Force du Raid
France’s what if contribution to the Norway Campaign
The First and Second Battles of Narvik had come and gone. Britain could claim that she had gutted Germany’s pre-war destroyer force (although at great cost), but she had not fulfilled her objective of closing the port of Narvik to iron ore shipments bound for Germany. German Gebirgs infantry held the town and the port. Of course, that is not the whole story. The Germans were short of ammunition and had not landed the bulk of their heavy weapons before the ships carrying them had been sunk. They therefore determined to remedy that situation with a new convoy bringing ammo, support weapons and an entire regiment of Gebirgs infantry. The Allies had divined their intent and it was France’s turn to stop their new effort.
The French engaged in no half measures. They committed all of Vice Admiral Gensoul’s Force du Raid except for the Second Ligne Division (the Bretagne class being considered too slow for the mission). The Germans responded with just about their entire surviving fleet. This set the scene for the largest surface action the North Sea had seen since Jutland.
VAdm Gensoul was on the bridge of his flagship, Strasbourg, trailed by Dunkerque. The six La Galissoniere class cruisers of Cruiser Divisions 3 and 4 under RAdms Marquis and Bourrague followed astern. The Second Legere Squadron and the Second Destroyer Squadron under RAdms Lacroix and Dorval made up the light forces. The French Navy had a great many ships under repair or refit and four Contre-Torpilleur and three destroyer divisions making up the two groups were almost all short a ship or even two. Nevertheless, the nine Contre-Torpilleurs and six destroyers present were bound to exceed what Germany could muster. The seaplane tender, Commandant Teste held the French to 20 knots, but also provided aerial reconnaissance as long the North Sea’s legendary bad weather allowed. Gensoul’s mission was to keep the Kriegsmarine from getting anything resembling aid or comfort to the Germans at Narvik.
Vice Admiral Lutjens commanded the Narvik relief force from the bridge of his flagship Scharnhorst and her sister Gneisenau followed astern. A cruiser force (Admiral Hipper, Koln, Konigsberg & Karlsruhe) under RAdm Schmundt trailed the battle cruisers. The eight remaining destroyers (in 2-four ship divisions) provided the screen. The transport Duisberg and the cargo ships Saar and Adolf Luderitz carried the troops, ammo, food and heavy weapons intended for the garrison of Narvik. As Lutjens made clear to his subordinates; the Fuhrer had ordered him to deliver the convoy and its cargo to Narvik and Lutjens had never failed to carry out an order in his entire life.
The Germans were steaming due north just off Utsire Island at 12 knots (the best speed of the Duisberg). The French were closing from the west on a northeast converging course. Float planes from both sides had reported each other’s course and approximate speed.
The Weather God had rolled the customary D12 and D6 with a 5 and a 4 as a result. Thus, we had a Force 4 wind from the north (another DR) with 2 layers of clouds. Spotter a/c were going to have to get a bit closer than they would like to spot shots. The visibility was 18,000 yards at noon when the fleets sighted one another. Smoke could only be expected to last few minutes in the prevailing wind. Two squalls were visible on the northern horizon about 36,000 yards apart. There was no sea haze. Both sides launched their remaining FP and got ready to shoot each other up.
Or at least the Germans did. Gensoul had other ideas. He had turned the 1st Ligne Division together as soon as he saw the Germans and now heading due north in a quarter line. He had Strasbourg make smoke and that covered Dunkerque. Gensoul also ordered his cruiser divisions to take station on his port (unenaged) side where they too were covered by Strasbourg’s smoke as well as being beyond max visibility. Gensoul ordered an increase in speed for the Strasbourgs and the cruisers to 29 knots. He ordered the contre-torpilleurs to flank speed and to stay beyond 18,000 yards for now. The destroyers would escort the AV until Gensoul had a clearer idea of what the German reaction would be.
At 1206 hours Strasbourg opened on Scharnhorst while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau fired back. Strasbourg hit Scharnhorst once. Scharnhorst missed, but the unengaged Gneisenau also hit Strasbourg once. Strasbourg suffered the loss of a search light while Scharnhorst was hit on the fore turret and the shot bounced off.
At 1212 hours Lutjens realized from the various spotter a/c that several French destroyers (the contre-torpilleurs) were forging ahead just out of his sight at something like 30 plus knots to his 12. He ordered Schmundt to flank speed with his cruisers to keep them from heading his line. Meanwhile the duel between Strasbourg and the Scharnhorsts continued. Strasbourg hitting Scharnhorst again and Scharnhorst returning the favor. Strasbourg bounced another round off the Scharnhorst’s fore turret (Oh the ringing in their ears) While Scharnhorst devastated Strasbourg’s search lights.
