Military history


In the far north at Narvik the British Navy already had reacted sharply to the surprise German occupation. It had been, as Churchill, who was in charge of it, admitted, “completely outwitted” by the Germans. Now in the north at least, out of range of the German land-based bombers, it went over to the offensive. On the morning of April 10, twenty-four hours after ten German destroyers had taken Narvik and disembarked Dietl’s troops, a force of five British destroyers entered Narvik harbor, sank two of the five German destroyers then in the port, damaged the other three and sank all the German cargo vessels except one. In this action the German naval commander, Rear Admiral Bonte, was killed. On leaving the harbor, however, the British ships ran into the five remaining German destroyers emerging from nearby fjords. The German craft were heavier gunned and sank one British destroyer, forced the beaching of another on which the British commander, Captain Warburton-Lee, was mortally wounded, and damaged a third. Three of the five British destroyers managed to make the open sea where, in retiring, they sank a large German freighter, laden with ammunition, which was approaching the port.

At noon on April 13 the British, this time with the battleship Warspite, a survivor of the First World War Battle of Jutland, leading a flotilla of destroyers, returned to Narvik and wiped out the remaining German war vessels. Vice-Admiral W. J. Whitworth, the commanding officer, in wirelessing the Admiralty of his action urged that since the German troops on shore had been stunned and disorganized—Dietl and his men had in fact taken to the hills—Narvik be occupied at once “by the main landing force.” Unfortunately for the Allies, the British Army commander, Major General P. J. Mackesy, was an exceedingly cautious officer and, arriving the very next day with an advance contingent of three infantry battalions, decided not to risk a landing at Narvik but to disembark his troops at Harstad, thirty-five miles to the north, which was in the hands of the Norwegians. This was a costly error.

In the light of the fact that they had prepared a small expeditionary corps for Norway, the British were unaccountably slow in getting their troops under way. On the afternoon of April 8, after news was received of the movement of German fleet units up the Norwegian coast, the British Navy hurriedly disembarked the troops that had already been loaded on shipboard for the possible occupation of StavangerBergen, Trondheim and Narvik, on the ground that every ship would be needed for naval action. By the time the British land forces were re-embarked all those portcities were in German hands. And by the time they reached central Norway they were doomed, as were the British naval ships which were to cover them, by the Luftwaffe’s control of the air.

By April 20, one British brigade, reinforced by three battalions of French Chasseurs Alpins, had been landed at Namsos, a small port eighty miles northeast of Trondheim, and a second British brigade had been put ashore at Åndalsnes, a hundred miles to the southwest of Trondheim, which was thus to be attacked from north and south. But lacking field artillery, antiaircraft guns and air support, their bases pounded night and day by German bombers which blocked the further landing of supplies or reinforcements, neither force ever seriously threatened Trondheim. The Åndalsnes brigade, after meeting a Norwegian unit at Dombas, a rail junction sixty miles to the east, abandoned the proposed attack northward toward Trondheim and pushed southeast down the Gudbrandsdal in order to aid the Norwegian troops which, under the energetic command of Colonel Ruge, had been slowing up the main German drive coming up the valley from Oslo.

At Lillehammer, north of Hamar, the first engagement of the war between British and German troops took place on April 21, but it was no match. The ship laden with the British brigade’s artillery had been sunk and there were only rifles and machine guns with which to oppose a strong German force armed with artillery and light tanks. Even worse, the British infantry, lacking air support, was incessantly pounded by Luftwaffe planes operating from nearby Norwegian airfields. Lillehammer fell after a twenty-four-hour battle and the British and Norwegian forces began a retreat of 140 miles up the valley railway to Åndalsnes, halting here and there to fight a rear-guard action-which slowed the Germans but never stopped them. On the nights of April 30 and May 1 the British forces were evacuated from Åndalsnes and on May 2 the Anglo–French contingent from Namsos, considerable feats in themselves, for both harbors were blazing shambles from continuous German bombing. On the night of April 29 the King of Norway and the members of his government were taken aboard the British cruiser Glasgow at Molde, across the Romsdals-fjord from Åndalsnes, itself also a shambles from Luftwaffe bombing, and conveyed to Tromsö, far above the Arctic Circle and north of Narvik, where on May Day the provisional capital was set up.

