The occupation of Norway in the spring of 1940 by Nazi Germany was swift and decisive. The German army quickly swept through Norway and in one month established its rule there. Its one weak area in the whole campaign was that many German troops had to be landed by sea and the control of the sea around Norway’s coast was vital.
General von Falkenhorst
The Royal Navy had attempted to fight the German landing fleets at Bergen and Trondheim. However, a clash with the German air force led to damage to the battleship ‘Rodney’ when it was hit by a 500-kg bomb. Though it failed to explode, damage was done to the battleship. A destroyer was lost and three cruisers were also damaged. This convinced the Admiralty that the ships in the area should withdraw and any attacks on German forces attacking Bergen were cancelled.
British submarines operating in the waters south of Norway were more successful in harassing the Germans. The Germans lost the cruiser ‘Karlsruhe’ and the ‘Lützow’ was badly damaged in another submarine attack. The activities of British submarines did a great deal to hinder the activities of German ships moving along the Norwegian coast, but they could never fully stop them. On April 10th, 1940, Skua planes from the Fleet Air Arm sunk the light cruiser ‘Königsberg’. On the same day, six British destroyers attacked ten German destroyers off Narvik. Two German destroyers were sunk in this attack and by 12th April, the remaining eight were sunk by a larger British force led by the battleship ‘Warspite’.
The Norwegian army was made ready to fight the Germans. When Hitler had demanded that the Norwegians surrender, the Norwegian reply stated “We will not submit voluntarily: the struggle is already in progress.” However, the Norwegian army was less than fully prepared for the invasion. As the Germans captured key ports and coastal cities, many army commanders moved their units further inland to take advantage of Norway’s rugged interior. Regardless of this, once the German army had organised itself, its progress was fast. By April 13th, just four days after the invasion started, the Germans had moved 70 miles out of Oslo and had captured Halden in the south-east of the city and Kongsberg, 55 miles to the south-west of Oslo. By April 20th, eleven days into the campaign, the German army had advanced 180 miles from the capital. The Norwegians put their faith in help from the British and French armies arriving in an effort to stem the advance of the Germans.
Originally, British planning had sought to establish bases at Narvik and Trondheim. However, the organisation around a landing in Norway had been fraught with problems. Troops in bases at Rosyth and the Clyde had embarked, disembarked and re-embarked so that stores had been lost in the process. Also little field artillery and armour was carried on board. So when the British army sailed it was not well ordered. The first British troops, led by Major-General Mackesy landed at Harstad, off Narvik, on April 15th. Admiral of the Fleet, the Earl of Cork and Orrery, commanded the Royal Navy around Narvik. Both Cork and Mackesy differed on what to do once British troops had landed in Harstad – in the Lofoten Islands and inadequate as a base for such an operation. Earl Cork wanted an immediate attack on Narvik before German forces built up there, while Mackesy wanted a more slow and deliberate campaign. By the time a decision on how to proceed had been made, April had moved on to May.
Why was Mackesy so reticent? He knew that British troops, professionals or not, were not trained to operate in the harsh conditions they found in the north of Norway. He wanted his men to have time to get used to the conditions they found themselves in. While this was happening, the Norwegians in Narvik had to bear the brunt of the fighting against Germany’s mountain troops led by General Dietl.
A major landing at Trondheim was cancelled when the Joint Planning Staff expressed their concerns about it – despite the support for such an operation by Winston Churchill, then Chairman of the Military Co-ordination Committee.
Instead of a major landing by the Allies at Trondheim, smaller landings were made north and south of the city at Namsos and Andalsnes respectively. The idea was that the Allied units would then move against Trondheim itself in a pincer movement. The 146th Infantry Brigade landed at Namsos on April 16th and the 148th Infantry Brigade landed at Andalsnes on April on April 18th. At both landing spots, the British joined up with Norwegian forces.
On April 21st, the Germans attacked the 148th in strength. The 146th had already encountered German troops and both brigades suffered. The Germans had trained troops specifically for war in the mountains and they were suitably equipped. The British were also using Territorial Army troops in Norway who were not a match for the Germans. From April 21st on, the British had to withdraw from the positions they held. On May 2nd, British troops were re-embarking at Namsos and withdrawing from Norway.
British troops captured near Trondheim
Three things had forced the Cabinet and the Chiefs-of-Staff to withdraw from Norway.
Ø The British troops in Norway were all from infantry units and other units with different skills were needed in Norway, particularly artillery units.
Ø The Germans threatened to cut off the British troops in Norway – loosing so many men would have had serious consequences, both militarily and psychologically, at such an early stage of the war.
Ø The Germans dominated the air giving them complete superiority in both aerial attack and defence. Britain only had access to long range Blenheim bombers and fighters carried on Britain's aircraft carriers. The Fleet Air Arm's Skuas which had succeeded in attacking the 'Königsberg' had been pushed to the very limits of their endurnace. German fighters and bombers could fly from the relative security of their bases in northern Denmark. Refueling and rearming them was an easy process. German planes could spend time over Norway while the planes that Britain had could not - an ironic turnaround compared to the Battle of Britain.
On April 28th, the British commander in Trondheim, General Paget, decided that evacuation was the only option left to the British. This evacuation left Narvik as the only centre of Allied opposition to the German invasion. The Earl of Cork was appointed overall commander of the Allied forces around Narvik. However, Cork faced one major obstacle – the German troops freed up in the southern sectors of Norway, could now help the German troops around Narvik. In this northern sector, Hurricane fighter planes were sent to protect ground troops. The Hurricane was more than a match for the German fighter planes in the region but the damage had already been done.
The German advance throughout Norway was relentless. The campaign in Western Europe was also unfolding and at the end of May, the British Cabinet decided on a withdrawal from the whole of Norway. King Haakon of Norway was embarked with his government on June 7th at Tromsö onto the cruiser ‘Devonshire’ and by June 9th the campaign was over.
By the standards of World War Two, the campaign in Norway was small. 1,335 Norwegians were killed or wounded, 1,869 British were killed or wounded and 533 French and Polish troops were killed or wounded. The Germans lost 5,660 killed or wounded of whom 1,317 were killed on land with nearly 2,500 being killed at sea. The speed with which Germany conquered Norway was to set a marker for the attack on Western Europe. Britain's failure in Norway was to also have major political consequences with the resignation of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who was replaced by Winston Churchill.