The Scandinavian cockpit

WINTER 1939–1940

Hitler intended to conquer Britain, or at least to bring Britain to her knees, before turning his armies against Russia. Stalin intended to protect Soviet neutrality for as long as possible. In August 1939 he had made his pact with Hitler; this had not only spared him involvement in the German—Polish war in defence of Poland, but had given him a substantial swathe of Polish territory. Following the German defeat of Poland, Stalin had still further protected himself against a possible German attack by asserting Soviet predominance over, and acquiring military bases in, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, thus making sure that the Baltic Sea would not be used against him, at least not as easily as it might have been without control of the Baltic States. At the end of November he had sought to establish a Communist government in Finland; this had failed. Now he strove to conquer at least a defensive belt of territory from Finland.

Did Stalin foresee a German onslaught on the Soviet Union? On 15 November 1939 he had approved a decision of the Red Army’s Chief Military Council to reduce by more than one third the strength of the permanent border Fortified Areas. Six days later, he himself had been present at a session of the council which decided to disband all the Soviet tank corps as soon as possible, in deference to the views of General Kulik, that cavalry still had a major part to play in war. Undoubtedly there were decisions which weakened the Soviet defence capacity. At the same time, he tried to drive as hard a bargain as possible with Hitler; by a commercial agreement signed in Moscow on 11 February, 1940, the Soviet Union, in return for oil and agricultural products, was to receive manufactured goods, arms and the blueprints of the most recent developments in naval armaments, as well as prototypes of the most recent aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery, bombs and tanks.

Hitler accepted Stalin’s demands. He was determined to do everything necessary to keep the Soviet Union neutral while Germany attacked in the West. Even the blueprints of Germany’s most modern battleship, the Bismarck, were handed over. Hitler was still confident that he could in due course conquer Russia, but he was equally certain that he could not win in the West unless he could be guaranteed a one-front war. Yet even in the West there were dangers. One, of which he knew nothing, was the sinking by a minesweeper, HMS Gleaner, on February 12 of a German submarine, U-33. From the submarine, once she settled at thirty fathoms, were recovered three Enigma rotors. This marked one more step forward in the slow breaking of Germany’s most secret wartime communications system. Unfortunately for Britain, and luckily for Hitler, the three naval Enigma keys could not be broken. But they did give the British Government’s cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, north-west of London, an important insight into German operating procedures. The three cypher keys recovered from the submarine were given the code names ‘Dolphin’, ‘Pike’ and ‘Oyster’, and strenuous efforts were put in train to break them. ‘Dolphin’, which was used by all German surface vessels, was briefly broken, giving Britain a short, temporary advantage.

For his skill in sinking the submarine, and in recovering its precious Enigma rotors, the Captain of the Gleaner, Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Price, was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order.

While British Intelligence continued to try to develop methods of decrypting more of the most secret German messages, which they could as yet read only irregularly, Soviet Intelligence was able to keep a close watch on the vulnerable Soviet frontier with Japan. All Stalin’s calculations about when and how to act in the West, if he were to act at all, had to take into account the substantial Soviet frontier with Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Japan’s strength and intentions were an integral part of the Soviet policy equation.

Soviet Intelligence was fortunate that a German journalist in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, who was a Soviet agent, had close contacts inside the German Embassy. Indeed, the Embassy staff, and even the Ambassador, frequently called on Sorge for his views and comments; in September 1939 the Embassy had appointed him editor of their daily news bulletin. On February 16 Sorge was able to send Moscow a detailed account of the Japanese output of munitions, aircraft and trucks, together with a report on the factories which made them, and on the iron and steel production of Japan. Using the code name ‘Ramsay’, Sorge enabled Stalin to gauge the danger threatened on his most distant, but no less vulnerable flank.

It was from German Intelligence’s reading of British naval signals that Hitler learned of a threat to Germany very close to home; the Anglo-French plan to land a military force at Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim, as decided upon by Britain and France on February 5. At German Army Headquarters at Zossen, near Berlin, a special unit under Hitler’s personal supervision, headed by a naval captain, Theodor Krancke, worked to organize a counter-move. The plan which the unit evolved was to land German troops at seven points: not only Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, but also Arendal, Kristiansand and Oslo, the Norwegian capital. On February 21 Hitler appointed General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst to command the invasion; working with Captain Krancke’s unit, von Falkenhorst widened the plan to include the invasion of Denmark, in order to secure the lines of communication between Germany and Norway.

A new war was in the offing; British and German naval, air and Army personnel were in training. British troops who had been preparing to go to France were told that there was a new destination with new conditions, including ice and snow. Their training was to be adapted accordingly. On the evening of February 24, Pilot Officer Reginald Whitmarsh, aged twenty, took off from Croydon aerodrome in a Blenheim bomber on his first practice solo night flight. He crashed on take-off, hitting a house at the edge of the aerodrome. Whitmarsh was killed. So too, in the house, were a mother, Doris Bridge, and her five-year-old daughter Jill. Commenting on the accident, the coroner said that Whitmarsh had died ‘no less gallantly and bravely’ than if he had been in battle.

