Airlift into Narvik
By Peter de Jong15 March 2019
Hitler's invasion in Norway nearly ended in disaster for the Germans in Narvik, high up beyond the polar circle. The Luftwaffe desperately attempted to fly in supplies and reinforcements.
It was Friday morning, 12 April 1940. At the Travemünde flight test centre, near Lübeck on Germany's Baltic coast, the drone of twelve Junkers Jumo diesel engines filled the spring air as four flying boats in dark green splinter camouflage taxied out on an urgent mission. They were three test articles of the humpbacked, twin-boom Blohm & Voss BV 138, nicknamed the Flying Clog; and one prototype of the elegant, swanlike Dornier Do 24.
Three days earlier, the Führer had launched operation Weserübung, the invasion of Denmark and Norway. While the bold assault had gone well, the hoped-for quick Norwegian surrender had not happened, and a critical situation developed for General Eduard Dietls's contingent of Austrian mountain troops, landed by a flotilla of ten Kriegsmarine destroyers in the remote iron ore port of Narvik.
The British fleet had blocked the fjords leading up to Narvik, and sunk the steamer Rauenfels with its cargo of heavy weapons and ammunition. To make things worse for the Germans, they had not captured the only airfield in Narvik's alpine surroundings, Bardufoss. The nearest German forces were fighting in Trondheim, over 600 km (375 miles) to the south, and the nearest usable airfield for the time being was Oslo - Fornebu, 1,000 km (625 miles) away. This distance made it very difficult to support Dietl's troops from the air or to supply them from the air, even through airdrops.
Around noon that Friday, 12 April, a lone four-engined Junkers Ju 90 appeared over Narvik and, cheered on by waving soldiers and sailors, parachuted a couple of ammunition containers. Infrequent drops by a Ju 90 or an Fw 200 Condor continued in the following weeks. Some loads were thrown out without a parachute, including two machine guns wrapped in clothing which both broke upon impact. On 25 April an aircraft dropped one bag of salt, one bag of coffee, and a box of Iron Cross medals.
A better way to airlift supplies into Narvik seemed to be by long-range seaplane, and a makeshift squadron, 9./KGzbV 108, was formed at Travemünde on 11 April. The Staffel had four Dornier Do 26s, two Do 24s and three BV 138s – all flying boats powered by Jumo diesel engines, which were fuel-efficient, but heavy, unresponsive and short on power.
With four diesels arranged in tandem pairs, the Do 26 was originally a transatlantic mail-plane which, complete with its Lufthansa crews, had made a career shift to long-range sea reconnaissance aircraft following the outbreak of WWII. The two Do 24 prototypes and three BV 138A‑0s came from the E‑Stelle (test centre) Travemünde. Their crews were civilian Reich Air Ministry (RLM), not Luftwaffe personnel. Most of the airmen had little military training, while a few men volunteering as gunners had never flown!
The two three-engined types had competed to become the Luftwaffe's standard reconnaissance flying boat. The BV 138, originally known as the Hamburger Flugzeugbau Ha 138, had an embarrassing development history: the first prototype had been virtually incapable of getting out of the water, and the second seriously unstable, both in the water in the air. Nearly three years after its first flight, the BV 138 was still not operational. In contrast, the Do 24 had taken barely three months from first flight to service entry with the Netherlands navy! The RLM, however, had selected the BV 138 in an early stage, telling Dornier to focus on bombers.
The three BV 138A‑0s were scheduled to fly the first mission to Narvik on 12 April. The Do 24 V1 prototype was added to the roster on the suggestion of an eager young test pilot, Adolf Mlodoch. The two Do 24 prototypes were little flown and poorly equipped, although the V1 was armed with an experimental Rheinmetall MG 204 20‑mm cannon in a dorsal turret. Machine guns were installed in the aircraft's open nose and tail positions.
With Mlodoch in the left seat, the Do 24 V1 took off from the Pötenitzer Wiek bay at 09.15 hrs on 12 April, carrying a cargo of ammunition and medicines like the three BV 138s. The latter could not unstick from the calm water, however – a familiar problem for heavy-loaded, imperfect flying boats in quiet conditions. After several attempts the three 'Flying Clogs' returned to shore, and Mlodoch landed and followed them back in.
The BV 138s' mission was postponed, but Mlodoch and his crew volunteered to go alone, despite foul weather en route, and their navigation 'chart' being an atlas sheet! It was already past midday when they took off for the second time. Rather than flying the shortest route, they chose to follow the Norwegian coastline, counting the fjords while flying low under the clouds.
