Military history

THE NORWEGIANS RESIST

It began in Norway from the outset, though certainly not everywhere. At Narvik, the port and railhead of the iron ore line from Sweden, Colonel Konrad Sundlo, in command of the local garrison, who, as we have seen, was a fanatical follower of Quisling,* surrendered to the Germans without firing a shot. The naval commander was of a different caliber. With the approach of ten German destroyers at the mouth of the long fjord, the Eidsvold, one of two ancient ironclads in the harbor, fired a warning shot and signaled to the destroyers to identify themselves. Rear Admiral Fritz Bonte, commanding the German destroyer flotilla, answered by sending an officer in a launch to the Norwegian vessel to demand surrender. There now followed a bit of German treachery, though German naval officers later defended it with the argument that in war necessity knows no law. When the officer in the launch signaled the German Admiral that the Norwegians had said they would resist, Bonte waited only until his launch got out of the way and then quickly blew up the Eidsvold with torpedoes. The second Norwegian ironclad, the Norge, then opened fire but was quickly dispatched. Three hundred Norwegian sailors—almost the entire crews of the two vessels—perished. By 8 A.M. Narvik was in the hands of the Germans, taken by ten destroyers which had slipped through a formidable British fleet, and occupied by a mere two battalions of Nazi troops under the command of Brigadier General Eduard Dietl, an old Bavarian crony of Hitler since the days of the Beer Hall Putsch, who was to prove himself a resourceful and courageous commander when the going at Narvik got rough, as it did beginning the next day.

Trondheim, halfway down the long Norwegian west coast, was taken by the Germans almost as easily. The harbor batteries failed to fire on the German naval ships, led by the heavy cruiser Hipper, as they came up the long fjord, and the troops aboard that ship and four destroyers were conveniently disembarked at the city’s piers without interference. Some forts held out for a few hours and the nearby airfield at Vaernes for two days, but this resistance did not affect the occupation of a fine harbor suitable for the largest naval ships as well as submarines and the railhead of a line that ran across north-central Norway to Sweden and over which the Germans expected, and with reason, to receive supplies should the British cut them off at sea.

Bergen, the second port and city of Norway, lying some three hundred miles down the coast from Trondheim and connected with Oslo, the capital, by railway, put up some resistance. The batteries guarding the harbor badly damaged the cruiser Koenigsberg and an auxiliary ship, but troops from other vessels landed safely and occupied the city before noon. It was at Bergen that the first direct British aid for the stunned Norwegians arrived. In the afternoon fifteen naval dive bombers sank the Koenigsberg, the first ship of that size ever to go down as the result of an air attack. Outside the harbor the British had a powerful fleet of four cruisers and seven destroyers which could have overwhelmed the smaller German naval force. It was about to enter the harbor when it received orders from the Admiralty to cancel the attack because of the risk of mines and bombing from the air, a decision which Churchill, who concurred in it, later regretted. This was the first sign of caution and of half measures which would cost the British dearly in the next crucial days.

Sola airfield, near the port of Stavanger on the southwest coast, was taken by German parachute troops after the Norwegian machine gun emplacements—there was no real antiaircraft protection—were silenced. This was Norway’s biggest airfield and strategically of the highest importance to the Luftwaffe, since from here bombers could range not only against the British fleet along the Norwegian coast but against the chief British naval bases in northern Britain. Its seizure gave the Germans immediate air superiority in Norway and spelled the doom of any attempt by the British to land sizable forces.

Kristiansand on the south coast put up considerable resistance to the Germans, its shore batteries twice driving off a German fleet led by the light cruiser Karlsruhe. But the forts were quickly reduced by Luftwaffe bombing and the port was occupied by midafternoon. The Karlsruhe, however, on leaving port that evening was torpedoed by a British submarine and so badly damaged that it had to be sunk.

By noon, then, or shortly afterward, the five principal Norwegian cities and ports and the one big airfield along the west and south coasts that ran for 1,500 miles from the Skagerrak to the Arctic were in German hands. They had been taken by a handful of troops conveyed by a Navy vastly inferior to that of the British. Daring, deceit and surprise had brought Hitler a resounding victory at very little cost.

But at Oslo, the main prize, his military force and his diplomacy had run into unexpected trouble.

All through the chilly night of April 8–9, a gay welcoming party from the German Legation, led by Captain Schreiber, the naval attaché, and joined occasionally by the busy Dr. Bräuer, the minister, stood at the quayside in Oslo Harbor waiting for the arrival of a German fleet and troop transports. A junior German naval attaché was darting about the bay in a motorboat waiting to act as pilot for the fleet, headed by the pocket battleship Leutzow (its name changed from Deutschland because Hitler did not want to risk losing a ship by that name) and the brand-new heavy cruiser Bluecher, flagship of the squadron.