By 1218 hours the French FP had reported the increase in the German cruisers speed and Gensoul ordered his cruisers forward at flank speed to assist the Contre-Torpilleurs. For the next 12 minutes Strasbourg and the Scharnhorsts exchanged fire without effect except for some slight damage to Strasbourg that did not affect her speed.
The Contre-Torpilleurs were restrained to 31 knots by Lynx and Tigre. These Chacal class ships were a bit long in the tooth and had lost some of the speed they had been built with. But at 32 knots it was going to take the Kriegsmarine cruisers some time to catch up given the head start by the Contre-Torpilleurs. The French cruisers at 31 knots were not going to catch up either unless the Contre-Torpilleurs slowed down. Something RAdm Lacroix had no intention of doing.
At 1230 hours Strasbourg was finally finding the range and hit Scharnhorst twice, knocking out 2 of her starboard secondaries. German return fire was ineffective. Gensoul had reduced speed to match the Germans rather than pull ahead of them too much. Gensoul radioed the Contre-Torpilleurs and his cruisers and ordered them to close with the German cruisers once they had left the German BCs far enough behind to prevent their interference. He realized this would take some time and he resolved to keep the German BCs busy with Strasbourg while his light forces got into position.
Gensoul had not forgotten his destroyers, but he did not see them having the numbers, speed and fire power needed to take the German destroyers on by themselves. He wanted to keep them intact until his CTs and cruisers had had a chance to take the German cruisers out.
By 1330 hours Strasbourg had hit Scharnhorst once more while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had hit Strasbourg 9 times in return. Strasbourg’s hit had caused some damage. But at 12 knots who could tell what it had done. Strasbourg’s searchlight platform continued to be hit and she lost her forward starboard side secondary and her starboard quad secondary; as well as two hits that bounced off her fore turret. Her bridge suffered 2 hits that failed to penetrate, but her gun director was not so lucky and that probably explains her abysmal shooting.
At 1336 hours RAdm Lacroix figured that he was far enough ahead of the BCs and turned 45 degrees to starboard with the Chacals leading and making smoke. RAdms Marquis and Bourraque followed suit, including the smoke.
At first only the fore turrets of Admiral Hipper could be brought to bear and shooting at 18,000 yards at a DD (a large DD, but still a DD) resulted in no joy for the first salvo. Schmundt changed course 45 degrees to starboard also. The French turned 45 more degrees to starboard in response and were now heading 90 degrees.
Schmundt continued on a course of 45 degrees to preserve his gunnery and opened up on Lynx with everything that could bear. The range was coming down and Lynx was engaging both Admiral Hipper and Koln to keep them under fire. Admiral Hipper and Koln between them hit Lynx thrice at 15,000 yards. Karlsruhe and Konigsberg were farther away and not hitting yet. Lynx suffered damage to her hull, including a bulkhead and her fire control. Lynx slowed to 25 knots and the Mogadores and La Fantasque class DDs surged around her rapidly accelerating to 38 knots. Lynx repaired her damaged bulkhead.
The range was down to 12,000 yards and Schmundt’s ships had changed to firing at Mogadore. German gunnery at this point went straight to bad and all 4 cruisers missed (that was a lot of 4-9 results with 16 D12 with a few 11 & 12 by the ships still beyond 12,000 yards). Mogadore fired at Koln and hit her twice knocking out her fore and second 5.9” turrets. Lynx was now firing at Admiral Hipper and Konigsberg to keep them busy. Schmundt upon learning of Koln’s problems was heard to say; “That really is a super destroyer”.
The range was now down to 9,000 yards or less when the French cruisers who had been making smoke also stopped and steamed out into clear. Schmundt hurriedly ordered a change of targets for his cruisers to the new threat.
Marseillaise and her division (Jean de Vienne & La Galissoniere) all targeted Hipper while the 4th CruSqdn engaged opposite numbers against the German light cruisers. At the same time the CTs turned another 30 degrees to starboard and were threatening to cross Schmundt’s Tee while closing the range quickly.
Marseillaise hit Hipper twice while her sister ships missed. Hipper lost all her post side TT. Georges Leygues hit Koln once damaging her hull. Gloire hit Konigsberg once, knocking out her port secondary. Montcalm hit Karlsruhe once damaging her hull. Mogadore hit Koln thrice, knocking out her catapult and her aft turret. Lynx hit Koinigsberg once, further damaging her hull.