Almost nine hours into the flight, still in Arctic daylight, their were heading up the Vestfjord towards their destination when they ran into the battleship Warspite and her destroyers, which were quick to open fire. Mlodoch pulled up into the clouds and broke to starboard, despite the risk of hitting the cliffs. Easing back down, he discerned another fjord and, in his own words, 'plunged into it rather than landed'. Unsure about their location – this was the Efjord – they ventured ashore, but a scared local family in a lone hut did not offer them any clues as to their location.
After an uneasy night, Mlodoch and his crew took off in the morning, running the gauntlet of British warships and misty cliffs again, to land in another inlet – the Tjeld Sound – ten minutes later. Having inquired with a shepherd, they taxied clockwise around the island of Tjeldøya and took off into the Ofotfjord. Short on fuel but unscathed, they finally arrived in Narvik's port at 13.25 hrs, German time.
Very shortly thereafter, Warspite and her escorts launched a raid into the Ofotfjord which resulted in the sinking of all eight remaining German destroyers. The naval ammunition carried by Mlodoch's Do 24 thus came too late, although some of the ships' guns were salvaged to be used on land. The flying boat itself survived the onslaught with minor damage, caused by machine gun fire when a British party in a motorboat attempted to tow it away!
Having patched up the bullet holes, Mlodoch's crew departed Narvik at 03.28 hrs on 16 April, carrying two wounded naval officers and a British PoW who was somehow thought to be a nephew of Winston Churchill. Leaking diesel, the Do 24 refuelled at Thyborøn in Denmark before reaching Travemünde at 15.49 hrs.
Junkers on thin ice
On 12 April, Dietl reported in his diary that frozen Hartvikvatnet (Hartvig Lake), north of the city, could be used as an airfield, and thus it seemed possible to scale up the airlift. The Germans did not lose any time and 13 Ju 52s from the third Staffel of KGrzbV 102 at Neumünster, a reserve wing with aircraft drawn from training units, flew to Berlin - Tempelhof to pick up a complete mountain artillery battery: 60 men, four WWI vintage, but relatively light Skoda 7.5‑cm cannon, and ammunition. Heading north in the morning of 13 April, one aircraft dropped off at Kiel with engine trouble. The other dozen landed at Fornebu at 1240 hrs, very low on fuel as another stop at Aalborg was skipped for weather reasons. In Oslo they were joined by one more Ju 52 which had a long-range radio set, making 13 again.
Approaching Narvik after five more hours of flying, the Ju 52 formation encountered fog and snow. Two aircraft got lost and eventually landed on the frozen Gullesfjord, way out to the west, where they were attacked by three Norwegian Heinkel He 115 floatplanes the following day. Eleven Ju 52s made it to Hartvig Lake. The first five all went on their noses while landing in a thick layer of slush snow. The other machines made better landings after the crews instructed their passengers to move as far aft as possible.
The weather had suddenly turned warmer, and large puddles of water on the melting ice made a quick departure impossible. There was no fuel, anyway; the plan was that, if all went well, three more Ju 52s would be sent, bringing fuel for the return flight. Three Ju 52s did appear over the lake the following morning, 14 April, but only dropped some rations rather than attempting to land.
The one that got away
Over the next couple of days, the Junkers on the lake were attacked by a couple of Norwegian Fokker C.Vs operating out of Bardufoss, and nine Fairey Swordfish from the aircraft carrier Furious. Three of the Ju 52s were listed as destroyed by the Germans, either through the bad landings or the enemy air attacks. In the morning of 17 April, two of the trimotors, refuelled with leftovers from the others, stood ready for take-off on a runway of packed snow made by Norwegian prisoners. One Ju 52, SE‑KC, struggled into the air with such difficulty – and damage to the runway, perhaps – that the other one aborted its take-off.
A few days later the Germans were driven from Hartvig Lake area by Norwegian forces, who subsequently started to prepare the best three Ju 52s for their own use. Unaware of this, weeks later on 14 May, a patrol of three Blackburn Skuas from HMS Ark Royal strafed the ten 'derelict German transport aircraft' and other Skuas followed up with 100‑lb bombs 'to smash the ice and thus scuttle the enemy aircraft.' The spring thaw probably did a better job to ensure that the Ju 52s all eventually sank to the bottom of the lake.
Although bound for Oslo, SE‑KC strayed into Sweden and came down in a field near Vallsta in Hälsingland. The aircraft was eventually flown back to Germany by the courteous Swedes, who also allowed the Nazis to transport medical personnel and winter clothing through Sweden by train to Bjørnfjell, the German-held Norwegian border station near Narvik. Armaments and troops could still only arrive by air, however.
Hitler gives up
Following their failure to follow Mlodoch's Do 24, the three BV 138s had managed to make in into the air from the Dassow Bay near Travemünde on either 13 or 14 April. One of the Flying Clogs diverted to Stavanger in bad weather and was seriously damaged by German flak while coming in to land. The stricken aircraft was returned to Germany by ship.