By then the southern half of Norway, comprising all the cities and main towns, had been irretrievably lost. But northern Norway seemed secure. On May 28 an Allied force of 25,000 men, including two brigades of Norwegians, a brigade of Poles and two battalions of the French Foreign Legion, had driven the greatly outnumbered Germans out of Narvik. There seemed no reason to doubt that Hitler would be deprived of both his iron ore and his objective of occupying all of Norway and making the Norwegian government capitulate. But by this time the Wehrmacht had struck with stunning force on the Western front and every Allied soldier was needed to plug the gap. Narvik was abandoned, the Allied troops were hastily re-embarked, and General Died, who had held out in a wild mountainous tract near the Swedish border, reoccupied the port on June 8 and four days later accepted the surrender of the persevering and gallant Colonel Ruge and his bewildered, resentful Norwegian troops, who felt they had been left in the lurch by the British. King Haakon and his government were taken aboard the cruiser Devonshire at Tromsö on June 7 and departed for London and five years of bitter exile.* In Berlin Dietl was promoted to Major General, awarded the Ritterkreuz and hailed by Hitler as the Sieger von Narvik.

   Despite his amazing successes the Fuehrer had had his bad moments during the Norwegian campaign. General Jodl’s diary is crammed with terse entries recounting a succession of the warlord’s nervous crises. “Terrible excitement,” he noted on April 14 after news had been received of the wiping out of the German naval forces at Narvik. On April 17 Hitler had a fit of hysteria about the loss of Narvik; he demanded that General Dietl’s troops there be evacuated by air—an impossibility. “Each piece of bad news,” Jodl scribbled that day in his diary, “leads to the worst fears.” And two days later: “Renewed crisis. Political action has failed. Envoy Bräuer is recalled. According to the Fuehrer, force has to be used … The conferences at the Chancellery in Berlin that day, April 19, became so embittered, with the heads of the three services blaming each other for the delays, that even the lackey Keitel stalked out of the room. “Chaos of leadership is again threatening,” Jodl noted. And on April 22 he added: “Fuehrer is increasingly worried about the English landings.”

On April 23 the slow progress of the German forces moving up from Oslo toward Trondheim and Åndalsnes caused the “excitement to grow,” as Jodl put it, but the next day the news was better and from that day it continued to grow more rosy. By the twenty-sixth the warlord was in such fine fettle that at 3:30 in the morning, during an all-night session with his military advisers, he told them he intended to start “Yellow” between May 1 and 7. “Yellow” was the code name for the attack in the West across Holland and Belgium. Though on April 29 Hitler was again “worried about Trondheim,” the next day he was “happy with joy” at the news that a battle group from Oslo had reached the city. He could at last turn his attention back to the West. On May 1 he ordered that preparations for the big attack there be ready by May 5.

The Wehrmacht commanders—Goering, Brauchitsch, Halder, Keitel, Jodl, Raeder and the rest—had for the first time had a foretaste during the Norwegian campaign of how their demonic Leader cracked under the strain of even minor setbacks in battle. It was a weakness which would grow on him when, after a series of further astonishing military successes, the tide of war changed, and it would contribute mightily to the eventual debacle of the Third Reich.

Still, any way one looked at it, the quick conquest of Denmark and Norway had been an important victory for Hitler and a discouraging defeat for the British. It secured the winter iron ore route, gave added protection to the entrance to the Baltic, allowed the daring German Navy to break out into the North Atlantic and provided them with excellent port facilities there for submarines and surface ships in the sea war against Britain. It brought Hitler air bases hundreds of miles closer to the main enemy. And perhaps most important of all it immensely enhanced the military prestige of the Third Reich and correspondingly diminished that of the Western Allies. Nazi Germany seemed invincible. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and now Denmark and Norway had succumbed easily to Hitler’s force, or threat of force, and not even the help of two major allies in the West had been, in the latter cases, of the slightest avail. The wave of the future, as an eminent American woman wrote, seemed to belong to Hitler and Nazism.

For the remaining neutral states Hitler’s latest conquest was also a terrifying lesson. Obviously neutrality no longer offered protection to the little democratic nations trying to survive in a totalitarian-dominated world. Finland had just found that out, and now Norway and Denmark. They had themselves to blame for being so blind, for declining to accept in good time—before the actual aggression—the help of friendly world powers.

