Narvik was the most important strategic objective of the Norwegian campaign. The northerly and remote town was an ice free port from which iron ore, brought by rail from Sweden, could supply Germany. The Germans invaded Norway in order to secure their iron ore supplies, so Narvik was central to their plans.
On 9 April Captain Warburton-Lee was ordered to Narvik with orders to prevent the Germans from landing there. He led a force of five “H” class (1,500 ton) destroyers armed with four or five 4.7in guns; the flotilla leader Hardy, and the destroyers Hotspur, Havock, Hunter and Hostile.
When Warburton-Lee reached the pilot station at Tranöy at about 4pm on 9 April he was told that six German destroyers had already made their way into the Ofotfjord leading to Narvik. He would have been aware that the German destroyers were more powerful than those in his force, at 3,000 tons armed with 5 inch guns. On informing the Admiralty of his plans to attack Warburton-Lee was told that it was his decision what action to take: he made his way up the Fjord to Narvik.
Warburton-Lee’s force made a surprise dawn attack on German destroyers and merchant ships in Narvik harbour during a blinding snowstorm at 4am the next day. A torpedo from Hardy blew off the stern of the German flagship Wilhelm Heidkamp and killed the German flotilla commander, Commodore Friedrich Bonte. A second destroyer was sunk by two torpedoes and three others were damaged by gunfire. Six of the eight German merchant ships present were sunk.
If Warburton-Lee’s information had been correct there should have been only one German destroyer remaining. In fact there were five, and they swiftly made their way back to Narvik from the adjacent Fjords and were in a strong position to attack the British force as it prepared to make a second attack on Narvik Harbour.
The British were now caught between two groups of German destroyers and came under heavy shelling. The Hardy was badly damaged, and had to be beached. Olwen George was on board the Hardy when the order was given to ‘abandon ship’:
Just prior to this renewed shelling voices from up on the bridge were yelling at me to go up on the fo’c’stle deck just below them. They had the Captain lashed on a stretcher, lowering him feet first, and wanted me to grab him and lay him on the deck. As he came down I saw that his head and face were in a terrible state; he was groaning and breathing heavily and as he breathed lumps of flesh on his face were moving in and out. I did not think of him dying, but then the Officers came rushing down and took charge.
Then with renewed firing we knew it was time to go! The Officers dumped the Skipper in the water and dived in after him. He was dead when they got him to the beach. I was told that some of his last words spoken on the bridge, were “I shall never forget No. Fours gun crew”
I took my shoes off and tied them by the laces to my belt, made sure my life belt was inflated, I got hold of the ships’ Battle Ensign lying at the foot of the mainmast, rolled it up and tied that to my belt. As I climbed the guard rails I felt a blow on the inside of my left leg near my knee and realised I had been hit with something. There was no time to investigate as more shells were coming inboard.
Joe and I dived in the water together, struck out and in a few minutes we had reached a point near the beach where we could wade. Then from behind us we heard a cry for help and looking back we saw Paymaster-Lieutenant Stanning waving. We were undecided what to do, as we were suffering from the effects of the bitter cold water, but back we turned. We saw that one of his ankles was shattered. It wasn’t so bad hauling him though the water but when we got to the beach and a high wall of snow at the water mark, it became really hard work. He was compaining bitterly at our rough treatment. Yard by yard we kept at him supporting him either side (he was quite a big man). Our object was a wooden house about 400 yards away.
Olwen George’s vivid description of life on board HMS Hardy prior to the action as well as subsequent events is at BBC WW2 People’s War.
HMS Hunter was sunk outright. A third British destroyer, the Hotspur was also badly damaged. The five German destroyers had also taken some damage in the fighting, and failed to press their advantage, allowing the two relatively undamaged British destroyers to rescue the Hotspur. On their way out of the fjord, the British sank the German ammunition ship Rauenfels, the only one to have reached Narvik.
Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee was awarded the VC for this action, the first to be awarded ( or ‘gazetted’ – formally announced in the London Gazette) during World War II. His citation reads:
For gallantry, enterprise and daring in command of the force engaged in the First Battle of Narvik, on 10th April, 1940.
On being ordered to carry out an attack on Narvik, Captain Warburton-Lee learned that the enemy was holding the place in much greater force than had been thought. He signalled to the Admiralty that six German destroyers and one submarine were there, that the channel might be mined, and that he intended to attack at dawn.
The Admiralty replied that he alone could judge whether to attack, and that whatever decision he made would have full support.
Captain Warburton led his flotilla of five destroyers up the fjord in heavy snow-storms, arriving off Narvik just after daybreak. He took the enemy completely by surprise and made three successful attacks on warships and merchantmen in the harbour.
As the flotilla withdrew, five enemy destroyers of superior gunpower were encountered and engaged. The captain was mortally wounded by a shell which hit the bridge of H.M.S. Hardy. His last signal was “Continue to engage the enemy”.
Captain Roope of HMS Glowworm had won the first VC of World War II, for his actions on the 8th April 1940, but he was not awarded this until 1945.