Chapter 8: Gudbransdal—The Second Phase 
See Maps 7 (a) and (b), following page 144
Brigadier Morgan’s operations, as we have seen, were planned to meet an unexpected emergency, and were planned on a temporary basis pending the arrival of a larger force. The very first message he received from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff after his arrival in Norway said that his reinforcement by another brigade was ‘now probable’,1 and a War Office telegram on the morning of 21st April confirmed that the first 2,000 men of the 15th Infantry Brigade would arrive at Aandalsnes on the evening of the 23rd. Major-General B. G. T. Paget, a recent Commandant of the Staff College, who had been appointed to command Sickleforce in its expanded form on the 20th,2 issued his first operational instruction from London on the same day, addressed to Brigadier H. E. F. Smyth, commanding the 15th Infantry Brigade. He at the same time advised Brigadier Morgan of his plan in briefer form, as follows:
My intention: first, secure Aandalsnes, Dombaas, and lines of communication connecting them, against threats from air, Oslo, Trondheim; second, assist Norwegians Oslo direction by operating down Lillehammer and Österdalen valleys. My eventual plan that you in western, Smyth in eastern valleys ….
The first echelon of the 15th Infantry Brigade disembarked from cruisers and destroyers at Molde and Aandalsnes on the night of the 23rd, and General Paget himself with his Headquarters and the third battalion completing the brigade reached Aandalsnes from a similar convoy in the late evening of the 25th. Last-minute news received by the General at King’s Cross station had shown that the Norwegians were giving ground fast in the Österdal, so that it would be difficult for us to take the offensive there; but in any case the disaster which had befallen the 148th Brigade at Tretten made the concentration of the British effort in the western valley, the Gudbrandsdal, inevitable.
Before leaving England General Paget, viewing the situation in the light of Brigadier Morgan’s experience as reported to the War Office, had already taken what steps he could towards redressing the
balance. For, even before the disaster at Tretten, it was quite clear that the greatest of the handicaps under which the British troops were fighting was the almost complete lack of air protection. The base at Aandalsnes, though defended by a succession of anti-aircraft guardships and by some anti-aircraft guns ashore, was already experiencing daily air attacks, though on a small scale. Nearer the front German aircraft were free to scout and harass along road and railway as they pleased, and obvious targets such as the railway junction at Dombaas had been repeatedly hit. General Paget had therefore made representations on 21st April to General Massy, who had just assumed responsibility for all operations in central and southern Norway, as to the urgent need of air support, the need for more adequate antiaircraft defence, and the desirability of establishing alternative bases and lines of communication.
Arrangements were thereupon completed for at least one squadron of Gladiator fighters to operate from the ice on Lake Lesjaskog, lying at the head of the Romsdal and of the Gudbrandsdal, on the watershed from which the River Rauma flows north-westward to Aandalsnes and the Laagen south-eastward to Lillehammer and Lake Mjösa. Thus the prospect of turning failure into success depended upon a new arm as well as new troops. The Admiralty also undertook to supply carrier-borne aircraft for Central Norway, and the Ark Royal and the Glorious accordingly arrived off the coast (24th April) to try to protect the base and the troops,3 as well as for the purpose of flying land-based aircraft to the Lesjaskog position. But before the effectiveness of this plan could be tested, the unremitting pressure of the Germans had already forced the 15th Brigade into action.
On 24th April, the day after the fighting at Tretten, 148th Brigade Headquarters were in the Heidal, formed by a tributary of the Laagen, the Sjoa, which joins the main valley of the Gudbrandsdal about forty-five miles above Tretten. Brigadier Morgan, even after the stragglers had come in, found himself with only about 450 men and not a single officer of the rank of Company Commander or above. After conferring with Brigadier Smyth (who was junior to him) he arranged to post the remnants of his brigade as a reserve defence in the main valley, but enemy air patrols apparently prevented their move. It was also agreed with the Norwegians that they should hold on lower down until the next night but one to enable the newly arrived British troops, which by this time had reached Otta, to take up a defensive position of some strength at Kvam; this was about twelve miles farther on, south of the junction of the Heidal with the Gudbrandsdal.