British pilots were in the air on February 25, at the start of an intensive, six-day mission over Berlin, Bremen, Kiel, Lübeck, Cologne and Hamburg. This was the largest leaflet-dropping campaign of the war. The leaflets, known in the Air Ministry as ‘white bombs’, were intended to warn of the evils of Nazism; in Poland no such warnings were needed. An eye-witness report sent from Katowice on February 27, and reaching the West, where it was immediately publicized by the Polish Government in exile in Paris, told of ‘mass executions’ of Poles near the city’s municipal park: ‘Among the victims were priests. Their eyes were bandaged with pocket handkerchiefs. After the volley had been fired, these same handkerchiefs, bloodstained though they might be, were used to bandage the eyes of others of the condemned. One of the priests was not killed and began to rise. He was then despatched by blows from gun-butts’.

The military purposes of Germany were not served by such executions; at the end of February, in an attempt to make full and effective use of the mass of manpower now at Germany’s disposal, it was decided in Berlin to find someone who would supervise and centralize the direction of labour, including that of the conquered Czechs and Poles, in munitions factories throughout the Reich. The man chosen for this task was Dr Fritz Todt; the system which he was to set up, known as the Todt Organization, was soon to become the largest single employer of labour in Germany, sending men and women to industrial regions throughout the Reich where munitions bottlenecks or deficiencies needed to be put right. At the same time, Todt ensured that the arms industry made the most economical use possible of raw materials and metals which were in short supply.

Allied organization was proving less effective. Even Britain’s Force ‘Stratford’, the promised military expedition to Finland due to start on March 20, would, the Finnish Minister to London told Lord Halifax on March 1, come ‘too late’ to help Finland. That same day, the British Chiefs of Staff warned that, as a military operation, the expeditionary force would not work; even ‘mild’ opposition from Sweden, as now seemed likely, would make it impossible for the Franco-British force to reach Finland in time to be of help, or even to reach the iron ore fields at Gällivare en route, ‘before a German force could get there’. On March 4 ‘Stratford’ was abandoned. One member of the British War Cabinet was much relieved; Churchill was convinced that British involvement in the Russo-Finnish war ‘could not be regarded as a profitable diversion, since German forces were not engaged’. Any despatch even of further aircraft to Finland, he warned his War Cabinet colleagues, would ‘weaken ourselves against Germany.’

German plans to occupy Norway and Denmark were taken a stage nearer to completion on March 1, when Hitler issued a detailed directive, ‘Weser-exercise’, in the first paragraph of which he explained that this new operation of war ‘would anticipate English action against Scandinavia and the Baltic, would secure our supplies of iron ore from Sweden, and would provide the Navy and Air Force with expanded bases for operations against England’. Weakness in German numbers, Hitler added, ‘will be made good by skilful action and surprise in execution’. The campaign was to have ‘the character of a peaceful occupation, designed to protect by force of arms the neutrality of the northern countries’, but any Norwegian or Danish resistance would be ‘broken by all means available’.

The Norwegian campaign, Hitler concluded, would be the ‘most daring and most important undertaking in the history of warfare’.


On March 4 Soviet forces launched a massive attack on the Finnish city of Viipuri. The ice, which had hindered their earlier attacks because it was too thin, was now thick and hard, enabling them to attack across the water, bypassing the Mannerheim Line. One Soviet column crossed thirty-four miles of ice, attacking the Finnish coastline between Helsinki and Viipuri, in the rear of the city’s defenders. Soviet artillery set up its positions offshore, bombarding the Viipuri defence lines from the ice. These renewed bombardments continued throughout the night, as did Soviet bomber attacks from the air. Then, on the morning of March 5, the Soviet Government announced that it was ‘once more’ prepared to negotiate peace with Finland. The Finnish Government, unable to resist the renewed military onslaught, accepted. Shortly after midday on March 7, the Finnish Prime Minister, Risto Ryti, arrived in Moscow by air. He had come to talk peace; but around Viipuri the battle continued. On March 9, while Ryti was still in Moscow, a communiqué issued in Helsinki admitted that the second Finnish defence line had now been turned. ‘In these last bitter days of fighting’, Geoffrey Cox recalled, ‘the battle was more intense than at any time in the whole war.’

As the Russo-Finnish peace talks continued in Moscow, German preparations for the invasion of Norway continued. Anglo-French plans to go to Finland’s help having been abandoned, there was, from March 4, no British or French operation of war in prospect. ‘Those who understand the political and military situation’, Chaim Kaplan noted in his diary in Warsaw on March 7, ‘are going about like mourners. There is no ground for hope that the decisive action will come this spring, and lack of a decision means that our terrible distress will last a long time.’ On March 8, in Cracow, a Polish workman who was overheard by a member of the Gestapo humming the tune of the national anthem, ‘Poland Has Not Yet Perished’ was shot dead in the street.

The inability of Britain to take any initiative was highlighted on March 8, when the British Chiefs of Staff revealed, in a secret report, that of the 352 anti-aircraft guns intended for the British Expeditionary Force in France, only 152 had arrived. Of the forty-eight light anti-aircraft guns needed by the British Advanced Air Striking Force in France for its protection against a possible German counter-attack, not one had arrived. For the defence of Britain itself, the planned armaments had simply not become available; of 1,860 anti-aircraft guns considered the minimum needed for the Air Defence of Great Britain, no more than 108 were in place. These had been, of necessity, concentrated around naval bases and radar stations, leaving aircraft industries ‘and other vital points unprotected against the very form of attack which is likely to fall upon them’.

