The opening German moves and Operation “Bluecoat”
February – April 1940
February began with inclement weather returning to much of Northern Europe. Snow fell again in the north, while cold winds swept much of central and Western Europe while fierce storms battered ships at sea. But this did not reduce the developing crises on Britains convoy routes in the eastern Atlantic and off the coasts of France and Spain.
Anthony Eden was furious with the Belgians and the Dutch. Despite the clear threat to their independence, both refused to join the Allies, complicating plans to form a coherent defence strategy for the Low Countries and North Eastern France. Edmund was involved in the feverish activity in early February as both the British and French attempted to get both countries to change their minds, but to no avail. Eventually, Eden was forced to tell the General Staff to forget the defence of Holland, and to forget co-operation with Belgium once the real fighting started. Henceforth, the BEF would operate only so far into Belgium to maintain a coherent defence with the French line, and Dutch and Belgian forces north or east of those positions would have to take care of themselves.
Nevertheless, Norway came round. On the 10th February, fearing the growing threat from Germany following Denmark’s demise, she joined the Allies, immediately opening up the possibility of basing forces there. German forces meanwhile continued their build up opposite French positions in the Saar and on the Belgian and Luxembourg borders.
Much of the Royal Navy was now committed to the defence of the convoys in the eastern Atlantic. Nevertheless, by the 26th of February, no less than 22 merchant ships and 2 escorts had been sunk, the loss rate now running at approximately 1 per day. Even though 20 new freighters rolled off the slipways that month, this rate of loss could not be sustained for long.
As the month drew on, the British had a stroke of luck. On the morning of the 22nd, Somerville’s battle group intercepted a submarine flotilla in the Norwegian trench, heading eastwards towards Denmark, sinking one vessel and putting the rest to flight. That same afternoon, contact was made with a sizeable German surface force, and a brief engagement took place. One British ship and several German vessels were damaged in this fight, before the Germans made their escape. This compelled the Admiralty to conclude that this force had been the cover group for a landing operation further up the Norwegian coast. They therefore ordered 3 British submarine flotilla’s into the Skagerrat to try and forewarn of any further attempt and possibly intercept any troopships that might be foolish enough to venture out. It was one of these scout vessels that spotted that German U-Boats were using the Danish port of Fredrickshaven.
It was immediately decided to mount a limited raid against the port, in order to damage the facilities there, which might perhaps impact upon the repair facilities for submarines operating out of it. No1 Tactical Group, RAF, was ordered to move to Oslo the following day, along with 11 Fighter Group to try and gain temporary air superiority over the area while the raid went in.
Preliminary plans were drawn up for raids over 3 days, this being the maximum amount of time the Air Staff considered possible before the Germans relocated air assets to the area and changed the balance. It was hoped that would be enough time to cause sufficient damage. It would take several days before the supplies and ground crews were in place, therefore the first raid was due to go in on the 26th. This plan became known as “Bluecoat”.
The first strike was a resounding success, catching several submarines, the Battlecruiser’s Scharnhorst and Gnieseneau and Germany’s only carrier “Graf Zepplin” in the process of repair at the port. By 28th February, the Luftwaffe had still not responded, and so the raids were continued until 2nd March, causing significant damage to the vessels and the port facility itself before 1 Group were called off to reorganise.
While Bluecoat was winding down, the lack of a German air response compelled the Air Staff to conclude that most German air assets had been transferred to Western Germany in support of coming ground operations into France. Deciding to press the advantage, they quickly transferred 18 Group Coastal Command to Oslo on the 29th, preparing for another raid, to be known as “Bluecoat 2”
This began on the 4th March, lasting 2 days and inflicting yet more damage on the ships and the port itself before 18 Group were also forced to withdraw and reorganise. Bluecoat & Bluecoat 2 had been a success.
On the 8th, the Admiralty despatched reinforcements to the Middle East, in the shape of HMS Victorious to the Mediterranean fleet, while the Army reinforced both the Gibraltar and Malta Garrisons and also sent another division to Egypt.
Throughout the month the weather improved and merchant ship losses continued to rise, March being the worse month so far with 31 freighters and 3 escorts lost. On the upside, 3 new King George V class battleships were launched, HMS King George V, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Duke of York, immediately freeing up production sorely needed for transport ships.