The situation developed unpromisingly during the day. There was
widespread enemy air activity, in which at least three enemy planes were shot down, but the strength of the enemy attack was such that all three of the anti-aircraft guns which had arrived at Otta the day before were temporarily put out of action. More serious was the inability of the Norwegian forces to hold out for the period required, though a fresh battalion had been brought from the Romsdal by train to bear the brunt of the attack, as the battalion which had fought at Lundehögda had already lost two-thirds of its strength. The Germans attacked in the early morning of this day, forcing their way through along the main road with tanks and armoured cars, and by evening the Norwegians from the Romsdal had fallen back well behind the British at Kvam. Meanwhile the last Norwegian battalion in this area had come down the valley from Dombaas (where it had been in action earlier against the German paratroops) and taken up a new position at Vinstra, south of Kvam, where it held out with difficulty overnight. That evening General Ruge despatched a pessimistic message to the Allied military authorities, stating that his troops were absolutely exhausted, that the situation had become critical, and that the front might be irretrievably broken: ‘Unless immediate help is forthcoming, a débacle will occur’. The full weight of the campaign therefore fell immediately upon the 15th Infantry Brigade, whose object must be to prevent a further German advance while a larger force was built up on Aandalsnes and some approach to parity secured in the air. Fighting began at Kvam on the morning of the 25th and continued into the following day. The struggle for air power began about the same time and was more quickly concluded: it may therefore be considered first.
It had been intended at the outset to attach such units as could be spared from home defence and service in France to co-operate with our expeditionary forces in Norway. Squadron-Leader Whitney W. Straight was sent by the Air Staff on 17th April to find the most suitable landing ground to the south of Trondheim, an arduous task in one of the most mountainous areas in Norway. The choice lay between the ice of Lake Lesjaskog (already referred to) and that of Lake Vangsmjösa, which lies high up in Valdres, on another route from south-east to north-west parallel to the Gudbrandsdal-Romsdal route, and about sixty miles south-west of Kvam. His preference was for Lake Vangsmjösa because it was free of snow, could take two squadrons of any type of aircraft, and was connected by road to the inner reaches of the Sognefjord, where stores and equipment could be landed independently of the existing lines of communication. Lake Vangsmjösa was already being used as a sort of emergency base by a few Norwegian aircraft. The Air Staff decided otherwise, partly no doubt because they feared that the Norwegian forces in Valdres might not be able to prevent the Germans from overrunning the lake position
but chiefly because it was too far away from the area of our operations. For what was sent would have to serve a double purpose—to help our troops in the front line and to protect their communications, including the base at Aandalsnes: clearly, the latter object would be most easily fulfilled if the airfield was close by. It was also decided that only a single squadron should be sent, although its eighteen aircraft could not possibly provide a constant patrol of six aircraft, which responsible opinion inside the Air Ministry apparently regarded as the minimum for safety.
Lake Lesjaskog is a long, narrow lake, about eight miles by a half mile, bounded by woods. High and desolate mountains skirt the southern shore but there is easy access on the north from the road and railway connecting Dombaas and Aandalsnes, which lie almost within a stone’s throw. The servicing flight arrived there in two parties on 23rd and 24th April, having experienced great difficulty in sorting their stores (which were neither listed nor labelled) and getting the essential items sent forward by the only two lorries which could still be found in Aandalsnes. A runway measuring about 800 by 75 yards had been prepared with local labour, which had also swept the snow from a track between the main road and the lake edge. Unfortunately, only one inadequate route had been swept from the edge to the runway; this was half a mile long and a foot deep in snow, and the stores had to be conveyed over it on three horse-drawn sledges, intermittently available. The village of Lesjaskog was two miles away, so that even the provision of forage for the horses involved difficulties. However by 5 p.m. (24th April), the servicing flight had laid out fuel and ammunition along the runway in small dumps and collected every possible tin, jug, or other container for refuelling. It had at once been perceived that the essential work of refuelling and starting machines would be difficult: only two refuelling troughs had been despatched, and the starter trolley could not be used as the batteries were uncharged and no acid had been sent with them. Moreover, the ground staff included only one trained armourer to maintain seventy-two Browning guns for the squadron. Two guns from a naval battery of Oerlikons, which was landed at the same time as the RAF stores, had also arrived for anti-aircraft defence and a platoon of Marines to guard the petrol supply. Such was the position when No. 263 Squadron, commanded by Squadron-Leader J. W. Donaldson, took off from the deck of the Glorious, with four maps among eighteen pilots, none of whom had been in action previously, 180 miles from shore, in a snowstorm. Their aircraft were Gladiators—obsolescent biplanes which could operate from small landing-grounds. Escorted by two Skuas of the Fleet Air Arm, they descended on the lake at 6 p.m. without serious mishap, although the heaped-up snow at either side of the runway had melted during the
day so that its ice surface was half covered by trickling water. Meanwhile, the Germans had flown high above the lake and reconnoitred it. Our aircraft were immediately refuelled and one section placed at instant readiness, but the enemy did not return that evening.
