal our intention to evacuate Bardufoss, of which the demolition, by the making of 120 craters, was not begun until half an hour after midnight of the 7th/8th. On the previous day both squadrons had been in action from 4 a.m. until nearly midnight. Then, led by naval Swordfish, they flew to the carrier Glorious, which had accompanied the Ark Royal to Norway for their reception. Ten Gladiators and ten Hurricanes all landed successfully, every pilot in No. 46 Squadron having volunteered to run the risk, though Hurricanes had never alighted on deck before. But they were fated not to complete the journey so bravely begun. The naval plans for the voyage home must be judged in relation to the catastrophic situation on the western front, to which the French troops from Norway were to be at once transferred. Naval escorts had
accordingly to be kept to the absolute minimum because of the paramount need then felt for ships to guard home waters against invasion. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, and Lord Cork may also have been influenced to some extent by the unbroken immunity from attack by surface vessels enjoyed by the Narvik convoys throughout the preceding seven weeks. As for air escorts, the route from Narvik was for the most part out of range. In any case, the Admiralty did not ask the help of Coastal Command; its commander-in-chief alone was informed of the evacuation in strictest secrecy, and the employment of his few long-range Sunderland flying boats was not suggested or, apparently, sought. The arrangements actually made were as follows.
Lord Cork organised a preliminary convoy from ships already under his control in Norway, with a trawler escort, so as to send home before the end of May a quantity of stores including some French tanks and guns. There was a second storeship convoy which was loaded at Harstad and left on the evening of 7th June, and a smaller detachment of storeships left simultaneously from Tromsö. These two slow convoys had some protection from trawlers but depended in the main upon destroyers, which would join them after completing their other duties. Lord Cork had asked for fifteen destroyers but had only eleven actually at his disposal. The first group of troopships, six large merchantmen and the Vindictive, having loaded nearly 15,000 men in the early mornings of 4th, 5th and 6th June, left the distant rendezvous early on the 7th for home. They were without escort for the first day’s sailing, as Lord Cork’s destroyers were all still in use for further embarkations. Group 2, four large and three small merchantmen, took up nearly 10,000 men on 7th and 8th June and left the rendezvous on the morning of the 9th, escorted by the Southampton, the Coventry, and five destroyers. This group also had the protection of the Ark Royal, with her aircraft patrolling, and her screen of three destroyers. The Chasseurs Alpins had provided the rearguard round Harstad, but the rear party at the quays consisted of Royal Engineers and Military Police. These were taken up at about 9 a.m. on the 8th, when the Southampton left the port, wearing the flag of Lord Cork and also carrying Generals Auchinleck and Béthouart. So far, the operation had proceeded according to plan, and a twenty-four hour delay to help Norwegian diplomacy4 had even enabled extra stores and equipment to be loaded; but the element of luck, never far distant from an operation of war, was now to play its part.
The success of our measures of concealment was such that the
Germans remained unaware of the evacuation project until it was virtually completed. Destroyers fired at German positions from the Rombaksfjord as late as 6th June. On the 7th the situation from the German point of view was still uncertain. It was only on 8th June, when the last of the Allied forces had already left the shore, that the winding-up of the campaign through the armistice negotiations entrusted by the Norwegian Government to its Commander-in-Chief showed what had happened. The same evening General Dietl reported the re-entry into Narvik. German attention had no doubt been concentrated upon the problem of relieving General Dietl’s forces, and it must have seemed highly improbable that the Allies would let slip the chance of completing their success, if only for the sake of prestige. But in addition to the advance overland from Leirfjord and the possible seizure of Bardufoss the Germans had had a third plan, to make an attack with their two battle cruisers.
The naval operation known as ‘Juno’ achieved by luck a considerable success for which it was not designed. One result of the holocaust of German destroyers on 10th and 13th April had been to keep the Gneisenau (after repair) and the Scharnhorst inactive for a time for want of escort. But since 14th May the German naval staff had been preparing to act against British forces in the Narvik area, and since 16th May the plan had been extended by Hitler’s orders to provide also for the conveyance of seaborne supplies through the Leads from Trondheim to Bodö. On the 27th the plan was further extended to include a more ambitious sortie by the battlecruisers from Trondheim into North Norwegian waters, this final decision being encouraged by a wireless intercept which showed the organisation of the British naval patrol south of Iceland. On the 29th a directive was issued to the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Marschall: his principal task was to attack warships, transports, and bases in the And and Vaags fjords (the Harstad area) or, if it proved to be more advantageous, in the Ofotfjord. The operation in the Leads was to be carried out either concurrently with the main task or as a second operation based on Trondheim, which for security reasons the ships were not to enter until the main operation had been completed. The force was to consist of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau with the cruiser Hipper and four destroyers.
