Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany on April 9th 1940. Hitler had issued the order for the invasion of Norway on March 1st under the code word “Weserübung”. The order also included the invasion and occupation of Denmark. It was the start of war in Western Europe – and an end to the ‘Phoney War’.
A ‘Stuka’ in a Norwegian Fjord
Why was Hitler interested in Norway? Control of Norway’s extensive coastline would have been very important in the battle for control of the North Sea and easing the passage of German warships and submarines into the Atlantic. The control of Norway would also aid Germany’s ability to import iron ore from Sweden.
Before the invasion of France, U-boats had to either travel via the Straits of Dover or north of Scotland. Either route was fraught with danger. A port in northern Norway would have eased this – though by no means would it have ended the problem of getting into the Atlantic. In 1929, Vice-Admiral Wegener had published a book (“The Sea Strategy of the World War”) that stated that Germany should seize Norway in a future war so that the German Navy of the future would have an easier time getting to the Atlantic. The commander of the German Navy (Raeder) did not agree with his theory but it did attract the attention and support of many other German naval officers.
At the start of the war, Germany imported about 10 million tons of iron ore from Sweden. Therefore it was important for Germany’s war effort. Nine million tons of this came from north Sweden via the port of Luleå. However, this port freezes over for the winter months and the Norwegian port of Narvik does not. Therefore control of Narvik, in the north of Norway, would have been very important to the Germans in easing the movement of iron ore to Germany.
Rather than seize Norway, Raeder wanted to rely on Norway remaining neutral in the war and the Allies respecting this neutrality. The Norwegians also believed that the British Navy would be available to them if the Germans attempted to invade. As late as March 1940, British chiefs-of-staff believed that a German invasion of Norway via the sea would not work.
Churchill, however, wanted a more resolute policy towards Norway. He was aware that the iron ore shipments to Germany via Narvik were important to Germany’s war effort. On September 19th, 1939, he told the Cabinet led by Chamberlain that the transportation of iron ore had to be stopped. On September 29th, he proposed that the water around Narvik should be mined if iron ore transportation started up again – it had been suspended at the very start of the war. The Cabinet failed to support Churchill on this, as they did not want to breach Norway’s neutrality. Regardless of this, Churchill continued to press for it.
Once the invasion of Poland had ended, senior German military commanders turned their thoughts to Scandinavia and the rest of Western Europe. Senior Wehrmacht officers believed the same as Raeder – that the men needed for an invasion of Norway simply were not available. However, on October 10th, Canaris, head of military intelligence, had informed Raeder of Britain’s interest in Norway. Raeder passed this information to Hitler who on the same day issued his order for an early attack on Western Europe.
On December 11th, Hitler met Major Vidkun Quisling, a former Minister of Defence in Norway. What Hitler made of Quisling is not known but it is possible that Hitler was somehow impressed with his claim that he controlled a number of National Socialists in Norway. On December 14th, Hitler ordered the OKW (military intelligence) to make a preliminary study of the problems the military would experience in an attack on Norway.
In mid-February 1940, the ‘Altmark’ incident occurred. Greatly angered by this, Hitler ordered that events be moved swiftly.
On February 21st, General von Falkenhorst was put in charge of the operation. His desire for airfields near Norway sealed the fate of Denmark which became another target. Falkenhorst wanted the airfields at the northern end of Denmark. On March 1st, Hitler issued his formal order for the invasion and ordered that all preparations should be carried out at speed – despite concerns from the military.
An invasion appeared on paper to be relatively easy for a military that had just defeated Poland. Norway only had a population of 3 million and the large majority of them were centred in the few cities Norway had. Much of the country was unpopulated and her small population meant that she had a small army.
The plan was to take the major cities, secure them and then fan out from each city so that each force joined up together at some point. Oslo, the capital, was to be attacked from both sea and air. Sola, a major air base near Stavanger in the south, was to be attacked by an air landing while the nearby city was to be attack by parachutists. Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen were to be attacked from the sea with troops being landed by warships.
Falkenhorst’s hope was that the Norwegians would be so overwhelmed by the attacks, that the government would surrender without too much of a fight. In fact, German troops were ordered to only fire if fired at.
