Military history

THE TAKING OF DENMARK AND NORWAY

Hitler’s preparations for the conquest of Denmark and Norway have been called by many writers one of the best-kept secrets of the war, but it has seemed to this author that the two Scandinavian countries and even the British were caught napping not because they were not warned of what was coming but because they did not believe the warnings in time.

Ten days before disaster struck, Colonel Oster of the Abwehr warned a close friend of his, Colonel J. G. Sas, the Dutch military attaché in Berlin, of the German plans for Weseruebung and Sas immediately informed the Danish naval attaché, Captain Kjölsen.30 But the complacent Danish government would not believe its own naval attaché, and when on April 4 the Danish minister in Berlin sent Kjölsen scurrying to Copenhagen to repeat the warning in person his intelligence was still not taken seriously. Even on the eve of catastrophe, on the evening of March 8, after news had been received of the torpedoing of a German transport laden with troops off the south coast of Norway—just north of Denmark—and the Danes had seen with their own eyes a great German naval armada sailing north between their islands, the King of Denmark had dismissed with a smile a remark at the dinner table that his country was in danger.

“He really didn’t believe that,” a Guards officer who was present later reported. In fact, this officer related, the King had proceeded after dinner to the Royal Theater in a “confident and happy” frame of mind.31

Already in March the Norwegian government had received warnings from its legation in Berlin and from the Swedes about a German concentration of troops and naval vessels in the North Sea and Baltic ports and on April 5 definite intelligence arrived from Berlin of imminent German landings on the southern coast of Norway. But the complacent cabinet in Oslo remained skeptical. Not even on the seventh, when several large German war vessels were sighted proceeding up the Norwegian coast and reports arrived of British planes strafing a German battle fleet off the mouth of the Skagerrak, not even on April 8, when the British Admiralty informed the Legation of Norway in London that a strong German naval force had been discovered approaching Narvik and the newspapers in Oslo were reporting that German soldiers rescued from the transport Rio de Janeiro, torpedoed that day off the Norwegian coast at Lillesand by a Polish submarine, had declared they were en route to Bergen to help defend it against the British—not even then did the Norwegian government consider it necessary to take such obvious steps as mobilizing the Army, fully manning the forts guarding the harbors, blocking the airfield runways, or, most important of all, mining the easily mined narrow water approaches to the capital and the main cities. Had it done these things history might have taken a different turning.

Ominous news, as Churchill puts it, had begun filtering into London by the first of April, and on April 3 the British War Cabinet discussed the latest intelligence, above all from Stockholm, which told of the Germans collecting sizable military forces in its northern ports with the objective of moving into Scandinavia. But the news does not seem to have been taken very seriously. Two days later, on April 5, when the first wave of German naval supply ships was already at sea, Prime Minister Chamberlain proclaimed in a speech that Hitler, by failing to attack in the West when the British and French were unprepared, had “missed the bus”—a phrase he was very shortly to rue.*

The British government at this moment, according to Churchill, was inclined to believe that the German build-up in the Baltic and North Sea ports was being done merely to enable Hitler to deliver a counterstroke in case the British, in mining Norwegian waters to cut off the ore shipments from Narvik, also occupied that port and perhaps others to the south.

As a matter of fact, the British government was contemplating such an occupation. After seven months of frustration Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had finally succeeded in getting the approval of the War Cabinet and the Allied Supreme War Council to mine the Norwegian Leadson April 8—an action called “Wilfred.” Since it seemed likely that the Germans would react violently to the mortal blow of having their iron ore shipments from Narvik blocked, it was decided that a small Anglo–French force should be dispatched to Narvik and advance to the nearby Swedish frontier. Other contingents would be landed at TrondheimBergen and Stavanger farther south in order, as Churchill explained, “to deny these bases to the enemy.” This was known as “Plan R-4.”32

Thus during the first week of April, while German troops were being loaded on various warships for the passage to Norway, British troops, though in much fewer numbers, were being embarked on transports in the Clyde and on cruisers in the Forth for the same destination.

