7. Northern Adventures

ADOLF HITLER WAS STILL on his winning streak, and immediately after the successful conclusion of the Polish campaign, he turned his attention westward. He wanted an offensive against France before the winter, but it was already late September, and his generals insisted that the sorting out and redeployment of the victorious army would take more time than was available. Grumbling, der Fuehrer let reality have its way.

Hitler was reluctant to do nothing; the Western Allies were reluctant to do anything. The French were more than content to wait passively, and not stir up trouble for themselves. Counsels were divided in Britain; Winston Churchill had been taken back into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty, and Churchill as always was a notable fire-eater. He pressed for offensive action. The Chamberlain government as a whole, however, was quite happy to defer to the French vision of how the war should be fought. Britain’s position was somewhat embarrassing anyway. She had sent the British Expeditionary Force (B. E. F.) to France, but it consisted in its entirety of less than half a dozen divisions. It was therefore impossible to press the French too vigorously to fight, when it would be the French who had to do all the fighting. The French view, perhaps never overtly stated but constantly implied, was that if Britain wanted to fight, she should send over an army the size of France’s and then she could fight as much as she pleased. Chamberlain found it easier to resist Churchill’s internal than France’s external pressure, so the government remained quiescent, and adopted as their slogan for the war the totally uninspiring “Business as usual.” It was hardly calculated to arouse martial ardor, but it was what a public who could still remember World War I was thought to want.


An uneasy calm settled over western Europe as the fall rains and fogs rolled in from the Atlantic. The troops huddled along the frontiers, the French in the Maginot Line relatively comfortable, those to the north of it, and the B. E. F. on the Belgian border, making the best of a boring, wasting time. They dug, drilled, they attended lectures on “Why we are fighting,” and they wondered why they were not fighting. American correspondents, quick to flock to the war zone, soon christened the whole affair “the phoney war,” a label that stuck to it. Surely there was going to be a deal; Chamberlain had characterized Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country of which we know little,” and now, in the German propaganda phrase, no one was going “to die for Danzig.” There was nothing to do but wait.

This was not universally true. The Russians were not waiting. As they rolled into Poland, they had firsthand evidence of the effectiveness of Germany’s military machine. They decided that they needed even more cushion than the hundred miles of Polish territory they had gained. Along the southern shore of the Baltic, from Prussia eastward almost to Leningrad, was a string of three Baltic republics: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Residue of the great medieval Lithuanian empire, these areas had come under Russian domination as far back as the eighteenth century, and had formed the Baltic Provinces of the Tsarist realm. Like Poland, they had broken away in the general collapse of the Russian Revolution, and had been acknowledged as free states, in the post-World War I treaties. Somewhat precariously independent, they now formed a natural corridor from German East Prussia along the Baltic littoral to Leningrad, Russia’s great industrial complex at the head of the Gulf of Finland.

As soon as the occupation of Poland was completed, the Russians put pressure on the three states. All three were pro-German by choice, but were not now in any position to exercise that choice. They each signed mutual-defense treaties with Russia, which had the effect of making them Russian satellites, and the Reds immediately moved troops in. Hitler was not pleased, but for the moment there was little he could do about it.

The Russians believed they were equally vulnerable in the north where Finland, another successor-state from the revolution, was seen by the Russians as a potential danger. The Finns had originally won their independence with the help of German troops and equipment, and they were pro-German, at least to the extent of being anti-Russian. The Russians therefore made the same kind of demands on the Finns they had made on the southern Baltic states. The Russians wanted fifty miles of the Karelian Isthmus, the strip of land that ran between the head of the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. They wanted islands in the gulf, and a long-term lease on the Finnish base at Hango, which dominated the mouth of the gulf. Finland also stretched north to a small shore along the Arctic, the Rybachi Peninsula. This threatened the Russian port of Murmansk, and therefore the Russians demanded cession of it too.

Finland could have lived with this; in fact, she has since the end of World War II. But Russia was the traditional enemy, and memories of Russian misrule formed the recent history of the country. The Finnish Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Mannerheim, had led the country in its revolt against Russia in 1918-19. On November 26, the Finns rejected Stalin’s demands and mobilized for war, ready to play David to Russia’s Goliath.

