Battle of the Norwegian Sea 08/May/1940
Return to Sea Battles page
British Battleships -v- Germanic States Battleships and battlecruiser
BC Graf Spee
The attack on Norway by the Germanic States forces came as a shock to the
British who were planning on taking Norway themselves to deny it to the G.S.
Rather than just put forward their attack and go for it, the British landed
all the troops aboard their warships which were then sent off to intercept
the German shipping. The G.S. planning had been much more thorough than
thought. G.S. merchantmen sitting in Norwegian harbours would lift there
hatch covers to allow the troops below to erupt over the sides and take the
ports which had just had G.S. warships sail into in support. There were
several airports and airfields that the G.S. forces targeted and the one at
Stavanger the G.S. airborne troops arrived in their Ju-52 aircraft, landed
on the airfield and took over. Within hours the airfield was operating with
G.S. bombers and fighters dominating that area.
The Graf Spee was fully involved with the invasion. It was part of Force Bodo, with the Battlecruiser, one light cruiser, and two destroyers, carrying 400 troops aboard, which it was felt all was needed to take that small port. Any resistance could meet the guns of the fire support ships. On 'Norway' day the Graf Spee sailed into the port, up to a wharf, tied up and the troops marched ashore. At 6.00am there was no one awake to stop them. No alarms had been raised that the Germans were attacking and it was not till 8.30-9.00am that an alarm was raised from the General Headquarters in Oslo, which by then was under attack itself by Force Oslo.
The Graf Spee and the two destroyers had orders that once the port was taken, to leave the light cruiser in charge, and to follow up Force Narvik as that forces heavy support ship. The port of Narvik with its connection to the Swedish Iron ore producing area was of paramount importance to the continuation of the Germanic States war machine. It was one of the main reasons for the invasion. To ensure continued supply of the Iron ore during the winter months when the Swedish Baltic ports were closed.
No sooner than the Graf Spee had left port than it ran into a small force of British cruisers and destroyers. They too were on their way to Narvik to try and retake the port from the 'destroyer' force they had been told was there. A running battle ensued with the Graf Spee firing the odd salvo at the cruisers which kept at the Graf Spees maximum range and were screaming for help. The Graf Spee continued on for Narvik, making its own reports to the High Command so they could co-ordinate the attack then defense of the various landing areas. Bodo was important as it also had a small airfield from which the Luftwaffe could operate.
Both the G.S. and British High Commands knew they had ships at sea but neither side knew exactly where the big boys were till one side or the other located one. The spotting report of Graf Spee with just two destroyers gave the British Admiralty the chance to put down a G.S. capital ship. British ships that could catch and dispatch the Graf Spee were not that common. The main British fleet was at the level of Trondheim and was trying to ensure the main G.S. Fleet was kept to the Stavanger area. Two Admiral Class (HMS Hood and HMS Howe) battleships were dispatched with a cruiser and four destroyers to join the three cruisers and six destroyers heading for Narvik. The new fleet, under Admiral Whitworth, had easy orders, clear out the Narvik area of G.S. forces and sink the Graf Spee. The final part of the Battle of the Norwegian Sea to come, is the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which had, as part of their orders, 'destroy the weather reporting station on Jan Mayen Island'. That completed they were to return to the Narvik area to lend their support if required. Their support would definitely be required.
The Graf Spee was heading for Narvik on the cruising diesels as it would be able to refuel at Narvik where the G.S. forces had placed a tanker for just that purpose. There were already eight G.S. destroyers in Narviks Fjord system, having landed the troops and light artillery that had taken the town. The Graf Spee made Narvik, refueled and headed out to sea to join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Graf Spee took four destroyers with it which were to assist the Graf Spee to force past the cruisers and destroyers that were in the Vestfjord to try and hold up and shadow the Graf Spee if it tried to leave before the two battleships arrived.
The Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (what other cruisers would they be?) had to force the Graf Spee to go the way the British wanted it to go, namely onto the guns of the Hood and Howe. Aboard the Ajax was Commodore Harwood, in charge of the three cruisers and destroyers. It would be Harwood's handling of his ships that brought the finale to the Battle of the Norwegian Sea.
The Graf Spee would need to go to the bottom of the Lofoten Islands before it could turn North to join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Commodore Harwood wanted to keep the Graf Spee going south and not turn North till as late as possible. To do this Commodore Harwood had to put his ships in harms way. Only the Exeter could fire as far as the Graf Spee and it was those two ships that opened the battle at 28,000 yards, firing more for effect as hits at that range would be extremely lucky. Neither ship got lucky till the range reduced to 25,000 yards when two 8" hits were scored by Exeter on the Graf Spee's armour, causing no damage. It was the return hit from the Graf Spee that did some damage. The big 635 kilo shells tore chunks out of the Exeter (and the other cruisers) when they hit. That first hit was on the Exeter's armour and just went straight through destroying the fire control plotting system and putting the Exeter's guns into virtually local control. First blood to the Graf Spee. The two British 6" cruisers now came into range and started to hit the Graf Spee at 20-22,000 yard range. The hits may not be hurting the Graf Spee's overall survivability but these hits would knock out unarmoured areas. AA guns, secondary guns, optical equipment, radar, all were vulnerable to the British 6" and 8" hits.