The night (not surprisingly) was bitterly cold. When daylight came, carburettors and aircraft controls were frozen stiff, and in the absence of batteries the engines were difficult to start. It was nearly two hours after first light when the first aircraft took off to protect the landing ground against an attack;4 one Heinkel was shot down but the enemy succeeded in dropping some bombs on the lake. At 7 a.m. two aircraft were sent to patrol the battle area, but the servicing party was still struggling to get more engines started when the main enemy onslaught began an hour and a half later. This was clearly timed to coincide with the opening of the land operations at Kvam, in which it was one main function of our own aircraft to give much-needed support. Heinkel bombers approached in threes, which broke formation as they came up to the target to bomb and machine-gun the lake from various heights. At least five Gladiators were destroyed before they could get into the air, but two rose to meet the first big attack and accumulators then helped up others. But many of the ground staff, who were strangers to the unit and unfamiliar with their aircraft, took shelter in the trees, from which they did not emerge, although the naval contingent dauntlessly fought their guns (including some borrowed Lewis guns) and although they could see their own officers and sergeants at their tasks of starting engines and refuelling and rearming aircraft. In these circumstances, it took between one and one-and-a-half hours to refuel and rearm a single machine. Consequently most of the Gladiators were bombed and set alight or disabled by blast while awaiting fuel and ammunition on the ground.
Two sections of three aircraft took off during the forenoon, of which one renewed the patrol of the battle area at Kvam and gave encouragement to British and Norwegian forces alike, while the other sought to protect the landing ground. Altogether, forty fighter sorties were carried out during the day, in which the pilots engaged thirty-seven separate enemy planes and shot down at least six. But there could be only one ending to a situation in which the enemy could attack our sole landing ground with numerically superior forces and almost without intermission, bringing up more dangerous aircraft (Junkers 88s) as the day wore on, and could safely surmise that we had no reinforcements within reach. In the afternoon the lake was fast becoming unusable as the bombs broke up the runway (132 craters were counted in the immediate vicinity of the lake; the belted
ammunition was exhausted; and unarmed pilots were taking off in the brave but forlorn hope of turning enemy machines off their course and distracting their bomb-aimers by what could only be feint attacks.
An alternative landing place had been notified to the British at Setnesmoen, a Norwegian peace-time army camp just outside Aandalsnes, with a parade ground which was considered capable of forming a tolerable one-way landing ground. The necessary work had been put in hand at midday on the 23rd. The Squadron-Leader therefore flew to this position and sent back a message that the rest of the squadron were to transfer from Lesjaskog, where all aircraft no longer serviceable were to be wrecked and burned. The serviceable aircraft (apart from his own), by this time numbering only four, were moved accordingly, and at midnight the ground staff followed, bringing with them petrol and ammunition and leaving thirteen wrecked aircraft behind. The next day (26th April) it was decided that three aircraft should patrol the area of the landing ground and Aandalsnes, but they merely drove the enemy bombers to operate at heights to which the lack of oxygen equipment forbade our pilots to follow. The fourth aircraft acted as a scout in the Dombaas–Otta area, reporting troop movements to Force Headquarters, while the fifth was sent to examine Sunndal, where a German landing had been reported. Its engine failed completely, so that the pilot was obliged to descend by parachute, and by nightfall three others were unserviceable on account of damage which there was no means of repairing.
The one Gladiator left was not flown again. Instead, hopes were pinned on concealing Setnesmoen from the enemy until the arrival of No. 46 Squadron (Hurricanes), whose commanding officer landed on the evening of the 27th. He urged the Air Ministry to send his squadron at once, accompanied by key ground staff and servicing equipment in flying boats. But the Ministry ruled against this reinforcement: evacuation had now been decided upon, and in any case Hurricanes were not lightly to be expended. There remained the possibility of using No. 254 Squadron (Blenheim Fighters), which had been moved to Hatston in the Orkneys, and from there had succeeded in flying two one-hour patrols by three aircraft over Aandalsnes on the 25th, when they shot one Heinkel into the sea. On the 29th these patrols were renewed and plans made to increase their duration by refuelling the aircraft at Setnesmoen. But the Germans bombed Setnesmoen the same day, so the patrols found themselves unable to land.