I trust this fact [Churchill told Commons on April 11] will be meditated upon by other countries who may tomorrow, or a week hence, or a month hence, find themselves the victims of an equally elaborately worked-out staff plan for their destruction and enslavement.45

He was obviously thinking of Holland and Belgium, but even in their case, though there would be a month of grace, no such meditation began.*

There were military lessons, too, to be learned from Hitler’s lightning conquest of the two Scandinavian countries. The most significant was the importance of air power and its superiority over naval power when land bases for bombers and fighters were near. Hardly less important was an old lesson, that victory often goes to the daring and the imaginative. The German Navy and Air Force had been both, and Dietl at Narvik had shown a resourcefulness of the German Army which the Allies had lacked.

There was one military result of the Scandinavian adventure which could not be evaluated at once, if only because it was not possible to look very far into the future. The losses in men in Norway on both sides were light. The Germans suffered 1,317 killed, 2,375 missing and 1,604 wounded, a total of 5,296 casualties; those of the Norwegians, French and British were slightly less than 5,000. The British lost one aircraft carrier, one cruiser and seven destroyers and the Poles and the French one destroyer each. German naval losses were comparably much heavier: ten out of twenty destroyers, three of eight cruisers, while the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the pocket battleship Luetzow were damaged so severely that they were out of action for several months. Hitler had no fleet worthy of mention for the coming events of the summer. When the time to invade Britain came, as it did so shortly, this proved to be an insurmountable handicap.

The possible consequences of the severe crippling of the German Navy, however, did not enter the Fuehrer’s thoughts as, at the beginning of May, with Denmark and Norway now added to his long list of conquests, he worked with his eager generals—for they had now shed their misgivings of the previous autumn—on the last-minute preparations for what they were confident would be the greatest conquest of all.

* It was on October 10 that Hitler had called in his military chiefs, read them a long memorandum on the necessity of an immediate attack in the West and handed them Directive No. 6 ordering preparations for an offensive through Belgium and Holland. (See above, pp. 644–46.)

* It was a correct assumption. It is now known that the Allied Supreme War Council, meeting in Paris on February 5; 1940, decided that in sending an expeditionary force to Finland the Swedish iron fields should be occupied by troops landed at Narvik, which was but a short distance from the mines. (See the author’s The Challenge of Scandinavia, pp. 115–16n.) Churchill remarks that at the meeting it was decided “incidentally to get control of the Gullivare ore-field.” (The Gathering Storm, p. 560.)

* He had not impressed the German minister in Oslo, Dr. Curt Bräuer, who twice in December warned Berlin that Quisling “need not be taken seriously … his influence and prospects are … very slight.”9 For his frankness and reluctance to play Hitler’s game, the minister was quickly to pay.

* On March 7 General Ironside, Chief of the British General Staff, informed Marshal Mannerheim that an Allied expeditionary force of 57,000 men was ready to come to the aid of the Finns and that the first division, of 15,000 troops, could reach Finland by the end of March if Norway and Sweden would allow them transit. Actually five days before, on March 2, as Mannerheim knew, both Norway and Sweden had again turned down the Franco–British request for transit privileges. This did not prevent Premier Daladier on March 8 from scolding the Finns for not officially asking for Allied troops and from intimating that the Allied forces would be sent regardless of Norwegian and Swedish protests. But Mannerheim was not to be fooled, and, having advised his government to sue for peace while the Finnish Army was still intact and undefeated, he approved the immediate dispatch of a peace delegation to Moscow on March 8. The Finnish Commander in Chief seems to have been skeptical of the French zeal for fighting on the Finnish front rather than on their own front in France. (See The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim.)

One can only speculate on the utter confusion which would have resulted among the belligerents had the Franco–British expeditionary corps ever arrived in Finland and fought the Russians. In little more than a year Germany would be at war with Russia, in which case the enemies in the West would have been allies in the East!

* Examples of Hitler’s weird views on America have been given in earlier chapters, but in the captured Foreign Office documents there is a revealing paper on the Fuehrer’s state of mind at this very moment. On March 12 Hitler had a long talk with Colin Ross, a German “expert” on the United States, who had recently returned from a lecture trip in America, where he had contributed his mite to Nazi propaganda. When Ross remarked that an “imperialist tendency” prevailed in the United States, Hitler asked (according to the shorthand notes of Dr. Schmidt) “whether this imperialist tendency did not strengthen the desire for the Anschluss of Canada to the United States, and thus produce an anti-English attitude.”