Two more hits on the Exeter and the Exeter was in trouble, one hit in the aircraft handling area and a large fire was started which also burnt out the radio room, while the third hit damaged the engine room, slowing the Exeter considerably. The Exeter and a destroyer left the battle heading South. The Exeter would survive to go onto fighting the Japanese, and being sunk by them. This left the two 6" cruisers and five destroyers facing the Graf Spee. The range was getting down to where the destroyers guns and the Graf Spee's secondary weapons and its escorting destroyers could start firing at each other. Gun flashes and shell splashes were everywhere around the twelve ships. The Graf Spee's main armament would boom away while the lesser guns would crack away. Commodore Harwood ordered a torpedo attack from the destroyers and both sets of destroyers went at each other, fighting for position. The G.S. destroyers signaled to Graf Spee that there were torpedoes in the water and the Graf Spee was forced to turn South. Returning to its base course the Graf Spee steadied and fired at the Ajax. Three hits from that salvo and two more from the next and the Ajax was history waiting to sink. Two hits forward with a sympathetic explosion from the A magazine, blew the bows off the Ajax. If that was not enough, three more hits along the length of the Ajax blew out one of the boiler rooms, destroyed the after control position and put the after turrets out of action. One minute a beautiful 8,000 ton cruiser, the next minute a sinking wreck. Commodore Harwood was one of the survivors rescued and he would go onto bigger and better things. The destroyer battle had resolved itself with one G.S. destroyer limping back toward Narvik and the other three still covering the Graf Spee's flanks. The British destroyers had lost one ship to a torpedo hit and the other four were trying to harry the G.S. destroyers and keep them occupied.
The Captain of the Achilles heard the masthead cry "ships to the South", and knew his job was done. The loss of the Ajax and damage to Exeter could be revenged. The order came from Admiral Whitworth, "clear my firing lines" and the first big shells from the 15" guns roared past. Short, but close, it would only be minutes before they were in range. The Graf Spee changed target to the British battleships, firing at the lead ship. Its guns fired further than the British guns and its first salvo was just off line but good for range. This was the Graf Spee's worst nightmare, modern British battleships with 15" guns. It could neither run away or out fight them. All the Graf Spee could do was run to the North and hope that it could come within range of the helping hand from the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The Hood and Howe were only two knots faster so it would take a bit of time till they were close enough to deal damage to the Graf Spee. Being a stern chase only the front and stern guns of the protagonists could fire at each other. A 15" hit from Howe on the Graf Spee and the speed fell away. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are just ten minutes away to the north - just five miles.
The speed of the Graf Spee falling away to about 20 knots allows the two British battleships too turn and bring all their turrets to bear. The Graf Spee parallels their course, hoping to survive long enough for the S&G to save it. No such luck. The ten minutes of concentrated fire from the 15" guns turns the Graf Spee into a colander. Listing to starboard, the Graf Spee starts turning in circles. One of the hits has jammed the steering room. A quick run from one of the destroyers fires a bank of five torpedoes at the Graf Spee, three torpedo hits later the Graf Spee rolls over and sinks. The destroyer explodes as shell splashes and hits from big guns surround it and sink it. All British eyes turn to the North where flashes show the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau have arrived, much to the horror of Admiral Whitworth.
Site Editors Notes: The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the German Superimposed Alternate Universe are big. They come about from the increased size of the Germanic States replacement size being altered to the new 60% limit of the 35,000 ton Washington Treaty (21,000 tons). This gives ships of much better quality and staying power than the Deutschland class 'pocket battleships'. To counter these ships, the French opt for their right of reply to the Germanic States ships to be full size 35,000 ton battleships with 16" guns, the new French Dunkerque class ships are much better. As with most of the Germanic States new build ships, the Scharnhorst class grew a bit in their building. Instead of being the 35,000 ton limit the ships were 44,000 tons and instead of the 16" maximum, the Scharnhorst class had updated 16.5" guns. Like the Hood and Howe had outgunned the Graf Spee, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau outgunned them.
Admiral Whitworth turns South and starts screaming for help, hoping the
battlefleet and its aircraft carriers to the south would save him. Leading in
the Howe with the Hood trailing, Admiral Whitworth sent his light forces ahead
at best speed while Admiral Marschall in the Scharnhorst kept his destroyers to
one side out of his firing lines. What had worked in Admiral Marschall's favour
was that all British eyes had been drawn to the end of the Graf Spee. This had
allowed his ships to get well within range of the British ships before the
Scharnhorst announced its presence by sinking the Tribal class destroyer that
had put the torpedoes into the Graf Spee. Firing orders given, the Scharnhorst
and Gneisenau start to flay the British ships bit by bit. Gneisenau's fifth
salvo is in the air and hits the Hood with three shells. Two hit the after
superstructure and the area around the X 15" turret. The third hits the forward
superstructure causing it to tilt to one side. Gneisenau's next salvo is in the
air, but never arrives, where the Hood was is now just a memory. The aft end of
the Hood just vapourises (my word of the year) as one of the big 16.5" shells
sets off the aft magazine setting off a chain of explosions that splits the back
half of the Hood away and it sinks immediately. The forward half is still
afloat, but not for long and two destroyers hurry alongside to pull off as many
survivors as possible before it too disappears. With both Germanic States
battleships now firing at him, Admiral Whitworth is just about to bend over and
kiss his ass goodbye, when his saviours arrive. "Aircraft to the south" comes
the cry and flights of torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighters go past to
attack the Germanic States ships.
Admiral Marschall is forced to watch the Howe disappear over the horizon as his ships have to maneuver to avoid the torpedoes and bombs. One of the destroyers takes a torpedo hit and then two bomb hits and sinks. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau receive a pair of bomb hits each which do little damage but mark the end of the Battle of the Norwegian Sea.
Both sides had major losses of a capital ship each. The British had lost more
overall, but had the resources to lose a few more ships and still hose the
Germanic States overall. Losses of capital ship rank hit the Germanic States
hard as they just cannot replace them as quickly as the Commonwealth can.
Return to Sea Battles page