Chapter 5: Land Operations: General Strategy (Part 1)
See Map 5, facing p. 128.
The Supreme War Council had by a decision of 5th February 1940 delegated the command of Scandinavian operations to the United Kingdom Government, the Allied Military Committee in London having purely subordinate functions. This decision was never rescinded, the Council at its meetings on 9th, 22nd and 27th April being content in the main to accept the British line in relation to the new situation created by the German invasion. The French readily agreed to release their troops for the new front, which they hoped would be a valuable distraction of the enemy, and were on the whole disposed to make light of difficulties. Morally the French were for the moment in a strong position. It was not their navy which appeared to have been taken by surprise; Admiral Darlan at least had shown considerable prescience as to the German intentions;1 and the responsibility for making the first Allied landings in Norway had throughout the long period of discussion been accepted, if not appropriated, by the British. Moreover, the French were to find (and point out) that the various echelons of their troops were ready to leave French ports more quickly than British transport arrangements and the improvised base areas in Norway could be made ready for their reception. France also lent a cruiser and six destroyers to operate at this juncture with the Home Fleet.
The British War Cabinet was, then, the authority by which all major decisions affecting the Norway campaign were taken or at least ratified. But there was no Theatre Commander with powers corresponding in any way to those which were being exercised by General Gamelin as Generalissimo over the Allied military forces in France. The small scale of the operations in Norway would scarcely have warranted such an appointment, even if circumstances had not caused them to be started piecemeal so that the question did not arise. Moreover, the topography of western Norway, so far from indicating some inevitable centre from which control ought manifestly to be exercised, lent itself rather to the use of London as the not too distant point through which communications to and from
each sector along the Norwegian coast should pass. The War Office did, indeed, on 17th April state the view that, ‘Once the allies are in full control of the Trondheim area, a corps commander should be appointed to command all British, French, and Norwegian forces in Scandinavia’.2 But the occasion named never arose, and if it had arisen there is little to suggest that the Norwegians would ever have consented; in North Norway, where their forces were most effective, they fought mainly in isolation from us. The most important point, however, is not the lack of cohesion between sector and sector or between British (or French) and Norwegian military efforts; it is the lack of a single control over the three Services engaging for the first time in a campaign which required their full and continuous corporation. Our generals in Central Norway did not command either naval or air force units which were associated with their operations. The Navy took command until the moment of landing, after which the land forces were dependent upon friendly agreement for whatever further services they needed. The one squadron of Air Force fighters which came into action had been sent to co-operate with the Army as an attachment but remained under Air Ministry orders. In North Norway the naval Flag Officer appointed had command by land as well as sea from 20th April and he also commanded the air component which arrived the following month. But the area within which he had naval control was circumscribed by the Admiralty to within a hundred miles of Vaagsfjord; he was dependent upon the ad hoc decisions of the Admiralty for the support of aircraft carriers and any other reinforcement from the Home Fleet; and if home-based bomber operations had been feasible, as they were in the south, it would have been in accordance with current practice for the Air Ministry to keep the bombing programme entirely in its own hands.
In these circumstances particular importance attaches to the machinery available in London to supply some of the elements of control which, in the later campaigns of the war, were supplied by Theatre Commanders of two or more Services or by an Allied Supreme Commander. One main link between the making of major policy and its execution by the separate Services was provided at this time by the Ministerial Committee on Military Coordination, which met twenty three times in the hectic month between 9th April and its demise on the fall of the Chamberlain Government. This committee of four Ministers had been formed in November 1939 to discuss strategical plans, with the Chiefs of Staff in attendance as its expert advisers and Major-General H. L. Ismay as the usual head of its secretariat. Under the less exacting conditions of the winter lull the Committee had performed useful functions of review and examination
on behalf of the War Cabinet, particularly in the field of supply. On 4th April, after the lapse of the office of the Minister for the Coordination of Defence, the chairmanship of the Military Coordination Committee passed to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Winston Churchill. The other members at this time were Mr Oliver Stanley as Secretary of State for War, Sir Samuel Hoare as Secretary of State for Air, and Mr Leslie Burgin as Minister of Supply, no one of whom rivalled the representative of the Senior Service in knowledge and experience of warfare. The consequence was that under the pressure of events discussions easily became somewhat unbalanced, even after the First Lord induced the Prime Minister to promise to take the chair himself when ‘matters of exceptional importance’ were for discussion,3 a condition which applied to nine out of ten meetings held in the second half of April. Supply now disappeared from the agenda, but although much time was given to the discussion of our strategy in Scandinavia, including even technical details of operations, the Committee did not develop a common personality, expressed in a common doctrine, nor did it succeed in matching the needs and reconciling the claims of the three Services. Its weakness is sufficiently shown by a note which Mr Churchill wrote for the Prime Minister a fortnight later (when further changes of structure pended),4 urging the need for effective control to be exercised over the Committee either by his correspondent, ‘if you feel able to bear this burden’, or by a deputy acting on the Prime Minister’s behalf. At the moment, the writer points out, ‘There are six Chiefs of Staff, three Ministers, and General Ismay, who all have a voice in Norwegian operations (apart from Narvik). But no one is responsible for the creation and direction of military policy except yourself’.5
The Chiefs of Staff Committee, consisting of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, General Sir Edmund Ironside, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, found itself in an equally difficult position. Its members had a dual function—as individual and collective advisers to the War Cabinet and its Military Coordination Committee, and as high departmental officials serving their three respective Ministers. They held forty-three meetings in April, and it was not until the 23rd of the month that the appointment of Vice Chiefs of Staff, who could attend the War Cabinet in their place—hence Mr Churchill’s enumeration of six Chiefs of Staff—gave some relief from meetings other than their own. Their joint subordinate Staff was minute in relation to the demands made upon it. The Joint Planning Subcommittee consisted of nine Staff Officers (of whom three had been added only at the beginning of April for the particular benefit of
long-term plans) working under the Directors of Plans of the three Service Departments. The Joint Intelligence Subcommittee had an even smaller whole time staff, working under the three Service Directors of Intelligence plus a Foreign Office chairman. Further links were provided only by such organisations as the Inter-Services Planning Staff, which brought together the Planning Staffs of the three Service Departments for occasional tasks of administrative planning at the direction of the Chiefs of Staff. But sudden demands for big strategical papers, of which there are several instances at this time, meant all-night work by the Joint Planners on tasks which at a later period of the war would have been completed inside a Theatre Headquarters; and this left them less free to focus their attention and that of their masters upon the joint aspects of the conduct of the campaign at large.