The Germans put to sea accordingly on 4th June at 7 a.m. On the evening of the 6th they had arrived safely in approximately the latitude of their objective, but to escape the attentions of the Royal Navy they were standing right out to sea about halfway between Norway and Iceland. Admiral Marschall then timed his attack on Harstad for the night of the 9th. Early the following morning (7th June) German air reconnaissance spotted a west-bound convoy, which the Germans decided were merely ‘returned empties’ to be
ignored accordingly, and then a little after midday it found no less than three groups of warships in the Andfjord area. This was belatedly reported to the Commander-in-Chief by Group Command West, the naval headquarters which had given him his directive, at eight o’clock that evening, while he was discussing ‘Operation Harstad’ with his commanders on board the Scharnhorst. The Commander-in-Chief drew the correct inference ‘that the noticeable westward movement may indicate a British evacuation of Norway, and that the westward-bound convoys will now offer valuable targets’; at 3 a.m. next morning he informed headquarters of his intention to attack the convoy. It is a striking fact that Group West in its reply wished to insist that the battle cruisers should still be directed to the Harstad-Narvik area, but the Chief of Naval Staff intervened to modify the instructions. For if Group West had had its way there would have been an attack on Harstad yielding nugatory results, and the British Navy would have been spared a serious loss.
It will be recalled that our naval programme for the evacuation required the protection of several distinct groups of ships. There was the slow convoy of storeships in two divisions, escorted by destroyers and trawlers. Then there was Group 1 of the troop transports; this had left the rendezvous 180 miles out with the Vindictive (which was only partly armed) early on the 7th and, under arrangements made between Admiral Forbes and Lord Cork, was being met by the Valiant and her screen of four large destroyers about 1 a.m. on the 8th. Finally, there was the second group of transports, some of whose protecting vessels had been spotted north of the Andfjord by German reconnaissance. This second group was due to meet the Valiant and her destroyers on the evening of the 9th, after the latter had handed over Group 1 to a detachment of five destroyers so that the battleship might turn north again. Thus the last convoy was well within reach of Admiral Marschall’s force and, although it had the protection of the Ark Royal, our two cruisers and four destroyers would be heavily out-gunned by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. However, the Germans were fated to meet an easier prey.
An hour and a half after Admiral Marschall had announced his decision, he sighted the 5,000-ton tanker Oil Pioneer escorted by the trawler Juniper. They had sailed from the Tromsö area on the 6th. They were sunk at 7 a.m. without being able to signal their plight, and the search for the convoy continued with the help of aircraft launched from the Hipper and the Scharnhorst. A convoy consisting of a cruiser and a merchant ship was reported to the south, an armed merchant ship and a hospital ship to the north. The Hipper was thereupon ordered to sink the armed merchant ship, which proved to be the 20,000-ton transport Orama, carrying a hundred German prisoners. She had been sent home alone and unloaded the previous
day because she had arrived without sufficient oil or water to await her group. The Orama was sunk just after eleven o’clock, 275 survivors being picked up. The Gneisenau had successfully jammed her SOS signal, and the hospital ship Atlantis which was in company with her respected the obligation not to use her wireless, thus securing her privilege of immunity from attack.
