Military history

20. THE CONQUEST OF DENMARK AND NORWAY

THE INNOCENT-SOUNDING code name for the latest plan of German aggression was Weseruebung, or “Weser Exercise.” Its origins and development were unique, quite unlike those for unprovoked attack that have filled so large a part of this narrative. It was not the brain child of Hitler, as were all the others, but of an ambitious admiral and a muddled Nazi party hack. It was the only act of German military aggression in which the German Navy played the decisive role. It was also the only one for which OKW did the planning and co-ordinating of the three armed services. In fact, the Army High Command and its General Staff were not even consulted, much to their annoyance, and Goering was not brought into the picture until the last moment—a slight that infuriated the corpulent chief of the Luftwaffe.

The German Navy had long had its eyes on the north. Germany had no direct access to the wide ocean, a geographical fact which had been imprinted on the minds of its naval officers during the First World War. A tight British net across the narrow North Sea, from the Shetland Islands to the coast of Norway, maintained by a mine barrage and a patrol of ships, had bottled up the powerful Imperial Navy, seriously hampered the attempts of U-boats to break out into the North Atlantic, and kept German merchant shipping off the seas. The German High Seas Fleet never reached the high seas. The British naval blockade stifled Imperial Germany in the first war. Between the wars the handful of German naval officers who commanded the country’s modestly sized Navy pondered this experience and this geographical fact and came to the conclusion that in any future war with Britain, Germany must try to gain bases in Norway, which would break the British blockade line across the North Sea, open up the broad ocean to German surface and undersea vessels and indeed offer an opportunity for the Reich to reverse the tables and mount an effective blockade of the British Isles.

It was not surprising, then, that at the outbreak of war in 1939 Admiral Rolf Carls, the third-ranking officer in the German Navy and a forceful personality, should start peppering Admiral Raeder, as the latter noted in his diary and testified at Nuremberg, with letters suggesting “the importance of an occupation of the Norwegian coast by Germany.”1 Raeder needed little urging and on October 3, at the end of the Polish campaign, sent a confidential questionnaire to the Naval War Staff asking it to ascertain the possibility of gaining “bases in Norway under the combined pressure of Russia and Germany.” Ribbentrop was consulted about Moscow’s attitude and replied that “far-reaching support may be expected” from that source. Raeder told his staff that Hitler must be informed as soon as possible about the “possibilities.”2

On October 10, in the course of a lengthy report to the Fuehrer on naval operations, Raeder suggested the importance of obtaining naval bases in Norway, if necessary with the help of Russia. This—so far as the confidential records show—was the first time the Navy had directly called the matter to the attention of Hitler. Raeder says the Leader “saw at once the significance of the Norwegian problem.” He asked him to leave his notes on the subject and promised to give the question some thought. But at the moment the Nazi warlord was preoccupied with launching his attack in the West and with overcoming the hesitations of his generals.* Norway apparently slipped out of his mind.3

But it came back in two months—for three reasons.

One was the advent of winter. Germany’s very existence depended upon the import of iron ore from Sweden. For the first war year the Germans were counting on eleven million tons of it out of a total annual consumption of fifteen million tons. During the warm-weather months this ore was transported from northern Sweden down the Gulf of Bothnia and across the Baltic to Germany, and presented no problem even in wartime, since the Baltic was effectively barred to British submarines and surface ships. But in the wintertime this shipping lane could not be used because of thick ice. During the cold months the Swedish ore had to be shipped by rail to the nearby Norwegian port of Narvik and brought down the Norwegian coast by ship to Germany. For almost the entire journey German ore vessels could sail within Norway’s territorial waters and thereby escape destruction by British naval vessels and bombers.

Thus, as Hitler at first pointed out to the Navy, a neutral Norway had its advantages. It enabled Germany to obtain its lifeblood of iron ore without interference from Britain.

In London, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, perceived this at once and in the very first weeks of the war attempted to persuade the cabinet to allow him to lay mines in Norwegian territorial waters in order to stop the German iron traffic. But Chamberlain and Halifax were mostreluctant to violate Norwegian neutrality, and the proposal was for the time being dropped.4

Russia’s attack on Finland on November 30, 1939, radically changed the situation in Scandinavia, immensely increasing its strategic importance to both the Western Allies and Germany. France and Britain began to organize an expeditionary force in Scotland to be sent to the aid of the gallant Finns, who, defying all predictions, held out stubbornly against the onslaughts of the Red Army. But it could reach Finland only through Norway and Sweden, and the Germans at once saw that if Allied troops were granted, or took, transit across the northern part of the two Scandinavian lands enough of them would remain, on the excuse of maintaining communications, to completely cut off Germany’s supply of Swedish iron ore. * Moreover, the Western Allies would outflank the Reich on the north. Admiral Raeder was not backward in reminding Hitler of these threats.

The chief of the German Navy had now found in Norway itself a valuable ally for his designs in the person of Major Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Quisling, whose name would soon become a synonym in almost all languages for a traitor.

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