On this day the first signals were received indicating that German warships were at sea and an Admiralty message (A.T.1259) gave the clearest possible indication of military action against Norway and Denmark by German forces. The main body of the Home Fleet, which had remained at Scapa, was brought to one hour’s notice. Following another message at 17.10 all units at Scapa were ordered to raise steam and the ships sailed at 20.15 on the 7th. Meantime Renown was already approaching the Norwegian coast in support of the minelayers in Vestfiord and Birmingham was on her way to join her. Force WS was recalled and the simulated minelaying operation was cancelled.
Renown arrived off Vestfiord in the evening of the 7th but she found no sign of Birmingham and her two destroyers. The 20th flotilla had joined up however with their destroyers of the 2nd flotilla, and these were detached according to plan and laid their mines between 04.30 and 05.30 on the 8th. Whilst they did so, the Renown with the only destroyer remaining on her screen, the Greyhound, patrolled in the area 30 miles to the west of Vestifiord and 100 miles from the minefield.
At about 08.30 that morning Renown received the signal from Glowworm of her contact with German forces. The position of Glowworm (65° 04’N, 6° 04’E) was 140 miles away to the southward of Renown and she with Greyhound immediately turned south and steered to intercept the German force at the best speed possible. Renown continued on this southerly course at 20 knots for the first hour but had to ease down later to avoid weather damage.
There was nothing they could do to aid the gallant little Glowworm. Her Captain had sighted first one, then a second destroyer, and had accepted the odds, even though the two German ships were larger and heavily outgunned his own ship. Both turned away, the difficult weather conditions and their poor sea keeping qualities, enhanced by the cargo of seasick troops, nullifying the advantage of their superior firepower. Glowworm followed them to see what lay beyond so he could report to his commander the exact composition of the German force. Too late, in the murk and wild pitching seas he realised he was up against a ship ten times his size, the 14,500-ton 8-inch cruiser Admiral Hipper. It was impossible to outrun her in the seas then raging, and knowing he was doomed the gallant Lieutenant Commander G. B. Roope, determined to sell his ship dearly, and firing torpedoes and all remaining guns, he rammed his mighty adversary tearing away a whole section of her side armour forward, before his little ship capsized, shot through and through. Her sacrifice was not in vain for the damage to the Hipper forced her to put into Trondheim, while the ten destroyers pressed on to Narvik alone. The two German battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst meanwhile had not become involved in this fight and gave distant cover to the edge of Vestifiord before breaking off to take up their patrolling positions further north.
The Admiralty naturally feared a break-out operation by these big ships into the Atlantic and made their dispositions accordingly. At 10.45 on the 8th the Admiralty ordered the eight destroyers of the Vestifiord mining force to join Renown and Greyhound, an intervention on the part of the Admiralty (where Churchill was constantly making ‘suggestions’) that, as Admiral Forbes pointed out later, resulted in the entrance to Vestifiord being left unguarded. This was a disaster of enormous consequences, for the ten laden German destroyers, instead of meeting the eight British ships in full fighting trim at sea, where they could have sunk them all and their troops, instead found empty water and continued up to Narvik unhindered to surprise the Norwegians, sink their warships by deceit and treacherous dealings under a white flag and there to land their soldiers. Thus the First and Second Battles of Narvik had to be fought at a disadvantage for the British which resulted in needless losses, while the German troops, though few in number, defied attempts at eviction by numerically larger Allied forces for weeks, until in fact it was too late.
All this did not immediately affect Renown however and, at 11.14, Vice-Admiral Whitworth received a further message which indicated that the preliminary message of German movements might well be true and that the ships involved would be at sea and moving northwards. Admiral Whitworth, presuming that Glowworm had in fact been engaged with a force en route to Narvik, decided that if he allowed the German force a speed of 25 knots, he could reach the line of advance by 13.30 and he shaped course accordingly for the point of interception. In the visibility which was rapidly reducing to two or three miles he began to realise that, with only a solitary destroyer in company and no air reconnaissance, his chances of intercepting were greatly reduced, and, with this in mind, he decided at 13.30 to alter course north-eastwards to rendezvous with the eight destroyers from Vestifiord. This concentration was duly effected at 17.15 some 20 miles west by south of the Stromvaer Light.