They waited in vain. The big ships never arrived. They had been challenged at the entrance to the fifty-mile-long Oslo Fjord by the Norwegian mine layer Olav Trygverson, which sank a German torpedo boat and damaged the light cruiser Emden. After landing a small force to subdue the shore batteries the German squadron, however, continued on its way up the fjord. At a point some fifteen miles south of Oslo where the waters narrowed to fifteen miles, further trouble developed. Here stood the ancient fortress of Oskarsborg, whose defenders were more alert than the Germans suspected. Just before dawn the fort’s 28-centimeter Krupp guns opened fire on the Luetzow and the Bluecher, and torpedoes were also launched from the shore. The 10,000-ton Bluecher, ablaze and torn by the explosions of its ammunition, went down, with the loss of 1,600 men, including several Gestapo and administrative officials (and all their papers) who were to arrest the King and the government and take over the administration of the capital. The Luetzow was also damaged but not completely disabled. Rear Admiral Oskar Kummetz, commander of the squadron, and General Erwin Engelbrecht, who led the 163rd Infantry Division, who were on the Bluecher, managed to swim ashore, where they were made prisoners by the Norwegians. Whereupon the crippled German fleet turned back for the moment to lick its wounds. It had failed in its mission to take the main German objective, the capital of Norway. It did not get there until the next day.

Oslo, in fact, fell to little more than a phantom German force dropped from the air at the local, undefended airport. The catastrophic news from the other seaports and the pounding of the guns fifteen miles down the Oslo Fjord had sent the Norwegian royal family, the government and members of Parliament scurrying on a special train from the capital at 9:30 A.M. for Hamar, eighty miles to the north. Twenty motor trucks laden with the gold of the Bank of Norway and three more with the secret papers of the Foreign Office got away at the same hour. Thus the gallant action of the garrison at Oskarsborg had foiled Hitler’s plans to get his hands on the Norwegian King, government and gold.

But Oslo was left in complete bewilderment. There were some Norwegian troops there, but they were not put into a state for defense. Above all, nothing was done to block the airport at nearby Fornebu, which could have been done with a few old automobiles parked along the runway and about the field. Late on the previous night Captain Spiller, the German air attaché in Oslo, had stationed himself there to welcome the airborne troops, which were to come in after the Navy had reached the city. When the ships failed to arrive a frantic radio message was sent from the legation to Berlin apprising it of the unexpected and unhappy situation. The response was immediate. Soon parachute and airborne infantry troops were being landed at Fornebu. By noon about five companies had been assembled. As they were only lightly armed, the available Norwegian troops in the capital could have easily destroyed them. But for reasons never yet made clear—so great was the confusion in Oslo—they were not mustered, much less deployed, and the token German infantry force marched into the capital behind a blaring, if makeshift, military band. Thus the last of Norway’s cities fell. But not Norway; not yet.

On the afternoon of April 9, the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, met at Hamar with only five of the two hundred members missing, but adjourned at 7:30 P.M. when news was received that German troops were approaching and moved on to Elverum, a few miles to the east toward the Swedish border. Dr. Bräuer, pressed by Ribbentrop, was demanding an immediate audience with the King, and the Norwegian Prime Minister had assented on condition that German troops withdraw to a safe distance south. This the German minister would not agree to.

Indeed, at this moment a further piece of Nazi treachery was in the making. Captain Spiller, the air attaché, had set out from the Fornebu airport for Hamar with two companies of German parachutists to capture the recalcitrant King and government. It seemed to them more of a lark than anything else. Since Norwegian troops had not fired a shot to prevent the German entry into Oslo, Spiller expected no resistance at Hamar. In fact the two companies, traveling on commandeered autobuses, were making a pleasant sightseeing jaunt of it. But they did not reckon with aNorwegian Army officer who acted quite unlike so many of the others. Colonel Ruge, Inspector General of Infantry, who had accompanied the King northward, had insisted on providing some sort of protection to the fugitive government and had set up a roadblock near Hamar with two battalions of infantry which he had hastily rounded up. The German buses were stopped and in a skirmish which followed Spiller was mortally wounded. After suffering further casualties the Germans fell back all the way to Oslo.

The next day, Dr. Bräuer set out from Oslo alone along the same road to see the King. An old-school professional diplomat, the German minister did not relish his role, but Ribbentrop had kept after him relentlessly to talk the King and the government into surrender. Bräuer’s difficult task had been further complicated by certain political events which had just taken place in Oslo. On the preceding evening Quisling had finally bestirred himself, once the capital was firmly in German hands, stormed into the radio station and broadcast a proclamation naming himself as head of a new government and ordering all Norwegian resistance to the Germans to halt immediately. Though Bräuer could not yet grasp it—and Berlin could never, even later, understand it—this treasonable act doomed the German efforts to induce Norway to surrender. And paradoxically, though it was a moment of national shame for the Norwegian people, the treason of Quisling rallied the stunned Norwegians to a resistance which was to become formidable and heroic.