In general, the Chiefs of Staff, who were to become so closely integrated a body later on, had not yet become fully accustomed to teamwork and still represented primarily the interests and viewpoints of their several Departments. The pressure of operations involving all three Services—for which our experience in 1914-18 left us administratively unprepared—had not yet made it necessary that they should be empowered to issue collective orders to commanders in the field; in fact they had not even a common series of telegrams. The Prime Minister nominated one of their number to act as chairman—at this time the Chief of the Air Staff; but their views were as often as not conveyed to the War Cabinet by each Chief of Staff treating separately whatever appeared to belong mainly to the business of his own Department. Thus the directions issued from London for the conduct of the combined operations in Norway came from an Admiralty which had a greater immediate interest in blockade measures, a War Office all too conscious of its heavy commitments in France, and an Air Ministry whose first concern was the air defence of Great Britain.
The military forces available for the counter-attack in Norway were, in the first instance, the forces which had been ready for operations arising out of Plan R4.6 The 24th (Guards) Brigade had one of its three battalions (1st Scots Guards) ready embarked in the Clyde for Narvik and the two others on their way to embarkation. One battalion of the 146th Infantry Brigade (Hallamshire) was likewise in readiness in the Clyde for Trondheim; its other battalions were ashore in the Rosyth area, having been hurriedly disembarked from the cruisers which were to have conveyed them to Bergen.7 The
two battalions of the 148th Infantry Brigade had been similarly disembarked from the projected expedition to Stavanger. Thus one half of the British force was temporarily immobilised, as some of the equipment, left on board ship in the confusion, would take five days to replace. In addition to these eight British battalions Plan R4 envisaged the employment, at Narvik, of French troops, beginning with the mixed brigade of Chasseurs Alpin (6 battalions), which had been raised in January for the proposed move into Finland; but their first echelon was not (even according to the latest schedule)8 intended to sail until eight days after the first British forces. The list is not numerically unimpressive—about fourteen thousand men for a contingent operation compared with the German provision of twenty four thousand in the first week of a fixed invasion—though the fact that they could not all be used for an immediate riposte put us at a serious disadvantage.
But a much worse disadvantage lay in the circumstance that these troops were organised and equipped to land in friendly ports, where they hoped to have some help from Norwegian garrisons and fixed defences in preparing to repel possible attacks by an outmanoeuvred opponent. The reality was very different. The original hypothesis, however, explains the light scale of equipment9—no artillery (except one light anti-aircraft battery for the far north), no armour, and no transport, whereas Base details had been allotted for Narvik in a profusion which was later to prove embarrassing. It also explains why and expedition with no air component had seemed justifiable: to provide aircraft to accompany any Scandinavian expedition had all along been difficult, to find airfields on the other side for them to use was problematic at this time of year, and the German air force was somehow envisaged as carrying troops rather than bombs against our three widely separated garrisons stretching far into the north. These grave deficiencies on land and in the air were, in a situation now changed so drastically to our disadvantage, desperately hard to remedy.
With these reservations, however, the surprising fact is not that we mustered so little strength for the Norwegian campaign but that we scraped together so much. Barely a fortnight had passed since the presentation of a Memorandum by the Chiefs of Staff, giving the third year of war as the period by which concentrated efforts would provide ‘a very powerful air force’ and stating that a land offensive on the Western Front would not be justifiable in 1940, ‘even if all new British divisions were to be allocated to France’. As other volumes in this series clearly show, we were at this time committed up to the hilt in the defence of France, and whatever we, or the French, could spare
from that commitment was needed to build up the Allied position in the Middle East, where also ‘a defeat would be a disaster’. Nevertheless additional troops were readily made available for Norway. At a meeting of the Supreme War Council on 9th April the British offered a fourth infantry brigade (the 147th, Territorials) with artillery. Allocated as a second flight to each of the three projected expeditions, this brigade in the end did not set foot on Norwegian soil, nor did an extra battalion allocated to bring the 148th Brigade (which had been left one battalion short for several months) back to full strength. The French at the same time offered the rest of their original expeditionary force for Finland, which unlike the British had never been formally disbursed—two battalions of the Foreign Legion and four battalions of Poles. The French brigade of Chasseurs Alpin, now renamed a light division, included in any case one group of artillery (75s), one battery of small anti-aircraft guns and one company of small tanks. The British strengthened their forces with one battery of twelve 25 pounders for the Narvik area, and provided at the expense of home defence all the serious anti-aircraft protection by light or heavy guns which reached any of the Allied expeditions.
Further expansion was only possible at the cost of the forces in France. The French mitigated the drain on their main front by deciding on 12th April that two more light divisions, which were to follow the first, should be constituted principally from the Army of the Alps and units in course of formation. Alpine divisions stationed on the main front were to sacrifice only one-fourth of their strength and remain where they were. This made a total French force available of about 40,000 men, subject to the provision of British transport to move its later elements to Norway. The British likewise formed ten Independent Companies by recruitment from the Territorial Divisions, a total of some 3000 men; but our general intention was to reinforce the Norway expeditions by the diversion of existing units which were stationed, or due to be stationed, in France. General Gamelin believed that we were contemplating the transfer of two divisions when the decision to evacuate Central Norway removed the need;10 this was about what the Chiefs of Staff had expected to transfer ‘in certain eventualities’ under the old Plan R.4. In actual fact one infantry brigade (the 126th), which was due to sail for France on 17th April, was considered for diversion but was eventually let go; one other (the 15th) was only a day or two later brought back from France and transfer to Norway via Scotland. Two battalions of Canadians, whom the French regarded along with the Scots as peculiarly fitted for warfare under Norwegian conditions, were, as we shall see, also earmarked for Norway but never went.
Thus Britain sent four infantry brigades to make and maintain the landings in Norway. Two of these, the 24th and 15th, composed of Regular soldiers, were handicapped chiefly by deficiencies of material for which pre-war policy and the will of the electorate were mainly responsible; but even they had received no special training or preparation for the conditions with which they were to be confronted. The other two, the 146th and 148th, were Territorial brigades. Their five battalions represented the high traditions of the pre-war Territorial Army, but they had suffered all the confusions and strains which resulted from its doubling in March 1939 and from the sudden introduction of compulsory service two months later; at best they had received only seven months’ continuous training of any kind. The five (out of ten) Independent Companies which reached Norway were also Territorials, as we have already seen: they were specially selected volunteers, but had had even less chance to train together and ‘shake down’ than other units. The position of the French was not very different. The Foreign Legionaries, who included many Spanish Republicans and even a few Germans, were men to uphold a great tradition; but the Chasseurs Alpin were new units which had recruited their rank and file in a hurry from the general run of poilus as much as from the villages of Upper Savoy; and the Polish brigade was made up of miners and other workers long resident in France serving under officers who had escaped in 1939.
