Chapter 7: Initial Operations in Gudbransdal 
See Map 4, facing page 112, and Map 6, facing page 138
The attempt to retain Mauriceforce as a useful factor in defence implied a belief that Sickleforce, the expedition to the south of Trondheim, might still save the attack on Trondheim from developing into a complete fiasco. This line of thought was perhaps tenable because the operations based on Aandalsnes, after an opening phase far more disastrous than the struggle for Steinkjer, had just at this time entered upon a second phase with new troops under a new commander. But before we can trace the adventures of Major General Paget and the 15th Brigade, we must in the present chapter go back to consider the first advance from Aandalsnes, which had begun a little later than the landing at Namsos and failed at almost the same time.
Aandalsnes is a much smaller port than Namsos: though frequented by tourists in the summer season, it was hardly more than a fishing village, until the completion of the Raumadal Railway in 1924 brought some additional trade. This railway, a masterpiece of engineering, follows in general the old road route from Dombaas down the Romsdal, linking the Oslo-Trondheim main line with the long fjord which has Aandalsnes at its head; the larger port of Molde (roughly comparable to Namsos) lies about 23 miles farther out towards the sea. Molde, though its harbour facilities were of course considerably better, never ranked as more than a subsidiary base because it had no direct road communications with Aandalsnes and its hinterland the Romsdal. From Aandalsnes, on the other hand, there was ready access to the southern approaches of Trondheim and the means of contacting the Norwegian forces in the east of the country. Hence its selection as a base, although there was but a single concrete jetty about 150 feet long, of which only one side could be used, one 60-foot wooden quay, and one 5-ton travelling crane. A less immediately obvious drawback was the fact that the four huge mountains which tower above the little town would hide approaching aircraft until they were over their target.
One of the first steps proposed to facilitate the intended assault on Trondheim was the occupation of Aalesund, the largest port between Bergen and Trondheim, whose island position commands the route
north through the Leads. A party of 45 officers and 680 Royal Marines and seamen under Lieut.-Colonel H. W. Simpson, RM, was drawn from three battleships then in dockyard hands, embarked in such haste that the searchlight detachments went without their searchlights, and sent off in four sloops for Aalesund. But while the overloaded ships were held up by a gale at Invergordon their destination was changed at Norwegian request to Aandalsnes. Hence the rather absurd situation, not uncharacteristic of the atmosphere of improvisation in which the campaign began, that the main military force, half-expecting to find the Germans in occupation or at least the Norwegian population in need of some persuasion, was greeted at the quay by a British consul in company with a lieutenant colonel of Marines.1 The Marines had landed twenty-four hours before, in the evening of 17th April, and had dispatched a subsidiary detachment to Aalesund. At Aandalsnes throughout the period of operations the seamen provided working parties and the Marines guards for the base; the anti-aircraft defence of the harbour was undertaken by the 21st (Royal Marine) Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, armed with eight naval 2-pounders on improvised mountings. Two 3.7-inch howitzers were also available, manned by seaman crews, but two 4-inch naval guns had been taken on to Aalesund to command part of the sea approach to Trondheim. These last, however, were never mounted and lacked several essential articles of equipment, as did two 3-inch high-angle guns with which they were later supplemented. Aalesund was repeatedly attacked from the air, but played no part in the ensuing campaign except, to a small extent, as a coaling station for transports on the return trip from Aandalsnes.
The 148th Infantry Brigade (Territorials), consisting of the 1/5th Royal Leicestershire Regiment and 1/8th Sherwood Foresters, under the command of Brigadier H. de R. Morgan, had been in readiness on 7th April to proceed to Stavanger.2 After their hurried disembarkation they were selected for Namsos, and were embarked together with the 168th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery at Rosyth on the 14th April. They were to go in the cruisers Galatea and Arethusa and a large transport, which last lay below the Forth Bridge and had to be loaded from lighters; hence stores were not tactically disposed, though this seemed to matter less as the holds were ample. The troops did not, however, sail for another two and a half days, during which new orders reached Brigadier Morgan—making in all four new sets of orders before he started on his expedition—and it was decided not to risk the large transport in the fjords, but to trans-ship instead to the two cruisers, the anti-aircraft cruisers Carlisle and Curaçao, and two destroyers. The new orders substituting Aandalsnes for Namsos
rendered any information the Brigadier and his staff may have gathered for Namsos useless. The brigade suffered from two other disadvantages: owing to the fact that the transfer was made in the black-out, important stores were left behind, including brigade headquarters equipment, with the wireless transmitter, predictors for the anti-aircraft guns, and all the Foresters’ mortar ammunition; and, secondly, one half of the Leicestershire battalion was relegated to the second flight for lack of accommodation in the warships.
