On March 1st 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered Operation Weserubung: the invasion of Norway. Having swept across Europe, the Nazi assault on Scandinavia was designed to secure the valuable iron ore being delivered by rail from Sweden to the Norwegian port of Narvik. To complete the task, Hitler sent ten large destroyers, with 220 Alpine Troops on each. Five smaller British H Class destroyers were sent up the fjord in retaliation, with little knowledge of what to expect. On April 10th , the first British battle of Narvik began in earnest. Royal Naval Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee led his flotilla at midnight into the fjord; undetected, under darkness and in driving snow storms. The harbour erupted into a torpedo attack; back into the fjord, the destroyers Hardy, Hunter, Hotspur, Havock and Hostilewere confronted by five German destroyers. A ferocious sea battle ensued and Hardy and Hunter were lost.
In his first account of The Battle of Narvick, Attack at Dawn, Ron Cope focussed on the experience and the survival of the crew of HMS Hardy. After nine long years of research, he now reveals for the first time the untold story of HMS Hunter and her crew. Just forty-eight of the 159 servicemen on board survived in the cold waters of the fjord; picked up by German destroyers, they were eventually forced to march in freezing conditions over the mountains into internment in Sweden. Before the handover to the Swedish authorities, a German Army officer made the British servicemen sign a form: “On my being sent into Sweden I will not take up arms against Germany… Should I do so, and in the event of again being taken prisoner I shall be subject to such conditions as are provided under the Death Penalty Act”.
Doomed Destroyer follows the astounding stories of the Hunter sailors, who would spend the next five years plotting and attempting to escape their captivity. Cope provides an extensive account of the viciously fought events at sea and in the fjords, examining the Norwegian price paid at Narvik and the early impact of war on the local community’s simple way of life. A remarkable account delivered with care and respect for those lost and left behind, Doomed Destroyer shines a light on this important but previously little known event in British history.
“Without dedicated men like Ron Cope, the testimony and the stories of the men who were there – whether they were lost, wounded, or survived – what became of them, their families, might otherwise be lost to future generations.” Percy C. Danby, Lieutenant (E), C.D. RCN Retired. Ottawa. March 2017, survivor on HMS Hotspur.
I would like to thank author Ron Cope for kindly sharing an extract from his booked Doomed Destroyer, an account of the brave crew of HMS Hardy during the Battle of Narvick.
Extract from Doomed Destroyer
Here is just one veteran’s account of his experience in the First Battle of Narvik. Ordinary Seaman Fred Ward, was twenty year old just out of training but when I had contact with him he was still able to recount his memories of the fateful day of April 10th 1940. Here with the help of son Robin is part of Fred’s story.
Fred, “Having joined HMS Hunter we sailed for Narvik, the crew not knowing what lay ahead, we were just told to be ready for further orders. It was freezing, snowing and visibility was poor [making the 40 miles transit down the fjord at midnight] with the HMS Hardy leading the flotilla as we weaved our way through merchant ships that were docked in Narvik, then all hell broke loose.
“The noise from the gun fire and explosions echoed off the side of the mountains. It was like having your head compressed, you could not think, the training just takes over. We were hit, disabling us in the middle of the fjord, unable to move, we were a sitting duck.”
The last thing Fred remembers before jumping into the freezing water was seeing his Captain, Lindsay De Villiers walk back into the bridge. He looked at Fred and nodded, as if to say over you go. A lot of sailors jumped in immediately as they were near fires or other hazardous things, but Fred felt safer staying on board. Most of them had already succumbed to the cold, it was snowing and the water was like ice. Fred was now in the water and watched as the ‘Hunter’sank, taking her Captain and her trapped crew to the bottom of the fjord with her.
Back to Fred, “There were about fifty Stokers on board and most were probably still alive when she sank; but their exits were buckled from the explosions and they were trapped. This haunts me to this day.”
Fred Ward was one of forty eight survivors out of a crew of 159 who were now in the hands of the German Army ashore in Narvik. After two weeks imprisoned they were all led over the mountains and into internment in Sweden. Before the handover, a German officer made them sign a form in English.
‘On my being sent into Sweden I will not take up arms against Germany or her Allies during the continuation of the present war. Should I do so, and in the event of again being taken prisoner I shall be subject to such conditions as are provided under the Death Penalty Act.
The ‘Hunter’ survivors although in the custody of the Swedish authorities not all had managed to escape back home. After two years a major escape plan was implemented for ten Norwegian merchant vessels blockaded in Gothenburg to be manned and make a break out back to Britain. Volunteers were called from the ‘Hunter’ survivors to utilising their useful skills, to complete the dangerous mission. Stoker Joe Murphy hailed from County Cork and was one of twenty ‘Hunter’ men who were brave enough to ignore the original death threat.
On the 31st March 1942, the vessels in turn left harbour, Joe Murphy was on the eighth vessel with three other ‘Hunter’ men to leave on board ‘Skyterren’. Here Joe picks up the story. “There was heavy fog as the ship left the harbour, but then it lifted, and we ran straight into the path of German armed trawler. Rather than let the cargo of iron ore fall into enemy hands, the Captain scuttled the ship. Unfortunately, the detonation of the explosives went off too quickly before the crew had been warned. There was one death and several wounded men and there was a chaotic scene with the crew attempting to get into the lifeboats.”
It was known that some of the Norwegian crew were wanted by the Gestapo which would obviously have been on the ‘Hunter’ crews minds. Joe, “two of the lifeboats managed to get away. They were then convinced that they were in Swedish territorial waters. Unfortunately, they were unable to penetrate the ice and like the other two boats were apprehended by the German Navy. All the lifeboats were taken back to the Skyterren and we were placed below decks.”
As one can imagine this left the captured seamen, feeling abandoned and extremely apprehensive as to what the future now held for them. Ironically they were just one mile from the Swedish coast when apprehended and the Swedish authorities could have demanded that they be handed over into their custody.
Joe Murphy and his three colleagues, one of whom was Ordinary Seaman Fred Ward, were so close to returning to Sweden to face a more acceptable outcome, but were now Prisoners of War. Joe, “we were taken by the German Navy to Fredrikshaven, where we met up with another five of our ‘Hunter’ colleagues. We were quickly moved on by train arriving at Bremen late in the evening of 6th of April 1942. Then taken to the Milag Nord camp by truck.” [This camp was specifically for captured enemy naval personnel].
All nine of the ‘Hunter’ men having survived the sinking of ‘Hunter’ now had to try and survive a further three years of captivity in Germany. The question is would their captures find out about the form they had signed on arrival in Sweden. Obviously Joe Murphy and Fred Ward did managed to survive to live another day and be able to tell their families the amazing, eventful, traumatic and nervy experience they had in World War Two.
To conclude, Fred Ward was the last remaining survivor of the HMS Hunter. At the ripe old age of ninety seven he passed away in 2017. Joe Murphy spent another thirteen years in the Royal Navy and finally retired on a pension in 1958. He died in 1985 shortly before his seventy-third birthday.
Doomed Destroyer can be purchased from Amazon.
About the author.
Born in Salford, Ron Cope followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Royal Navy in 1964, working in electronics. After leaving the forces in 1986, he spent over twenty years working in the probation service, specifically with young offenders. Now a proud father and grandfather, Cope is retired and living with his wife Alison in Telford, Shropshire. His first naval history book Attack at Dawn: Reliving the First Battle of Narvik in World War Two was published to acclaim back in 2015.