German forces building up on the French frontier
As April began, various intelligence sources indicated that German troops in Denmark were being withdrawn and heading south, a further sign if that a move against the Allies in the west was imminent. As German forces continued to concentrate against Frances eastern border, the situation in Denmark raised an idea with Backhouse. He went to the Army and proposed a limited operation in Denmark, in composition nothing more than a raid, but with the objective of disrupting German preparation, damaging the ports in eastern Denmark, and hopefully drawing out the German navy into open battle. He asked for 2 Army divisions for an operation lasting just 5 days – as the RAF were redeploying to cover the BEF, the navy would provide full air and maritime cover for the operation. The Army agreed and preparations were put in train for 5th and 49th Infantry divisions to be made ready immediately. The date was set for 10th April. Backhouse gave it the logical follow on name of “Bluecoat 3”
As all this was going on, the German military machine finally opened the war in the west. Operations began at dawn on 6th April with German units beginning the attack on Luxembourg, followed 3 days later by a full scale attack on the Netherlands. Air attacks went in against French forces in the Strasbourg area and around Sedan on the River Meuse. Luxembourg lasted barely 4 days, capitulating on the afternoon of the 10th April, as British amphibious groups began crossing the North Sea for Bluecoat 3. Immediately it was apparent that Dutch and Belgian reticence had doomed their strategic plans and endangered those of the British and French aswell. The Netherlands announced she would join the Allies on the morning of the 10th April, but by this time her front was reeling and Germans forces had already smashed her defence picket in the north. Incredibly, as no direct attack had yet taken place on the Belgians, they still refused to join the Allies, angering both British and French governments and throwing all defence preparations into chaos.
1. Stuka's, flying artillery over Holland
2. Dutch defensive positions
Meanwhile, Operation Bluecoat 3 pressed ahead, and as the Assault and Covering groups entered the Norwegian trench, a German naval battlegroup, including the battleship Bismarck, was intercepted in the Heligoland Bight at dawn on the 11th April by Sommerville’s 5th Carrier Group. During an engagement lasting several hours the German force was driven off with neither side taking any losses. If nothing else, this proved the Germans had radar.
The operation proceeded to its initial point and the Infantry assault teams went in that afternoon, meeting no resistance. They immediately turned north and south respectively in order to secure the ports. At dawn the next morning the German’s attempted to block the Norwegian Trench with a force that include the Carrier Graf Zepplin, but was intercepted by Cunningham’s 1st Battlegroup. This engagement lasted several hours and although both sides suffered damage, there were no losses as the Germans were driven off again. Both ports were secured on the morning of the 13th. The British troops held the ports throughout that day and the next, did as much damage as they could, and were ordered to re-embark on the morning of the 15th. By now at least 8 German divisions, certainly diverted from the attack on northern Holland, were heading north barely 20 miles from Arhus.
The amphibious group was extricated and held back in the North Sea in case an other opportunities arose, the Germans failing to make any interception. On the 19th, as the Royal Navy were preparing to close the operation, the Germans attempted a counter-attack and two large sea battle broke out on either side of the Denmark archipelago. The German forces mustered the Tirpitz, Admiral Hipper, the Deutschland and several other capital ships in engagements lasting 5 hours. The British Cruiser Aurora was the first loss, going down in the Norwegian trench, while the German’s lost 1 Destroyer Group. 70 miles away, the old Royal Navy cruiser HMS Carlisle was hit and later sank, while two more German destroyer groups, 2nd and 3rd, were both sunk. Both battle ended with the Kriegsmarine being defeated.
As the British withdrew, HMS Hood and HMS Repulse with 2 light cruiser escorts moved in to give distant cover. They had already been in action twice and their crews were tired. At midnight on the 21st they were ambushed by the Bismarck, Scharnhorst and the Gniesenau, and a ferocious battle broke out. HMS Hood was severely damaged, and only the arrival of Somerville’s force prevented the loss of HMS Repulse. The Germans eventually withdrew once again, the badly damaged Scharnhorst trailing smoke and oil.
All in all, the Navy had done an excellent job. But the damage was severe. Hood, Repulse, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Orion, Glasgow and Calcutta were all out of action. 3 Battleships were slightly damaged. All the CAGs needed rest and reorganisation. But the Germans had been defeated in every battle and had suffered worse losses overall. The decisive victory needed it wasn’t, but it underlined Britain’s ascendancy when there was little else to cheer about. Operation Bluecoat was over.
For the Dutch meanwhile, things looked bleak. The Germans had broken through north of Eindhoven, surrounding the Dutch 1st Army and threatening the port of Den Haag. Even though the Dutch position was hopeless, the Admiralty urged the War Office to send forces to secure Den Haag, since another port on the channel coast in German hands would be unacceptable. The cabinet agreed, and BEF’s IV Corps together with the VIII Corps, hastily assembled from the Bluecoat forces now arrived back in the UK, were despatched to Southern Holland on the 23rd April.
3. Dutch losses on the Northern defence line.
As April drew to a close, Holland looked doomed, and British plans to form a defensive line were in danger of being undermined by Belgian intransigence. Gorts new plan was now to push forward immediately that Belgium was attacked, to attempt to occupy the line Antwerp – Leuven – Liege – Neufchatel, taking the defensive advantages of the river line and the fortress at Liege. That of course depended on the Belgians being able to hold the German’s up on the border long enough for the BEF to get into position.
That was an unknown quantity.