Our attempt to base much-needed fighters in Central Norway was therefore abandoned after a trial of strength lasting forty-eight hours. The resulting situation was the more grave for our land forces as the
Air Ministry was unable to accede to General Paget’s requests for heavy-bomber attacks, whether against the enemy’s guns massed at Kvam or against his lines of communication down to Lillehammer or against his airfield, on the ground that the targets were out of range.
The 15th Infantry Brigade comprised the 1st King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (who had an extra company made up from the ex-drivers, carrier platoon, and battle patrol), 1st York and Lancaster Regiment, and the 1st Green Howards. Of these troops, only the KOYLI and the brigade anti-tank company, with five 25-mm. (French Hotchkiss) guns available and three more in support, plus some engineers had reached the position at Kvam by the morning of the 25th.
The railway and the road up which the Germans would be advancing here follow the left bank of the river round an abrupt right-angled bend from north to west—Kvam ‘Knee’—beyond which the road runs dead straight for nearly a mile into and through the village. The lower slopes of the mountain on this side are dotted with farms; the far side is almost precipitous. The valley floor between is
occupied by a flat pear-shaped island, easily accessible from the road over ice and shallow water but separated from the far side by a deep and swiftly running channel. Brigadier Smyth placed his Headquarters at the centre of the village, some distance in front of the church (in whose shadow now rests the largest single group of soldiers who died that year in the defence of Norway), and disposed his two forward companies to cover the road, one from the front edge of the island, where bushes gave some cover, the other on the hillside to the north. There they awaited the German forces which had already disposed of the 148th Brigade, including the troop of tanks first used at Tretten, and their presumed reinforcements. In actual fact their numbers were at least doubled by the troops which General Falkenhorst had allotted to Group Pellengahr from the operations now virtually concluded on the west side of Lake Mjösa: the Germans had seven infantry battalions, including one of mountain troops, and two batteries of artillery available, as well as the motorised machine-gun battalion and smaller units. But the narrowness of the road, broken bridges, and weakening ice were obstacles which caused the force to be strung out down the valley to Ringebu and even beyond, so that its spearhead may have been very small for a force of about 8,400 men, though certainly very large in comparison with our own.
An enemy column, headed by a medium tank, a light tank, and an armoured car, approached without warning at 11.30 a.m.; but an anti-tank gun on the island opened fire and presumably scored a hit, for both tanks stopped and the armoured car retired round the bend. Enemy infantry at once deployed on both sides of the road, and their 5.9-cm. close-support guns were brought into action, causing considerable casualties, especially to our advance position on the island. By 4 p.m. the advanced company, having lost four officers and eighty-five other ranks, was forced to fall back about half a mile to the western end of the island, where a second company was posted. The enemy tried also to outflank the other forward position: but our troops, who were well dug in there, did considerable execution and at about 5.30 p.m. the arrival of a company of York and Lancaster enabled this flank to be extended up the hillside in the rear of our original position. A second enemy medium tank was put quickly out of action, and a final attempt to turn our right flank by an advance along the river bed was stopped from the island position, to which a third company was brought up from the village. When night fell, the battalion was holding all its original positions except the eastern part of the island.
The enemy, in accordance with his usual practice, made no movement during the night. The British line was straightened by withdrawal from the forward position on the northern slope of the valley. This necessitated the abandonment of two out of the five anti-tank
guns, but two others were brought up from reserve. The few hours of darkness were also used to make ready for house-to-house fighting inside the village. Brigadier Smyth had been wounded in the first hour of the engagement, so it fell to the Acting Brigade-Commander, Lieut.-Colonel A. L. Kent-Lemon, to arrange that the York and Lancaster should form a temporary position in the rear, through which the troops engaged at Kvam could withdraw if they succeeded in holding the enemy for a second day. As the Germans would then be approaching the mouth of the Heidal, this decision involved the 148th Brigade as well. They now received General Ruge’s permission (refused twenty-four hours earlier on the score of air attacks) to move to Dombaas, using buses for the first few miles to Otta, whence they could be taken on by train. Two-thirds of them arrived at Dombaas that night, the rest on the night following.