   On the afternoon of April 2, Hitler, after a long conference with Goering, Raeder and Falkenhorst, issued a formal directive ordering Weseruebung to begin at 5:15 A.M. on April 9. At the same time he issued another directive stipulating that “the escape of the Kings of Denmark and Norway from their countries at the time of the occupation must be prevented by all means.”33 Also on the same day OKW let the Foreign Office in on the secret. A lengthy directive was presented to Ribbentrop instructing him to prepare the diplomatic measures for inducing Denmark and Norway to surrender without a fight as soon as the German armed forces had arrived and to concoct some kind of justification for Hitler’s latest aggression.34

But trickery was not to be confined to the Foreign Office. The Navy was also to make use of it. On April 3, with the departure of the first vessels, Jodl reflected in his diary on the problem of how deceit could be used to hoodwink the Norwegians in case they became suspicious of the presence of so many German men-of-war in their vicinity. Actually this little matter had already been worked out by the Navy. It had instructed its warships and transports to try to pass as British craft—even if it were necessary to fly the Union Jack! Secret German naval commands laid down detailed orders for “Deception and Camouflage in the Invasion of Norway.”35

MOST SECRET

Behavior During Entrance into the Harbor

All ships darkened … The disguise as British craft must be kept as long as possible. All challenges in Morse by Norwegian ships will be answered in English. In answer, something like the following will be chosen:

“Calling at Bergen for a short visit. No hostile intent.”

… Challenges to be answered with names of British warships:

Koeln—H.M.S. Cairo.

Koenigsberg—H.M.S. Calcutta…. (etc.)

Arrangements are to be made to enable British war flags to be illuminated …

For Bergen … Following is laid down as guiding principle should one of our own units find itself compelled to answer the challenge of passing craft: To challenge: (in case of The Koeln) H.M.S. Cairo.

To order to stop: “(1) Please repeat last signal. (2) Impossible to understand your signal.”

In case of a warning shot: “Stop firing. British ship. Good friend.”

In case of an inquiry as to destination and purpose: “Going Bergen. Chasing German steamers.”*

And so on April 9, 1940, at 5:20 A.M. precisely (4:20 A.M. in Denmark), an hour before dawn, the German envoys at Copenhagen and Oslo, having routed the respective foreign ministers out of bed exactly twenty minutes before (Ribbentrop had insisted on a strict timetable in co-ordination with the arrival at that hour of the German troops), presented to the Danish and Norwegian governments a German ultimatum demanding that they accept on the instant, and without resistance, the “protection of the Reich.” The ultimatum was perhaps the most brazen document yet composed by Hitler and Ribbentrop, who were such masters and by now so experienced in diplomatic deceit.37

After declaring that the Reich had come to the aid of Denmark and Norway to protect them against an Anglo–French occupation, the memorandum stated:

The German troops therefore do not set foot on Norwegian soil as enemies. The German High Command does not intend to make use of the points occupied by German troops as bases for operations against England as long as it is not forced to … On the contrary, German military operations aim exclusively at protecting the north against the proposed occupation of Norwegian bases by Anglo–French forces …

… In the spirit of the good relations between Germany and Norway which have existed hitherto, the Reich Government declares to the Royal Norwegian Government that Germany has no intention of infringing by her measures the territorial integrity and political independence of the Kingdom of Norway now or in the future …

The Reich Government therefore expects that the Norwegian Government and the Norwegian people will … offer no resistance to it. Any resistance would have to be, and would be, broken by all possible means … and would therefore lead only to absolutely useless bloodshed….

German expectations proved justified as regards Denmark but not Norway. This became known in the Wilhelmstrasse with the receipt of the first urgent messages from the respective ministers to those countries. The German envoy in Copenhagen wired Ribbentrop at 8:34 A.M. that the Danes had “accepted all our demands [though] registering a protest.” Minister Curt Bräuer in Oslo had a quite different report to make. At 5:52 A.M., just thirty-two minutes after he had delivered the German ultimatum, he wired Berlin the quick response of the Norwegian government: “We will not submit voluntarily: the struggle is already under way.”38

The arrogant Ribbentrop was outraged.* At 10:55 he wired Bräuer “most urgent”: “You will once more impress on the Government there that Norwegian resistance is completely senseless.”

This the unhappy German envoy could no longer do. The Norwegian King, government and members of Parliament had by this time fled the capital for the mountains in the north. However hopeless the odds, they were determined to resist. In fact, resistance had already begun in some places, though not in all, with the arrival of German ships out of the night.

The Danes were in a more hopeless position. Their pleasant little island country was incapable of defense. It was too small, too flat, and the largest part, Jutland, lay open by land to Hitler’s panzers. There were no mountains for the King and the government to flee to as there were in Norway, nor could any help be expected from Britain. It has been said that the Danes were too civilized to fight in such circumstances; at any rate, they did not. General W. W. Pryor, the Army Commander in Chief, almost alone pleaded for resistance, but he was overruled by Premier Thorvald Stauning, Foreign Minister Edvard Munch, and the King, who, when the bad news began coming in on April 8, refused his pleas for mobilization. For reasons which remain obscure to this writer, even after an investigation in Copenhagen, the Navy never fired a shot, either from its ships or from its shore batteries, even when German troop ships passed under the noses of its guns and could have been blown to bits. The Army fought a few skirmishes in Jutland, the Royal Guard fired a few shots around the royal palace in the capital and suffered a few men wounded. By the time the Danes had finished their hearty breakfasts it was all over. The King, on the advice of his government but against that of General Pryor, capitulated and ordered what slight resistance there was to cease.

