Norwegian Coastal Defenses

A while back I wrote about the fact that there are very few WW2 or WW1 “big gun” ships remaining outside of the US Navy; the British heavy cruiser HMS Belfast is about the last of the European ones afloat.  This is understandable because many of the continental and Asian fleets were sunk during WW2 or sold for scrap in the dark immediate aftermath; yet I find it depressing because of how beautiful these ships were and the immense investment in time, men and material that were put into their creation.

I recently toured the Southwest coast of France and was entranced by the remaining German WW2 bunkers.  And in researching them on the web I came across a vast number of resources, in many languages, on WW2 coastal fortifications.

While little survives of the WW2 or WW1 German navies, I started researching the fate of the Gneisenau, sister ship of the Scharnhorst.  These two battleships had an odd armament with nine 11 inch guns in three triple turrets; their peers had at worst 14 inch guns or more likely 15 or 16 inch guns.  Other than this under caliber on the main turrets they were fine ships and quite effective in their role.  In 1942, after their “channel dash”, the Gneisenau was hit by air attack and declared a total wreck.  The Germans, being efficient scavengers, made full use of all the high caliber weapons and were able to pull two entire turrets into case mates and likely impregnable positions on the Norwegian coastline in separate forts.  This excellent web page (highly recommended that you read it) shows the history of this installation and has a color picture of the turret firing to check accuracy after its installation.  While there aren’t any large caliber German ships preserved (for obvious reasons), this complete turret is very historic and perhaps something I’d make a tour to visit someday.

My interest in coastal artillery comes from many sources but I was always impressed by a book that I picked up as a kid for $1 called “The Guns 1939-45” by Ian V. Hogg.  In this book he describes how effective coastal artillery could be, when well sited and protected, against naval attack.  This passage, on p131, describes a raid by 5 small Italian naval craft against Malta which had well prepared defenses.

The lights revealed five PT boats in line ahead, racing for the harbor, the nearest being about half a mile from the guns.  The twin-sixes (British six inch guns, which would be main armament for a light cruiser or secondary armament on a battleship) and within seconds every boat was hit, three being sunk instantly and the other two disabled and foundering.  The remaining boats making up the next wae of the attack turned about and headed for the open seas and their parent vessels, but the twin-sixes… harried them out to maximum range, disabling and damaging most of them.

The book, for some reason, didn’t cover the original Norwegian defenses that took a heavy toll of the German attackers; as a kid I also remember reading about the sinking of the German heavy cruiser (armed with 8 inch guns) by the Norwegians in 1940; this Wikipedia page describes the coastal defenses and the fact that guns and torpedoes from the early 1900’s were able to destroy this modern, expensive and scarce German heavy cruiser (I didn’t know until I read this page that Lutzow backed out of range from the fortress full speed astern and had one of her turrets knocked out, too).

In reading other sources on Norwegian coastal fortifications not only did they retain the German guns after Germany’s surrender (Norway was never invaded by the Allies) but they also upgraded the guns in the cold war years, when they were on the front line against Russia and the Soviet Bloc.  These guns would have made any sort of naval attack very difficult unless they were knocked out in advance or outflanked by infantry.

While I still have that book by Hogg on WW2 guns the internet has been a tremendous boon in researching military topics and following threads on related issues.  In the old days I would have had to retain all my books or go to the library or more likely page through a local bookstore but now I can find lots of facts online, with photos as well.  A solid way to do research, or more likely just waste some time.

Cross posted at LITGM

11 thoughts on “Norwegian Coastal Defenses”

  1. The Guns 1939-45 by Ian V. Hogg — I have that, and I got it as a gift from my uncle when I was a kid, and it was a favorite of mine. I still have it, with his inscription in it. Another one he gave me was German Tanks of World War II: The Complete Illustrated History of German Armoured Fighting Vehicles, 1926-1945 by F.M. von Senger und Etterlin. That was a prized possession, and I still have it. There was a companion volume to the German Tanks book, Russian Tanks, 1900-1970: The Complete Illustrated History of Soviet Armoured Theory and Design by John Milsom. There was a picture of it on the dustjacket of the German Tanks book. I pined for it as a child, but in those pre-Internet days, I never found it, and I eventually forgot about it. Then one day, a few years ago, I thought of it, went on Bookfinder, and within seconds, it was purchased and on its way. And I was not disappointed. It is an excellent book, with excellent photos. He also gave me Russian infantry weapons of World War II by A. J Barker, which I have still got.

    This post took me back.

    (My uncle, my mothers only sibling, who died very young at age 51 in 1987. I often think that it would have been good to have him around as an adult, out of affection, and shared interests, and his experience in the military and in business, as well as for his advice and counsel. Alas.)

  2. Scharnhorst and Gniesenau [and the Panzerschiffen or “Armored Ships” the true original designation of what the Allies called “Pocket Battleships”] were armed with the smaller 11″ L/54.5 [1928] main battery for two reasons. First, they were designed under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty which restricted the main guns of German warships to 11″ maximum. Until Hitler decided to abrogate the Treaty in the 1930’s, that was all the Germans could do without theoretical interference by the Allies. Second, the L/54.5 was descended from the WW-I L/45 which was a standard on their Battlecruisers. It was an amazing piece of artillery. Besides being amazingly accurate, it had a longer range at elevation [42600 meters] than even the 15″ L/47 fitted on the Bismarck [36200 meters]. One of the problems with it, was that it could out-shoot the capabilities of contemporary onboard fire control. If they had effective radar fire control, life would have been far more exciting for the Brits in a number of encounters. The projectile weight was less than the larger calibers, but it was armor piercing, and they judged that it would penetrate what the Allied ships had.

    As a comparison, the 14″ L/45 on the WW-II KG-V class had a range of 37100 meters, and the US 16″ L/50 fitted on the Missouri had a range of 38700 meters.

    Given the design constraints of both ship tonnage and main gun size imposed on Weimar Republic naval architects, the choice of the 11″ L/54.5 was both reasonable and good. When the Germans had other design options available, they made other choices.

    If Hitler had kept his promise to GrossAdm. Raeder and held off the war until the “Z-Plan” was completed; besides two small carrier groups [with dubious airgroups] Germany would have had battleships that dwarfed even the Bismarck.

    Subotai Bahadur

  3. Thanks for the info I know a lot about the pocket battleships and the treaties that the Germans operated under but didn’t realize that the 11 inch out-ranged the contemporary calibers.

    As for the Z plan, as we all know that was a bit of a pipe dream because the German economy couldn’t fulfill that level of commitment for all of their air, naval and ground force needs.

    Likely they would have been best off building more U boats since of all the programs that one came closest to success.

  4. I’m sure that the “twin six” guns used to defend Malta were twin SIX POUNDER guns (ie 57 mm) not six inch guns.

  5. Err, no. 6-lbr guns were hardly the main armament of light cruisers. They were definitely 6″ guns.

    BTW, as I’m sure many here know, while the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were built with triple 11″ turrets, they were designed to later accept twin 15″ turrets like the Bismarck and Tirpitz.

  6. “While little survives of the WW2 or WW1 German navies”: isn’t there a fair bit of the WWI navy on the bottom, at Scapa Flow?

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