The fighting at Kvam was renewed early next morning with a heavy artillery barrage; then at 6.30 a.m. the enemy attacked on the left flank in battalion strength. At the third attempt our flank position was enfiladed, the Germans having climbed up to the high plateau by a farm track out of sight beyond the ‘knee’. By 11 a.m. the same enemy force had worked their way past the forward company and were on the flank of a second British company, posted on the hillside about three-quarters of a mile further back and slightly behind our headquarters in the village itself. A platoon was therefore detached from our forward company to protect its rear, while the second company was also heavily engaged. At this stage, enemy aircraft took up the attack with low-level machine-gun fire and bombs, and an additional group of enemy artillery was brought into action. This enabled the German infantry to close in on our positions and to establish machine-gun posts at short range. About midday, a thrust developed in the centre; it was held after heavy fighting, but not before the enemy had established a machine gun to fire directly up the road into the village. At two o’clock a tank succeeded in advancing up the road towards the village under cover of the screen established for our own protection against the machine gun. But after a volunteer had removed the screen under fire, an anti-tank gun engaging at a thousand yards burnt out both this and a second tank, though the gun was itself destroyed by an enemy shell only a few minutes later.
The position was now becoming precarious, as enemy infiltrations occurring at various points threatened to cut off the companies from each other. On our left flank in particular, they advanced down a side road, which meets the main road at right angles about half a mile behind the village; but the platoon guarding the rear of the forward company on our flank restored the situation about four o’clock, inflicting a number of casualties. The enemy in this area were also harassed in the rear by a small party of volunteer ski troops
sent by the Norwegian 2nd Division. At about 5 p.m. General Paget issued orders for the withdrawal of the KOYLI (plus one company of the York and Lancaster) to take place at 11 p.m. through the position established by the rest of the York and Lancaster battalion and one company from the Green Howards at Kjorem, about three miles further up the valley. At this juncture, however, the enemy succeeded in setting fire to the woods, so that our lines had to be abandoned some hours earlier than was intended. But the Germans did not interfere seriously with the withdrawal, even though two companies on the exposed left flank which did not receive the instruction had to make their escape by long detours over the hills.
The orders which General Paget had given to the battalion at Kvam were founded on wider considerations besides the difficulties of their immediate position. After his first conference with Brigadier Morgan he had reported home at once through a liaison officer that the general situation was unsatisfactory. He based this to some extent on the fact that Morgan’s Brigade, as he put it, ‘had had a dusting’ and that the Norwegian forces were ‘unreliable and variable in different units’, while he estimated that the Germans might have up to two or three divisions with good artillery to oppose the 15th Infantry Brigade and such reinforcements as might reach it. But his main emphasis was placed upon the situation in the air: the Germans, General Paget reported, had what amounted to complete air superiority, which they were using to strafe our forward troops, to spot for artillery, and to bomb communications, headquarters, and the base. Yet the following day brought him a telegram from General Massy emphasising the importance of securing a bridgehead to include Dombaas and the next forty miles farther north on the road to Trondheim as far as Opdal, so that a second base might be developed at the head of the Sunndalsfjord, north of the Romsdal. This was to provide for a build-up of strong forces, including the French, with a view to an ultimate advance down both the Gudbrandsdal and the Österdal, the alternative route by which the Germans might make contact with their troops in Trondheim. The failure to establish the fighter squadron on Lake Lesjaskog was not then known in England.
While the action at Kvam was being fought, General Paget’s position had been clarified by his meeting with the Norwegian Commander-in-Chief in the early morning of the 26th, the results of which were recorded in a Norwegian Order of the Day issued on the 27th. It will be recalled that Brigadier Morgan’s troops had for a time been placed under the command of the Norwegian 2nd Division. This arrangement terminated on 22nd April at 4 p.m., but the 148th Brigade, and the 15th Brigade on its arrival, remained subject to the
orders of the Norwegian High Command, an arrangement which had been accepted in deference to General Ruge’s wishes on the 20th. But by the time of General Paget’s arrival at Norwegian Headquarters organised Norwegian resistance in the Gudbrandsdal was virtually at an end, and General Ruge was prompt to draw the obvious conclusion. His Order of the Day therefore gave General Paget command of the Gudbrandsdal from Dombaas, or strictly speaking from Lesjaskog, southwards. This included such Norwegian troops as were left in the fighting area behind Kvam and disposal of the Norwegian supply and transport system which was under General Hvinden Haug. The English, but not the Norwegian, version of the Order of the Day also placed under his command the small Norwegian detachments strung out north of Dombaas to Opdal and Storen. These detachments would in any case be replaced as British troops became available, except for small parties of ski troops which General Paget might require to secure his flank. Meanwhile, the other Norwegian troops were to be moved back into the Romsdal for reorganisation.