The plans to take Denmark by surprise and deceit, as the captured German Army records show, had been prepared with meticulous care. General Kurt Himer, chief of staff of the task force for Denmark, had arrived by train in civilian clothes in Copenhagen on April 7 to reconnoiter the capital and make the necessary arrangements for a suitable pier to dock the troopship Hansestadt Danzig and a truck to handle the moving of a few supplies and a radio transmitter. The commander of the battalion—all that was considered necessary to capture a great city—had also been in Copenhagen in civilian clothes a couple of days before to get the layout of the land.

It was not so strange, therefore, that the plans of the General and the battalion major were carried out with scarcely a hitch. The troopship arrived off Copenhagen shortly before dawn, passed without challenge the guns of the fort guarding the harbor and those of the Danish patrol vessels and tied up neatly at the Langelinie Pier in the heart of the city, only a stone’s throw from the Citadel, the headquarters of the Danish Army, and but a short distance from Amalienborg Palace, where the King resided. Both were quickly seized by the lone battalion with no resistance worth mentioning.

Upstairs in the palace, amidst the rattle of scattered shots, the King conferred with his ministers. The latter were all for nonresistance. Only General Pryor begged to be allowed to put up a fight. At the very least he demanded that the King should leave for the nearest military camp at Høvelte to escape capture. But the King agreed with his ministers. The monarch, according to one eyewitness, asked “whether our soldiers had fought long enough”—and Pryor retorted that they had not.*39

General Himer became restless at the delay. He telephoned headquarters for the combined operation, which had been set up at Hamburg—the Danish authorities had not thought of cutting the telephone lines to Germany—and, according to his own story,40 asked for some bombers to zoom over Copenhagen “in order to force the Danes to accept.” The conversation was in code and the Luftwaffe understood that Himer was calling for an actual bombing, which it promised to carry out forthwith—an error which was finally corrected just in time. General Himer says the bombers “roaring over the Danish capital did not fail to make their impression: the Government accepted the German requests.”

There was some difficulty in finding means of broadcasting the government’s capitulation to the Danish troops, because the local radio stations were not yet on the air at such an early hour. This was solved by broadcasting it on the Danish wave length over the transmitter which the German battalion had brought along with it and for which General Himer had thoughtfully dug up a truck to haul it to the Citadel.

At 2 o’clock that afternoon General Himer, accompanied by the German minister, Cecil von Renthe-Fink, called on the King of Denmark, who was no longer sovereign but did not yet realize it. Himer left a record of the interview in the secret Army archives.

The seventy-year-old King appeared inwardly shattered, although he preserved outward appearances perfectly and maintained absolute dignity during the audience. His whole body trembled. He declared that he and his government would do everything possible to keep peace and order in the country and to eliminate any friction between the German troops and the country. He wished to spare his country further misfortune and misery.

General Himer replied that personally he very much regretted coming to the King on such a mission, but that he was only doing his duty as a soldier … We came as friends, etc. When the King then asked whether he might keep his bodyguard, General Himer replied … that the Fuehrer would doubtless permit him to retain them. He had no doubt about it.

The King was visibly relieved at hearing this. During the course of the audience … the King became more at ease, and at its conclusion addressed General Himer with the words: “General, may I, as an old soldier, tell you something? As soldier to soldier? You Germans have done the incredible again! One must admit that it is magnificent work!”

For nearly four years, until the tide of war had changed, the Danish King and his people, a good-natured, civilized and happy-go-lucky race, offered very little trouble to the Germans. Denmark became known as the “model protectorate.” The monarch, the government, the courts, even the Parliament and the press, were at first allowed a surprising amount of freedom by their conquerors. Not even Denmark’s seven thousand Jews were molested—for a time. But the Danes, later than most of the other conquered peoples, finally came to the realization that further “loyal co-operation,” as they called it, with their Teutonic tyrants, whose brutality increased with the years and with the worsening fortunes of war, was impossible—if they were to retain any shred of self-respect and honor. They also began to see that Germany might not win the war after all and that little Denmark was not inexorably condemned, as so many had feared at first, to be a vassal state in Hitler’s unspeakable New Order. Then resistance began.

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