They knew they could not win a full-scale war, but they hoped the Western Allies might come to their aid, or barring that, that they could make the price so heavy the Russians would sicken and give up. On the 30th, the Russians responded to the Finnish rejection by air attacks on the capital of Helsinki, and hostilities opened all along the frontier.

The ensuing Russo-Finnish War or Winter War distracted everyone’s attention northward, and filled practically the entire world with admiration for the Finns. They were a hardy people, as they had to be just to survive in their country, and though they were relatively few in numbers, they had adapted their defense well to the demands of the situation.

The Finnish regular army consisted of about 300,000 men. Nearly all of these were stationed on the Karelian Isthmus, in a fortified belt made up of pillboxes and Great War-style trenches known as the Mannerheim Line. It was not up to western European standards, but it was formidable enough. The 700-mile-long frontier from north of Lake Ladoga all the way to the Arctic was held mainly by reserve forces known as the Civic Guard, about 100,000 men strong. Additionally, the Finns had a women’s auxiliary, also about 100,000 strong, to take over administrative duties. They had a small air force, flying mostly license-built or foreign-made British and Dutch aircraft, and a minuscule navy. They lacked any amount of heavy armor or equipment, but were well equipped for light, mobile, small-unit actions.

Against this force the Russians deployed some thirty infantry divisions and six tank brigades, roughly a million men, a thousand tanks, and about eight hundred aircraft. Nearly half their infantry and all but one of the armored formations were put in on the Karelian Isthmus, against the Mannerheim Line. Practically two separate wars were fought.

On the isthmus, the Finns were dug in and as prepared as they could be. Most of their artillery was used there, and they snuggled down in their pillboxes and trenches, disguised by the winter snows, dressed in white coveralls, ready for the Russians to come. The Russians, disdaining any kind of tactical finesse, drove forward in heavy masses. With scanty artillery preparation, and using their tanks to support crowds of foot soldiers, they rushed headfirst into the slaughter. Huge formations, cumbersome, unwieldy, inflexible, drove against the Finnish positions. They coupled their frontal attacks with heavy bombing of the Finnish cities, but the result was more to strengthen the Finns’ resolve than to weaken their resources. They also tried amphibious attacks along the Gulf of Finland, but these too were beaten off.

By early December, the Russians on the isthmus were exhausted, and the Finns even tried a short-lived offensive, which cost them more casualties than they could well afford. The turn of the year saw both sides in the area fought out and waging a war of positions.

North of Lake Ladoga, all the way up along the frontier, the story had different details. The Russians launched five separate drives in corps strength. In the far north they made some progress, putting in an amphibious assault against the Arctic port of Petsamo and taking it. In central Finland, however, they suffered defeat after defeat. Here they readily broke across the frontier, but as their heavy columns advanced along the few roads, the Finnish Civic Guards coalesced against them like white corpuscles around a foreign body in the bloodstream. Just north of Lake Ladoga a Russian division and a tank brigade were stranded in the middle of nowhere and forced to surrender in February. Another division barely held on until it could pull itself out of the fighting; two more divisions were virtually wiped out at Tolvajarvi. Attacks were turned back in the north-central area, and at Suomussalmi the Finns added a small-action classic to military studies.

The frontier was crossed by a Russian division fresh from the open spaces of the Ukraine. It had heavy equipment which made it roadbound; as there was only one road this meant a thin column of vehicles, with soldiers floundering along in four feet of snow, and temperatures forty below zero. The first Russian division was followed by a second; together they made a column twenty miles long and one tank wide.

The Finns came in against them on skis, a squad or a platoon at a time, carrying rifles and light machine-guns. Their targets were less the heavy weapons and tanks that held the Russians to the road, than the machines that enabled them to survive: field kitchens, supply trucks—anything that could give shelter. Russian aircraft could not operate in the blizzards: reconnaissance patrols went out and usually did not come back. The Russian tanks tried to break out over the ice of frozen lakes; the Finns blasted holes in the lakes and drowned the tanks, forcing the survivors back to the choked road. The Finns got a few guns up and ranged on the road, systematically blockading it; Russian artillery fired blind in reply, hitting nothing. On Christmas Day, the first Russian division tried to break clear and was annihilated. The Finns turned their attention to the second division, broke through the column at several points, and then wiped out the pockets one by one. By the time it was over, the Finns had taken 1,300 prisoners and the full equipment of two divisions. They themselves had suffered 900 dead and about twice as many wounded. Nearly 28,000 Russians were killed or frozen.