Admiral Marschall had still failed in his search for the convoy. He therefore planned to attack the aircraft carriers north-west of the Andfjord, which had been identified several times by means of wireless intercepts as well as in the more general message received from Group West the previous evening. The Hipper and the destroyers were, however, detached to go to Trondheim for refuelling and for the minor operation of protecting German convoys through the Leads. The Admiral’s luck held. At 3.45 p.m. he sighted a mast-head to the eastward, which proved to be that of the aircraft carrier Glorious with the customary escort of two destroyers, Ardent and Acasta. She was 200 miles ahead of Group 2, making the voyage independently because she was short of fuel. Furthermore, she was at a grave disadvantage because of the nature of the task in which she was engaged-her accommodation overcrowded with the Gladiators and Hurricanes that had been flown on board, her own complement of aircraft reduced for the occasion to one squadron of Skuas and a half-squadron of Swordfish, and her pilots exhausted by their share in the evacuation from Bardufoss. No reconnaissance aircraft were up (they were at ten minutes’ notice), and wireless messages were almost completely jammed.
The Glorious made off at her top speed (which in theory exceeded that of the battle-cruisers) to the southward, and attempted to range her Swordfish: but it was too late. At 4.30 the Scharnhorst opened fire at a range of nearly 28,000 yards, at which our 4.7-inch guns were helpless. The forward upper hangar was hit at an early stage, starting a fire which destroyed the Hurricanes and prevented any torpedoes being got ready. A salvo hit the bridge about five o’clock, and a heavy shell, striking aft about a quarter of an hour later, virtually finished the action so far as the Glorious was concerned. The order to abandon ship came about 5.20 and in another twenty minutes she had sunk. Meanwhile the two destroyers were rendering a good account of themselves. The smoke screen which they laid from the beginning of the action had given the Glorious a short respite from the gunfire of the two battle-cruisers and made it difficult for the Germans to observe the fall of shot. The Ardent fired two four-tube salvoes of torpedoes at the enemy, who was several times forced to take avoiding action, but she was sunk shortly before the carrier. This left the Acasta alone against overwhelming odds. With her guns still firing, she steered south-east, got temporary shelter in her own smoke screen,
and discharged a four-tube salvo, of which one torpedo struck the Scharnhorst aft at a range of about 13,000 yards: the German Naval Staff claimed afterwards that a better tactical conduct of the action could have avoided it. This torpedo-hit, which killed two officers and forty-six men, put the after-turret out of action, and a leak of water later made the centre and starboard main engines unusable. The damage done to the Scharnhorst caused both German ships to withdraw after the engagement to Trondheim, so that the second convoy of troopships passed through the wreckage-strewn waters next day unmolested. But first the enemy sank the Acasta, badly damaged and stopped with a list to port, by a final salvo at eight minutes past six; one Able Seaman lived to tell her story.
The loss of the Glorious was a threefold disaster. We had begun the war with only five large aircraft carriers and had lost one of these (the Courageous) in September 1939. The twenty fighter aircraft which went down in the ship would have been of value in the impending Battle of Britain, but much more serious was the loss of life. The crews of the carrier and both destroyers, together with the air pilots on board, were lost to the number of 1,515, the Germans having left the scene of action at once, as already noted. Thirty-nine survivors were eventually landed in the Faeroes from a small Norwegian vessel; two were picked up by a German seaplane; and four more were brought back to Norway by another small Norwegian vessel which found them in mid-ocean—they were all that was left of thirty-two men who had clambered on to a raft earlier. The Norwegians said that the area through which they were then passing contained many drifting bodies.
Our regular air reconnaissance had caught no glimpse of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in their passage through the patrolled areas of the North Sea, and they cannot even be identified with two unknown vessels which the Q-ship Prunella had sighted hull-down on the horizon between Norway and Iceland on the morning of 5th June. From this insubstantial report, however, the Admiralty inferred that an invasion of Iceland or even Eire might be impending, so the Commander-in-Chief weakened the potential protection of the Norway convoys by sending his two battle cruisers Renown and Repulse with two cruisers and five destroyers to Iceland, the convoy duty for which they had previously been earmarked being assigned to the single battleship Valiant. As a result of the imperative needs of areas farther south, he had left with him at Scapa only the battleship Rodney and a very few destroyers. On the 8th the Admiralty ordered the Renown to return; meanwhile the Home Fleet remained in harbour. Thus no news of the German activities reached British units other than those which were attacked until the hospital ship Atlantis met the Valiant about 9 a.m. next morning (9th June). The
latter ship was then on her way north to join the last convoy: she promptly worked up to full speed to close the distance of about 400 miles. Her signal relaying the hospital ship’s account received confirmation an hour later from the Devonshire. This cruiser, with the King of Norway and his Government and some 400 other passengers on board, had been only a hundred miles west of the Glorious when the action began the previous afternoon, and she was the sole recipient of a very faulty message from the Glorious (whose wireless apparatus may have been badly hit) mentioning only a previous message (not received) and two pocket battleships. Admiral Cunningham in the Devonshire had decided not to break wireless silence owing to the nature of his mission.
