Warship Wednesday, April 19, 2023: Norway’s Fair-haired Bruiser

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, April 19, 2023: Norway’s Fair-haired Bruiser

Norwegian Marinemuseet image MMU.942036

Above we see the proud crew of the Royal Norwegian Navy Tordenskjold-class panserskipet (battleship) KNM Harald Haarfagre (also seen as Harald Hårfagre) posed around her aft 8.26-inch Armstrong main gun in the fall of 1914. Besides the large range clock on the mast, note the crews’ German-style wool jumpers and flat caps, as well as the uniforms of the officers, arrayed to the right.

Coastal battleships

Ordered from Sir WG Armstrong, Mitchell & Co’s Low Walker yard in 1895 as Yard Nos. 648 and 649, respectively, Harald Haarfagre and Tordenskjold at the time were the largest warships envisioned for the Norwegian fleet. Essentially smallish slow armored cruisers, the pair went 304 feet long overall (279 at the perpendiculars), displaced some 3,800 tons, and were swathed in up to 8-inches of Harvey steel armor– including a 174-foot long by 6.5 foot 7-inch main belt.

The cost was on the order of $925,000 per ship.

Armstrong blueprint for Norwegian Tordenskjold Class Coastal Defense Ship HNoMS Harald Haarfagre

Harald Haarfagre by Geoff Gray, pg 60 in the 1900 edition of Brassey’s Naval Annual. Their peacetime Norwegian livery was of black hulls with yellow funnels and gun shields, and white superstructure and masts.

Lead Ship, Coastal Defence Ship HNoMS Tordenskjold at Armstrong Whitworth & Co. Ltd Yards. (Low Walker Shipyard), Newcastle upon Tyne, March 18th, 1897. 

Tordenskjold at Armstrong Whitworth & Co. Ltd Yards. (Low Walker Shipyard), Newcastle upon Tyne, March 18th, 1897.

Panserskipet Harald Haarfagre, via Tyne Museum. Note the ram bow

Powered by three cylindrical boilers driving two R & W Hawthorn Leslie Co-built engines, each on their own screws, they were rated for 16 knots– surpassing this by hitting 17.2 on builder’s sea trials in 1897.

Built for the often narrow confines of Norway’s craggy and unpredictable coast, they could float in just 16.5 feet, which is comparably shallow for a well-armored steel-hulled warship.

The sisters carried a single 8.2″/44 Armstrong B forward and a second aft in well-protected turrets clad in up to 8 inches of armor and fed by electric hoists from magazines well below deck.

HNoMS Tordenskjold at Armstrong Whitworth & Co. Ltd Yards. (Low Walker Shipyard), Newcastle upon Tyne, March 18th, 1897, showing her stern 8.2″/44 Armstrong turret.

Their main guns proved a common focal point for crew and wardroom portraits over the years.

Offisersbesetningen på PS Harald Hårfagre 1897. Note the 12-pounder in the background. MMU.940805

Panserskipet Harald Hårfagre første offiserbesetnig 18. Des 1897 9.mars 1898. Note the 12-pounders in the background MMU.942040

Panserskipet Harald Hårfagre besetnigen 1899 MMU.942037

Panserskipet Harald Hårfagre besetningen 1910 MMU.942035

Panserskipet Harald Hårfagre besetningen 1921 MMU.942034

Secondary and tertiary batteries included six 4.7″/44 Armstrong Model Y guns in shielded mounts, six shielded Armstrong N 12-pounder singles, six Hotchkiss 37mm three-pounders in fighting platforms on the masts, and two submerged torpedo tubes (17.7 inch in Haarfagre and 18 inch in Tordenskjold) along the beam for Mr. Whitehead’s devices.

Harald Haarfagre, seen in Horten, October 1903, with a good view of her gun decks. Note the 4.7″/44s and smaller 12-pounders along with the three-pounders in the mast. Also note the extensive small boat storage facility, with most boats apparently off-ship at the time of the photo. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

Another Anders Beer Wilse photo from the same period at Horten shows her crew in gun-loading exercises in summer whites towards the stern of the gun deck. Note the 4.7-inch Armstrong on deck, with the 12-pounders above. Also, note the crew’s bayonets and Krag rifles at the ready on racks. The officers stand ready with sabers. Note the ornate “For Konge Og Fedreland Flaggets Heder!” (For the honor of the King and Fatherland Flag) crest. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

Panserskipet Harald Hårfagre Styrbord side MMU.940381

They were seen by many at the time as being effectively just miniature versions of the British circa 1892 Centurion class battleships (10,000 tons, 390 ft oal, 2×2 10 inch, 9-12 inches armor, 17 knots).