The final orders were dated the evening of the 16th and delivered to Brigadier Morgan just before the expedition sailed at 7 a.m. next morning. While, emphasising the fact that he would later be placed in subordination to the general commanding the final operations for the capture of Trondheim, these instructions defined his immediate duty quite clearly: ‘Your role to land Aandalsnes area, secure Dombaas, then operate northwards and take offensive action against Germans in Trondheim area.’3 But while he was still at sea, Brigadier Morgan received a further message from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff suggesting that he might be able to get to Dombaas very rapidly, as serious German opposition before that point was improbable, and imposing two further duties: ‘When you have secured Dombaas you are to prevent Germans using railway to reinforce Trondheim: am sending small demolition party.’ Secondly, ‘You should make touch with Norwegian G.H.Q., believed to be in area Lillehammer, and avoid isolating Norwegian forces operating towards Oslo.’ In other words, he was expected to face south as well as north. For these expanding operations, Brigadier Morgan had with him a first flight of almost exactly 1,000 men from the two Territorial battalions with one troop of the light anti-aircraft battery; only two officers apart from the Brigadier himself had any previous experience of active service. The second flight of 600 men, with all the motor transport of the Brigade and the second half of its antiaircraft guns, was due to follow two days later.
The voyage across the North Sea was shadowed by enemy aircraft, which attempted one attack and were driven off; but there being no transport with the warships, the Germans did not detect the nature of the force. In order to reduce the risk of air attack during the landing, about one-third of it was landed at Molde, enabling disembarkation there and at Aandalsnes to be completed before daylight on the 19th. But there was an immediate complication. About 6.30 p.m. on 14th April, German paratroops had landed on the high mountains in the neighbourhood of Dombaas railway station, the junction between the Oslo-Trondheim and Romsdal lines. Their losses in landing were not inconsiderable, and the Norwegian battalion on guard in the
district was prompt to take up the challenge. These Germans were now only about sixty strong, but there was the implied threat that more might land at any place and moment, and those who had landed had put up a stubborn resistance which closed the road and rail route from Dombaas southwards. Brigadier Morgan therefore, in accordance with his instructions for a rapid advance on Dombaas, sent two companies forward at once on the night of the landing in a troop-train which was standing ready. The German paratroops had by this time been surrounded by the Norwegians in a farmhouse five miles south of Dombaas, and by 10 a.m. on the 19th a part of the Brigadier’s force was reconnoitring the position. They were not, however, brought into action, as a naval gun from Colonel Simpson’s party opened fire in support of the Norwegian ski troops who were preparing an attack, and the Germans then decided to surrender. During the day, our troops who had been landed at Molde were moved to Aandalsnes, and more of the troops in Aandalsnes were brought by rail to Dombaas.
Sickleforce had secured its position at Dombaas, from which it could turn north against the Germans in Trondheim, but a second and more decisive complication now intervened—the claims of the Norwegian army and its commander, which were at that time little known or regarded in London. One of the last measures taken by the Norwegian Government in the crisis of 9th/10th April had been to require the retirement on grounds of age of their Commander-in-Chief, and to replace him by a younger and more energetic man, Colonel Otto Ruge, their Inspector-General of Infantry, who had vehemently urged the propriety of continued resistance and helped to organise the stand at Elverum on the night of 9th/ 10th April.4 But in view of the German successes at the principal ports, it was then already too late for a general mobilisation to be effective. The divisional and regimental headquarters had in many cases been overrun, and not only the equipment but the actual mobilisation lists were in German hands. About 50,000 men reported eventually for service with the army or navy out of the very modest total of 120,000 (four per cent. of the population) provided by the latest pre-war mobilisation scheme; but even this took time.
