By NJ Hickman

Early on 9 April 1940 LtCdr Geoffrey Hare was on secondment and aboard a Coastal Command aircraft that overflew Bergen. What he saw there caused him to board a transport immediately on his return and head back to his parent unit, 800 Squadron FAA at HMS Sparrowhawk, Hatston.

The CO of Sparrowhawk reacted to Hare's report by requesting that both the units based there - 800 and 803, both equipped with Skuas - be used to attack. Their targets: the 6,600 ton light cruisers Köln and Königsberg.

The Planning

The first obstacle was the distance to the target - at the extreme edge of the Skua's range. Navigation had to be spot on. Hare, as senior observer and having just returned from the area, was a key to this - although as events transpired, this factor need not have been a concern [for those unfamilar with FAA ratings, an "observer" is ia navigator first and foremost].

The second obstacle was the defences. The nearest fighter base was 150 miles away at Stavanger, so no fighter opposition was anticipated. Both ships were equipped with six 88mm, eight 37mm, and four 20mm guns for AA defence, in addition to any ground-based AA weapons. However, it was hoped that surprise would minimize their effect.

To this end, take-off was planned for 0445 on 10 April for the eleven planes of 803 and the five of 800 (plus two spares from 800). They would proceed in two groups, one of nine with Hare navigating, the other of seven with 803's senior observer, Lt Michael Hanson, plotting their course. The Norwegian coast was to be crossed south of Bergen at 12,000 ft, then the force would turn due north up the fjord. Arrival over the target was timed to take place at first light

In the meantime, Bomber Command despatched twelve Wellington and twelve Hampden bombers to attack the two ships. They failed to score a single hit.

The Target

The Königsberg had been damaged by three shells from a Norwegian fort during the storming of Bergen. However, the damage they caused was not serious. What trapped Captain Rufhus and his ship in Bergen Harbor was the unreliable machinery of his vessel. When his commanding officer and the Köln left for Germany after the RAF's futile raid, he was forced to remain behind. He did move his vessel from the position Hare saw during his overflight. The attackers would find the Königsberg tied up beside the Skoltegrund Mole and facing to the east.

Although her weaponry was a far better defence against aircraft than her British contemporaries, her passive defences were woefully inadequate. Her waterline protection was a mere 2 inches thick, and her deck armor an ineffective 3/4 of an inch maximum. Her turrets and barbettes were clad with 1 and 1/4 inch protection, which slightly reduced this vulnerable deck area. Unfortunately, beneath the vulnerable midships armor were the most vital parts of the ship - the magazines, ready ammunition for her AA guns, and her machinery.

At 570 feet long and 50 feet wide, she presented an excellent target, particularly being stationary. Further, being alongside a solid object would magnify the water-hammer effect of a near-miss against her thin belt armor.

The Flight

Weather conditions on the day delayed take-off until 0515, but then the weather turned kind for the mission, with a 5/10th cloud below them at 8,000 feet to protect them from ground observation.

The Order of Battle for the Skuas was:
800 Squadron
Yellow Leader Capt R T Partridge/LtCdr G Hare
Yellow 2 PO Airman H A Monk/LdgAmn L C Eccleshall
Yellow 3 PO Airman J Hadley/LdgAmn M Hall
White Leader Lt E W Taylor/POAmn H G Cunningham
White 2 Lt J A Rooper/PO Amn R S Rolph
Spare Lt K V V Spurway/PO Amn C J E Cotterill
Spare PO J A Gardner/NvlAmn 1C A Todd
803 Squadron
Blue Leader LT W P Lucy/ Lt M C E Hanson
Blue 2 Capt E D McIver/LdgAmn A A Barnard
Blue 3 Lt A B F Harris/LdgAmn G S Russell
Green Leader Lt H E R Torin/Mid(A) T A McKee
Green 2 Lt L A Harris/NvlAmn 1C F P Dooley
Green 3 Lt W C A Church/PO Amn B M Seymour
Red Leader Lt B J Smeeton/ PO Amn B M Seymour
Red 2 Lt V H Filmer/NvlAmn 1C F P Dooley
Red 3 PO T F Riddler/NvlAmn 1C H T Chatterley

Almost straight away, White Leader lost touch with the main group, changing the attack into three waves of 9, 6 and 1. To the credit of the observer, they still arrived over the target and made a solo attack some ten minutes after the others.

The main force approached Bergen from the south-east and made a brief search of the harbor for the two cruisers they were expecting. Instead they identified a single Köln-class cruiser alongside the mole.

The Execution

At 0720, the first wave began their dives through a thin layer of cloud at 8,000 feet, below which visibility was excellent. Surprise was complete; about half the aircraft had completed their attacks before any AA fire was encountered. Only one large calibre gun - a solitary gun aft - fired from the Königsberg itself throughout the attack. Her lighter calibre guns, and guns on another ship nearby whose weight of fire led many pilots to describe it as a "flak-ship" at their debriefings, began firing after a short delay. A land-based position, about a mile to the south-west, also opened fire, but like the closer guns this had no effect on the Skuas' bomb-runs.

The Skuas dove at around a 60 degree angle from the direction of the rising sun, making a bow-to-stern run over the ship. Drop heights of their 500lb SAP bombs varied from between 1,500 to 3,000 feet, but one pilot, Church, did not release, pulling up to make a second stern-to-bow run through the now wide-awake defences, and released from 200 feet. A single hole in his wing was the only damage caused to his plane.

Dust and smoke from the earliest attacks made observation of later results difficult. However, Harris's bomb, released from 3,000 feet, was observed by another pilot to hit the cruisers forecastle, creating a large flaming hole. Spurway observed his bomb bursting internally, producing clouds of smoke and debris. Probably the most telling blow of all was struck by McIver (Blue 2), whose bomb struck between the funnels. The remaining bombs either struck the mole or landed close around the stern of the ship. The post-attack assessment estimated a Mean Error of 50 yards - excellent when compared with a 1939 exercise which gave a result of 70 yards!

The Aftermath

Soon after the Skuas departed, the Königsberg began to sink by the bows. Flames leapt 100 feet into the sky as she settled, her stern cocked upwards, and after 50 minutes she capsized. On the other side of the North Sea, all the Skuas returned safely to base.

1 FAA air bases at this point in time were named and administered as if they were ships.

2 The Köln did not get away either. She was sunk by a submarine off the Kristiansand that same day.