Britain’s own air activity was still confined to dropping leaflets. When leaflet raids were made on the Ruhr between March 5 and March 7, one of the pilots reported that ‘the glow of the blast-furnaces was easily seen’. On March 9, leaflets were dropped over Prague. That same day, an irate Englishman, H. Harwood, wrote to the magazine Time and Tide: ‘Finland is in extremis, Poland’s death-rattle echoes through Europe. In both cases lack of air power has been the decisive factor. There are doubtless many good reasons why we have been powerless to help, but is that a reason for adding mockery to impotence? If petrol and pilots are not to be lightly risked even for vital objects, what is the excuse for sending machines 1,400 miles across enemy country to drop leaflets?’

A decision was about to be made by the British War Cabinet to embark upon Britain’s first military operation of the war. It did so at the very moment when President Roosevelt’s Under-Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, was visiting Rome, Berlin, Paris and London, in search of a formula to bring the war to an end before it widened. Welles had spoken to Hitler in Berlin; on March 10 he reached London. But before Welles could put his peace proposals to Neville Chamberlain, the War Cabinet, over which Chamberlain presided, decided to send a British military force to the Norwegian port of Narvik, seizing a million and a half tons of iron ore waiting there for shipping to Germany, and preparing to move across the Swedish frontier to seize the iron ore fields at Gällivare. In addition to this Narvik operation, which was given the code name ‘Wilfred’, British forces would land at three other Norwegian ports, Trondheim, Stavanger and Bergen, in order to forestall any German counter-attack.

Later that day, when Sumner Welles explained his peace plan to Chamberlain and Halifax, stressing to them that it would involve the progressive disarmament of the belligerents, the British Ministers replied that ‘we could not trust Hitler; that even with a considerable measure of disarmament, Germany could easily overrun a weak country, e.g. Roumania’. Britain might agree, the ministers said, to give ‘a formal undertaking to the United States not to attack Germany’, but must be free to fulfil ‘obligations of assistance to a third party which might be a victim of German aggression’.

On the day after this declaration of principle, the British War Cabinet gave formal authority to the military landing at Narvik. Once news had been received of a successful landing there, a second force would land at Trondheim. Further forces would be held in readiness for Stavanger and Bergen. It was also decided, at this meeting on March 12, that no communication should be made to the Norwegian Government ‘as to our intention to land a force at Narvik’ until the ships had actually arrived at the port.

Britain’s decision to take this military initiative, and thereby, it was hoped, to deprive the Germans of their essential supplies of iron ore, was followed a day later by the signature in Moscow of a Russo-Finnish treaty. One war in Scandinavia had ended. Another, it seemed, was about to begin. But as soon as news of the Russo-Finnish Treaty reached London, the British War Cabinet reconsidered its decision and, on the morning of March 14, decided to abandon the Narvik plan altogether. Churchill protested vigorously, but in vain. The only effect of such an action, Lord Halifax warned his War Cabinet colleagues, ‘would be to drive the Norwegians and the Swedes into the arms of the Germans’. Operation Wilfred was dead.


Finland paid a heavy price for peace, ceding to Russia large tracts of territory along the Baltic coast and in the north, and leasing the Hango peninsula to Russia for thirty years. More than 27,000 Finnish soldiers had been killed. According to Molotov, the Russo-Finnish war had left 58,000 Russians dead.

For three and a half months, Soviet troops had been tested in a savage conflict; despite their losses, they had given notice of skill, tenacity and courage. Despite initial setbacks, they had taken full advantage of the rigours of winter. Above all, with their considerable numerical advantage in population, they had been able to call upon substantial reserves of manpower, far greater than those of their adversary. Frequently repulsed, they had always renewed the attack. ‘One more of the wars of history was over,’ wrote Geoffrey Cox, sitting that March 13 in a small Finnish café as the news of the end of the hostilities was broadcast. ‘Outside, the station clock, lit up for the first time since November 29, glowed against the sky, a twentieth-century sign that peace had come.’

For the people of Poland, there was no peace, and no prospect of peace. Even as Soviet and Finnish guns fell silent at the eastern end of the Baltic, from the port of Stettin and the former border town of Schneidemühl, north-east of Berlin, German Jews were being deported in sealed freight cars into the Lublin district. These deportations were completed on March 12. In a fourteen hour march on foot from Lublin eastward, through snow and biting winds, 72 of the 1,200 deportees from Stettin died of exposure.

On the night of March 15, two British bombers flew across the North Sea, Denmark and the Baltic to Warsaw, dropping between six and seven million leaflets on the former Polish capital. Both bombers, having flown so far and used up so much fuel, intended to return across Germany to airbases in France. One landed mistakenly in Germany itself, but, watched by astonished peasants, managed to take off again and reach France safely on the morning of March 16. That day, the Germans were more aggressively active, fifteen German bombers attacking the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, when the heavy cruiser Norfolk was hit by a bomb, and three officers killed. One bomb, falling on land, killed a civilian who was standing at the door of his cottage watching the raid. ‘There was considerable feeling in the country’, Churchill told the War Cabinet two days later, ‘that while the Germans used bombs we only dropped leaflets.’

A reprisal raid was at last prepared, and on March 19 fifty British bombers flew across the North Sea to drop their bombs on the German aeroplane base at Hornum, on the island of Sylt. Forty-one of the attacking planes claimed to have found their targets, but a British fighter reconnaissance flight later confirmed German assertions that no damage had been done. One British navigator, whose enthusiasm exceeded his navigational skills, led his pilot to the wrong island, the wrong sea and the wrong country, the bombs being dropped on the Danish island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea. Fortunately for Anglo-Danish relations, no damage was done.