On 12th April, Norwegian Headquarters was moved back to Öyer in the Gudbrandsdal, where it remained throughout the first phase of the operations. General Ruge had advised the Government at the outset that it was only worthwhile to offer further resistance in
so far as Norway could rely upon assurances of prompt and powerful Allied support. His plan of operations, therefore, had as its first object to keep resistance alive for an intervening ten days at most, and secondly to do what he could to safeguard the landing of the Allies and to enable their troops, when landed, to be deployed as advantageously as possible. He would try to retain sufficient ground in south-east Norway, clear of the central mountain range, to give an Allied army the means of recapturing the whole. But he was at the same time determined to avoid such severe losses to his troops, who were now rallying to the colours in circumstances of great confusion and discouragement, as might render them incapable of playing an effective part in joint operations later on. Orders were given on the 13th for delaying actions to be fought on this basis, with systematic withdrawals and systematic demolitions.
The orders of the High Command were sent to the Trondheim area by air, but the message never arrived. On the south side of the city, however, General Ruge was in touch with a small improvised force which had blocked the road and rail routes twenty miles out against any German advance. Although Bergen likewise was in German hands, the division based on this area had its mobilisation centre about fifty miles away in the mountains at Voss, with the result that its commander, General Steffens, alone of the five divisional generals in South Norway, succeeded in setting up a complete field brigade according to plan. He was able to repulse the first German advance along the railway from Bergen.
Farther to the south, the results of the first few days were less satisfactory. A small force in the mountains behind Stavanger kept up the fight until 23rd April, but was too isolated for its efforts to have any effect on the general situation. More important, both numerically and because of their geographical position, were the troops who had fallen back with the loss of their equipment from Kristiansand up the great South Norway valley of the Setesdal. Determined resistance in this area might have provided a serious distraction to the main German effort, but on 14th April the Divisional Commander decided to capitulate, virtually in defiance of General Ruge’s orders. A rather similar debacle had already occurred in the Telemark, where a surprise German attack on Kongsberg, the seat of a small-arms factory, produced the surrender of the whole regimental area. The only other point at which the main German advance might have been distracted was the Östfold, the district east of the Oslofjord, but in this area the River Glomma was the one important natural obstacle, and when this was crossed the Germans could drive their opponents over the Swedish frontier. About 3,000 of the small Norwegian Army were in fact disposed of in this way, also on 14th April.
General Ruge’s task had therefore reduced itself with alarming rapidity to the defence of the agricultural area between Oslo and the high mountains, in which the most important natural features were the two great lakes, Mjösa and the Randsfjord. Mobilisation in this area was fairly effective, and four groups of the 2nd Division had fought a series of delaying-actions from Sollihögda, which is almost in the Oslo suburbs, to the shores of the two lakes. But the discouraging circumstances described above were made worse by the speed of the build-up of the German forces. In particular, the tanks, first thrown into the struggle on 16th April, were a weapon to which the Norwegians had no reply. It seems possible that General Ruge originally shared with the British public the illusion that no reinforcements could reach Oslo from Germany except by air, and that the effect of the air lift would be inconsiderable. But as the enemy’s build-up through the Norwegian capital developed, so the provision of an equivalent base for an Allied counter-attack in Norway became an urgent question, and General Ruge (as we have seen)5 came rapidly to the view that the first Allied objective must be Trondheim.
This did not, however, alter the nature of the campaign pending the arrival of the Allies. After a week of war, the Germans were pushing northwards in four small columns, which they manipulated with characteristic skill so as to outflank the Norwegian positions in turn. Casualties on both sides had been inconsiderable, and no engagement had amounted to more than a skirmish, but the Norwegians, suffering all the disadvantages of improvisation, were about equally short of men, equipment, rest, and encouragement. The easternmost of the German columns after throwing out a detachment to the Swedish frontier had made its way up the Glomma valley as far as Elverum, which fell on the 18th. What was probably the largest column took Hamar, half way up the eastern shore of lake Mjösa, the same day. On the west side of the lake the Germans were in an approximately corresponding position below Gjövik, where they also threatened the one remaining munitions factory (Raufoss). Still farther west they were advancing along the east bank of the Randsfjord, from where they might ultimately outflank the whole defence of Mjösa. To meet this situation General Ruge on 18th April threw in what we may call his strategic reserve. The troops belonging to the Bergen division would have wished to move forward from Voss for the recapture of the city, though it was perhaps a forlorn hope in the absence of British naval support there, on which Ruge had been told that he could not count. Instead, this 4th Brigade of nearly 5,000 men was ordered out of its home district right over the watershed into East Norway to check the advance along the
Randsfjord up into Valdres, and to provide the Norwegians with the possibility of outflanking the Germans in their turn. It was at this stage that the first of the British troops, on which General Ruge had been counting, arrived on the scene.
