The French Navy in Norway

Starboard broadside view of Le Triomphant manning the rails

French destroyer Le Malin underway c1940

The French part in this campaign consisted in sending to Norway, via the British Isles, a total of approximately 25,000 men, 1,200 draft animals, 1,700 vehicles, 170 guns, and 12,000 tons of supplies. That at least was what was routed through the port of Brest for Greenock, the improvised base in Scotland, between April 15 and May 8. But there was time only to send some 15,000 men on to Norway before the expedition was cancelled and the country evacuated. To escort and transport these troops and their supplies, there was assembled 6 fine auxiliary cruisers, 13 passenger liners, and 23 cargo ships, each of which was equipped with antiaircraft guns (25-mm. and 40-mm.) before leaving Brest. The requisitioning of that many ships strained the national shipping program which was necessary to support the whole wartime economy of France. Since the original plan called for sending over a third French division of approximately 12,000 men, the English promised to provide the necessary transport. When they were unable to do so, the French had to choose between providing the additional shipping for Norway and suspending a good part of the vitally important traffic between North Africa and the French homeland. The plan for sending the additional division was therefore abandoned.

In the man-of-war category the French Navy at one time or another had the following ships engaged in the Norwegian campaign: one cruiser (which was replaced by another when the first was damaged by an enemy bomb), six super-destroyers (two of which were sunk), five destroyers, six auxiliary cruisers, three fleet-tankers, two base repair and supply ships, two patrol vessels, and a hospital ship. At the same time, in the North Sea but operating under orders of the British Admiralty, there were thirteen French submarines and their tender, which, along with the super-destroyers, took effective part in the war against the German lines of communications.

The opening of the Norwegian campaign required the movement of all the Allied dispositions to the north. The English plunged into the Skagerrak, where they carved out some fine successes for themselves at the expense of the German invasion transports. The zones assigned to French ships—notably the approaches to the Heligoland Bight—proved less rewarding, though no less dangerous. French submarines in those waters were detected on a number of occasions, and were hunted and depth charged by the German patrols. In general, they came out of it well. The Calypso, caught in an antisubmarine net, managed to free herself; in a cruise of 10 days at sea she had to run submerged for a total of 187 hours. Human errors compounded the risks, while real opportunities for a shot at the enemy were rare. Only the Orphée succeeded in getting in two shots at a surfaced German U-boat, which, however, avoided them by putting her helm hard over.

Special attention must be made of the bold patrols carried out by French 1,500-ton submarines—such, for instance, as that of the Casabianca, which penetrated far into enemy-held Norwegian fjords. It was the same with the activities of the minelaying Rubis. On three separate occasions—May 8, May 27, and June 9—she skillfully planted her mines in the channels used by the Germans along the Norwegian coast. The first field was laid to the south of Egersund, the second off Bleivik, and the third in Hjelte Fjord, one of the entrances to Bergen. Inasmuch as the Rubis was at sea on this operation on June 4, when the others were recalled to France by Italy’s imminent entry into the war, she did not return with the squadron. It was because of the strong urging of the British that she stayed on to lay a fourth minefield—this one off Trondheim, on June 26, only eight days before the sad affair at Mers-el-Kebir—and that the Rubis became one of the first units of the Free French Naval Forces.

To upset the German antisubmarine dispositions, which were causing both the French and British trouble off the Skagerrak, the British Admiralty planned to stage a destroyer raid in these waters. But the Commander in Chief of the British Home Fleet opposed the raid as being too risky in light of the enemy’s air capabilities. It was finally decided to send in a division of French super-destroyers, whose high speed would permit them to go in and still get clear of the most dangerous areas before daylight.

Leaving Rosyth, the super-destroyers Indomptable, Malin, and Triomphant, of 3,200 tons each, and all capable of making 40 knots, crossed the North Sea during the day and swept the Skagerrak as far east as the longitude of Hamburg, which point they reached at 0100 the next morning without having sighted a thing. Reversing course and increasing speed to 34 knots, they had a brief engagement around 0300 with some German motor torpedo boats and two patrol trawlers. One of the latter was hit, but succeeded in escaping behind a smokescreen. One or two of the motor torpedo boats were also thought to have been hit and set on fire, but postwar information proved this erroneous. During the remainder of the morning, and despite the presence of British fighter planes, the super-destroyers were bombed by German planes, frequently at close range, but succeeded in returning safely to base. The only casualty was a propeller shaft on one of the ships which was thrown slightly out of line by a near miss.