Within Germany, a small group of diplomats, churchmen and soldiers had revived the discussions, originally begun at the time of Hitler’s threatened invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, for a means to step back from the brink of an all-out war with Britain. On March 16 one of these diplomats, Ulrich von Hassell, encouraged to do so by the former mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, discussed possible peace moves with two senior members of the German armed forces. One of these was General Ludwig Beck, the other, Colonel Oster. It appeared Pope Pius XII had expressed interest in some sort of negotiations, involving the ‘decentralization’ of Germany and a ‘plebiscite’ in Austria, provided that those who initiated them were also prepared to support ‘a change in the régime and an avowal of Christian morality’.

Nothing came of these talks; the anguish of the sincere but small opposition group was in stark contrast to the unrelenting work of military preparation and the consolidation of Nazi rule throughout Greater Germany. On March 17, the day after Ulrich von Hassell’s clandestine talk, Dr Fritz Todt was formally appointed Reich Minister for Weapons and Munitions, heralding a new era of industrial efficiency and the exploitation of captive labour.

On March 18, Hitler met Mussolini at the Brenner Pass, on the border between Greater Germany and Italy. The Italian dictator was anxious to secure a three- or four-month postponement of Germany’s Western offensive. Hitler declined to change his plans. Once France had been defeated, he said, Britain would come to terms. In France, there was emerging a new mood of defiance.

Two days after Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini, Daladier’s Government fell, and Paul Reynaud became Prime Minister of France. He at once proposed reviving the Anglo-French plan for action in Norwegian territorial waters, arguing, in a secret memorandum for the British War Cabinet, that the expected German retaliation after such an action would give Britain and France an opportunity to take control of the Swedish iron ore fields. Reynaud went even further; Britain and France, he said, should cut off Germany’s oil supply from Russia by bombing the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus.

Reynaud’s proposal to activate the Narvik—Gällivare operation was welcomed by the British Chiefs of Staff who, on March 26, told the War Cabinet that they were in the process of considering the question ‘of stopping the iron ore trade from Gällivare by certain naval operations’. These operations, they explained, would involve ‘infringing both Norwegian and Swedish territorial waters’. On the following afternoon their efforts were given a sudden urgency, when a report reached the Director of Intelligence at the Air Ministry in London that, according to Swedish Intelligence sources, the Germans were ‘concentrating aircraft and shipping for operations which Swedish intelligence consider might consist of seizure of Norwegian aerodromes and ports’.

All was set for a revival of the Anglo-French plan of action against Narvik. On March 28, Paul Reynaud flew to London for a meeting of the Supreme War Council.

Neville Chamberlain, despite his previous hesitations about these plans, was in combative mood. In order to ‘maintain the courage and determination of their peoples’, he said, ‘and also in order to impress neutrals, the Allies should take active measures’. His first proposal was to float naval mines down the River Rhine ‘immediately’. His second proposal was to take ‘all possible steps’ to prevent Germany obtaining iron ore from Sweden. It would be a ‘comparatively simple naval operation’, Chamberlain explained, ‘to block the route, at any particular moment, with a minefield. This would force the ore ships into the open sea, where they would be seized by a British naval squadron’. Chamberlain also proposed, as Reynaud had done, an attack on the Soviet oilfields at Baku in the Caucasus, in order to deny to Germany ‘supplies of oil of which she was very much in need’.

All three proposals for action were finally agreed, as was a timetable for them. Aerial reconnaissance of Baku was to begin on March 30. Naval mines were to be dropped by parachute into the Rhine on April 4, though this decision was later postponed. Minefields were to be laid in Norwegian territorial waters on April 5. Furthermore, if Germany invaded Belgium, British and French troops would move through Belgium to the German frontier ‘without waiting for a formal invitation to do so’.

These decisions were of course secret. But in a public communiqué issued that day it was announced that the British and French Governments had agreed that ‘they will neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement’.


The war at sea had continued since September 1939 with serious losses to Allied merchant shipping. On March 31 the German commerce raider Atlantis was ready to set sail on a marauding voyage which would see her sink twenty-two merchant ships, 145,697 tons in all. By the day of her sailing, 753,803 tons of Allied shipping had already been sunk in the waters around Great Britain by German submarines, a further 281,154 tons by mines, and 36,189 tons by German air attack. This substantial tonnage had been sunk for the total loss of only eighteen German submarines. In Berlin, the hopes of the opposition circle of which Ulrich von Hassell was part now looked to a senior member of the German General Staff, General Halder, to join them. On April 2, Hassell spoke to Carl Goerdeler, who had made contact with Halder. The result was not at all encouraging, however; Halder had refused to consider any action ‘for the time being’. England and France, he said, ‘had declared war on us, and one had to see it through’.

The German opposition to Hitler pinned its hopes on the unwillingness of generals and colonels to go to war with Britain—a war, they were convinced, that Germany could not win. But the tyranny which lay at the root of Nazism had already cowed the will to resist. Nor was it a tyranny that ever rested. On April 2, the day on which von Hassell learned of the abortive approach to General Halder, a distinguished German Social Democrat, Ernst Heilmann, was nearing death in Buchenwald concentration camp. Of Jewish parentage, Heilmann had been a deputy in the German Reichstag from 1928 to 1933. Arrested in 1933, he had been confined since then in several concentration camps, including Dachau. Continually subjected to harsh treatment, on one occasion he was attacked by bloodhounds that mangled his arms and hands. On April 3, he died in Buchenwald. The camp medical report, part of the meticulous bureaucracy of totalitarianism, called his death ‘a clear case of weakness and old age’. He was fifty-nine years old.