Yet the Russians were no more prepared than the Finns to give up, and the Russians could afford their heavy losses better than the Finns their light ones. In February, they gave up their assaults in the north, where the country could not support their masses, and instead they concentrated on the Karelian Isthmus. They also did some housecleaning. To some extent their humiliation had been the price of the Stalinist purges, when political reliability and mediocrity had been more important than military expertise. There now came a ruthless weeding out of officers, and a re-emphasis on efficient staff work. They crowded twenty-four divisions into the isthmus, supported them with masses of tanks and artillery, and brought in large numbers of aircraft. On February 1, they launched heavy attacks with dense artillery preparation. For nearly two weeks they ground on, ignoring losses which reached fantastic proportions, and finally, on the 13th, the Finnish line cracked. Fighting desperate rear-guard actions, the Finns were pushed back to their end of the isthmus, and on March 1, exhausted and having no hope of rescue from the West, they opened negotiations. The war ended on March 12, and the Russians took pretty much what they had originally demanded.

The Winter War was extraordinarily fruitful of by-products, reassessments, and misconceptions. The greatest of these last was the widespread opinion that the Russians could not fight. After the war ended, the Russians busily replaced generals and reworked their military doctrines. Ironically, while they did so the rest of the world drew its own conclusion from the evidence presented, that the Russian forces were big but clumsy and that they would be no match for a modern army employing blitzkrieg-style strategies.

While the war was being fought, the question of the northern countries and their neutrality had become acute. The Allies had seriously considered active help to Finland; given the atmosphere after the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact, it seemed they might as well fight both totalitarian states as either one of them. They did send aircraft and artillery to Finland, and several thousand foreign volunteers, mostly Scandinavian, also went to her assistance, though few of them saw any fighting before the collapse.

It was the secondary motives that intrigued the Allies, though. The major obstacle to providing aid to Finland was the determined neutrality of Norway and Sweden. Baltic geography was such that the Allies could get help to the Finns only if they were granted transit rights through these two countries. Such rights were resolutely refused, both governments being justifiably afraid of giving Germany or Russia any excuse to intervene in the north. From the Anglo-French point of view, transit rights were highly desirable, because they would probably lead to more than that. If the British and French sent troops to Finland, they would do so across central or northern Norway and Sweden. The prize here was the control of Swedish iron ore being sent to Germany.

Swedish ore came out of the Gallivare iron fields, which were north of the Gulf of Bothnia. In summer, the ore was sent by rail to the Swedish port of Lulea at the head of the gulf, and then taken by ship south through the Baltic. In winter, however, the Gulf of Bothnia froze over. Then ore went by rail across the frontier to the Norwegian port of Narvik. It then went south by ship through Norwegian coastal waters, known as the Norwegian Leads, to Germany and the rest of the world.

The Allies, in the process of considering troops for Finland, centered also on Swedish iron. They were thinking in terms of economic warfare and blockade of Germany. If in transit to Finland they occupied the Gallivare fields, they would shut off a major supply of German ore. The British were also conscious of the desirability of making their naval blockade as tight as possible and they knew that the Germans had used the officially neutral Norwegian Leads heavily during the last war. The Royal Navy was therefore eager to mine the Leads, or to occupy Narvik, or indeed to do anything, under Churchill’s eager prodding, that would make the war a little livelier.

As early as mid-February, the problem of the Norwegian Leads had become front-page news. The German supply ship Altmark, which had served as tender to the raider Graf Spee, was making her way back home to Germany. She was carrying nearly 300 imprisoned British merchant-navy men hidden below decks and was sailing down through the Leads. A cursory Norwegian search had failed to find the prisoners, so the British, after protestations of good intent, had sent in a destroyer division, violated Norwegian neutrality, boarded the Altmark, and rescued the sailors. The Norwegians protested, but were embarrassed by the fact that they had missed the prisoners. The British pointed out that the Germans were the original sinners, and they were just reacting to it. Hitler was furious at what he regarded as violation of his right to violate other peoples’ rights. By mid-February, then, the Germans as well as the Allies were thinking of occupying Scandinavian territory, and everyone’s plans matured soon after.