Accordingly, in the early afternoon of 19th April Lieut.-Colonel E. J. King-Salter, the British Military Attache, sent Morgan an urgent telephone message in guarded language; together with his French colleague, he joined the Brigadier at Dombaas in the evening. At their conference the British Military Attache urged the need for the diversion of the 148th Brigade to operations south of Dombaas. Coming from General Ruge’s Headquarters, he was in a position to explain that, unless some help was made available now, Norwegian resistance would almost certainly collapse and, with the Germans advancing up the valley of the Gudbrandsdal towards Trondheim, the position would be quite untenable. Brigadier Morgan’s view was that his orders envisaged no movement south from Dombaas, and it might be considered a fair presumption that the quality and quantity of troops allotted to him were designed for a minor part, developing slowly, in siege operations against Trondheim. But Colonel King-Salter clinched the argument by informing him that a War Office telegram had been received at Norwegian Headquarters giving General Ruge a call on the 148th Brigade, which made mandatory the instructions he brought from General Ruge that the British should proceed at once to reinforce the Norwegians at the mouth of the valley. Ruge had indeed asked for the support of three British infantry battalions (as well as field artillery and tanks), and offered to provide lorries for first-line transport. The telegram cited by King-Salter accepted the offer of transport for Morgan’s two battalions, but ignored the proposal for their employment far beyond Dombaas, which was originally attached to it. While referring back to the War Office for further instructions, the Brigadier prepared to meet the Norwegian demand by ordering the rest of his thousand men to move from Aandalsnes to Dombaas. Meanwhile he himself accompanied the Military Attaché to General Ruge’s Headquarters at Öyer, about a dozen miles north of the town of Lillehammer: there the Gudbrandsdal terminates at the head of the great lake Mjösa, up whose shores the Germans were advancing.
At Öyer he described the British plan for the recapture of Trondheim. General Ruge received it rather coolly, although it had partly originated in Norwegian official circles, and did not conceal his regret that the British authorities had so far kept him in the dark about their intentions. Incensed by rumours of a British scheme to blow up the railway through Gudbrandsdal (which would have blocked his own retreat as well as the enemy’s advance)6 he insisted in principle that, as he was Commander-in-Chief under the Norwegian Government,
whose territory was to be defended, operations must conform to his strategy. The recapture of Trondheim could wait, and bad weather might help us by stopping the German air-lift. But the front south of Lillehammer, he argued, was of paramount importance, since, so long as it held firm, Allied forces would be able some day to deploy into the more level districts of eastern Norway, in which manoeuvre was possible. He therefore insisted that British troops should at once be used to reinforce the Norwegian 2nd Division, which had two infantry battalions and a battery of artillery on the east side of the lake under the direct command of the Divisional General Hvinden Haug, and another group on the west side under Colonel Dahl. Brigadier Morgan agreed, though with considerable misgivings, and General Ruge received his agreement with enthusiasm.
British troops were thereupon hurried south by train from Dombaas down the Gudbrandsdal, so that by the time the earliest reinforcements reached Aandalsnes not only the base but even the advanced position at Dombaas had been stripped of our men, all of whom had been concentrated at or beyond the mouth of the valley. The lines of communication were now about 140 miles long. Meanwhile, at dawn on 20th April the Norwegian General, whose responsibilities and disappointments in the preceding ten days had been enormous, and whose lack of sleep was evident, was on the station to welcome the first British companies as they completed the journey down the valley. But Brigadier Morgan soon found that, instead of acting as a stiffening in one part of the line, his men were being widely dissipated and, instead of acting as a partial relief to a mainly Norwegian force, they were being left to hold hastily improvised positions without support of any kind.