The French Admiralty proposed that the super-destroyers be sent back immediately for another raid, but the British High Command preferred to employ them in Norway. They accordingly remained in the north until the threat of war in the Mediterranean obliged their recall.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the original plan of the campaign, a British brigade had made an initial landing at Namsos on April 17. Two days later Rear Admiral Jean Cadart’s three auxiliary cruisers—El Djezair, El Mansour, and El Kantara—approached the small harbor under strong escort. They carried three rifle battalions with their light equipment—in all, 3,000 men and 500 tons of supplies. During the course of the afternoon they were subjected to repeated enemy air attacks, during one of which the cruiser Emile Bertin, acting as protective screen, was hit and forced to retire. Because of the constant bombing, Admiral Cadart’s cruisers could remain in the harbor only during the three or four hours of darkness, but they succeeded in unloading all their troops and all the supplies onto the docks. Neither troops nor material were to remain there very long, however.

On April 22 the auxiliary cruiser Ville d’Alger arrived with reinforcements—1,100 men. A snowstorm and the damaged docks prevented her going alongside, and unloading had to be carried out by small boats. In order to clear the harbor before daylight the Ville d’Alger had to leave with 350 men, all the transport mules, and most of the antiaircraft guns still on board. However, on April 27 three daring French cargo ships succeeded in landing more food supplies, gasoline, 25-mm. guns, ammunition, etc. Unfortunately all this material was bombed and set on fire by German planes almost as soon as it was landed, thus depriving the troops ashore of material with which they might have been able to hold on.

Before these last ships could leave the harbor, even, the word was given that Namsos was to be evacuated. Taking on board 1,000 men, the ships got under way once again and managed to return home comparatively unharmed, despite a vigorous harassing pursuit by the German bombers.

The task of evacuating the remainder of the landing force was entrusted to a British cruiser and Admiral Cadart’s three auxiliary cruisers, the El Djezair, El Mansour, and El Kantara. Since the Ville d’Alger had been disabled in her last trip to Norway, these three ships, plus the British cruiser York, left from Scapa Flow and reentered the Namsos rattrap at 2300 on the 2nd of May. The city as well as the docks was still smoking from the previous bombing, and leaping flames occasionally reddened the night.

Reembarkation of personnel was begun immediately; there was no thought of trying to bring off any of the equipment. All that could be done with this was either to blow it up or to dump it into the sea.

As day broke, the troops already embarked grew nervous and impatient to get under way. But gray-bearded Admiral Cadart coolly made an inspection round of the whole dock area to make sure that all the British rear guard troops were off. Finally the ships pulled out, loaded with 1,850 French troops, 2,354 British, and a few Norwegians—plus 38 German prisoners.

The return trip was a nightmare. The German air attacks were continuous. A German dive bomber succeeded in hitting the super-destroyer Bison (Captain Jean Bouan, the 11th Destroyer Division Commander). The Bison’s magazines exploded. From the Montcalm, flying Admiral Derrien’s flag, one of the Bison’s 138-mm. guns, with its crew, could be seen flying high in the air. The survivors were picked up by a British destroyer, which itself was sunk only two hours later. Later on, what remained of the Bison’s survivors barely missed being wrecked still a third time—an experience which the participants would never forget.

The other Norwegian landings were the primary concern of the British, since their main objective was Narvik, the northern terminal of the iron ore traffic to Germany. This port was still held by 2,000 German soldiers, reinforced by some 1,800 sailors from the crews of the destroyers sunk there by the British on the 10th and 13th of April, plus 600 or more soldiers brought in by plane—a total of some 4,400 men.

As an opening move, a powerful British surface and naval air force clamped a tight blockade on Ofot Fjord, leading Narvik. Three English battalions had already been landed outside the port, but though they had the assistance of some Norwegian troops, they had made no headway. The terrain inland was broken, rugged, desolate, and still covered with snow. To assist in the Narvik operation the British Command called in two French forces: one consisting of three battalions of “Blue Devils” (Alpine mountain troops), and the other of two battalions of the Foreign Legion and four of Polish depatriated troops—a total of 11,800 men, with 2,000 tons of light equipment. The heavy equipment was following in many cargo ships.