Yet another factor which strongly influenced the landing operations from the outset was the extreme uncertainty of the international position. We could not assess the strength of the Norwegian intention to resist the invasion in the form it had taken, much less what would happen if the Germans also entered Sweden, about which there was a new alarm a fortnight after their entry into Norway. The attitude of Russia to the German advance in the north was likewise a complete enigma. Most important of all, the possibility had always to be borne in mind that the German intention was to distract our eyes from a sudden development on the western front, where the main thrust through Belgium was now expected almost daily. As for Italy, relations were so uncertain that on the very day of the German stroke in the north our Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East, aware of acute deficiencies, addressed a whole series of questions to the Chiefs of Staff in London about our intentions if and when Italy should enter the war against us.11
On 9th April the main task, given the German achievement of surprise, was the selection of an objective commensurate with the size
and nature of the military forces immediately available to land in Norway. The Chiefs of Staff, roused from their beds by the disconcerting news, met first at 6 a.m.; they believed then that the Germans were not established at Narvik, for which destination a British battalion would be ‘leaving at once’, and decided accordingly that our first object was to prevent consolidation by the Germans of their positions at Bergen and Trondheim—in that order. At 8:30 a.m., when the War Cabinet was convened at the request of the Chiefs of Staff to consider their proposals, there was the same assumption that Narvik could still be peacefully occupied; attention was mainly concentrated upon the provision of troops, to include the Chasseurs Alpin diverted from the original Narvik expedition, for the recapture of Bergen and Trondheim. But the War Cabinet also directed that no troops were to be moved towards any of the three Norwegian ports until the naval situation had been cleared up. Accordingly, the Chiefs of Staff, at their second meeting on that fateful morning, when it had just become known that the Germans might be in Narvik, having expressed again the view that Bergen was the most important objective on political grounds and Trondheim on military, moved the first battalion to Scapa. They also ordered the seven other available battalions to be got ready to sail (from the Clyde) by the evening of the 12th, if possible; but they did not commit themselves as to which of the three ports would be their destination.
The Supreme War Council, which met in London in the late afternoon, likewise called for attacks to be mounted against all three ports. The French made it clear that they attached paramount importance to Narvik because of the orefields, but the Council dispersed under the impression that its recapture would be easy. By evening, however, the situation at Narvik was regarded more seriously by the First Lord, the telegrams received at the Admiralty being the main source of information. At the meeting of the Military Coordination Committee (which started at 9:30 p.m. and had other business on its agenda preceding Norway) he advised against any military operation at Trondheim or, by implication, at Bergen. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff took the same line, emphasising that the recapture of Narvik would fully tax Allied resources which comprised ‘some three fully trained battalions, about 13,000 lesser trained troops and a brigade of Chasseurs Alpin’. It was accordingly resolved to mask the other points of German occupation, to explore the possibility of getting a foothold at Namsos and Aandalsnes, and to make Narvik the immediate objective. This decision fortunately coincided with the preference expressed by the French, and it was readily endorsed by the War Cabinet next morning. But the fog of war and the multiplicity of committees between them had caused the Allies to lose one whole day.
On 10th April the Chiefs of Staff proceeded to execute the decision by authorising the Joint Planning Subcommittee to prepare a directive for the combined operation, on the basis of which the Interservices Planning Staff could arrange for the assembly and embarkation of forces; the first stage was subsequently omitted. Simultaneously the commander was to prepare his plan of operations, for which the staff of the Interservice Training Centre would be placed at his disposal. That evening the Military Coordination Committee distinguished our first two objects as the establishment of a naval base at Narvik and the use of the port as a means of entry to the orefields. The newly appointed naval commander of the expedition, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery, was in attendance at this meeting, while the instructions for the military commander Major-General P. J. Mackesy, were flown from the War Office to Scapa, where he arrived with his first battalion in the early morning of 11th April. Sir Edmund Ironside had told the War Cabinet that General Mackesy with half of this battalion would sail from Scapa at 11 a.m. that day, which would have brought him to the latitude of Narvik on the 13th, his earliest reinforcements (four battalions) following two days behind. But although the Chiefs of Staff, meeting at 9 a.m. on the 11th, accepted this arrangement (for one company at least) without demur, the movement of troops at Scapa flown from transport to cruiser did not begin until the afternoon, under naval orders which fixed their sailing for 1 p.m. next day. In this way we lost some of the advantage which might have accrued from the second naval battle, at the end of which the Warspite’s guns, as we have seen, dominated the town. Nevertheless the quick dash for Narvik, to which the historic name of ‘Rupert’ had been given, presumably by Mr Churchill, had already been organised and set in train before the news of the Navy’s triumph encouraged the authorities in London to suppose that Narvik was as good as captured, and therefore to look more closely than hitherto at other objectives in less distant areas of the Norwegian coast. It was moreover at about this time that it became possible to build up some picture in London of how the Norwegians—for nine tenths of whom Narvik was in every sense remote—were reacting to the German attack.
Ever since the early morning of 9th April our official link with the Norwegian Government through the British Minister had lost most of its value, not merely or chiefly because the Germans had severed the cables, but because the Government was forced to move from place to place and lost touch with its own representatives in most parts of the country. Moreover, the military High Command became separated from the Government and in any case we had at that moments no military attaché in Norway. A stopgap supply of information came through the British Legation in Stockholm, which
was well served with news from Norwegian sources because the Germans did not at first control either the telephone service to the east or the actual frontier: on 11th April the Military Attaché in Sweden reported with approximate accuracy that the enemy intention was to employ five divisions for Norway. There was also the neutral press. The Swedish public had the maximum interest in what was happening in Norway, and Swedish reports were supplemented by the work of American journalists, two of whom had been in Oslo when the Germans entered the city. But on the whole the newspaper reporting tended to exaggerate the bewilderment or apathy of the general public as well as the numbers and enterprise of the fifth column, or quislings.
In general, the British Government’s information from Norway was little better than that of the newspaper reader: thus at 4 p.m. on the 9th, twelve hours after the German coup at Narvik, the Prime Minister was still informing the House of Commons that it was ‘very possible’ to believe that the landing in question was at Larvik, not Narvik,12 though the distance between the two ports is nearly a thousand miles. Two days later the uncertainty was still so great that at a meeting of the Military Coordination Committee one of the matters for discussion was whether the Germans were in Tromsö. At that time the War Office gave as the most reliable estimate an enemy strength of two divisions in Norway, and the Air Ministry put the number of aircraft, other than coastal aircraft, used to invade Norway and Denmark at about two hundred. The Military Coordination Committee then placed the collection and collation of intelligence for the campaign under the general control of the War Office, to which other departments submitted material, and the Scandinavian intelligence summary began to appear daily from 13th April under the authority of the Director of Military Intelligence.