The attack on Denmark centred on an attack by two motorised brigades that would drive north and seize control of the bridges. Copenhagen would be attacked by troops carried by warship while the Luftwaffe would fly above the city but would only attack if the city put up any kind of defence. The airfields in the north, so important to Falkenhorst, were to be taken by parachutists.
On April 1st, Hitler ordered that the attack should begin on April 9th. Ships carrying German troops started to leave German ports on April 7th. In response to this preparation, Britain had put a number of army units on standby in Scotland ready for embarkation if required. However, the order was that none of the ships carrying troops would go to sea until it became clear exactly what the Germans were doing.
Raeder remained cautious in the run up to April 9th. He ordered that once the warships had landed German troops, they should return to Germany immediately so that they would avoid the British Navy.
The first action occurred on April 7th when British bombers attacked German warships steaming north. The attack was unsuccessful but confirmed to Raeder his fear that his ships were vulnerable.
Five attack groups were formed.
Group One, headed by the battle cruisers ‘Gneisenau’ and the ‘Scharnhorst’ was to attack Narvik
Group Two, supported by the ‘Hipper’ was to attack Trondheim
Group Three was to attack Bergen
Group Four was to attack Kristiansand
Group Five was to attack Oslo.
Groups One and Two were also accompanied by a total of fourteen destroyers.
On April 7th, the Home Fleet sailed from Scapa Flow in ‘Operation Wilfred’ – the mining of waters off of Norway. For two days the seas around Norway were whipped up by a ferocious storm. Keeping ships in formation proved difficult and a German destroyer, ‘Bernd von Arnim’ came across what turned out to be the British destroyer ‘Glowworm’ which had parted company with the main Home Fleet as her crew was looking for a man washed overboard. The ‘Bernd von Arnim’ was heavily laden with troops for the landings in the north of Norway and the far more powerful ‘Hipper’, a cruiser commanded by Helmuth Heye, came to her aid and attacked the ‘Glowworm’.
The ‘Glowworm’ was hit by the guns of the ‘Hipper’. The commander of the ‘Glowworm’, Lieutenant-Commander G P Roope, decided to ram the ‘Hipper’ as he knew that his damaged ship would not be able to outrun the ‘Hipper’. The German ship attempted to move out of the course of the ‘Glowworm’ but the larger ship did not move fast enough and the ‘Glowworm’ caught her, ripping off 40 meters of armour. The British destroyer sailed past but exploded some distance from the ‘Hipper’. The ‘Hipper’ stopped to pick up 37 survivors, including Roope. However, as he was being lifted on to the ‘Hipper’, he fell back into the sea and it is presumed he drowned. Roope was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry.
On April 8th, a Polish submarine, ‘Orzel’ sank a German ship off of the Norwegian coast. Norwegian fishing boats picked up survivors who turned out to be German soldiers – thus confirming the British belief that German troops were being moved by sea.
The poor sea conditions had made it very difficult for the British to track the Germans at sea – especially Groups 1 and 2. The weather gave the Germans cover and they managed to land many troops in the north of Norway before the Home Fleet could engage them. While troops were being put ashore, the Home Fleet was still 60 miles away.
Nothing could stop Group 1 from its destination. Two Norwegian coastal defence ships (the ‘Eidsvoll’ and the ‘Norge’) were sunk with only eight men surviving out of a crew of 182 on the ‘Eidsvoll’. Such was the speed and shock of the attack on Narvik, the local garrison commander assumed that they were British ships and troops landing to help the Norwegians. When he found that the troops were German, Colonel Sundlo, warned the Germans that he would order an attack in 30 minutes if they did not re-embark. The German commander, Dietl, told him that such action would cause unnecessary loss of life and Sundlo surrendered the port. Sundlo’s action in the face of overwhelming enemy forces was upheld by a court martial after the war.
The other Norwegian cities also surrendered. It became very apparent that the Norwegian military was in no state to fight against a far more powerful opponent. The one sole problem the Germans faced was in Oslo where the attack did not go to plan. Fog hindered troop and plane movements while the sinking of the heavy cruiser ‘Blücher’ blocked the main fjord that the Germans were planning to use. However, a swift adjustment to the plan (using smaller fjords rather than the main one) meant that Oslo swiftly fell to the Germans.
Denmark had also fallen quickly when the king ordered an end to any resistance to a vastly superior military force.