It must be admitted that Hitler’s advisers on the U.S.A. were not very helpful in shedding light on their subject. At this same interview, Ross, in trying to answer Hitler’s questions as to why America was so anti-German, gave the following answers, among others:

… An additional factor in hatred against Germany … is the monstrous power of Jewry, directing with a really fantastic cleverness and organizational skill the struggle against everything German and National Socialist …

Colin Ross then talked about Roosevelt, whom he believes to be an enemy of the Fuehrer for reasons of pure personal jealousy and also on account of his personal lust for power … He had come to power the same year as the Fuehrer and he had to watch the latter carrying out his great plans, while he, Roosevelt … had not reached his goal. He too had ideas of dictatorship which in some respects were very similar to National Socialist ideas. Yet precisely this realization that the Fuehrer had attained his goal, while he had not, gave to his pathological ambition the desire to act upon the stage of world history as the Fuehrer’s rival …

After Herr Colin Ross had taken his leave, the Fuehrer remarked that Ross was a very intelligent man who certainly had many good ideas.17

* Weizsaecker replied that Canaris himself had assured him that neither of the men mentioned by Thomsen was an agent of the Abwehr. But no good secret service admits these things. Other Foreign Office papers reveal that on January 24 an Abwehr agent left Buenos Aires with instructions to report to Fritz von Hausberger at Weehawken, N.J., “for instructions in our speciality.” Another agent had been sent from the same place to New York in December to gather information on American aircraft factories and arms shipments to the Allies. Thomsen himself reported on February 20 the arrival of Baron Konstantin von Maydell, a Baltic German of Estonian citizenship, who had told the German Embassy in Washington that he was on a sabotage mission for the Abwehr.

* “Before God and the world,” Goering exclaimed to Welles, “he, the Field Marshal, could state that Germany had not desired the war. It had been forced upon her … But what was Germany to do when the others wanted to destroy her?”

† A quite unofficial American peacemaker was also in Berlin at this time: James D. Mooney, a vice-president of General Motors. He had been in Berlin, as I recall, shortly before or after the outbreak of the war, trying like that other amateur in diplomacy, Dahlerus, though without the latter’s connections to save the peace. The day after Welles left Berlin, on March 4, 1940, Hitler received Mooney, who told him, according to a captured German record of the meeting, that President Roosevelt was “more friendly and sympathetic” to Germany “than was generally believed in Berlin” and that the President was prepared to act as “moderator” in bringing the belligerents together. Hitler merely repeated what he had told Welles two days before.

On March 11 Thomsen sent to Berlin a confidential memorandum prepared for him by an unnamed American informant declaring that Mooney “was more or less pro-German.” The General Motors executive was certainly taken in by the Germans. Thomsen’s memorandum states that Mooney had informed Roosevelt on the basis of an earlier talk with Hitler that the Fuehrer “was desirous of peace and wished to prevent the bloodshed of a spring campaign.” Hans Dieckhoff, the recalled German ambassador to the United States, who was whiling away his time in Berlin, saw Mooney immediately after the latter’s interview with Hitler and reported to the Foreign Office that the American businessman was “rather verbose” and that “I cannot believe that the Mooney initiative has any great importance.”22

* See above, p. 648.

* The first three German supply ships had sailed for Narvik at 2 A.M. on April 3. Germany’s largest tanker left Murmansk for Narvik on April 6, with the connivance of the Russians, who obligingly furnished the cargo of oil.

* On the stand at Nuremberg, Grand Admiral Raeder justified such tactics on the ground that they were a legitimate “ruse of war against which, from the legal point of view, no objection can be made.”36

* This writer had rarely seen the Nazi Foreign Minister more insufferable than he was that morning. He strutted into a specially convoked press conference at the Foreign Office, garbed in a flashy field-gray uniform and looking, I noted in my diary, “as if he owned the earth.” He snapped, “The Fuehrer has given his answer … Germany has occupied Danish and Norwegian soil in order to protect those countries from the Allies, and will defend their true neutrality until the end of the war. Thus an honored part of Europe has been saved from certain downfall.”

The Berlin press was also something to see that day. The Boersen Zeitung: “England goes cold-bloodedly over the dead bodies of small peoples. Germany protects the weak states from the English highway robbers … Norway ought to see the righteousness of Germany’s action, which was taken to ensure the freedom of the Norwegian people.” Hitler’s own paper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, carried this banner line: GERMANY SAVES SCANDINAVIA!

* Total Danish casualties throughout the realm were thirteen killed and twenty-three wounded. The Germans suffered some twenty casualties.

* See above, p. 676.