The delicate position of Sweden had already led to the despatch of a special Anglo-French Mission to Stockholm, with the object of stiffening Swedish resistance to likely German demands, especially as regards the use of the railway to Narvik or a possible coup at Lulea. One of its members, Admiral Sir Edward Evans, who until 8th April had been designated to sail for Narvik13 and was well known in Norway as a polar explorer, was entrusted also with a personal mission to the King of Norway and his Ministers. His journey from Sweden was delayed by diplomatic difficulties, but he eventually found the King in the Gudbrandsdal area on the evening of 21st April. The information which the Admiral took with him from London was encouraging rather than accurate in detail: King Haakon and the Norwegian Commander-in-Chief might be led to expect a naval
assault on Trondheim starting that day, and a Norwegian Cabinet Minister, met on the return journey, was told of 40,000 Allied troops available for the land attack ‘to begin with’. Admiral Evans brought back direct impressions of the havoc wrought by German air power and first-hand news, obtained as he travelled by car into Sweden, of the German advance up the Österdal.14 
Meanwhile the newly appointed British Military Attaché, Lieut.-Col. E. J. C. King-Salter, with the French Military and Naval Attachés, reached Norwegian Headquarters from Finland (where he had held the same post) late on 14th April. The following morning he sent his first messages to London, one of which described the situation in Trondheim. The Norwegians believe that there were about 3000 Germans holding the town itself with automatic weapons and light guns, pushing out small detachments to the south and occupying more strongly the outlying districts to the east and Northeast. Reinforcements were reaching Trondheim by air from Oslo and Stavanger; on 12th and 15th April about fifty transport aircraft were seen going in that direction. The number of seaplanes at Trondheim was given at twenty to thirty, with eight bombers on the racecourse, but the German strength at the main Vaernes airfield was unknown. The positions of three antiaircraft batteries were roughly stated, and one enemy cruiser and three destroyers reported to be in the harbour. Next day the Military Attaché added some details of the Norwegian military position in relation to Trondheim: there were 2800 men north of Steinkjer, 300 men and some guns at Hegra, 400 men south of Trondheim preparing demolitions at Stören and elsewhere, and a regiment (two battalions) based on Aandalsnes. On the 17th a further telegram reported that the German transport planes flying between Oslo and Trondheim were largely Junkers 52s, which the Norwegians thought our day bombers could attack, and the extreme urgency of the situation was further emphasised by passing on certain information dated 13th April which had now reached the Norwegian Government from Oslo. This was to the effect that ten store ships and six other ships had come into the harbour, from which about 10,000 men had been landed as well as field artillery, and that fifty troop carrying aircraft were arriving daily with thirty men apiece.
On 18th April towards midnight British units began to land at Aandalsnes, with which Colonel King-Salter made contact next day, and he ceased to be the sole regular source of military information from South Norway. On that evening he and his French colleagues had sent the War Office a final picture of the position on the southern front as follows:
The Norwegian troops are opposing the German advance in the four
principal valleys running generally northwards from the region of Oslo ... culminating eventually about 100 miles north of Oslo in easily defended defiles. These troops are the equivalent of only a few battalions and batteries ... and consist of varied elements, many of which are completely undertrained or very incompletely mobilised.
Hitherto the Germans have not concentrated in any sector and their operations appear to have been conducted by single battalions reinforced by some artillery and sometimes by light tanks.
The Norwegian detachments, too weak to resist in the open valleys, are now falling back by large bounds ... these withdrawals have given place to a number of rearguard actions in which a few prisoners have been taken. These actions have given the troops some confidence. But there are no reserves behind them and the men are without relief in the front line.
Such was the knowledge of the situation on which the Allies based their plans to extend the military counter-attack in Norway beyond Narvik.
It will be remembered15 that on the evening of 9th April the Military Coordination Committee had the seizure of footholds at Namsos and Aandalsnes already in view, and the Chiefs of Staff next morning recorded the intention of attempting this if the Narvik operation did not require the whole of the Allied forces available. On the 11th, however, the Chief of the Air Staff referred at the meeting of the Military Coordination Committee to the desirability of an operation against Trondheim or Bergen which would follow up a success against Narvik, and authority was given to the staffs to study, but not to prepare for, what was now called ‘Maurice’ as the intended successor to ‘Rupert’. On 12th April the War Cabinet itself became aware of pressure from the Norwegian Government for the recapture of Trondheim, to which the alternative might be the collapse of Norway, followed by that of Sweden. It was thereupon agreed that landings on the Norwegian coast even on a small scale would have an important political effect and from that point of view were desirable. The Military Coordination Committee ordered a plan to be prepared for landings such forces as could immediately be made available, but on the morning of the 13th the Chiefs of Staff were clear that the integrity of Rupertforce must not be compromised for operations elsewhere and that in any case the French contingent was the only part of it capable of diversion as a self-contained unit. Information about the Namsos-Trondheim area was badly needed, and the Chiefs of Staff welcomed the prospect that two parties of 150 men were to be landed at Namsos from cruisers. The War Cabinet, meeting an hour or two later than the Chiefs of Staff, were influenced by the Foreign
Office, which was concerned about opinion in Sweden as well as Norway, and by pressure from the French War Committee16 to say that we must envisage operations at the outlying ports and at Trondheim itself. At this stage the force earmarked for ‘Maurice’ stood at five battalions, with four antiaircraft guns taken from the Air Defence of Great Britain.
The experimental landing by seamen and Marines at Namsos was, however, postponed for 24 hours on account of a submarine scare, and meanwhile the situation as viewed in London was transformed by the news from Admiral Whitworth of his sweeping naval success at Narvik. In the late evening of 13th April the Military Coordination Committee believed that ‘the landing of the “Rupert” force might possibly be made in the town itself’ and, subject to confirmation of the view that serious opposition at Narvik was unlikely, authorised the diversion of the 146th Brigade from Narvik to Namsos. The naval authorities had pressed for this, informally, as early as the night of the 11th and had to some extent arranged the convoy accordingly. Its arrival would follow that of the cruiser parties and would coincide with the landing of another small naval force at Aalesund, south of Trondheim. On the afternoon of the 14th, after further consideration by the Chiefs of Staff, this diversion was ordered, and it was followed almost at once by the transfer with French permission of the first demi-brigade of Chasseurs Alpin (three battalions) to reinforce ‘Maurice’ instead of ‘Rupert’. Optimism regarding the situation at Narvik now reached its zenith: the Military Coordination Committee passed a resolution which apparently anticipated a speedy resumption of ore exports to the United Kingdom, and some authorities in London even began to contemplate the transfer to the south of the 24th (Guards) Brigade—the only brigade now left to General Mackesy—as its task in the north would soon be completed.
Meanwhile, the naval landing south of Trondheim expanded to form an integral part of the general plan. Its main weight was transferred from the islands at Aalesund to the mainland at Aandalsnes, and the seamen and Marines were used to secure a base for the 148th Brigade (two battalions) which had previously been earmarked for Namsos: by a relatively small advance inland they would in effect invest Trondheim from the south, a manoeuvre in which the French Generalissimo Gamelin saw great possibilities. Further reinforcement was contemplated for the new Sickleforce, as it was called, from both French and British sources, including British troops allotted to the BEF in France.