Hipper hit Marseillaise 5 times, Knocking out her catapult, her fore turret and hull. Marseillaise also took 2 hits in her engines and went DIW. Koln missed Jean de Vienne. Konigsberg hit La Galissoniere thrice, knocking out her fore turret, damaging her hull and a bulkhead. Karlsruhe missed George Leygues.
Marseillaise failed to repair her engines and her petrol stores now caught fie causing further damage. La Galissoniere failed to repair her bulkhead and took further damage. Koln also failed to repair and her petrol stores for her FP caught fire causing further damage. But Koln was still in the fight (she rolled a 1 for morale).
Schmundt belated realized he was too close to the Contre-Torpilleurs and tried to reverse course together. The French cruisers and Contre-Toprilleurs had now stopped making smoke and they all opened up on the Germans. Mogadore and Volta got end on fire against Hipper inside 6,000 yards. Between them they hit Hipper 4 times, knocking out her aft turrets, a hit to a magazine damaged a third turret and she took a hit in her engines slowing her to 21 knots. The 5 Fantasques all fired at Hipper and hit her 5 times, knocking out her aft starboard side TT, her remaining turret, damaging a bulkhead and her engines again making her DIW.
Lynx and Tigre hit Koln once to no effect. Jean de Vienne and La Galissoniere hit Hipper 8 times, damaging both her catapults, knocking out a starboard secondary, stirring the rubble of a turret, damaging her hull twice and hitting her twice more in her engines. Gerorges Leygues hit Koln once, taking out another secondary. Glorie hit Konigsberg once, knocking out her fore turret. Montcalm hit Karlsruhe once, knocking out anther turret.
Hipper shifted targets to Jean de Vienne and missed all together. Koln’s secondaries were ineffective. But Konigsberg rapidly firing hit La Galissoniere 5 more times, Damaging her second catapult twice, her starboard fore secondary, her hull and another bulkhead. Karlsruhe firing rapidly hit Georges Leygues once in the bridge. Schmundt kept his head (he rolled a 6 for morale) and by now was desperately trying to disengage.
Marseillaise fixed one engine and got under way, but her fires caused more damage. La Galissoniere failed to repair a bulkhead as well as her fires and took quite a bit more damage to her hull. Koln put out her fire. Hipper failed to repair and took quite a bit more damage.
The German cruisers that were not DIW all made smoke and tried to retire at their best individual speed. But none of them could exceed 32 knots when in good shape and the Contre-Torpilleurs were rapidly over taking them at 38 knots. The good news for the Germans was that the French 4th CruSqdn was compelled to steam straight because of the bridge hit to the Georges Leygues. But Jean de Vienne turned to pursue the Germans as did Tigre.
Over the next 18 minutes the Mogadores and 5 La Fantasques overtook and sank all the German light cruisers (The Germans were rapid firing and could not roll a 1,2,3,10,11 or 12 to save their lives) . The Contre-Torpilleurs seemed to have a knack for knocking out 5.9” turrets. The Germans eventually started failing morale, but they were over 10 knots slower by then and that did not save them. Lynx took her revenge on Hipper by steaming up to her and putting a torpedo in her at point blank range which with her bulkhead and other hull damage was more than enough to sink her.
By this point the German BCs were starting to poke over the horizon and the Contre-Torpilleurs turned away under smoke. La Galissoniere failed to repair the second bulkhead and she sank. Marseillaise eventually made her repairs but was too damaged to reengage and limped back to Brest. The French cruisers were now reduced to 4 and some of them had some damage.
Lutjens by this point realized that his cruisers were gone and that there was a substantial French force of cruisers and destroyers between him and Narvik. He was also concerned about the French destroyers trailing this whole mess.
But what of his duel with Strasbourg? Strasbourg had hit Scharnhorst 4 more times during last hour. And Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had collectively hit Strasbourg 17 times in return. Scharnhorst had lost 2 more secondaries and some hull damage. Strasbourg had also suffered some hull damage, but the bulk of the hits were on her turrets, and they failed to penetrate. So, stalemate so far. Gensoul was thinking about making torpedo attacks from the front and the rear as close together as he could make it happen. The trouble was that he was running out of daylight.
Lutjens was also praying for dark. Lutjens was in a quandary. He was not sure how strong the French force in front of him was, but he figured it was stronger than his 8 destroyers. He had counted on his cruisers to clear the way and that was not going to happen now. He was well aware that there were 6 more French destroyers behind him and he was at a loss on how to deal with both threats at the same time. And he was still faced off with the Strasbourg and her consort.
Lutjens belatedly rolled morale for the loss of his cruiser division and rolled a 12 solving his dilemma; he would retire breaking his here to perfect record of always obeying his orders.