Centurion class battleship HMS Barfleur, 1895. The Tordenskjolds were about half as heavy but of a similar arrangement and with smaller guns. Symonds and Co Collection, IWM Q 20993.

As such, the Tordenskjolds were considered a close match for the three new Swedish Oden class pansarbats, or coastal battleships (3400 tons, 278 ft oal, 1 or 2x 10″/41, 9.5 inches of Creusot or Harvey armor, 16 knots). This was important as, although the two countries were a United Kingdom under a Swedish king since 1814, the union’s dissolution was on the horizon, and some thought it could lead to bloodshed.

Tordenskjold was named in honor of Peter Jansen Wessel Tordenskiold, the famed 18th Century Scandinavian admiral and naval hero who perished at the ripe old age of 30 in a duel. Meanwhile, Haarfagre was named for the famed “Harald Fairhair” (Haraldr inn hárfagri), the storied 9th Century first king of a united Norway.

Portrayed by Peter Franzén in the recent Vikings TV show, the semi-fictionalized Harald is celebrated throughout Norway and Iceland going back to the sagas of his era, and numerous monuments stand throughout Norse lands honoring the old king, his reputation is akin to King Arthur in the Anglo-Saxon culture.

Quiet peacetime service

Completed in early 1898 and delivered to the Norwegian navy, the twin Tordenskjolds remained the strongest ships in that fleet until the two slightly heavier (4,100-ton) Armstrong-built Norge class panserskipene were delivered in 1901. 

1931 Jane’s listing for the Norge class and Tordenskjolds, very similar ships built by the same yard, only differing in armor type (Krupp vs Harvey) and engineering plants. The Norwegians regarded all four ships as sisters of the same class. Note the 3-inch AAA guns mounted on the turrets, added in 1920.

This quartet of Norwegian coastal battleships would serve side-by-side for three decades, giving the country the bulk of its maritime muscle going into the tense six-month 1905 crisis with Sweden that almost led to a real shooting war between the two and the ultimate founding of today’s Norway and Royal Norwegian Navy, with the cipher of Sweden’s King Oscar II being replaced by that of his grandnephew, Prince Carl of Denmark who would rise to the Norwegian throne under the regnal name of Haakon VII.

The new Royal Norwegian Navy in 1905, besides the four coastal battleships, included 34 coastal torpedo boats (led by the unique torpedobåtjager Valkyrjen), a dozen gunboats of assorted types, and four elderly monitors.

Norwegian torpedo boats. 1900. The country had these craft as the backbone of littoral naval forces at the time

Had it gone to war against Sweden, they faced at the time not only the three Odens, but also four larger Aran-class coastal battlewagons, the one-off battleship Dristigheten, the three old but reconstructed Svea-class coastal battleships, five 800-ton destroyers labeled by the Swedes as torpedo cruisers (torpedokryssare), a small Italian-built submarine, and about 40 assorted torpedo boats. Although the Swedes had the advantage in terms of big guns, the Norwegians would surely have fought on their home turf which would have been interesting, to say the least.

Besides the 1905 crisis, the panserskipene also would stand guard over Norway’s coast during the Great War, enforcing Oslo’s neutrality against all comers. This came as the British seized a new pair of 5,000-ton 9.4-inch gunned Bjørgvin-class coastal battleships that were building in the UK. Of note, the planned KNM Bjørgvin and KNM Nidaros would enter RN service as the monitors HMS Glatton and HMS Gorgon and never flew a Norwegian flag.

Other than that, before 1940 at least, the Tordenskjolds were happy ships, and many peacetime photos exist from that period, often calling at other European ports.

Norwegian Norway coastal battleship Tordenskjold. How about that beautiful bow scroll

Norwegian Panserskipet Tordenskjold, note her stern scroll

HNoMS Harald Haarfagre

Skaffing på banjeren på PS Harald Hårfagre MMU.940449

HNoMS Harald Haarfagre 

HNoMS Harald Hårfagre or HNoMS Tordenskiold at the roadstead of Trondhjem 1906

Panserskipet Harald Hårfagre, Aktenfra MMU.940387

Køyestrekk om bord i PS Harald Hårfagre MMU.940448

Harald Haarfagre crew at mess. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

Harald Haarfagre’s crew practice signals. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

Harald Haarfagre’s bridge, circa 1903. Note her extensive brass fittings and the impressive whiskers of her officers and quartermasters

The Norwegian coastal defense ship HNoMS Harald Haarfagre in drydock at Karljohansvern naval base, 1903. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

The Norwegian coastal defense ship HNoMS Harald Haarfagre in drydock at Karljohansvern naval base, 1903. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

Harald Haarfagre in dry dock, 1903. Note her extensive bow scroll. Photo via Norsk Maritimt Museum, Anders Beer Wilse Collection.