* Norway had been a part of Denmark for four centuries and of Sweden for a further century, regaining its complete independence only in 1905, when it broke away from its union with Sweden and the people elected Prince Carl of Denmark as King of Norway. He assumed the name of Haakon VII. Haakon VI had died in 1380. Haakon VII was a brother of Christian X of Denmark, who surrendered so promptly to the Germans on the morning of April 9, 1940.

* There is an ominous hint of further treachery in Ribbentrop’s secret instructions. Bräuer was told to try to arrange the meeting “at a point between Oslo and the King’s present place of residence. For obvious reasons he, Bräuer, would have to discuss this move fully with General von Falkenhorst and would then also have to inform the latter of the meeting place agreed upon.” Gaus, who telephoned Ribbentrop’s instructions, reported that “Herr Bräuer clearly understood the meaning of the instructions.” One cannot help but think that had the King gone to this meeting, Falkenhorst’s troops would have grabbed him.43

* Quisling did not last long in his first attempt to govern Norway. Six days after he had proclaimed himself Prime Minister, on April 15, the Germans kicked him out and appointed an Administrative Council of six leading Norwegian citizens, including Bishop Eivind Berggrav, head of the Lutheran Church of Norway, and Paal Berg, the President of the Supreme Court. It was mostly the doing of Berg, an eminent and scrappy jurist who later became the secret head of the Norwegian resistance movement. On April 24 Hitler appointed Josef Terboven, a tough young Nazi gauleiter, to be Reich Commissar for Norway, and it was he who actually governed the country, with increasing brutality, during the occupation. Bräuer, who had opposed Quisling from the beginning, was recalled on April 17, retired from the diplomatic service, and sent to the Western front as a soldier. The Germans reinstated Quisling as Prime Minister in 1942, but though his unpopularity among the people was immense, his power was nil despite his best efforts to serve his German masters.

At the end of the war Quisling was tried for treason and after an exhaustive trial sentenced to death and executed on October 24, 1945. Terboven committed suicide rather than face capture. Knut Hamsun, the great Norwegian novelist, who had openly collaborated with the Germans, singing their praises, was indicted for treason, but the charges were dropped on the grounds of his old age and senility. He was, however, tried and convicted for “profiting from the Nazi regime,” and fined $65,000. He died on February 19, 1952, at the age of ninety-three. General von Falkenhorst was tried as a war criminal before a mixed British and Norwegian military court on charges of having handed over captured Allied commandos to the S.S. for execution. He was sentenced to death on August 2, 1946, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

† On April 13, General von Falkenhorst, no doubt goaded by Hitler, who was in a fury because of Norwegian resistance, signed an order providing for taking as hostages twenty of the most distinguished citizens of Oslo, including Bishop Berggrav and Paal Berg, who, in the words of Minister Bräuer, “were to be shot in the event of the continued resistance or attempted sabotage.”44

* The Swedes, caught between Russia in Finland and the Baltic countries and Germany in possession of adjoining Denmark and Norway, meditated and decided there was no choice except to cling to their precarious neutrality and go down fighting if they were attacked. They had placated the Soviet Union by refusing to allow Allied troops transit to Finland, and now under great pressure they placated Germany. Though Sweden had sent an impressive stock of arms to Finland, it refused to sell Norway either arms or gasoline when it was attacked. All through April the Germans demanded that Sweden allow the transit of troops to Narvik to relieve Dietl, but this was refused until the end of hostilities, although a train of medical personnel and supplies was allowed through. On June 19, fearing a direct attack by Germany, Sweden gave in to Hitler’s pressure and agreed to permit the transport over Swedish railways of Nazi troops and war material to Norway on condition that the number of troops moving in each direction should balance so that the German garrisons in Norway would not be strengthened by the arrangement.

This was of immense help to Germany. By transporting fresh troops and war material by land through Sweden Hitler avoided the risk of having them sunk at sea by the British. In the first six months of the accord, some 140,000 German troops in Norway were exchanged and the German forces there greatly strengthened by supplies. Later, just before the German onslaught on Russia, Sweden permitted the Nazi High Command to transport an entire army division, fully armed, from Norway across Sweden to Finland to be used to attack the Soviet Union. What it had refused the Allies the year before it accorded to Nazi Germany. For details of German pressure on Sweden and for the text of the exchange of letters between King Gustav V and Hitler, see Documents on German Foreign Policy, IX. The author has covered the subject more thoroughly in The Challenge of Scandinavia.

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