In March, the British and French had gotten close enough to action to be loading troops in northern Scottish ports, ready to go. They had then had the ground cut from under them by the Finnish collapse. Once the Finns asked for an armistice, there was no more pretense of going to their aid, and no excuse for moving into northern Norway and Sweden. They downgraded their operation to the mining of Narvik harbor and the Norwegian Leads. As they were doing this, the Germans struck.

The German plan and operation were both masterpieces of improvisation. On February 21, Hitler called in a relatively obscure general, Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, and told him he was to command the operation; von Falkenhorst spent the afternoon with a travel-guide book and came back with the nucleus of a plan and a list of his operational requirements. The navy, the key element in the affair, was called in only later, but the German machine slipped readily into high gear. Within a week, Hitler decided to occupy Denmark on the way by, as an afterthought.

The German flotilla put to sea late on April 7. By coincidence, that day the British were starting out on their mining of the Leads. Churchill, moving more and more to the front as the pusher on the war in the British cabinet, had wanted to act earlier, but had been delayed by consultation with the French. The German forces were spotted by British reconnaissance planes, but the information was misinterpreted. The Admiralty knew something was going on in the north German ports, but it was preoccupied with the idea that the German fleet was preparing a breakout into the Atlantic. This preconception was reinforced by the fact that the sightings were of fleet units rather than transport vessels, as most of the German invasion troops were carried aboard warships. As the British Home Fleet sailed, therefore, it headed for an interception point that would block the breakout which never came, while the unmolested Germans followed the Norwegian coast north.

The Norwegian government was warned of what was afoot, but the army was capable only of local defense at best. It consisted of about 15,000 men, plus small reserve forces. The government hoped to the end that Norwegian neutrality could be preserved, and it was also to a certain extent victim of divided counsels. There were substantial numbers of German sympathizers in Norway, though the extent to which they sabotaged Norway’s defenses has probably been overstated; in reality, there were few defenses anyway.

The Germans struck simultaneously in several places. Early on the morning of the 9th, heavy naval forces entered Oslo fiord, the long reach approaching the capital. They hoped that by speed and bluff they might even get ashore unopposed, but the coastal forts were waiting for them, and in the fiord they took severe losses, including the sinking of the heavy cruiser Blucher. The check allowed the Norwegian royal family to escape northward, but von Falkenhorst responded swiftly. He had originally intended to bring in troops by air as reinforcements for the seaborne landing; now he reversed that, and even while his ships were being held up, he landed troops at Oslo’s airport, Fornebu. This small airborne force, only 3,000 men, managed to secure the city and keep it quiet until the coastal forts were subdued, whereupon the original assault force landed at the docks.

The Germans poured ashore right up the coast. They landed at Kristiansand, 2,500 men came in by aircraft at Stavanger, 2,000 by ship at Bergen, nearly the same number at Trondheim. Up in the north, ten destroyers supported by battlecruisers landed 2,000 men at Narvik. While all this went on, the Germans also moved into and occupied Denmark, against only sporadic resistance.

The Norwegians fought but they were caught by surprise, and their response was more a spastic reaction than a calculated campaign. In every case, the Germans were soon in possession of the ports and airfields, and the Norwegians were falling back in disarray into the countryside. The Germans rapidly brought in follow-up waves of reinforcements and heavy weapons and began in their turn fanning out to break up the Norwegians before they could fully organize.

There were chaotic and inconclusive naval clashes. Ships stumbled on each other through the fog and mists of the Norwegian Sea. The British destroyer Glowworm emerged from a squall to find herself facing four German destroyers and the pocket battleship Hipper, on their way to the landing at Trondheim. She responded to these daunting odds by ramming the Hipper, being sunk herself in the process. The Royal Navy might have been caught on the hop, but were still prepared to assert it was their ocean. The same day, a British submarine sank a German light cruiser in the strait between Denmark and Sweden, and the next day, dive-bombers of the Fleet Air Arm sank another one in Bergen Harbor.