The optimism regarding the success of ‘Rupert’ quickly gave place to disillusionment. On 14th April telegrams were sent to the naval
and military commanders which implied that they had only to get together to decide the details of their entry into Narvik. In actual fact their first meeting disclosed a disagreement in principle both as to their instructions and as to the possibility of carrying them out. When General Mackesy refused to be hurried it was pointed out to him from home that it was no use his waiting for reinforcements assigned elsewhere, and strong pressure was brought to bear by the Government, which was willing to accept responsibility for whatever losses might be incurred in an immediate attack. But the General continued to regard a landing in deep snow from ships’ boats against machine guns as utterly impracticable. On the 18th, the Director of Military Operations appreciated, on the basis of the information received in London, that Narvik was on the whole unlikely to be taken until troops could be released from the Trondheim area; thus the objective which had originally been allowed to overshadow the attack on Narvik because the latter operation was so easy now continued to predominate because that operation was so hard. Although the command at Narvik was changed, supreme authority being given to Lord Cork in the hope that he might force the issue, and although a naval bombardment after long deliberation was attempted on 24th April, the deterioration in the weather, the delay in reinforcement and the determination of General Mackesy kept the situation in the Narvik area static throughout the period in which the operation against Trondheim was being developed.
The naval battle of the 13th, from which the situation described above had mainly resulted, had had an additional indirect effect upon what was to be attempted farther south. At the meeting of the Military Coordination Committee that evening, after the Warspite had successfully penetrated the entire length of the Ofotfjord, the suggestion was for the first time made that part of the Mauriceforce might be landed straight at Trondheim. This was the start of the conception known as Operation ‘Boots’—better known by its later and more expressive name of ‘Hammer’—a direct attack on Trondheim which would meet the increasing the urgent demands of the Norwegian Government and Commander-in-Chief for immediate help; it was in turn facilitated by the information which the Norwegian authorities put at our disposal.
From a Norwegian point of view it was clear that the prompt recapture of Trondheim would be an almost ideal counter to the German thrusts. Politically, the city is of great importance as the medieval capital of the country, the crowning place of Norwegian kings, and the traditional centre of the second richest agricultural area. Economically, it is the third largest town in Norway (population 56,000), having considerable industries, especially in timber, and an extensive harbour with outlying accommodation for vessels
of deep draught. Strategically, it can almost be described as the key to Scandinavia. Looking south, Trondheim is at the head of two alternative routes through the mountains to Oslo; looking north, it is the starting point of the only road or rail link with North Norway; and looking east, it guards the approach to two valleys which throughout history have afforded a main route from Norway to Sweden. It follows automatically that, once the modern capital of Oslo was effectively in German hands, Trondheim assumed supreme importance as the natural alternative centre on which to base the re-establishment of the Government’s authority and the movement for the expulsion of the Germans.
Accordingly, on 12th April at 2:25 p.m. the British Government had received a telegram from the Minister in Norway, Sir Cecil Dormer, informing them that the Norwegian Government urgently desired the recapture of Trondheim to maintain their authority in the country. This was also the policy of the Norwegian Commander-in-Chief, General Ruge, who asked for a British division to be sent and held two or more of his own battalions in readiness for an attack on the city from the south. This harmonised well with the first stage in the plan as given to Mauriceforce, which was to make a rapid push forward from the north, so as to secure at once as much of the area between Namsos and Trondheim as was not effectively denied to them by the enemy. On the 16th the Norwegian Commander-in-Chief sent another telegram through the British Military Attaché requesting a decision about the recapture of Trondheim. Colonel King-Salter then pressed the matter further by reporting certain topographical details furnished by the Director of Military Intelligence at General Ruge’s Headquarters. This officer recommended a direct attack past the Agdenes forts or, if the Agdenes defences proved to strong, and attack based on positions at Vinje and Surna, sixty miles to the south west of the town. His opinions were founded on extensive local knowledge, as he had previously acted as Chief of Staff to the division based on Trondheim, which had in peacetime considered the practicability of the forcing of Agdenes and of a landing for the capture of the town based on Kyrksaeteröra, Vinje, and Surna.
Otherwise no information was available except the general facts about the position and armaments of the three forts at Agdenes. Brettingen is built into the side of a rocky promontory, commanding the entrance on which the four sea approaches to Trondheimsfjord converge at the Agdenes lighthouse. Hysnes lies in a rather more accessible position about two and a half miles farther in on the same east bank of the fjord, with the third fort, Hambaara, opposite. The first two were known to have two 8 inch guns apiece and of 6 inch guns three and two respectively. Some smaller guns were not in
commission, and there was no anti-aircraft defence (before the Germans took over), but the two forts had three heavy machine guns each and Brettingen a serviceable air raid shelter. Hambaara had two 6 inch guns not in commission. The mouth of the fjord is very deep, nearly 300 fathoms between Hysnes and Hambaara, and nearly two miles wide. Beyond Agdenes it broadens still further to form a perfect sea way for vessels of any size, which runs SSE for about thirteen sea miles and then due east for another eleven to Trondheim, lying on the south bank with ten miles of water before it. Some inference could however be drawn from the experience of the two British destroyers which had approached the mouth of the fjord in the early afternoon of 11th April.17 The two forts opened fire on them, but the shooting was very wild.
Meanwhile, with the approval of the French Government and the implied support of the British public (which was eagerly canvassing the pros and cons of a direct attack on Trondheim, especially the former), the Military Coordination Committee became engaged in the hurried adaption of its Mauriceforce arrangements to prepare the way for Operation Hammer. As regards the military force for the Trondheim landing, it was proposed at first to employ ten battalions, half of them British (Regulars) and half French; but the troops finally allotted to the task were the 15th and 147th Infantry Brigades and two Canadian battalions. Of these the 147th Brigade (Territorials) was to be embarked separately as a reserve; the remainder, including Divisional and Brigade Headquarters, constituted the assault force, to which the Navy contributed a Royal Marine battery of 3.7 inch howitzers. The expedition was to be commanded by Major-General F. E. Hotblack; he received his instructions18 on 17th April but suffered a stroke the same evening. His successor was Acting-Major-General H. P. M. Berney-Ficklin, from the 15th Brigade, but his command was terminated by an air accident on the morning of the 19th. Major-General B. C. T. Paget then received orders to leave immediately for the north, presumably to take over the same command.
Air operations against Trondheim were also envisaged. Bomber Command was instructed to develop its existing attacks on enemy held airfield so as to include a half squadron raid nightly on Vaernes, the use of which by the Germans had been reported (erroneously) on the 12th, in preparation for ‘the combined operations against Trondheim, which might last several days’. During the actual operations it was to neutralise enemy air activity by attacks at maximum strength, which it was hoped would amount to a full squadron raid each night on Vaernes, Sola, and Fornebu. But the main burden
of the struggle for mastery in the air would have to be borne by naval aircraft, operating as an integral part of the Fleet. We may therefore turn to the naval aspect of the undertaking.