In view of the almost inevitable sequel, there was some consolation in the fact that on the morning of the 20th Brigadier Morgan received a telegram from General Ironside, cancelling the original instruction to move north from Dombaas (which the abandonment of ‘Hammer’ had just rendered less urgent),’ and therefore endorsing the line of conduct which Morgan had been driven by circumstances to adopt.
You know situation of Norwegians in Lillehammer area. Clearly necessary to prevent German advance from south-east in order to secure Dombaas. Although you remain independent command under the War Office, you should, if you can spare troops, co-operate with Norwegian Commander-in-Chief while making use of Dombaas. Now probable that you will be reinforced by another brigade. Tell Norwegians.
Brigadier Morgan’s telegram to the War Office had in fact coincided
with an independent suggestion from Mr Churchill as Chairman of the Military Co-ordination Committee, proposing to the Chiefs of Staff that half a battalion be sent south to enable General Ruge ‘to sell ground more dearly and more slowly’.
The War Office telegram to Brigadier Morgan did not alter the position as regards the chain of command. This question was raised at a further conference called by General Ruge at Öyer at midday on the 20th at which he put forward a written declaration to the effect that British detachments must comply with the wishes of the Commander-in-Chief or else he would resign. The atmosphere of the conference was not helped by the fact that General Ruge bitterly resented a (mistaken) suggestion that there might be a leakage of information at his General Headquarters. In this difficult situation the Military Attaché took upon himself responsibility for delaying delivery of a message decoded at 10. 15 a.m. that day, in which the Chief of the Imperial General Staff explicitly informed General Ruge that Brigadier Morgan had instructions to co-operate with him but would not come under his orders. Colonel King-Salter’s report of the conference also refrained from putting General Ruge’s ultimatum in its categorical form, though, together with the French Military Attaché, he continued to press for General Paget on his arrival to be placed under Norwegian command. Brigadier Morgan contrived a satisfactory ending to the conference. General Ruge said he would endeavour to hold the Lillehammer front until Trondheim had fallen, but thought it involved risks. He added that he would feel confident with one British division at Trondheim and Brigadier Morgan’s force co-operating with his force on the Lillehammer front.
In the course of this day, 20th April, the British troops were deployed to positions under Norwegian command. Brigade Headquarters was situated at Lillehammer but had no operational control. First to move were two companies and half the headquarters company of the Sherwood Foresters, who detrained at Faaberg and were sent along the west bank of Lake Mjosa to Biri and thence up a side valley to the village of Nykirke, about thirty-five miles from Lillehammer. They arrived at 2 a.m. and were quartered in the parish church—the only large building which could be heated sufficiently in the bitter cold—while a telegram was sent to the Norwegian High Command reporting that British soldiers had taken up their first position in Norway. Their function was to protect the right flank of the Norwegian forces operating west of Mjosa—the improvised formation known as Dahl Group from the name of the Colonel commanding it—against a possible flank attack by the Germans, who had now come up against the Norwegian 4th Brigade in the region of the Randsfjord farther
west.7 But in the afternoon of the same day they were brought back to the neighbourhood of Biri, in rear of the Norwegians’ position at Braastad bridge on the lakeside just north of Gjövik, on which the Germans were converging from several directions. They constructed a new position, by which one company slept rough in the open, but they did not come into action there, owing to the course of events on the opposite shore.