Two Do 26s reportedly flew from Travemünde to Narvik on 15 April and they appear in General Dietl's diary as 'Do 28s', bringing ammunition and medicines. The first was attacked by HMS Furious' Swordfish, and the second approached by enemy destroyers, but both could depart undamaged. There is little sign of further flying boat arrivals during April, probably because of the weather and the sheer danger of the flights.
Thousands of British, French and Polish troops were landing in the area, joining the Norwegians, and Hitler, in a pessimistic mood, issued orders on 18 April to blow up the port and to commit no more fresh forces to the defence of Narvik. The next day, Adolf Mlodoch set out from Travemünde in the Do 24 V2, carrying two tonnes of explosives, two demolition specialists, and Captain Speck von Sternburg, an envoy from the Führer. Mlodoch had to abort the flight due to technical issues, however. The party took off again the following day in his trusty Do 24 V1. Mlodoch landed in the Beisfjord near Narvik in the morning of 22 April, and Dietl's diary notes that heavy snowfall covered his arrival from the encroaching enemy.
The airlift intensifies
The Allies failed to strike while the iron was hot, and by early May the Germans got new hope. With their hands free in Trondheim, a relief column began its advance towards Narvik, and an airfield was meanwhile at least available at Trondheim. Værnes aerodrome had only been suitable for light aircraft, but with the help of Norwegian collaborationist labourers, an 800‑m (2,600‑ft) runway of wooden planks was now complete. This put Narvik within the radius of action of tactical aircraft, and weather permitting, Ju 52s could airdrop worthwhile payloads.
The first 60 paratroopers were dropped in the Bjørnfjell area, east of Narvik, on 14 May. By early June, over 500 men had been parachuted, including a battalion who had just fought in Holland, and mountain troops who had received a brief parachuting course. Ten percent losses were expected when the latter jumped, but only two men were slightly injured. Airdropped supplies were less flexible, with lots of ammunition rendered unusable, 30 percent of small arms broken and none of 15 anti-tank guns surviving the impact with the ground.
The seaplane airlift also intensified in May. 9/KGzbV 108 now had three new BV 138A‑1s, flown by much the same test centre crews as the unsatisfactory BV‑138A‑0s, which apparently were no longer used. All three BV-138A‑1s were involved in a landing operation in the Ranfjord, half way between Trondheim and Narvik, in mid-May. Two of them were lost here to enemy action.
A Do 26 left Germany for Narvik on 1 May, carrying a 37‑mm anti-tank gun and its crew, plus 72 shells for the field guns flown into Hartvig Lake. It arrived on 4 May, staging through Trondheim from where the seaplane airlift was now being run. Several anti-tank and 75‑mm field guns were flown in by the Do 26s and Do 24s over the course of the month. The pilots had the choice of landing in the Rombaken bay or in the Beisfjord, but nowhere was safe from Allied fire. Wounded soldiers were carried on the return flights to Trondheim.
From 8 until 11 May the Dorniers transferred a company of mountain troops to Narvik from Trondheim, each flight carrying about 15 men. The first Do 26 to arrive immediately took off again, however, as an officer on board judged the situation too dangerous – much to the annoyance of Dietl, who was eagerly awaiting not only fresh troops, but also a load of skis that he had been asking for repeatedly.
The next day all four Do 26s were in action, but one had to return to Trondheim with a malfunction and another one, the Do 26 V2 named Seefalke, was attacked by a flight of Skua fighters from Ark Royal over the Ofotfjord and forced to land in a cove. The crew of former Lufthansa captain Count Schack von Wittenau and the mountain soldiers carried went into hiding on land and, after a bloody fight, captured a British party that came looking for them. They were subsequently taken prisoner themselves by a larger force of marines and Polish troops. Among them was radio operator Wilhelm Küppers, who thus cannot have experienced too many flights into Narvik himself. His account of the operations is nevertheless of interest:
The more perilous moments of any such sortie were the landings on the narrow fjords around Narvik and the subsequent take-offs. We skirted along neutral Swedish airspace – to avoid anti-aircraft fire – before diving down almost vertically, almost like a helicopter, for the surface of the fjords with throttled-back engines. The aircraft had to be rapidly unloaded, but it is amazing what humans can achieve when death is in the air. At any moment, a shell could strike... Take-offs were just as suicidal, especially in the narrow Beisfjord with its high cliffs. Taxiing out into the fjord was done under fire from British ships. Then our take-off runs had to be finely judged in order to avoid the cliffs.