Late in the evening of 13th April, the day of the second naval success at Narvik, when the Military Coordination Committee first considered the idea of a direct landing and Trondheim by part of Mauriceforce, it was reported that the Naval Staff anticipated no difficulty in silencing the shore batteries outside Trondheim, and the Service Staffs were instructed to prepare their plans accordingly. On the afternoon of the 15th, the Committee was told that the Navy would be ready for the direct attack in about a week. On the 16th, the First Lord of the Admiralty said that another seven or eight days would be required to mount the operation, of which it was assumed that the enemy would receive not more than two hours warning, so that they could not make much call upon their air strength in Denmark or Germany. Two carriers would put up 80 aircraft to deal with enemy air forces based in Norway; the Navy would then smother gunfire from the land. On 17th the Committee determined the date of the operation as the 22nd, but on the 18th—after the news of the collapse of General Hotblack—a postponement to the 24th was contemplated as having the additional advantage of providing the troops with time for disembarkation practice. On the morning of the 19th agreement as to the naval preparations was completed, when the Committee decided that the Warspite must be withdrawn from the Narvik operations in order to take part. It had been resolved, however, to avoid the bombardment of the city itself, if at all possible; the initial landing points would be beyond, in the bay near Vaernes and at Levanger.
The feasibility of the Navy’s share in this operation was much canvassed at the time. It may therefore be of interest to record the discussions between the Admiralty and the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, on whose shoulders the immediate responsibility would rest. Sir Charles Forbes was informed of Operation Hammer in the early hours of 14th April, while he was still at sea off the Lofotens in the Rodney , with a request for his opinion as to the possibility of destroying or dominating the shore batteries so that transports could enter, and for particulars of the ships required. In his answer, at midday on the 14th, he said that the operation was not feasible unless the Government was prepared to face very heavy losses in troops and transports, because German bombers would have sufficient warning to provide continuous air attack. The Admiral also pointed out that no ships of the Home Fleet had on board the high explosive bombardment shells which would be needed for their main armament. But the Admiralty answered, ‘Pray consider this important project further’: large troopships would have to be brought into the danger zone
somewhere, and for this operation we should be in a position to put both Stavanger and Trondheim airfields out of action—the former by RAF bombing followed up by bombardment from the cruiser Suffolk , the latter by the attacks of naval aircraft and Fleet bombardment. The Admiralty also said that high explosive shell for 15 inch guns had been ordered to Rosyth and that the aircraft carrier Furious and the 1st Cruiser Squadron would be employed.
Sir Charles Forbes, having received particulars of the defences and confirmation of the fact that the Germans had seized the batteries at the entrance of the fjord, replied to the Admiralty on the 15th, deprecating the withdrawal of the 1st Cruiser Squadron from Kirkenes and that of the Furious from Narvik, and proposing a force to consist of the aircraft carrier Glorious ; the three capital ships Valiant , Renown and Warspite , of which the last named was to carry out shore bombardments; at least four anti-aircraft cruisers; about twenty destroyers; and ‘numerous landing craft.’ The Admiral added that his previous reply had been misunderstood: he did not ‘anticipate any great difficulty from the naval side’, provided the troops were conveyed in men of war instead of transports. The Admiralty went ahead with its preparations, and on the 19th the Valiant sailed for Rosyth to ship the special shell for the bombardment. Meanwhile the plan had been received by the Commander-in-Chief on his arrival with the Home Fleet at Scapa, and arrangements were made for the whole of the military assault force to be embarked according to his wishes in cruisers, destroyers, and sloops, which would also carry the stores, howitzer battery, and six landing craft. Embarkation was fixed for the 21st at Rosyth, whence the expedition would proceed to Scapa to pick up the reserve brigade and rendezvous with the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious . These last were not available until the 23rd, so the attack was in effect put back to 26 April at earliest.
But before the Admiral, busy examining the general requirements of the Home Fleet at Scapa, had become wholly committed to the proposed operation, which he regarded as a gamble, a more cautious policy, of limiting the risks to which we exposed our very slender resources, came suddenly to prevail in London. The forts might not prove a serious obstacle, but the German air force, knowing that we were bound to proceed up the fjord to Trondheim, might take a heavy toll of our ships. We may notice that the Suffolk reached Scapa Flow on the morning of 18th April with the sea ‘lapping over the quarterdeck’: she had bombarded Sola airfield, Stavanger, and so far from putting it out of action had suffered nearly seven hours of counter attack from the air. Sent on northwards from Stavanger with additional orders to pursue some alleged enemy destroyers, the cruiser could not be found by her intended RAF fighter escort (which
expected her to be closer inshore), and although the Commander-in-Chief despatched naval aircraft from Hatston as well as both his battlecruisers to the rescue, it was too late to prevent a direct hit from a 1000 lb bomb. There were even four more air attacks after nine fighters had arrived to protect the cruiser. Similar, if less dramatic, reminders of the incalculable (or at least uncalculated) menace of air power had come in from our ships now operating in the Namsos area. There were also fears that, even if ships could be successfully defended by their own anti-aircraft armament and the Fleet Air Arm, the troops would be badly bombed as they went ashore to capture Trondheim and the Vaernes airfield. By the morning of the 19th, the Chiefs of Staff had drawn up a paper in this sense, which seemed to confront the Prime Minister with the alternatives of accepting their advice, backed as it was by the newly appointed Vice-Chiefs of Staff, or making (as Mr Churchill tells us)19 at least one change among his principal Service Advisers. The First Lord supported the more prudent course, and the decision became known at a late night meeting of the Military Coordination Committee on the 19th. The order for General Paget to go north had already been withdrawn by the War Office, about one hour after it was issued. An Admiralty telegram to the Commander-in-Chief formally announced the cancellation of ‘Hammer’ at 11:40 a.m. next day.
The papers of the Military Coordination Committee show that at the time of the decision to abandon the direct assault on Trondheim and concentrate on Namsos and Aandalsnes erroneous impressions of the strength of our positions at these two ports played a big part. As the First Lord of the Admiralty put it, ‘we move from a more hazardous to a less hazardous Operation’,20 and by using these bases to the full we should be getting more men onto Norwegian soil sooner. It was also believed that the operations against Narvik would be brought to a quick completion through the release of the Warspite and important military reinforcements. Two birds in the bush were perhaps being overvalued to make up for the one which was not after all in the hand; but the Chiefs of Staff (or their principal assistants) were able to enumerate no less than six reasons for abandoning ‘Hammer’. The establishment of our forces at two other bases is naturally given prominence, together with the enhancement of our prospective difficulties at Trondheim by German work on the defences and the indiscretions of our press in calling attention to the likelihood of a major Allied attack there. It is also pleaded that there had been ‘insufficient time for that detailed and meticulous preparation which is so necessary in operations of this character and magnitude’, and that, in the absence of previous reconnaissance or
air photography, it would be risky to proceed on a map and chart bases. But the chief drawback of the Trondheim operation, important in relation to later events of greater moment, is plainly stated as ‘the concentration of almost the whole of the Home Fleet in an area where it could be subjected to heavy air attack’.