The Commander-in-Chief took immediate steps to protect the convoys. The Glorious, of whose fate he was, of course, in ignorance, was ordered to join the Valiant if possible. The Repulse, with two cruisers and three destroyers, was ordered to join the convoys from the area south-east of Iceland. Finally the Commander-in-Chief himself with the Rodney and Renown and (initially) two destroyers—every ship which remained at his disposal-left Scapa shortly after midday (9th June) to complete the guard for the convoys. However, the only danger that day came from German aircraft. The Valiant was shadowed and attacked on her way to join the troopships, and there was a more serious attempt against the Ark Royal when night came, but her fire and that of the Valiant kept the Germans at arm’s length and her aircraft shot down one of them. Farther north, the armed boarding vessel Vandyck, which had been sent empty to an inner rendezvous in case a substitute transport were needed during embarkation, had gone by mistake into the Harstad area, where she was bombed by aircraft, disabled, and abandoned. Two small Norwegian passenger steamers were also sunk from the air. British warships were now converging upon the convoys from two directions, but their situation was by this time less dangerous, for the troopships had set a course farther westward during the evening in order to keep a maximum distance from the enemy’s air base at Trondheim. This manoeuvre was the more effectual because his naval striking force too was now in the port.
On the morning of the 10th aircraft of Coastal Command reported an enemy force of four cruisers at Trondheim. They had found the raiders. The damage done to the Scharnhorst had caused Admiral Marschall to steer for Trondheim, where his ships arrived on the afternoon of the 9th, a few hours later than the Hipper and the destroyers, and he then received belated news of the evacuation of Narvik. The following morning, the 10th the Gneisenau and Hipper put to sea again with a view to continuing operations against the convoys, which were now farther from their reach. Their movement
was reported at 2 p.m. by the submarine Clyde, which was watching the northern approach to the port (and to such good purpose that she put the Gneisenau out of action for many months by torpedo next time she emerged, which was ten days later). The Commander-in-Chief, who had ordered the Ark Royal to join him with a view to a Swordfish attack in Trondheim harbour, therefore turned eastward for a search at sea. By 4 p.m. he had aircraft scouting ahead and was hoping for air action from the carrier, but he could not find the enemy, whose ships re-entered Trondheim early next morning, Admiral Marschall having now abandoned the operation on the ground that no worthwhile targets remained. The German naval staff would have liked him to persevere, but his conclusion was probably the correct one, since by the morning of the 11th the last convoy was well to the westward and had the protection of the main force under the Commander-in-Chief. Only the Tromsö store convoy and widely scattered trawlers and merchantmen, chiefly Norwegian, might still have been within reach.
Two further attacks were organised against the German ships in Trondheim. On the afternoon of 11th June, twelve RAF aircraft claimed two hits with 250-lb. bombs, but were actually unsuccessful. It was then arranged that naval aircraft should attack and the fleet moved south, passing the store convoy from Tromsö on the morning of the 12th and then turning eastward for an attack in the small hours of the 13th. The fleet was shadowed by German aircraft, but fifteen Skuas armed with bombs left the carrier to attack at 2 a.m. The RAF created a diversion by bombing Vaernes, and also provided some fighter protection for the Skuas, though their main effort was switched to Bergen, where ships were believed to be assembled for use in the invasion of Britain. The defence was on the alert and eight of our aircraft were lost, some of them in attempting to regain the fog-bound carrier, while the one 500-lb. bomb which hit the Scharnhorst glanced off and fell into the water without exploding. The Ark Royal brought the survivors back to Scapa on the 14th. Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery having struck his flag in the Southampton at midnight on 9th/10th June, the campaign was formally concluded when the Commander-in-Chief, with the Rodney and Renown and their destroyer screen, re-entered Scapa Flow on 15th June at 5 p.m.