Dr. Bräuer met Haakon VII, the only king in the twentieth century who had been elected to the throne by popular vote and the first monarch Norway had had of its own for five centuries,* in a schoolhouse at the little town of Elverum at 3 P.M. on April 10. From a talk this writer later had with the monarch and from a perusal of both the Norwegian records and Dr. Bräuer’s secret report (which is among the captured German Foreign Office documents) it is possible to give an account of what happened. After considerable reluctance the King had agreed to receive the German envoy in the presence of his Foreign Minister, Dr. Halvdan Koht. When Bräuer insisted on seeing Haakon at first alone the King, with the agreement of Koht, finally consented.

The German minister, acting on instructions, alternately flattered and tried to intimidate the King. Germany wanted to preserve the dynasty. It was merely asking Haakon to do what his brother had done the day before in Copenhagen. It was folly to resist the Wehrmacht. Only useless slaughter for the Norwegians would ensue. The King was asked to approve the government of Quisling and return to Oslo. Haakon, a salty, democratic man and a great stickler, even at this disastrous moment, for constitutional procedure, tried to explain to the German diplomat that in Norway the King did not make political decisions; that was exclusively the business of the government, which he would now consult. Koht then joined the conversation and it was agreed that the government’s answer would be telephoned to Bräuer at some point on his way back to Oslo.

For Haakon, who, though he could not. make the political decision could surely influence it, there was but one answer to the Germans. Retiring to a modest inn in the village of Nybergsund near Elverum—just in case the Germans, with Bräuer gone, tried to capture him in another surprise attack—he assembled the members of the government as Council of State.

… For my part [he told them] I cannot accept the German demands. It would conflict with all that I have considered to be my duty as King of Norway since I came to this country nearly thirty-five years ago … I do not want the decision of the government to be influenced by or based upon this statement. But … I cannot appoint Quisling Prime Minister, a man in whom I know neither our people … nor its representatives in the Storting have any confidence at all.

If therefore the government should decide to accept the German demands—and I fully understand the reasons in favor of it, considering the impending danger of war in which so many young Norwegians will have to give their lives—if so, abdication will be the only course open to me.41

The government, though there may have been some waverers up to this moment, could not be less courageous than the King, and it quickly rallied behind him. By the time Brauer got to Eidsvold, halfway back to Oslo, Koht was on the telephone line to him with the Norwegian reply. The German minister telephoned it immediately to the legation in Oslo, where it was sped to Berlin.

The King will name no government headed by Quisling and this decision was made upon the unanimous advice of the Government. To my specific question, Foreign Minister Koht replied: “Resistance will continue as long as possible.”42

That evening from a feeble little rural radio station nearby, the only means of communication to the outside world available, the Norwegian government flung down the gauntlet to the mighty Third Reich. It announced its decision not to accept the German demands and called upon the people—there were only three million of them—to resist the invaders. The King formally associated himself with the appeal.

But the Nazi conquerors could not quite bring themselves to believe that the Norwegians meant what they said. Two more attempts were made to dissuade the King. On the morning of April 11 an emissary of Quisling, a Captain Irgens, arrived to urge the monarch to return to the capital. He promised that Quisling would serve him loyally. His proposal was dismissed with silent contempt.

In the afternoon an urgent message came from Bräuer, requesting a further audience with the King to talk over “certain proposals.” The hard-pressed German envoy had been instructed by Ribbentrop to tell the monarch that he “wanted to give the Norwegian people one last chance of a reasonable agreement.”* This time Dr. Koht, after consulting the King, replied that if the German minister had “certain proposals” he could communicate them to the Foreign Minister.

The Nazi reaction to this rebuff by such a small and now helpless country was immediate and in character. The Germans had failed, first, to capture the King and the members of the government and, then, to persuade them to surrender. Now the Germans tried to kill them. Late on April 11, the Luftwaffe was sent out to give the village of Nybergsund the full treatment. The Nazi flyers demolished it with explosive and incendiary bombs and then machine-gunned those who tried to escape the burning ruins. The Germans apparently believed at first that they had succeeded in massacring the King and the members of the government. The diary of a German airman, later captured in northern Norway, had this entry for April 11: “Nybergsund. Oslo Regierung. Alles vernichtet.” (Oslo government. Completely wiped out.)

The village had been, but not the King and the government. With the approach of the Nazi bombers they had taken refuge in a nearby wood. Standing in snow up to their knees, they had watched the Luftwaffe reduce the modest cottages of the hamlet to ruins. They now faced a choice of either moving on to the nearby Swedish border and asylum in neutral Sweden or pushing north into their own mountains, still deep in the spring snow. They decided to move on up the rugged Gudbrands Valley, which led past Hamar and Lillehammer and through the mountains to Åndalsneson the northwest coast, a hundred miles southwest of Trondheim. Along the route they might organize the still dazed and scattered Norwegian forces for further resistance. And there was some hope that British troops might eventually arrive to help them.

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