In the 1920s, they were modestly modernized, landing their old low-angle 37mm guns and dated torpedo tubes in exchange for a pair of more modern 76mm AAA guns.

By the early 1930s, with defense kroner at an all-time low, the Norwegians decided it was better to partially strip and sideline the older Tordenskjolds and sort of modernize the better-protected Norge class panserskipene (which were transferred to a reserve status), as the fighting line of old had been augmented by six American L-class coastal submarines built under license at Karljohansvern and a planned eight fast new Sleipner– and Ålesund-class destroyers.

This saw Tordenskjold and Harald Haarfagre land most of their armament (which was recycled in many cases for use in coastal forts) and retained for use as training vessels and accommodation hulks at Karljohansvern (Horten), out of commission.


When the Germans blitzed into Norway in April 1940 without a declaration of war, in an action billed as a preemptive move to forestall Allied occupation, the toothless Tordenskjold and Harald Haarfagre were captured. The vessels had raw recruits and some reactivated retired reserve cadres on board, and, lacking all but a few small arms, were captured intact.

This inglorious fate came as their near-sisters Eidsvold and Norge, hopelessly obsolete, were sunk in very one-sided surface engagements with the Kriegsmarine.

Panserskipet Eidsvold and Norge at Narvik in early April 1940, still with their range clocks. Reactivated from mothballs the previous year and undermanned, they were outdated and outclassed by just about any period cruiser or battleship, and lost their only battle. A total of 276 men died on these two vessels, while just 96 were plucked from the freezing water, the largest single loss of life for the Norwegian navy in WWII

The Germans soon converted the captured pair of old “bathtubs” to floating batteries (Schwimmende Batterien or Schwimmende Flakbatterie, or Norwegian luftvernskrysser) with Tordenskjold rechristened as Nymphe, and Harald Haarfagre as Thetis. The conversion saw a much modernized German armament of six 4.1-inch SK C/32 guns, two 40mm Bofors guns, and nine 20mm Oerlikon guns– the latter two salvaged from Norwegian stores.

PS HARALD HÅRFAGRE ombygget til tysk luftvernskrysser THETIS i Tromsø 1945 MMU.940250

Flakschiff Nymphe, German Anti-Aircraft Ship, 1940. Formerly Norwegian Tordenskjold, anchored in a Norwegian harbor during World War II. Note her 105mm A.A. guns with camouflaged barrels, and crew members standing in formation on deck. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 71445

Flakschiff Nymphe, German Anti-Aircraft Ship, 1940. Formerly Norwegian Tordenskjold, surrounded by torpedo defense nets, in a Norwegian harbor during World War II. Note her camouflage. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 71444

Their German naval service, which was restricted to the Norwegian littoral and apparently included protecting Tirpitz and other key Kriegsmarine surface ships against RN Fleet Air Arm and RAF raids during the war, is poorly documented.

Nonetheless, the sisters survived the war, with Tordenskjold/Nymphe bombed and deliberately run aground by her German crew at Helleford in May 1945 to prevent sinking.

Harald Haarfagre/Thetis was still capable of steaming and, returned to limited Norwegian service, would carry German POWs back to their Fatherland post-war.

Both ships remained as barracks and accommodation vessels (losjiskip) as late as 1948, when the last two Norwegian panserskipene were broken up at Stavanger.


The dozen German 4.1-inch SK C/32 guns salvaged from Harald Haarfagre/Thetis and Tordenskjold/Nymphe were recycled for use in vessels such as thCorvettete Nordkyn and in coastal forts. At least one survives.

This German BVV-made 10,5cm SK C/32, Nr 755, circa 1932, was used as the main gun on board the corvette Nordkyn until 1956, then was dismounted and transferred to the Coast Artillery (Kystartilleriet) who mounted it at Fort Tangen (HKB Langesund), located at the far end of Langesundstangen, as cannon 3 in 1966.

Active into the 1990s, it is preserved today. MMU.071018

They also were immortalized in period maritime art.

Hårfagre and Tordenskjold, surrounded by torpedo boats, by Zacharias Martin Aagaard, circa 1902

Today, Harald Haarfagre is remembered by the Norwegian military as the shore establishment KNM Harald Haarfagre at Stavanger, tasked with training both Navy and Air Force personnel since 1952.

They have the old battleship’s circa 1897 bell on their quarterdeck for ceremonies.

Ships are more than steel
and wood
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
them know
That some ships have a

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