Norway was a key target for Adolf Hitler.
The westernmost and northernmost country on the Scandinavian Peninsula offered three important objectives at the outset of World War II: its naval bases (the acquisition of which would prevent Germany’s navy from being blockaded in harbor), its coastal fisheries, Narvik’s ice-free harbor and, by extension, the Ofoten Line railway, which linked the city to one of Europe’s richest deposits of iron ore (used to manufacture steel for military applications), just over the border in northern Sweden.
On the morning of April 9, 1940, as Hitler prepared for the invasion of France, a fleet of 10 German destroyers under cover of a blizzard and thick fog nosed into the rugged Ofotfjord leading to Narvik. They soon captured three Norwegian patrol boats and, after a perfunctory parley, sank two outdated and outgunned coastal defense ships in port. The Norwegian regional commander surrendered the city to the Nazis without firing a shot.
The Allies reacted quickly. In the early hours of April 10 the Royal Navy redirected five British escort destroyers (part of a force that had been laying mines along the Norwegian coast to thwart ore transports from Sweden) to Narvik and caught their opponents napping. The British destroyers opened the first naval Battle of Narvik at 4:30 a.m., sinking two German destroyers and 11 merchant ships and damaging a third warship before crossfire from an adjoining fjord claimed two British destroyers and forced the others to withdraw.
Three days later the British returned to finish the job with a fleet of nine destroyers led by the battleship Warspite, the carrier Furious providing air support. A pitched sea battle commenced in the middle of the Ofotfjord. The Germans, low on fuel and ammunition, lost a U-boat and eight destroyers—three sunk by Warspite, five others scuttled to prevent their capture. But they were far from beaten. Some 2,600 German sailors made it safely to land. Overrunning the local Norwegian army base, the improvised force acquired supplies and arms, then occupied the high ground surrounding German-held Narvik.
With the fjord under British naval control, the battle moved ashore. In the days that followed, ahead of a planned mid-May invasion, the Allies (comprising Norwegian, British, French and Polish troops) frustrated the plans of the outnumbered Germans. Norwegian soldiers familiar with the rugged terrain notched their country’s first victories against the aggressors, as did the exiled Poles (for whom such successes were particularly sweet).
May 10 heralded the British handover of power from Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill. The new prime minister, determined to secure iron ore for the Allied cause, went ahead with the planned invasion. It was a drawn-out affair, reflecting the difficulty of coordination among Allied forces, but by May 28 they had recaptured Narvik. The German commander in Narvik, Maj. Gen. Eduard Dietl, was so certain his forces’ would meet defeat that he had arranged to have troop trains waiting just over the border in neutral Sweden.
Unfortunately for the Allies, their first major victory on land proved hollow. The rapid advance of the Germans across Europe in the following weeks convinced the Allied command their troops were more urgently required in France. Thus the Allies withdrew from Narvik and the Ofotfjord.
The Allied decision embittered the Norwegians. With Narvik’s southern front exposed, the Germans surged back, and by June 8 Dietl’s forces had retaken the port. Two days later Norway itself capitulated. Combined losses in the struggle for Narvik were a staggering 64 ships and nearly 9,000 lives. But the stakes were high, as the Swedish deposits supplied nearly a third of Germany’s wartime supply of iron ore—even though the heavily damaged port remained closed for many months.
Owned and operated by the Norwegian State Railways [nsb.no/en], the Ofoten Line—among the world’s northernmost railways—still traverses the stark and beautiful countryside of Narvik’s hinterland, bearing tourists as well as iron ore. War memorials dot the snow-covered landscape around Narvik. Perhaps most striking of all sights, visible from the train along the inland route, is the rusted bow of the scuttled German destroyer Georg Thiele, which juts like a tombstone from the iron-gray inshore waters of the Rombaksfjord.