HMS Hunter, Sunk 1st Battle of Narvik 10 April 1940, Found in One Thousand Feet of Water – Part 24
HMS Hunter found. She had been assigned to 2nd Destroyer Flotilla commanded by Captain (D) Warburton-Lee, RN, VC and sunk at First Narvik.
Uniform of Captain Warburton-Lee, RN, VC, killed leading the attack during the First Battle of Narvik.
Warburton-Lee (Wash-Lee to friends) was an officer of bravery and boldness in the mold of Lord Nelson of Trafalgar. The first battle of Narvik showed the Royal Navy at its best: bold, courageous, disciplined all combined with impeccable seamanship. Following the custom and tradition of the Royal Navy to attack the enemy anywhere and everywhere he could be found, Warburton-Lee steamed through a heavy snowstorm into battle with little information on the enemy save that German warships were in Narvik.
Fortes fortuna adjuvat: Fortune favors the bold and it certainly smiled on Warburton-Lee at the opening of the first battle of Narvik. Yet for their victory that day which set the stage for the annihilation several days later of ten of Germany’s newest destroyers, the Royal Navy paid a heavy price.
For reasons never fully explained, Admiral Whitworth, Flag officer commanding Royal Navy forces in the waters off Narvik, could have reinforced the Second Destroyer flotilla had he chosen to do so. This would have given additional firepower to Warburton-Lee if he had, say, encountered ten German destroyers which is what happened, instead of handful he was expecting.
Whitworth did order several destroyers to reinforce 2nd Flotilla but then cancelled the order for reasons unknown. At the same time, it should be said that confusion reigned best described by the military maxim “order, counter-order, dis-order.” The Admiralty in London was dealing directly with Warburton-Lee, going over the head of Sir John Tovey, Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, who was at sea, and also over the head of Whitworth as well. This was somewhat irregular to put it mildly since Warburton-Lee was under Whitworth’s command and Whitworth was under Sir John Tovey of Home Fleet.
Their orders often countermanded the orders of the ranking officers on the scene. Further, the Admirals afloat believed the Admiralty must have information they did not have — although the Admiralty did not. Worse, given how close the Royal Navy ships were to the magnetic influence of the North Pole, radio messages were constantly garbled and some messages were received by one ship but not others.
Warburton-Lee, while thought something of a martinet by his men, was one of the golden boys of the Royal Navy and would have gone far in the terrible years of war to come. The Royal Navy keenly felt the shortage of officers like him. Had the Admiralty collected their wits and waited until they had air reconnaissance from Narvik on the 10th, then a much heavier force would have gone in which is what happened in the Second Battle of Narvik.
HMS Hardy, flagship of the Second Destroyer Flotilla. After all the watch officers including Captain (D) Warburton-Lee had been killed in just one German salvo. Paymaster-Lt. Stanning beached the ship and saved the crew. Later HMS Hardy rolled over.
Stanning was both a friend of Warburton-Lee and his secretary. His brief was dealing with all administrative matters of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, commanded by Warburton-Lee. After making his final decision to attack at dawn high-water, Warburton-Lee agonized over the decision he had made and discussed it privately with Lt. Stanning. Although he lost his lower left foot from the German shell which hit the bridge of HMS Hardy and killed or knocked unconscious all of the men on the bridge, Stanning hopped down on one foot to the wheel house below the bridge, found the helmsmen and coxswain dead and wheel partially destroyed.
He turned the ship toward the small beach and was responsible for the correct decision to beach the ship which saved the lives of the ship’s company. He, too, was a brave man who kept his wits in a terrifying situation. The Navigator, or ‘Pilot’ in the slang of the Royal Navy, was completely disabled and unconscious, his body heaving and rolling back and forth in what Stanning thought were his last moments. Incredibly, he survived.
Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:
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