On April 2 Hitler gave the order that the invasion of Norway was to begin in five days’ time. As had happened the previous November, one of the first to pass on information to the West of the date of the offensive was Colonel Oster who, on the afternoon of April 3, told the Dutch Military Attaché, Colonel Jacobus Sas, of what had been decided. Sas passed on the information to both the Danish and Norwegian Naval Attachés. The Dane at once passed back the information to Copenhagen. But Oslo was not told; the Norwegian Attaché, Sas later learned, was sympathetic to the German interest.

In the early hours of April 3, the first three German supply ships, camouflaged as colliers, left the German shore of the Baltic for Narvik, a thousand miles to the north. The coal was real; underneath it, however, were hidden large quantities of artillery and ammunition. Two thousand troops had already embarked on ten destroyers, ready to sail north when the order was given. Further troops were under orders to be landed at Trondheim and Stavanger, Kristiansand, Bergen and Oslo. The German plan had kept its scale and purpose.

The British plan, now reduced to a mine-laying operation off the Norwegian coast, scheduled to begin on April 5, was about to be carried out without the knowledge that a far larger German operation was in prospect; in fact, although the British did not yet know it, the German landings would come four days later. British Intelligence reports from Norway and Sweden did however indicate, on the morning of April 3, that ‘substantial numbers’ of German troops were already on board ship in Stettin and Swinemünde harbours, with a further ‘strong force of troops’ ready to embark at Rostock.

Despite these indications, Neville Chamberlain declared, in a public speech on April 5, that ‘Hitler has missed the bus’. That day, a special British naval force left Scapa Flow, on its way to mine Norwegian waters. It was divided into two sections, one to lay mines off northern and the other off southern Norway. By ill-chance, the date of April 5 laid down by the Supreme War Council for mining Norwegian waters had been taken as the date on which the naval force was to sail from Britain, not the date on which it was to lay its mines. Throughout April 6 the two British forces steamed eastward across the North Sea, at the beginning of a three-day passage. That night, when the British ships were still forty-eight hours from Norwegian territorial waters, a reconnaissance aircraft of British Bomber Command reported ‘intense shipping activity and brilliantly lit wharves’ at the German port of Eckernförde, near Kiel. A little while later, at twenty-five minutes to midnight, another British reconnaissance aircraft sighted a large German ship, ‘possibly a battle-cruiser’, steaming twenty miles north of Heligoland.


Far from the North Sea, in a darkness which was not to be pierced even by the most secret of Intelligence reports, an event was taking place which was to leave its mark on the demonology of the war. Beginning on April 5, and continuing for nearly six weeks, small groups of Polish officers who had surrendered to the Red Army in September 1939, and had been held since then in prisoner-of-war camps in Russia, were taken under Soviet Secret Police escort from their camp in the village of Kozelsk in the direction of the nearby city of Smolensk. In all, 5,000 Poles set off on this journey, leaving Kozelsk in groups of between sixty and three hundred. Not one of them was to reach Smolensk. Instead, still dressed in military uniform, their hands in most instances tied behind their backs, they were taken to a small wooded area near the village of Katyn, and shot in the back of the neck. It was to be three years before their bodies were discovered. The bodies of a further 10,000 Polish officers, likewise captured in September 1939 by Soviet forces, and held in captivity in Russia, have never been discovered.


On Sunday April 7, while the two British minelaying forces were on their last day’s journey across the North Sea, ready to mine Norwegian territorial waters, German warships left their Baltic harbours and headed northward, carrying below decks an army of troops for the landing on Norwegian soil. When the first news of this reached the Admiralty in London it was not believed. A Danish Intelligence report, based in all probability on what Colonel Oster had told Colonel Sas, who had passed it on to his Danish colleague in Berlin, stated that Hitler had ordered ‘the unostentatious movement of one division in ten ships to land at Narvik’, with simultaneous occupation of Denmark. The date given for the arrival at Narvik was April 8. ‘All these reports’, the British Admiralty Intelligence Division concluded, ‘are of doubtful value and may well be only a further move in the war of nerves.’

When, a few hours later, news of the actual German seaborne troop movements reached London, the British naval force which was to have laid the southern minefield was ordered to turn back. Had it not done so, it would have run straight into the German warships. The northern force continued on its way.

On April 8, having reached Norwegian territorial waters, the British northern minelaying force began to lay its mines. As it did so, the German invasion fleet continued to sail unmolested towards its various objectives. In the early hours of April 9, German warships were off Trondheim, Bergen and Stavanger; at dawn, four more German warships were reported entering Oslo Fjord. At Narvik, as correctly reported by the downplayed Danish Intelligence report, ten German destroyers landed two thousand German troops. The local Norwegian commander was a supporter of Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s former Foreign Minister and leading fascist sympathiser; he ordered the garrison to allow the Germans to land unopposed. This news, when it reached the War Cabinet in London, caused particular dismay; the original British plans to land at Narvik, later laid aside, had envisaged a landing on March 20, nearly three weeks earlier.

At Bergen, Kristiansand and Trondheim, as well as at Narvik, German troops came ashore during the early hours of April 9. They also occupied Copenhagen. The Danish King, Christian X, knowing that his Army was in no condition to resist, ordered an immediate ceasefire, but the Commander-in-Chief of the Danish forces, General Pryor, refused to pass on the order, hoping that armed resistance could continue. At 6.45 that morning, however, the King’s adjutant passed the order on. Denmark now followed Poland, to become Hitler’s second military conquest.

