Chapter 1: A Note on Norway
To understand the British operations in Norway, it is important to bear in mind the main physical features of the country—the barren mountains, thin and unevenly distributed population, great distances, and (sea transport excepted) very poor internal communications.  One half of the land lies at a height of more than 2,000 feet and the whole cultivated area amounts to the insignificant fragment of three percent; thus to English eyes the landscape (except in the southeast) seems almost invariably to be dominated by wild hills, their lower slopes clothed with featureless forests of conifers and birch, an occasional clearing the only obvious sign of human habitation except in the valley bottoms. Even there our soldiers found that digging in usually meant a hopeless struggle of spade against rock and had to make do with loose stone parapets and sangars, still to be seen.
Three million Norwegians are spread over an area larger than the whole of the British Isles. Not only so, but such centres of population as may be found are widely separated—the valley mouths in the southeast round Oslo; the ports of the south and west coasts as far as Trondheim and its hinterland, which are divided from the Oslo area by a vast mountain plateau rising at the Dovrefjell (north of Dombaas) to a maximum height of nearly 8,000 feet; and the isolated North Norway ports of Bodö, Narvik and Kirkenes, These last are approached from the south by a narrow strip of territory, 300 miles long and at one point only three and a half miles wide, which broadens at the North Cape to form the Finnmark plateau stretching east towards the Russian steppes. From the Naze to the North Cape is a distance of more than a thousand miles, from Bergen to Oslo about 200 miles, measuring in a straight line—which the steep configuration of the land makes utterly unrealistic. For so small a population the cost of grappling with its transport problems is almost overwhelming. Railways are few (in the north nearly non-existent) and single tracked; the roads are narrow, hazardous, and rough surfaced; the steamer routes slow; even air communications (except by seaplane) were underdeveloped because of the prohibitive expense of landing grounds.
Furthermore, the difficulties of travel and transport are accentuated by the climate. East Norway experiences severe cold in winter with a thick, long continued snow cover, and the nearness of the principal watershed to the west coast causes the traveller from any western port to climb into the eastern winter with surprising speed.
The west coast, in contrast has a mild, wet, Atlantic climate, which, in the latitude of Bergen approximates to the humidity of our own west coast. But farther north, although the influence of the Gulf Stream keeps the harbours open and encourages the growth of something more than Arctic vegetation, the long hours of winter darkness, the blizzards, and the spring thaw, all make movement more difficult. Hence the rigours which confronted and perplexed our troops in April 1940. There was the snow, deepest of course in the Narvik area, which is well north of the Polar Circle, but deep by English standards in every area concerned except in the immediate environs of the west coast port of Aandalsnes; the cold, intense at night not only in the far north, but in the eastern valley of the Gudbrandsdal, where every lake was a sheet of black ice; the formidable contrasts of temperature between the woods and the bare mountain plateau, between the sunny and the shady sides of the same valley, between calm and sudden wind; and finally the thaw, which would make rivers into torrents and the roads into quagmires axle deep. Central Norway, however, was evacuated by our forces just as the thaw began. From Mosjøen northwards to Harstad operations continued through the period in which road transport is normally suspended, area by area, because the breakup of the frost in deeply frozen earth involves the breakup of road surfaces—which are loosely constructed for this very reason. The operations finished in what was for North Norway the early spring, a time of unending daylight, swollen rivers and cloudless skies. When the last troops left the shore in the early morning of 8th June, the background was still a majestic vista of snow mountains, climbing to the Swedish frontier, but in the foreground, where the brightly painted houses of the villages by the fjords had seemed almost incongruous in the harsh landscape of April, green fields now varied the pattern of grey rocks beside the warming sea.
Norway is, indeed, in a special sense a country created by the sea. Whatever the difficulties of life in North Norway, the fact remains that the Gulf Stream has enabled civilisation to press farther into the Polar wastes there than at any other point in the northern or southern hemispheres. The sea has given Norway its characteristic trades—the fisheries, the relatively huge mercantile marine, the whaling—and the proximity of the sea to the waterfalls and the mines has been a main reason for the prosperity of the newer metallurgical industries as far north as Kirkenes. More strictly to our purpose, the sea provides an unfailing means of communication in the fjords and the Leads. The deep and narrow fjords, some stretching for a hundred miles into the interior of the country, are ideal for inland navigation—except indeed under air attack—and form throughout western Norway the normal means of access to the settlements, which more often than not lie at the foot of mountain precipices. In the south and
east the hinterland is as a rule less unapproachable, but even so there is no inland town of more than 15,000 inhabitants. The Leads are the continuous passages, without counterpart in Europe, which lie between the island archipelagos or skerries and the mainland; they constitute a fully sheltered, deep water route for shipping along almost the whole coast from Stavanger to the North Cape. They have played a dominant part in making the Norwegians and their history: Norway is said to mean ‘The way to the North’. It is indeed the sea which chiefly explains the apparent paradox that a country which cannot hope to feed from its own soil even so small a population as three millions, which has so few inherent resources and so many deficiencies, has managed in recent years to maintain an average standard of life among the highest in western Europe.