In retrospect it does not seem likely that the Agdenes forts would have been a serious obstacle. We now know that the third fort (Hambaara) had been disabled by the prompt action of a single Norwegian NCO and a watchman and that, although artillerymen for the coastal batteries accompanied each of the German naval expeditions, they had serious technical difficulties to contend with, such as the restoration of the electric cables for Brettingen and Hysnes. A provisional torpedo battery was laid out on floats; but there were no mines. The German naval strength in the fjord was reduced by the departure of two destroyers on the night of the 14th/15th to two ships, both suffering from engine room defects. The German military force, which had at first totalled only 1700 men, was indeed increased by successive airlifts of an infantry battalion less half a company on the 14th, a reinforced company on the 18th, and a further battalion, a troop of mountain artillery, and the Divisional General on the 20th. But about half of the 4000 troops were dispersed to the north and south and even towards the Swedish frontier on the east, leaving a garrison of only two battalions equally divided between Trondheim (including Vaernes airfield) and the mouth of the fjord. Moreover, the Germans were still very short of material. The two largest of three supply ships and the only tanker which had been sent off in advance for Trondheim had been intercepted; two camouflaged trawlers carrying guns to supplement captured Norwegian artillery also failed to get through; the first two submarines with urgently needed supplies did not arrive until 18th April; and as late as the 22nd they were preparing to send three more with aviation spirit and anti-aircraft guns.
The crux of the matter, however, was the exposure of our ships to air attack during the voyage up the fjord in confined waters without the possibility of surprise and the similar risk to ships and men during the subsequent landing. Would the anti-aircraft armament of the fleet and the work of 100 naval aircraft (the final figure), of which only forty five were fighters, have given sufficient protection? The Germans cleared Vaernes airfield of snow as fast as they could, but as late as the 19th the only operational forces at Trondheim were two flights of seaplanes; the resources of the Sola airfield, Stavanger, on the same date amounted to one squadron of heavy fighters and one flight each of dive bombers, Junkers 88s, and coastal reconnaissance aircraft. Clearly the cost of the venture increased with every day that was allowed to pass before we attacked, and although it is not now
believed that the loss of one capital ship would have induced the Italians to declare war on us, the history of the next twelve months shows how narrow our margin of safety was. A paper by the German Naval Staff, whose retrospective generalisations on such matters are not necessarily objective judgments, suggests that the failure to attack on this occasion ‘cannot be held against the British.’ But the same authority also says, perhaps more revealingly, that ‘a direct assault on Trondheim would only have been possible in the first days of the German operations, while coastal batteries were still unprepared and before the German air force was able to operate effectively against the attacker.’
Looking back, it seems quite clear that if we had captured Trondheim we could not have held onto it indefinitely, since we should have been short of both fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery to meet the inevitable weight of German attack—a consideration on which the Joint Planning Subcommittee had laid great stress as early as 15th April. On the other hand, we cannot tell how great the temporary advantages for the further conduct of Scandinavian operations might have been. If then we confine our judgment to the feasibility of the initial attack, which was the main contested issue at the time, it is difficult to resist, though impossible finally to establish, the conclusion that sufficient promptness of action, even with relatively small forces, could have won back the port.
The new strategy, however, still envisaged the capture of Trondheim, though more slowly, by a pincer movement. The landing of our forces at Namsos and Aandalsnes had been intended originally to work in with the combined operation for a landing about Trondheim, as the Commanders’ instructions clearly show.21 But the fact that, while the combined operation was being planned, prepared, and abandoned, first the seamen and Marines and then an infantry brigade had been landed at each of these ports without loss of life or shipping, and that the troops had been able to advance inland unimpeded except by the snow, made it now attractive to argue that to put larger forces ashore at the same bases would be equally feasible and produce correspondingly good results. The proposal therefore was to allocate both demi-brigades of Chasseurs Alpin to Mauriceforce (under Major-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart) at Namsos and to British brigades of infantry released from ‘Hammer’ to Sickleforce (now under Major-General Paget) at Aandalsnes. The Canadians were the only troops withdrawn from the Norway operations as a result
of the change of plan, and the French notified the Allied Military Committee on the 20th that their second light division could commence embarkation in three days’ time, thus doubling the number of their troops in Norway. The siege operations were expected to take a month to complete, but it was assumed that on the north side the German ground forces would remain on the defensive, leaving us free to choose the time for an attack, subject only to the evident danger from the air. Meanwhile on the south side there would be sufficient troops available both to press on towards the city and to establish a front along the two railway and road routes for holding back the German advance from Oslo to the relief of the garrison. General Gamelin in particular welcomed the prospect of a long continued struggle in the mountains south of Trondheim, whither Germany’s manpower might be increasingly diverted to fight at a disadvantage, and was pressing for this to be a French assignment under a French commander. But the British view was that the more mobile troops, namely the French, ought to be employed in the northern jaw of the pincers.
Lieut.-General H. R. S. Massy, who as Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff had been closely concerned with all the earlier phases of the operations, was appointed at this juncture to command all Allied forces in Norway except in the Narvik area.22 The fact that the General and his headquarters never left London illustrates not only the speed with which the tide of events overtook his plans but the geographical complexity of the operations against Trondheim, the northern and southern halves of which had no communications except through home bases.
The pincer movement as a strategic concept lasted one week, as a practical venture even less. The Chairman of the Military Coordination Committee had noted already (on 19th April) of Mauriceforce that the position was ‘somewhat hazardous, but its commander ...used to taking risks.’23 on the night of the 20th/21st General Carton de Wiart reported the devastating impact of the first serious German air attack upon his base at Namsos, which was followed in the next two days by a defeat in the forward area at Steinkjer, where his right flank rested upon the Trondheimsfjord. A bold face was put upon the situation for the meeting of the Supreme Walk Council on the 22nd, at which the French still spoke of sending in enough men to free all Scandinavia; their second light division was now at Brest, ready to embark in their own transports, and the third only awaited the promised British transportation in order to follow. Trondheim was still regarded officially as our first objective: but Carton de
Wiart’s statement that the base had been rendered unusable caused the possible need to evacuate his force to be canvassed at once in London. However, the fact that the Germans on the north side of Trondheim were palpably outnumbered and that the French half of the Allied force had as yet seen no action made it difficult to picture the situation there as being irretrievable. The troops based on Namsos might still serve to contain the Germans until Sickleforce was ready to cut a way through to Trondheim from the south. But on the 22nd Mr Churchill was urging the need to reinforce in the Narvik area, so that our troops might be on the Swedish frontier before Lulea became open to a German seaborne expedition, and the second demi-brigade of Chasseurs Alpin was accordingly sent there. Two battalions of the French Foreign Legion and four Polish battalions, which were then on their way from France to Scotland, were held in Scottish waters from 16th April to 1st May, when they followed the Chasseurs.