Later that morning, the German Minister in Oslo handed the Norwegian Government a note demanding the surrender of Norway to a German administration. ‘In event of refusal, all resistance will be crushed.’ The demand was refused. Two hours later, as German parachute troops landed, the Norwegian Government evacuated its capital transferring it to Hamar, seventy miles to the north.

That afternoon, Reynaud flew to London with his Foreign Minister, Edouard Daladier, for a meeting of the Supreme War Council. It was agreed that ‘strong forces’ should be sent to Norway. Their destination would be ‘ports on the Norwegian seaboard’. It was also agreed to ask the Belgian Government to invite British and French forces into Belgium. But the Belgians refused to agree; they intended, they said, ‘to keep a policy of absolute neutrality’.

Late that afternoon, Reynaud and Daladier returned to Paris. From Oslo, General von Falkenhorst telegraphed to Hitler: ‘Norway and Denmark occupied as instructed.’ Hitler was overjoyed, telling Alfred Rosenberg: ‘Now Quisling can set up his Government in Oslo.’ Quisling did so, becoming Prime Minister of the country that he so wished to lead according to the fascist code. All did not go well, however, for the new Norway, or for the invading forces. On April 10, to Hitler’s intense anger, five British destroyers entered the harbour at Narvik and sank two of the ten German destroyers. But one of the British destroyers was sunk, one beached, and the commander of the attack, Captain Warburton-Lee, was killed.

Norwegian forces, loyal to the King, and refusing to accept the Quisling Government’s submission to German rule, regrouped as best they could and prepared to fight; thousands of young Norwegians joined the units which took up positions along the narrow, winding mountain roads, still covered in their winter cloak of snow. One such volunteer was Eiliv Hauge, a clerk; he first saw action on April 11, as a column of German buses filled with troops wound its way inland towards his unit’s position. The Norwegians had blocked the road with tree-trunks. As the Germans began to leave the buses, the Norwegians opened fire. Within minutes, Hauge later recalled, four buses were ablaze. Dead and wounded Germans lay in the road. White flags of truce were waved—in vain. ‘Coming shamefully of age’, as the historian of this episode has written, ‘Hauge and his comrades fired on these, too, until two hundred Germans lay silent in the snow.’

There was a strange contrast between this Norwegian unit in action for the first time, and the British units stationed in France. ‘There’s nothing doing on the Western Front,’ Ronald Cartland, an officer and a Member of Parliament, wrote home on April 12. ‘We’ve settled in again to a comparatively peaceful war existence. The “Season” is with us. I give “smart” lunch parties and dine out twice a week with other Batteries!’

In London it was decided by the War Cabinet that April 12 to land a military force at Narvik, to dislodge the Germans, make touch with the Norwegian troops in the neighbourhood, and cross, with War Cabinet sanction still to be given, into Sweden, to destroy the iron ore installations at Gällivare, the objective of the earlier, abandoned scheme. On the following day, before any such landing could take place, British warships, in a second action at Narvik, sank the eight remaining German destroyers. That same day, British troops landed at two more Norwegian ports: Åndalsnes, to the south of Trondheim, and Namsos to the north. Hitler, alarmed at this adverse turn of events, ordered the evacuation of Narvik.

For the British, the weather in Norway was proving as much a hardship as for the Germans. The British troops at Namsos reported on April 15 that the town was under four feet of snow, with no cover from possible air attack. A British force of six hundred, due to cross the North Sea and land at Ålesund, had been held up throughout April 15 by gales off the coast of Scotland. In the Narvik area, where British troops were now ashore at Harstad, Salangen and Bogen, deep snow, and a night-time temperature of zero fahrenheit, had created the added danger of frostbite and amputations. At Namsos, German gunfire made it impossible for the British military commander, General Carton de Wiart, to disembark from the flying boat which had brought him from Britain. Off Narvik, the destroyer Kimberley had suffered casualties from German machine gun fire from the shore. On April 16, a plan, approved by the War Cabinet, to seize the forts at Trondheim, using a thousand of the Canadian troops then in Britain, had to be postponed for at least six days, after the Chiefs of Staff had reported that the assault as planned would be ‘costly in execution’. There were signs, one of Neville Chamberlain’s Private Secretaries wrote in his diary that night, that the Norwegians ‘will lose heart unless quickly assured of substantial support’.

A clash of armies had begun along the whole length of the Norwegian coastline. On April 17, eight days after his troops had landed at so many points in apparent triumph, Hitler sent out the order: ‘Hold on as long as possible.’ More than 13,000 British troops were now ashore north of Narvik and north and south of Trondheim. French troops, units of the French Foreign Legion, and Polish naval units seeing action for the second time in nine months, participated in all the zones of operation. Against them, the German Air Force turned its dive-bombing aircraft which had struck with such devastating effect against troop concentrations and movement during the ‘lightning war’ in Poland. The German High Command also had a precious advantage in the Norwegian fighting, as a result of being able to read more than thirty per cent of the British naval signals in the North Sea and Norwegian area; this led to many ships being found and attacked which might otherwise have proceeded unmolested.

Britain, too, was not without an Intelligence window on German military and air operations. Beginning on April 15, the Government Cypher and Signals School at Bletchley Park had broken the relatively uncomplicated Enigma key which had been introduced for use by the German Air Force and Army during the Norwegian campaign. The number of messages sent through Enigma, and therefore read at Bletchley, was voluminous. Most of them were now decrypted within a few hours, and some within an hour, of their transmission by the German stations. Not only air and Army matters, but also such naval matters as concerned the other two services, were being decrypted each day from 15 April. A mass of information, not only on the state of the German organization and supplies, but also on their intentions, was decrypted at Bletchley.