An outstanding example of this is provided by the mushroom growth of the town of Narvik on a barren peninsula of rock in the Ofotfjord, at the inner end of the Artic Vestfjord. This locality had hitherto provided a meagre living for a handful of fisherman, to whom the warm water was more important than the inhospitable land. But in 1902 a railway was brought through from the Swedish frontier, involving a descent of 1,700 feet through nineteen tunnels in twenty three miles, and next year the iron ore mined in the mountains at Kiruna (seventy seven miles beyond the frontier) began to find its outlet to the world market along the ice free waters. In a single generation a completely new town arose, the second largest in North Norway, with the Swedish iron company as virtually sole sponsors. Hemmed in by gloomy piles of rock and scree, its modern villas and blocks of offices stretched down to the ore crushing plants, the busy railway sidings, a 1,200 foot ore quay of wood and granite, and a natural anchorage for thirty ships, ships which wore the flags of many nations, but plied mostly to Germany.1
Norway seemed more remote from British interests than it was. The British Army had never served on Norwegian soil, and few English people had even heard of the episode which Norwegian history calls ‘the hunger years’ (1807–14), when Denmark-Norway was one of Napoleon’s satellites and the Royal Navy maintained a close blockade of the coastline, with occasional forays by landing parties at Hammerfest and other remote harbours. As for British opinion in general, it was coloured by Norway’s reputation as a tourist country. The scenic splendours were well known, but even basic facts about the economic and social life of the people remained unfamiliar. Since the dissolution of the union between Norway and
Denmark in 1814, Anglo-Norwegian relations had been harmonious but unimportant: they figured in general history only twice. In 1855 Sweden and Norway under their common Swedish monarchy were nearly but not quite induced to take our side against Russia in the Crimean War. In 1905 King Edward VII played an active part in the establishment of an independent monarchy for Norway by throwing British influence on to the side of the candidature of his son in law, Prince Charles of Denmark, who in that year was elected King Haakon VII of Norway.
But the attitude of the Norwegians to Britain was far more definite and positive. They were traditionally attracted to Britain by economic, social and political considerations. Their mercantile marine for instance, dates its meteoric rise from the repeal of the British navigation laws in 1849, while the tourist trade with England—and the lure of the salmon fishing—had for nearly a century added a substantial item to the Norwegian national income. Socially, they were inclined to find the English—and still more the Scots—the most congenial of foreigners outside their Scandinavian brethren, and to attach more importance than we did to the common historical heritage from the days of the Scandinavian settlements in Britain. Politically, the Norwegian saw in the growth of democracy in nineteenth century Britain a movement with which his own national development was closely and sympathetically related. The earliest standard English guidebook assured its mid-Victorian readers that ‘The Norwegians like the English, as every Englishman who has travelled in Norway can bear witness’.2 It is safe to say that in 1940 England still had a considerable stock of goodwill to draw upon in Norway, quite independent of the international situation of the moment.
We may briefly compare the traditional Norwegian attitude to Germany. Politically, relations had been far less sympathetic: Norwegian volunteers took an active part in the Danish defence of Schleswig-Holstein, both in the successful campaign of 1848 and in the disastrous year 1864. Imperial Germany, particularly as personified in Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was a frequent visitor to the Norwegian fjords, was always viewed to some extent distrustfully; while the close relations between Sweden and Germany meant that anti-Swedish sentiments also tended to turn independent Norway in the other direction. Nevertheless, there were important links both cultural and economic. Germany was usually Norway’s second best customer (Britain coming first); and the thoroughness of German organisation was often more congenial than British amateurishness. In education, the arts, and such industrial branches as building and
engineering, Norway owed most to German models. This practice may have been stimulated to some extent by the ancient link of the German Hanseatic merchants, who dominated Norwegian trade almost to the seventeenth century. It was certainly fostered by Norwegian neutrality in the First World War, which made it relatively easy for Norway to enter into immediate, friendly relations with the Weimar republic. In the ‘twenties and ‘thirties among visitors from outside Scandinavia German tourists were second only to the British in numbers and assiduity, though later events were to prove them to have been less disinterested sightseers.