The other two and a half companies of the Foresters were placed at Bröttum, a village about eight miles south of Lillehammer near the east shore of the lake, where they formed a reserve for a Norwegian battalion of some 500 men which was in action that day (the 20th) at Lundehögda, the foremost of two ridges flanking the main Oslo–Trondheim road by the lakeside. The Leicestershire, with a strength of two companies (plus half the headquarters company), having arrived at the mouth of the valley last, were sent south-east of Lillehammer along a by-road to support a Norwegian dragoon regiment. This unit, consisting of about 1,000 men, unmounted but carried in civilian motor transport, was fighting in front of Aasmarka, a hamlet two or three miles east of Lundehögda. In both cases General Hvinden Haug, the Norwegian Divisional Commander, gave orders overnight for the British to relieve the forward troops at 2 p.m. on the 21st. But in the morning the Germans, who had been held satisfactorily in both positions the previous day, began a more determined attack, for which they had both the motive and the means. For the approach of British troops to the scene destroyed any idea that the operations against the Norwegian army might peter out without serious bloodshed; and Group Pellengahr for its advance up the east bank of Mjösa now disposed of two infantry battalions, a motorised machine-gun battalion, a battery of artillery and some smaller units—a total of something like 4,000 men. The Foresters’ mortar section was sent forward to an isolated spur between Lundehögda and the lake; but German guns were brought to bear and it quickly ceased fire. The rest of the Foresters saw no fighting at Lundehögda, but were moved east to Slagbrenna, in the rear of the Aasmarka position, so as to leave the Lundehögda–Lillehammer route clear for an already impending Norwegian retreat. Meanwhile the Leicestershire, who were attacked from the air as they went forward (though the weather later in the day was fortunately cloudy), arrived about 3 p.m. at the positions where they were to relieve the Norwegian dragoons. The moment is not without significance. The Germans in Trondheim had launched their counter-attack towards Namsos earlier the same day, and here too, after nearly eight months of war, British troops at last stood face to face with the Germans on an active front.
Unfortunately, the Leicestershire were plunged at once into the
difficulties of terrain which were to characterise the whole campaign. The Norwegian posts were on a freezing hillside about 1,200 feet above sea-level, based on a few small farm-buildings, but stretching indeterminately into the woods on either side, and covered in about three feet of snow. The Germans had brought up artillery to protect their advance against the hill, on to which they were firing at a range of about 3,000 yards. The arrival of the two British companies was also followed by an immediate increase in the rate of mortar fire and by attacks through the woods on both flanks. The British mortar section came into action, but otherwise our troops were virtually immobilised by their inability to operate elsewhere than on the road—the only place where the snow was firm under foot. The Norwegian dragoons, whom the Leicestershire were intended to replace, continued perforce to engage the enemy and were gradually driven in from the flanks by superior weight of fire, so that after an hour the Norwegian colonel, who was directing operations, was clear that the position must be abandoned. The British established a new line just behind Aasmarka, where the road could be held in depth and the rough woodland at the sides would not lend itself to a German flank attack, especially with the approach of evening. By about 8 p.m. the dragoons had withdrawn from both their front and reserve lines through the new British position and retired northwards, as planned. The Germans had not followed up, and in any case the Foresters were now placed in support at Slagbrenna, where their preparations caused the Norwegian colonel to pass a comment which fairly sums up the whole episode: ‘A difficult job; in a strange land, in frost and snow, with dark, thick woods in all directions. It might be difficult enough for us—for them it was infinitely worse.’8
The first achievements of the British brothers-in-arms were a disappointment to the Norwegians, but they were not the prime cause of General Hvinden Haug’s decision, taken before 5 p.m. at latest, to substitute a general withdrawal behind Lillehammer for the original proposal to send back only the most exhausted units. It was not in any case a catastrophic change of plan, since General Ruge himself had been in doubt, even before the unsuccessful operations at Lundehögda and Aasmarka, as to the advisability of making the main stand in front of, rather than just behind, Lillehammer town, where a shorter front might prove more easily defensible. But its success presupposed the execution of an orderly retreat, especially as regards the British units, which would have to provide the new line. The withdrawal of the Norwegian battalion from Lundehögda, beginning in the early evening, inevitably uncovered the main road to Lillehammer for a German advance. This in turn would have the double effect of endangering communications back from Biri on the
far side of the lake—with consequences that must be dealt with later on—and necessitating a definite time-limit (fixed for 1 a.m.) by which the troops retiring from Aasmarka must have passed through Lillehammer to escape being trapped. Unfortunately, the only motor transport available for the Leicestershire had first to convey the Norwegian dragoons to their rest quarters a dozen miles beyond the town. Their colonel stayed behind near Aasmarka to see to the arrangements, but his subordinates failed to insist that the civilian drivers should make a further journey down the valley to pick up the two British companies. Accordingly, after their first day in action these Territorials had to set out at midnight on a fourteen-mile march over hilly, snow-bound lanes to Lillehammer—an ordeal whose effects on morale would be heightened by suspicions of Norwegian honesty. A serious setback followed. In the approaches to the town, when it was already daylight, enough transport met the column to carry the majority of the troops through in the nick of time, but the Germans cut off a considerable party, including six officers, and also overran the stores which had been accumulated at the railway station. At the Balbergkamp, two miles north of Lillehammer, the Leicestershire, their numbers further reduced by some of the transport overrunning their destination, rejoined the two and a half companies of Foresters, whose withdrawal from the intended rearguard position at Slagbrenna had been delayed by the fact that the march from Aasmarka took an unexpected route. The total was now 650 officers and men.