Before then, at 15.16 Rodney’s signal room had taken in another message from the Admiralty for Admiral Forbes, timed at 14.00, to the effect that a German battle-cruiser, two cruisers and two destroyers had been sighted by an aircraft in position 64° 12′ N, 6° 25′ E steering west. In actual fact it was the Hipper with four destroyers waiting their time to enter Trondheim in conjunction with the other assaults, and had been wrongly reported and identified by the aircraft. This red herring led to further complications.
It was realised that if true this force could have four objectives:
(1) It could return to base at once.
(2) It could be making for Icelandic waters.
(3) It could proceed to Murmansk where it might refuel from a tanker (remember that Germany and Soviet Russia were firm allies at this time; Russia did not change sides until more than a year later).
(4) It could be the force destined for Narvik either as an invasion force or as cover to an invasion force.
As the Home Fleet had various forces now at sea to the south of this reported position Admiral Whitworth conceived a plan, which would cover the position if the German ships moved northwards. This plan provided for a line-ahead patrol by the nine destroyers to the westward of the Stromvaer Light with Renown in a position some 50 miles to the northward. At dawn it was intended to form an extended screen and sweep southwards.
Then at 19.15 a message was taken aboard Renown from the Admiralty direct, (A.T. 1950/8) which was marked ‘Most Immediate’. It directed Admiral Whitworth to ‘. . . concentrate on preventing any German force proceeding to Narvik . . .’, an apparent reversal of their earlier instruction. By this time a full gale was blowing from the NNW and Whitworth saw that the weather situation was such that he had to keep his forces concentrated if he was to maintain his ships in a condition of seagoing and fighting efficiency. Renown’s great bulk was heaving and shouldering her through the gale, but conditions aboard the frail destroyers were indescribable and it could hardly be expected that they could fire their open mountings or torpedo tubes in such conditions, when to stand up at all was a feat that took a man’s whole strength and concentration.
Whitworth therefore ordered his squadron to alter course to 280° and this was done at 21.00. An hour later, at midnight, he again turned his whole force 180° in succession, but the destroyers found themselves completely unmanageable in the seaway and so course had to be altered more to the northward.
Earlier the C-in-C had detached the Repulse from the fleet with the 6-inch cruiser Penelope and destroyers Bedouin, Eskimo, Kimberley and Punjabi to go to Glowworm’s aid. This was later countermanded and they were instructed to reinforce Whitworth’s force while Forbes himself turned south with Rodney, Valiant, the 6-inch cruiser Sheffield and the remaining destroyers. At 22.00 the Renown and her destroyers were in position 67° 9′ N, 10° 10′ E on a course of 310° but reduced to a speed of eight knots owing to a very heavy sea and a north-westerly force 10 gale.
From midnight onwards the weather improved and after spending the night to the west of the Lofoten Islands, the Renown and her accompanying destroyers regrouped; a course was set to the south-east at 02.30 on 9 April.
Frequent snow squalls made visibility variable but at about 03.25 dawn twilight (the sun 6° below the horizon) improved the situation.
At 03.37 when steering a course 130° at 12 knots, Renown sighted a darkened ship coming out of a snow squall with apparently another ship behind her. This sighting was in position approximately 67° 20′ N, 9° 40′ E, some fifty miles west of Stromvaer Light. When first seen the newcomers were identified as a Scharnhorst class battlecruiser accompanied by a Hipper class 8-inch cruiser. The enemy ships lay broad on the port bow about ten miles distant, steering to the north-west on a course opposite to that of the British ships.
They were in fact the sister ships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, 31,800 tonners each carrying a main armament of nine 11-inch guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9-inch guns plus fourteen 14.1-inch guns and having a top speed of 32 knots. The combined broadsides of the two forces were therefore heavily in favour of the Germans thus:
15-inch guns: 6 –
11-inch guns: – 20
5.9-inch guns: – 24
4.5-inch guns: 20 –
4.1-inch guns: – 28
The British destroyers never got into the action, but at first surprise, and the advantage of what light there was, lay with Renown.
Gneisenau, the leading German ship, had in fact spotted Renown a little earlier but was not sure of her identity; Scharnhorst astern made the first positive identification of Renown. Vice-Admiral Lutjens, in command of the German force, however, had no intention of pressing his gun advantage and his only concern throughout the action was to put as much sea between his two ships and the old Renown as he possibly could.