Indeed the flying boats skirted the Swedish border on approach, and on 20 May a Do 26 was fired at by a Swedish armoured train positioned near the border. The Dornier's crew returned fire and killed a soldier, Sven Oskar Sjöberg, described as the one Swedish casualty of WWII within Sweden. On 2 June, a Ju 52 chased by a Gloster Gladiator crossed into Sweden and was shot down by Swedish anti-aircraft fire; eight Germans were killed.
Allied victory – and defeat
On 22 May three flying boats dropped sea mines near Straumsnes, trying to block the Rombaksfjord. Now outnumbering Dietl ten to one, the Allies finally landed in Narvik itself on 28 May, with the Germans withdrawing into the Bjørnfjell area. The seaplane airlift ended the same day with the loss of two Do 26s. That morning, two Do 26s landed in the Rombaksfjord, bringing two 7.5‑cm field guns which were unloaded with great difficulty. Another two Do 26s flew in two more field guns in the early evening, but while unloading they were caught by a flight of three Hurricanes of No 46 Sqn, RAF, from Bardufoss, and both Dorniers were left ablaze and sinking. Among the casualties was the pilot of Seeadler, Ernst-Wilhelm Modrow, another former Lufthansa seaplane captain. He recovered and went on to become a night fighter ace.
The airlift had not been in vain, however, as the Allies had taken too long. By 28 May, German tanks stood on the Channel coast in France. The British Isles lay almost undefended. The French and British urgently needed their troops at home, and had decided to withdraw as they were marching into Narvik. Dietl walked back into the city on 8 June, and the last Norwegian forces on Norwegian soil surrendered to him two days later.
Today, silent witnesses of the Narvik airlift still remain in the Narvik area. The wreck of the Do 26 V1 Seeadler in the Rombaksfjord is a diving attraction, as is one of the Ju 52s in Hartvig Lake. Five Ju 52s were salvaged from the lake in the 1980s, still in remarkably good condition. One of these, originally destined for a local museum, remained in outdoor storage in Norway in 2015, partly restored and still a good candidate for preservation. The other four are on display in aviation museums in Oslo and Germany, as tangible reminders of an intriguing saga of the Second World War.
The table below lists the 13 Junkers Ju 52/3ms that set out for Hartvikvatnet (Hartvig Lake) from Oslo on 13 May 1940.
|WNr (c/n)||Remarks / Fate|
|6134||Unit code 1Z-BY. Possibly the communications aircraft which joined at Oslo. Salvaged from Hartvig Lake Aug 1986. Preserved at Technikmuseum Hugo Junkers, Dessau, Germany. Has wing of c/n 6791.|
|6288||Call sign DB-QU. Written off after landing on frozen Hartvig Lake 13 Apr 1940. Wreck still in lake.|
|6402||Call sign CN-BS. Written off after emergency landing on frozen Gullesfjord 13 Apr 1940.|
|6582||Call sign SE-JZ. Written off after emergency landing on frozen Gullesfjord 13 Apr 1940.|
|6623||Call sign possibly CM-AA. Written off after landing on frozen Hartvig Lake 13 Apr 1940. Wreck still in lake.|
|6631||Call sign DB-RC. Written off after landing on frozen Hartvig Lake 13 Apr 1940. Wreck still in lake.|
|6657||Call sign CA-JY. Salvaged from frozen Hartvig Lake Jun 1983. Preserved at Forsvarets Flysamling, Oslo - Gardermoen.|
|6664||Call sign SE-KC. Carried name Hildegard and code 16 on the nose. Took off from frozen Hartvig Lake and landed in field near Vallsta, Sweden 17 Apr 1940 and interned. To SE-AKR 27 Aug 1940, returned to Germany 2 Sep 1940. Reported scrapped 24 Aug 1943.|
|6693||Call sign DB-RD. Salvaged from Hartvig Lake Aug 1986. Preserved at Ju 52-Halle, Wunstorf, Germany.|
|6694||Call sign DB-RB. Still in Hartvig Lake.|
|6791||Call sign CO-EI. Salvaged from Hartvig Lake Aug 1986. One wing used for restoration of c/n 6134. Stored pending restoration in respectively Bjerkvik (1986-1989), Narvik (1989-2006), Bjerkvik (2006-2013) and in Gratangen/Hellarbogen as of Nov 2013. Was still stored there by late 2015, in partially restored condition.|
|6821||Call sign VB-UP. Salvaged from Hartvig Lake Jul 1986. Preserved at Technik Museum Speyer, Germany as 'CA-JY' on one side and 'VB+JA' on the other side.|
|?||Call sign possibly DB-BP or NR-AL. Still in Hartvig Lake.|
The author would like to thank Bengt Hermansson, Jean-Louis Roba, Hannu Valtonen and Ruud van Ommeren for their help in the realisation of this article.