The new position, covering the river bridge at Faaberg as well as the main road north, was to be defended by British forces alone, while the Norwegians recuperated and reorganised farther up the valley, an arrangement against which Brigadier Morgan, now in direct control of operations, appealed to the Norwegian Command without success. Some civilian labour had been employed to prepare the site and Norwegian officers were available to indicate its features; but the delays described above prevented the British from reconnoitring. Moreover, the troops arrived piecemeal in the small hours of the morning and had abandoned their signals and much other equipment for want of transport and petrol.
Our principal strength was used to line a farm lane and a row of farm buildings astride the main road, the right flank resting on the river, the left on the precipitous side of the Balbergkamp. About noon, incendiary bombs were dropped on the British position; this was followed by a 4-inch mortar bombardment. While this engaged attention towards the main road, over which we had secured a good field of fire, the Germans also began to work round our left flank.
Our patrols defended the hill farms lying in that direction, from which a steep footpath gave access to the 2,000-foot summit of the mountain; but we had no protection against a wider movement to approach it from the farther side. By 3.30 p.m. small numbers of the enemy were in position behind and above our forces, and a ski patrol with machine guns even made a surprise attack on Brigade Headquarters some miles in the rear.
The result was a hasty withdrawal northwards up the road, rations and other stores being jettisoned so as to pack the available transport with men. The narrow, winding road, not for the last time, gave admirable opportunities for German air attack; troops on foot were overtaken or outflanked, and the Foresters lost a large part of their two companies which, it is believed, never received the orders to disengage. A new position was taken up south of Öyer with the support of one of the two additional companies of the Leicestershire, which had arrived at Aandalsnes on the 21st and been sent forward at once, the other fresh company being held in reserve. This position likewise came under heavy fire and was abandoned about 7 p.m., when another intermediate position was taken up at the hamlet of Tolstad. This had a clear field of fire down the main road and was held until noon next day, so as to make some reorganisation possible at Tretten.
The Norwegian Divisional Commander describes the loss of the
Faaberg–Balberg position as the ‘first serious defeat of the war’ and notes that ‘it was to have catastrophic consequences for the Norwegian detachments’.9 His comment invites the counter-comment that no Norwegian detachment was thrown in for its defence, in spite of repeated requests for help, and that they alone could have supplied ski patrols to remedy the situation on our left, where small numbers of Germans on skis manoeuvred to such great effect along the heights. The Norwegians claimed that their men were utterly exhausted by the skirmishes which they had fought during the ten long days when they stood alone, whereas the British felt that theirs had been given no time to adapt themselves to the bewildering physical conditions of the fight. But these are imponderables between which we cannot judge; what is certain is that the Germans required no rest and made the deep snow and unfamiliar terrain their ally.
Meanwhile, the other two and a half companies of Foresters, whose help might have been invaluable at the Balbergkamp, were isolated on the west bank of the lake. The whole of the Dahl Group had necessarily to move back when the retreat began on the east bank—and thereby lose contact with the Norwegian 4th Brigade still farther west—because German artillery on the road between Lundehögda and Lillehammer could command the Biri–Lillehammer road, and the Germans could also have crossed the ice. The Dahl Group, like the 2nd Division, employed the British detachment as its rearguard. The latter withdrew northwards from Biri in the early morning of the 22nd, under cover of bridge demolitions carried out by Norwegian engineers, as far as Frydenlund, a road fork five miles south of Lillehammer. The big bridge over the lake at Lillehammer had by this time been blown up, but it was thought too hazardous to attempt to follow the road back to Faaberg. Having waited until nightfall to escape attack from the air, the troops set off again in their lorries on a long detour over hill roads to the next main river crossing at Tretten, where they arrived in two sections at 4 and 7 a.m. respectively.