The Intelligence authorities were completely unprepared, however, to make use of what Churchill was later to call the ‘golden eggs’. Neither Bletchley itself, conclude the historians of British Intelligence, nor the Government departments concerned, ‘were equipped to handle the decrypts efficiently’. No secure means had yet been prepared for transmitting the precious information to the commanders in the field, or even of explaining to them the nature of its unique insight into enemy actions and plans.

The breaking of the Norway Enigma Key, a triumph of cryptography, thus had no influence on the course of the Norwegian campaign. With the ending of the campaign, its use by the Germans was to be discontinued. Nor was a similar opportunity to read the German messages so swiftly and so completely to arise until almost another month had passed. In the Intelligence war, Germany, not Britain, had been the victors in Norway.

The land war was also going badly for Britain; for several days beginning on April 17, the War Cabinet’s plan to land a force at Narvik was strenuously opposed by the British military commander at Harstad, General Mackesy. ‘There is not one officer or man under my command,’ Mackesy telegraphed to London on April 21, ‘who will not feel shame for himself and his country if thousands of Norwegian men, women and children in Narvik are subject to the bombardment proposed.’ Mackesy’s opposition was decisive. The plan to seize Narvik was abandoned. With it was also abandoned the plan, already postponed earlier, to seize Trondheim, using a substantial part of the forces which would have driven the Germans from Narvik. Hitler, so despondent on April 12, was now, after scarcely a week, elated; on his fifty-first birthday, April 20, he had ordered the establishment of a new SS regiment, Norland, in which Norwegians and Danes would serve alongside Germans. ‘Who knows’, General Rommel wrote in a private letter on April 21, ‘whether any other German exists with such a genius for military leadership and such a matching mastery of political leadership too!’

Hitler’s political acumen was seen on April 24, when he appointed a German Nazi Party official, Josef Terboven, to take over effective control of Norway from Vidkun Quisling. After only fifteen days, the man whose name was to come to represent betrayal of one’s country was pushed from his brief pinnacle of power.

In Poland, torture and killing had continued without abatement. On April 14, 220 Poles, including many women and children, had been seized in several villages and hamlets near Serokomla; all were shot. At Stutthof, on the evening of April 23, during the first hours of the Jewish festival of Passover, when Jews celebrate their liberation from bondage in ancient Egypt, all Jews in the camp were ordered to run, drop to the ground, stand up and run again, without respite. Anyone who was too slow in obeying the order was beaten to death by the overseer with his rifle butt. A Polish prisoner at Stutthof, in reporting this episode of mock celebration, also told of how the SS had harnessed a Jewish sculptor to a cart filled with sand. They had then forced him to run with the cart, while flogging him with a lash. When he collapsed in pain and exhaustion, they tipped the cart over him, burying him under the sand. He managed to crawl out, whereupon, amid much glee, they doused him in water, and then hanged him. But the rope was too thin, and broke. They then brought a young Jewess who was pregnant and, with scornful laughter, hanged them both on a single rope.

The killing of Jews had become a matter of laughter and mockery; the persecution of Poles was also terrible. On April 29 a thirty-nine-year-old SS man, Rudolf Hoess, arrived in the newly established camp at Auschwitz with five other SS men. Calculating the future size of the camp, and the nature of the punishments and hard labour to be instituted against their Polish prisoners, they ordered thirty German convicted criminals, to be sent from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in order to serve as barrack chiefs in the new camp.

On May 1 the German authorities in Poland ordered the establishment of a ‘closed’ ghetto in the industrial city of Lodz. More than 160,000 Jews lived in the city; now they were not to be allowed out of a limited, overcrowded area. Of the 31,721 apartments in the ghetto area allocated to them, most with a single room, only 725 had running water. On May 1, German police were ordered to shoot without warning any Jew who might approach the barbed-wire fence which now surrounded the area.

A few Germans were so disturbed by such developments that they protested to their superiors. At the end of April, the President of the Berlin police, Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, once one of Hitler’s most enthusiastic and prominent supporters, heard from his deputy, Canstein, details of his recent visit to Cracow. On May 1, Count Helldorf went to see Colonel Oster, to tell him of Canstein’s impressions. He had found the local SS chief in Cracow in a state ‘bordering on hysteria’ because neither he nor his men felt capable of carrying out their orders unless they made themselves drunk first. No one who performed tasks such as they did, Helldorf told Oster, could come back and live a normal life.

Oster than asked Helldorf about morale in Berlin, to which the Police President replied that only thirty-five to forty per cent of the population of the capital were in favour of the war.


During the last three days of April 1940, British and French troops prepared to withdraw from their precarious Norwegian footholds. On April 29 the Norwegian military commander, General Ruge, whose troops had fought a series of rearguard actions in the south, warned the British General withdrawing from Åndalsnes that unless the Norwegians could hope for ‘further Allied intervention’ he would advise the Norwegian Government to begin peace negotiations. In reply, the British General was authorized by the War Cabinet in London to say that although the Allied forces in central Norway were withdrawing, those north of Namsos would be reinforced, ‘as a preliminary to counter-attack southwards’. On the day on which this reply was transmitted to the Norwegians, German troops which had set off from Oslo and Trondheim on 10 April linked forces. ‘That is more than a battle won’, was Hitler’s comment, ‘it is an entire campaign!’