Farther north, five British destroyers dashed up Narvik fiord and surprised the ten Germans who had landed troops there. They sank two and damaged three, for two losses of their own. On the way back out they ran into the supply ship carrying all the German ammunition for the landing force, and sank it too. Three days later, the British came back and finished the job, this time with the battleship Warspite, and the German Army units in Narvik found themselves all alone.

In the south the campaign hung in the balance. Within forty-eight hours of the landings the scattered Norwegians were trying to pull themselves together and hoping for help from the Allies. Air power decided the matter. German air control of southern Norway prevented the Royal Navy’s operating in adjacent water, so the Germans were quickly able to consolidate there. In central and northern Norway, however, the British could work. Within a week they had put forces ashore at Andalsnes and Namsos, either side of Trondheim, about 30,000 all told. They also landed another 15,000 at Narvik and began pushing the Germans back toward the Swedish frontier.

The Andalsnes force advanced south and linked up with the Norwegians in the valleys leading to Oslo. German air superiority told, however, and they found themselves flanked, strafed, and slowly forced back to the north. Eventually, they were back at Andalsnes, and evacuated on the 1st and 2nd of May. The Namsos unit had little-better luck; the Germans leapfrogged their air units northward, the Trondheim forces turned the Allies back, and they were back on ship on the 2nd and 3rd of May. The British tried to supply air cover from carrier-based planes, but the planes were inferior to land-based types, and the carriers themselves were put under attack. The aerial units that operated from shore, usually from frozen lakes, were soon overwhelmed by the Luftwaffe.

Only in the north was some kind of equilibrium established. The Narvik area was out of range of German air cover, and the British and French forces landed here were numerically superior to the Germans left stranded by their naval defeat. The Allies handily held the town, but did not quite get up enough momentum to drive the Germans over the border into Sweden and internment. Before the issue was decided, however, the campaign of France had opened, and the Allied forces, by then built up to 24,000, were pulled out in early June as the magnitude of the French disaster overwhelmed all other considerations. By then, the last Norwegian units were breaking up, King Haakon VII and his ministers had escaped to Britain and set up a government in exile, and Norway, like Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Denmark, was gone.

The results of all this were problematic but significant, both in the long and the short term. The Norwegian campaign made the Allies look pretty inept. Britain had been confident that the Royal Navy ruled wherever the water would float a keel; no one up to that point had any real experience of the relative value of air power versus sea power, or the ways in which they might have to be combined. It was therefore an inordinate shock to the British view of themselves and of the way the war ought to be fought, that German air power might reach across the open sea and snatch a country practically from under their noses. Again, since it was difficult to judge the effect of air superiority on land fighting also, their military response had looked as ill-handled as their naval one. Probably the most important side effect of all this was the fall of the Chamberlain government. In early April, he had announced complacently in the House of Commons that Hitler “had missed the bus.” Then came Norway. Ironically, it was partly through Churchill’s riding off in all directions at once that the campaign went quite as badly as it did, yet popular fury hit on Chamberlain the appeaser, rather than Churchill the fighter. Chamberlain resigned on the 10th and Churchill came to power as a result of a disaster that he himself had done as much as any one man to engineer.

On the other side of the fence, Norway made the Germans look as good as it did the Allies look bad. There had been close cooperation between land, sea, and air units, and the machine had functioned smoothly; setbacks and shortcomings were promptly rectified, and the Germans showed themselves to be expert opportunists. They derived very real benefits; the Swedish iron ore supply was now secured for the rest of the war. They also had a safe funnel to get raiders out into the Atlantic, and later on they would have both air and naval bases from which to attack Allied convoys to north Russia. The British blockade was further loosened, and the problems of controlling the sea magnified for them.

But there were drawbacks to this as well. For practical purposes the German Navy had been crippled, and its efficiency and its numbers were diminished for months to come. Later in the year, one of the items that would militate against the invasion of Britain would be the weakness of the navy, stemming in good part from its wounds in Norway. There was also the fact that the more territory Hitler conquered, the more he would have to garrison. He was always tied up in fantasies about Nordic Scandinavia and its military significance, and eventually he would put more than a quarter of a million men in Norway and Denmark, and keep them there for the rest of the war. The effort might have been better placed elsewhere—but that can be said of everything in war, and indeed of war itself.

The Norwegian Army command finally surrendered on June 9. By then the unhappy story of the campaign was back-page news.

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