What strength the second jaw of the pincers might possess was very quickly tested. Sickleforce had the advantage of a modest quantity of air support from a squadron of Gladiators which was flown to a frozen lake near Aandalsnes and from two carriers operating off the coast, but it had the greater disadvantage of a position between two enemy forces, which must both be driven back if we were ever to win or at least kept apart if we were not immediately to lose. Material for demolitions had been sent over and its use repeatedly urged, but neither of the two valley routes leading north towards Trondheim was properly blocked. Even before the failure of our air projects the speed of the German advance both up the Gudbrandsdal, where tanks had completed the discomfiture of our 148th Brigade on 23rd April, and the Österdal, where Norwegian resistance was equally ineffective, made the prospect of stabilising the front as a necessary preliminary to any aggressive action on our part look remote. On the 24th there were plans in London for putting a third infantry brigade, a mechanised brigade, a regiment of tanks and the French demi-brigade from Namsos successively through Aandalsnes, with possible relief from subsidiary landing points not yet reconnoitred. But even apart from the likelihood of heavy air attack as at Namsos—which Aandalsnes was in fact experiencing that very day—it was obviously unlikely that the Germans having gained so much ground already would now give us time for any such build up; and the virtual elimination of the Gladiator squadron within 24 hours then made the prospect of holding them in the valleys still more remote.
While bad news accumulated, a last attempt was made to find a solution. General Massy had already indicated to General Paget a minimum area south of Trondheim, into which he could withdraw
without enabling the Germans either to raise the siege or to block the arrival of his reinforcements. At Namsos, on the other hand, the situation appeared to have been stabilised with the arrival of some anti-aircraft artillery, though General Massy proposed also to bring down to Namsos the guns and tanks which had accompanied the French to the Narvik area. To give the necessary impetus to the operations, the First Sea Lord revived the idea of ‘Hammer’. Indeed, the notion of a naval bombardment directed against Trondheim, to divert attention at a critical stage in the pincer movement, had never been formerly abandoned, and the French Admiralty in private (and Sir Roger Keyes of Zeebrugge fame in public) had continued to press for some such action. On 23rd April it was proposed that the Royal Navy should capture or neutralise the forts at the mouth of the Trondheimsfjord, so as to achieve command of the waters between Trondheim and Steinkjer, thereby securing the flank for a renewed advance from Namsos; a small force might also be landed to help. This grew into a more definite plan, ‘Hammer 2,’ which the Chiefs of Staff outlined as follows: naval bombardment was to neutralise the forts, which would be captured by a force of two battalions with four howitzers, to be disembarked from landing craft and paddle steamers. The assault on the forts from the land side was advocated by Norwegian officers escaped from the area, who had been interviewed at Namsos; but they were unaware that the Germans had strengthened the defences by bringing in mortars. Once Agdenes was in our hands, German ships in the fjord would be destroyed and we should disembark troops ‘at points to be decided on’ to dislodge the German garrison of Trondheim. But the plan required the use of two brigades of Regulars: their withdrawal from France meant a delay of ten days, of which two would be used to train at Scapa for the landing—and what might not happen during that time to our troops hard-pressed elsewhere? The operation was certain to be ‘somewhat hazardous’, and if it succeeded there was still the problem of holding Trondheim. This would require a greater provision of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, naval escorts, and shipping than we could afford to make, as a Report from the Joint Planning Subcommittee to the Chiefs of Staff at this juncture again pointed out. After anxious consideration of ‘Hammer 2’ by the Chiefs of Staff on the 25th, when the Prime Minister gave preliminary orders through Mr Churchill for the operation to be put in hand, the Military Coordination Committee at 10 a.m. next morning decided to abandon it, in view of the dearth of air defence available both for the assault and for the protection of the port when taken; and they resolved to evacuate Central Norway instead. The War Cabinet accepted the arguments of the Committee, noting the additional danger that a serious setback might precipitate the intervention of Italy in the war, and came to the belated conclusion
that our resources were too small to undertake the capture of Trondheim as well as Narvik.
The French had still to be convinced, as it was only three days since the Supreme War Council had taken the opposite decision, and their second light division sailed for its rendezvous in the Clyde that morning. General Gamelin flew at once to London to protest, chiefly on the grounds of the blow to Allied morale. The resulting imbroglio was made worse by the disclosure to the Cabinet next morning (27th April), while the French Generalissimo was still suggesting alternatives to any evacuation, that on the contrary it must take place much more quickly than had been imagined even twenty-four hours earlier. General Massy while preparing his plan for evacuation had received further news from General Paget, in the might of which he now appreciated the alternatives as being to leave Aandalsnes on 1st/2nd May, in which case we ought also to leave Namsos the same night, or else to allow the build-up of Sickleforce to continue and prepare for a much larger operation of withdrawal, commencing about 10th May and taking 35 days to complete. At the meeting of the Supreme War Council, which followed, the French Prime Minister accepted that there had been a ‘technical mistake’ in ignoring the absence of both an adequate port and of air bases,24 and agrees to evacuate whenever it should become a military necessity. But M Reynaud was still allowed to hope that there might be time to take Narvik first, and that his French troops might not have to be evacuated from Namsos at all but could be withdrawn to the north overland. The first of these illusions was destroyed just after midnight of the 27th/28th, when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff notified General Gamelin by letter that the evacuation had to be made at the earliest possible moment, the second in the middle of the following night, when the French learnt that the first of their troops were actually being reembarked.
The rather devious way in which the British decision to cut the losses was conveyed to the French may be attributed in part to our awareness of the strength of their feelings. The French Government had all along favoured the maximum diversion of the German war effort towards Scandinavia, thought that to admit a failure now might bring Italy in against us, and feared the effects of a second crisis of confidence at home following so quickly upon that which had overthrown the ministry of M Daladier. In addition, they had a report of their own observer at Namsos, received just after the meeting of the Supreme War Council, on the basis of which they claimed that the port could and should be used for landing further troops and material. But there was also a natural reluctance on our
part to state unequivocally so bitter a decision. For by it we gave up all hope of seizing the initiative in Norway at large, though the campaign at Narvik might serve other purposes. A single argument runs through the story of three disappointing weeks: because we had no airfield, we could not mount the air strength to secure one; because we had no proper base, we could not assemble the men and material to capture one; because we had no consistently held objective, no one of our objectives had been achieved.