Hitler no longer had to worry about any last minute shifts and changes in Allied plans in northern Norway; on April 30 he ordered the German Army to be ready to launch Operation Yellow against the West within twenty four hours of any day from May 5.

The British, not knowing exactly where the blow would fall, withdrew almost a whole division from France on May 2, fearing that a German landing on British soil might be a part of Hitler’s military plan. Any Enigma messages from Berlin to the senior German commanders, which might have revealed all, could not be decrypted. The Norway Enigma triumph, so unexpected as to be without the means of exploitation, was not to be repeated over France or the Channel in time to influence the British retreat to the coast.

Off Namsos, the Royal Navy, arriving to evacuate the troops ashore, found the town itself ablaze. The first ship to reach the quayside was the destroyer Kelly, commanded by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a great grandson of Queen Victoria. The Kelly took off 229 French troops, ferried them to a waiting transport, and returned to evacuate more. From the air, the Germans, aware of all British naval movement as a result of reading and decoding the messages passing from ship to ship, bombed the evacuating force continuously. A French destroyer, the Bison, was hit and blew up. The British destroyer Afridi, hurrying to rescue the survivors, was herself hit, and eventually capsized. The Kelly, more fortunate, shot down at least one of the German dive-bombers. ‘What a party’, was Mountbatten’s comment, ‘but what luck it was no worse’.

As German troops prepared to open hostilities in the West, the last act of the northern drama was being played out. On May 4 a Polish destroyer, the Grom, was hit by German bombs near Narvik, and broken in two; fifty-six Polish sailors were killed. While British warships steamed to the rescue, German machine gunners opened fire from the shore at the wounded men floundering about in the water. It was the old British battleship Resolution which rescued the men. Once they were aboard, its band struck up the Polish hymn, ‘While Yet We Live, Poland Shall Not Perish!’ One of the Poles who had been rescued later recalled: ‘Our eyes were wet, but our hearts were throbbing with a new sense of power, with the promise of life.’

As had happened the previous November, bad weather forced a series of short postponements to Operation Yellow, though only until May 8. Also as in November, news of the planned attack, as well as details of each of the postponements, was passed on by Colonel Oster to the Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin, Colonel Sas. Among those who opposed the attack in the West was General Beck; he, with Colonel Oster’s support, instructed a Catholic lawyer, Dr Joseph Müller, to travel to Rome, ostensibly on a secret service mission, in order to warn the Vatican, and through the Vatican the Allies, of Hitler’s intentions.

With the agreement of the Pope, the information brought by Dr Müller was sent by coded radio message to the papal nuncios in both Brussels and The Hague. These messages were heard by the German radio monitoring services, and decoded. Canaris was at once ordered to investigate the leak, of which he himself was the true source. With what has been described as ‘a stroke of genius equalled only by its wit’, Canaris ordered Dr Müller, who had just returned from Rome, to return there to investigate how the news of the invasion date could have leaked out. Hitler, unaware that his own Intelligence chief was betraying him, went ahead with his plans. Even prior warning could not help to mitigate the effect of the overwhelming superiority of the blow which he had devised. It was on May 7 that Hitler was shown two decoded telegrams which the Belgian Ambassador to the Vatican had just sent to Brussels. He was not deflected from his course. Nor did he need to be; on May 8 a British Intelligence summary, prepared by the War Office in London, stated that there was ‘still no sign’ that an invasion of Belgium or France was imminent, though some action was to be expected ‘in the immediate future’. Germany’s dispositions, the report warned, would enable her to move against Holland ‘at any moment with a minimum of notice’.

Off the Dutch coast, German minelayers were at work, laying the mines with which to deter any British naval effort in support of Holland. On May 9 the destroyer Kelly, having been withdrawn from Norway, was among the British warships searching for the minelayers. Attacked by a German submarine, she was crippled, but survived. Twenty-seven of her crew were killed. Her captain, Lord Louis Mountbatten, brought her back across the North Sea, to sail and fight again.


Early on the morning of May 9, following favourable weather reports, Hitler set May 10 as the day of his Western offensive. Every indication was favourable to this expansion of the war. In London, two days earlier, the Air Ministry had informed the War Cabinet that, at the estimated scale for active air operations over France, Britain’s reserves of petrol and aviation fuel ‘would only last some ten to eleven weeks’. Throughout May 9, Hitler’s senior commanders studied a mass of valuable Intelligence, partly from British Army documents captured in Norway, which provided them with details of the British order of battle in France. Further details came from the coded radio messages passing between the French Ministry of War in Paris and the French military forces along the border. From these messages, picked up by radio and quickly decoded, the German High Command was able to learn the dispositions and qualities of the Allied forces that would be against them: their size, unit by unit; their plan of campaign to advance to the River Dyle when the German attack began, and the knowledge that the French had no plans to launch an effective counter-attack against the flank of the main German line of advance.

On the afternoon of May 9, Hitler left Berlin. To maintain strict security, it was intimated even to his staff that he was on his way to Oslo. That evening, when his special train reached Hanover, the code word ‘Danzig’ was sent out to the commanders in the field: the attack on Holland, Belgium and France was to go ahead. Hitler’s train continued westward. Shortly before dawn on May 10, having crossed the Rhine, it reached Euskirchen, a small German town less than thirty miles from the Belgian frontier. An hour later, an ambitious, hazardous and daring offensive was under way.

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