Among the many aspects of Norwegian life in which British visitors, at least, took little interest was the state of the country’s defences. This was conditioned in the first place by the recollection of a century of unbroken peace. In 1905, during the separation from the common Swedish monarchy, war against Sweden had for a few months seemed possible or even probable; but the upshot of the crisis was the demilitarisation of the Norwegian-Swedish frontier. Only ten years later the likelihood that Norway and Sweden if involved in the general war would take opposite sides proved to be an important factor in keeping Scandinavia neutral. That neutrality was not maintained without cost. On the one hand Allied blockade measures pressed very heavily upon Norway, especially in the last eighteen months of the war, when the entry of America into the struggle rendered the Allies less careful about the susceptibilities of the remaining neutrals. In particular severe pressure was brought to bear to make the Norwegians lay an antisubmarine minefield in territorial waters so as to complete our existing Northern Barrage; but the work was left undone until five weeks before the Armistice.3 German action on the other hand, bore much more hardly upon them as the owners of the principal neutral mercantile marine. Almost fifty percent of its tonnage was sunk and about two thousand Norwegian seamen lost their lives, primarily as a result of the unrestricted submarine warfare waged by the Germans. Many Norwegians believed, perhaps with reason, that the destruction of a rival trading fleet, larger in pre-war days then their own, was to the Germans an end in itself, apart from the loss to the Allies by whom it was chartered.
But in the post-war period the record of neutrality, whatever the cost at which it had been maintained, was one of several factors that brought about a steady neglect of defence which was to cost Norway dear. Idealist in outlook, the Norwegians were active champions of the League of Nations viewed as a substitute for national defence. The neglect of defences was also a concomitant of the rise of the Labour
Party, which regarded the professional cadre of the armed forces as an inevitable stronghold for reactionaries and which, in Norway as elsewhere, thought that money spent on defence was money lost to social services. Moreover, even after Hitler’s accession to power in Germany, when left-wing politicians were forced to suspect that arms might be necessary to protect social services, the geographical position of Norway and the character of its terrain still encouraged the dangerous belief that ‘The country is easy to defend’ (Norway Year Book, 1938)4—a statement which probably refers not only to the supposed invulnerability of the mountainous hinterland but to the comfortable belief (not confined to Norwegians) that recent developments had made no difference to the traditional and almost automatic protection of their coasts by the British Navy.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, however, the neglect of defence was by no means absolute. The military condition of Norway was the product of three main influences. Firstly, a system of compulsory service dating back to the seventeenth century had been kept up as a badge of independent nationhood, though the period of training was thirteen weeks (which had even been reduced in practice to eight), the shortest for any army in Europe, with a rather longer period for the Navy. Secondly, the Labour Government which came into office in 1935 had been forced to reckon with the possible consequences of the ill will of Nazi Germany, as for instance in 1938 when the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to one of Hitler’s victims, and in the spring of 1939, when Norway parted company with the equally pacific Danes by refusing to make a nonaggression pact with Germany. Consequently the defence budget, which had sunk to its lowest level in the significant year 1933, began to rise again, and by 1938 the sum allocated to defence reached the modest total of £1 per head of population. Finally, there survived from 1914-18 a realisation of the importance of proper measures to protect neutrality, though the stringent economies of the earlier interwar years were to reduce the scale of Norwegian action this time to the establishment of a neutrality watch in lieu of their former neutrality defence.
The Royal Norwegian Navy was kept mobilised from the outset of hostilities in Europe, as the importance to both sides of the long sea route off Norway’s deeply indented coastline made the task of enforcing the laws of neutrality both hazardous and complicated. The naval forces in question were, however, largely obsolete, and one vessel still in commission dated from 1858. The most important items were four antiquated coast defence ships, of which we shall hear more, seven destroyers, including four of modern design, and two minelayers.
As for the army, the Russian invasion of Finland (30th November 1939) caused the mixed Field Brigade of the 6th Division, stationed in the far north, to be fully mobilised in case the Russians should move against East Finnmark, and a state of reasonable preparedness obtained thereafter as far south as Narvik. Elsewhere, the neutrality watch was used mainly as a convenient chance to call in single battalions for training at the other five so called Divisional Headquarters, each of which in the event of war was due to produce one mixed brigade. The total number of men under arms on 8th April 1940 was about 13,000, of whom nearly one half were in the north (Denmark had mobilised 14,550). Norwegian aircraft were not a separate force or a factor of major importance. About thirty seaplanes were disposed at seven coastal stations to assist the naval control; and eighteen scouting aircraft and six fighters were in service on five airfields under army command. Lastly we may notice that there were five coastal fortresses, which had their guns partly manned, but no infantry garrisons to protect guns or gunners from a landing party.