It is possible to say that the ensuing engagement of 23rd April was lost before it began, since the British Territorial troops retreating up the valley had now for the most part been without both food and sleep for more than thirty-six hours and had had no real rest for a week; they had lost much of their equipment, and were in any case without supporting arms. The troops from the west bank of Lake Mjösa, who had just rejoined them, were in scarcely better plight after eleven hours’ freezing travel in open trucks, the majority of them without greatcoats. Two fresh companies of the Leicestershire had also come in, as already noted, but the arrival of the second flight of the expedition at Aandalsnes on the 21st had been accompanied
by a further setback. For the motor transport of the Brigade, half the anti-aircraft guns, a quantity of urgently needed ammunition, demolition stores, and seventy-five tons of rations had been torpedoed off Aalesund in the transport Cedarbank—the only success obtained by German submarines against transports or storeships in the whole course of the April operation, but an important one. The three usable anti-aircraft guns were, however, ordered forward from Aandalsnes; but the troop was halted at Otta at 9.30 p.m. when the issue had already been decided lower down the valley.
The possibilities of Tretten, which is the lowest of the points at which the Gudbrandsdal narrows to a gorge, had been in the mind of the Norwegian High Command for some days at least, and rudimentary machine-gun posts had been constructed with civilian labour on both sides of the river. The west bank of the River Laagen is here a precipice except for a narrow ledge carrying the railway, while the east bank leaves space only for the main road. This winds between the river and a mountain saddle about 1,200 feet high, which is crossed by a farm track running parallel with the road. The village itself stands about a mile and a half farther back, clustering round the bridge by which the British detachment from west of Mjösa had just rejoined; the defence of this bridge for at least one clear day was deemed essential by the Norwegian Commander-in-Chief, to enable Norwegian forces from the same direction under Colonel Dahl to rejoin. For this reason a stand had now to be made, whatever the cost, instead of a fighting withdrawal from point to point up the
valley. The British expected the main German attack on their eastern flank, where the snow-covered mountain saddle was accessible and where the farm track also outflanked the road. Two companies of the Foresters were therefore set to control the main road on a three-quarter-mile frontage, with the one fresh company of the Leicestershire high up on their left flank. This flank was further strengthened by the remnants of three squadrons of Norwegian dragoons, with four medium machine guns and a mortar, whom Brigadier Morgan had induced General Ruge to place under his command; they were posted behind the Leicestershire on the plateau formed by the saddle. One company of the newly rejoined Foresters was left to guard the railway line on the other bank.
Fighting on the east bank of the river began about 1 p.m., and after an hour the threat to the main road caused the reserve company of Foresters to be moved forward. About this time three tanks began to force their way along the road into our forward positions, unchecked by the anti-tank rifles, which failed to penetrate. Some officers, including the Military Attaché (who was later severely wounded and taken prisoner), advanced from the village to reconnoitre and were overrun by the tanks at a bend in the road. The company of Foresters on the west bank was ordered on Norwegian advice to move some distance south, to prevent the enemy from working up along the railway to enfilade the main position; but it was quickly recalled in order that a part of it might be transferred to the east bank, where the engagement was being decided. The enemy tanks had broken through the main position along the road, so that all our advanced units were cut off, while the village itself came under heavy fire from 5.9-cm. close-support guns. Tretten and Tretten bridge were nevertheless held until early evening in the hope that troops from the forward area might filter past. Those on the west bank, reduced in number at an earlier stage, were fortunate and repelled an enemy party with good effect. Those on the east bank, though their small-arms fire could still be heard, had eventually to be left to their fate. The Norwegian dragoons, whose post on the saddle had not been seriously attacked, were able to get back to their transport along the farm track just before the final abandonment of Tretten, and a small proportion of British troops made their way through by the same route over the saddle. An improvised rear-guard defended a final position a mile north of the village until 9.30 p.m., after which what was left of the 148th Brigade dispersed, with the help of some buses mustered in the rear, to seek refuge forty-five miles back in the Heidal. In numbers, the brigade was now reduced to nine officers and three hundred men; as a fighting unit, the tale of events had reduced it for the time being to a lower figure. Such was the situation at the end of the first phase of the fighting in Gudbrandsdal.