Notwithstanding frequent enemy air attacks, the landings were carried out under far better conditions than those at Namsos—the only ship casualty was one French super-destroyer slightly damaged. The difficulties were mainly material in origin, rather than human: wharves too short, with no unloading facilities; a shortage of charts and pilots; and the irritating loss of anchors and anchor chains in very deep water. The Alpine troops were landed on the last two days of April, the Foreign Legion and the Poles on the 9th and 10th of May.

On May 27, a grand combined attack of the British Naval Forces, commanded by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery, and the French troops, commanded by General Marie Béthouart, drove the Germans out of Narvik with heavy loss. To the Norwegians was given the honor of being the first to enter the recaptured city. Only the two senior commanders knew, however, that for the past 24 hours they had carried in their pockets the order to blow up the port installations and to evacuate Norway.

As has been said earlier, the Norwegian operation was undertaken chiefly as a diversion—a flank movement permitting the utilization of naval forces not employed elsewhere—and the whole concept had been based on the supposed impregnability of the Maginot line. But 15 days before, the Germans had broken through this front and the sweep of their armored divisions threatened to encircle the whole left wing of the Allied armies. At the very hour when General Béthouart was making his entry into Narvik, almost 500,000 French and British soldiers stood compressed into the Dunkirk pocket.

Béthouart’s few thousand men would have made no difference at Dunkirk, even if they could have been transported there. However, their continued operation in Norway served no useful purpose, either. Furthermore, a declaration of war by Italy was imminent, and France had need of every man, gun, ship, and plane for the defense of the homeland.

The Allied troops at the Narvik bridgehead—24,000 men in all—were evacuated from northern Norway on June 8. Part of these French troops, in addition to those in Scotland who had not yet been transshipped to Norway, were still in Britain during the tragic days of the armistice.

Offhand, the whole Norwegian expedition would seem to have been a defeat for France and Britain. The objective of cutting Germany’s iron ore route was not realized. Instead, it was the Germans who, by capturing Norway, would for a long time deprive England of her share of the Swedish exports. And the tragedy of it all was that the results might have been reversed if the expedition had not been delayed for five fatal days by the bickering over Mr. Churchill’s pet scheme of sowing the Rhine with river mines.

Yet, there were a few bright entries on the opposite side of the ledger, too. The damages and losses suffered by the German Navy were far greater comparatively than those suffered by the Royal Navy—a fact which was to be enormously important to Britain in the future. And these German Navy losses7 at this particular time did not encourage it, in case there had been such a thought, to operate in the lower North Sea on the right flank of the German armies during those critical last days of the Battle of France.

Germany’s naval casualties were 3 cruisers, 10 destroyers, 4 submarines, 1 gunnery training ship, and 10 small ships lost; and the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau damaged. British ship casualties were 1 aircraft carrier, 1 cruiser, 7 destroyers, 3 submarines, 1 sloop, 1 antiaircraft escort ship, and 14 trawlers lost, plus 1 Polish destroyer. French casualties were 2 super-destroyers (the Bison, lost under the circumstances already stated, and the Maillé-Brézé, destroyed at Greenock on April 30 by the explosion of one of its torpedoes). Despite Germany’s Air Force and submarines, not one single British or French troop transport was sunk.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Norwegian campaign was the complete degree of collaboration achieved between the British and French Navies. It was during this campaign that the British Admiralty, fully occupied in northern waters, proposed that the French Navy assume responsibility for the Mediterranean.8 Never in history had there been more cordial relations than those established in the battle area of the sea off Norway. Not merely was this collaboration in the technical field, but in the far more important field of human relations—the spirit of comraderie between the French officers and their brethren of the Royal Navy. Whether they sailed with the Home Fleet or on escort duty off the fjords of Norway, French and British ships, side by side, learned to sustain and to parry the fierce attacks of Germany’s formidable Air Force.

The proposal was presented by the British on April 16, and the French Admiralty immediately gave its agreement. But at a meeting of the Interallied Supreme Command on April 23, it was decided to maintain the status quo.

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