Thus the order to withdraw from Kvam was based upon the following considerations. A withdrawal up the valley was regarded as inevitable pending the arrival of artillery (25-pounders to deal with the German 5.9s) and the all-important air support. General Paget had telegraphed to the War Office on the afternoon of the 26th asking for both of these, for anti-aircraft artillery, and for the despatch of a third infantry brigade. For the time being, he considered that no one position could be held for more than forty-eight hours. There were particular reasons for standing as long as possible at Kjorem and Otta, the next points up the valley, as the Norwegian force of 1,200 men under Colonel Dahl, cut off to the west since the fight at Tretten, could still regain the main valley here but no farther up.5 In general, however, the object was to hold the near approaches to Dombaas, thus protecting the southern side of the bridgehead leading from the west coast, while attempting to clear up the situation between Dombaas and Opdal and in the approaches to the Österdal, so as to maintain the northern side of the bridgehead.
General Massy’s telegram from London, received early on the 26th, described the Germans as having advanced up the Österdal to Tynset and Röoros and southwards from Trondheim as far as Stören. Röros, which in fact changed hands more than once, lies on a great bend eastwards of the railway, which turns west again to the junction at Stören, but from Tynset there was a road north-westward leading out on to the Dombaas-Stören route about fifteen miles north of Opdal. On the 27th, further information was made available which showed that the Germans had also sent a force up another side valley
by which they might cut the Dombaas-Opdal route at Hjerkinn, only nineteen miles north of Dombaas on the same route to Stören. They were already reported at a point about twenty miles short of Hjerkinn, and there was believed to be a German mountain regiment in the area which could operate on skis, and also a parachute group. As regards numbers the estimate was not far wrong. There were three battalions of infantry, and although this Group Fischer did not include any paratroops, it had more tanks than Group Pellengahr and, on a reckoning of all arms together, about two-thirds of its size and strength.
General Paget, therefore, while his troops still faced down the Gudbrandsdal, had also to look over his left shoulder, as it were, to protect the Dombaas–Opdal line if he could, and in any case the flank approach to Dombaas where his forces could be completely cut off. Information about the operations of the Norwegians in the Österdal area was very scanty but, in view of events in the Gudbrandsdal, General Paget was not likely to over-estimate the resistance that they could offer to German forces advancing with armour and some artillery along roads. Arrangements had been made to send a major of the Royal Engineers with a supply of explosives into the Österdal, in the belief that demolitions, to which the Norwegians were reluctant to resort, might prove a sovereign remedy; but nothing effective came of the venture. On the 27th, accordingly, General Paget himself set out by car to reconnoitre the Dombaas–Opdal road as far as Hjerkinn, but he failed to get through the deep snow. A reconnaissance was made on the following day, which brought news from the Norwegians that there had been no contact with enemy troops in that area. Meanwhile the action broken off by the British troops at Kvam had been renewed at Kjorem. General Paget did not think that the position there could be held for more than a day, so the Green Howards were ordered to prepare a second position at Otta, and Brigadier Morgan, on the afternoon of the 27th, was sent to reconnoitre a third in front of Dombaas itself, to provide for the possibility of a hurried withdrawal. General Paget’s object, however, was ‘to hang on at Otta if we possibly could, pending the arrival of the reinforcements I had asked for’.
At Kjorem the road and railway still run westwards along the left bank of the Laagen, but the valley floor is rather narrower. The position of the York and Lancaster battalion astride the road had been well dug in and troops were deployed in advance of it on both banks of the river, with standing patrols at a considerable height among the woods, broken ground, and occasional farms of the hillside. The enemy came up the road about 8.15 a.m. (27th April) and were engaged with some success from across the river. They then brought forward machine guns and mortars, not only along the road but also
on the right bank of the river (where there was a farm track), by which means they were able to subject both flanks of the British position to cross-fire. Our forward position abreast the road and railway was protected by a wood, which the enemy succeeded in firing with mortar bombs. On this occasion we also had a 3-inch mortar in action, but it was employed to less effect. The fire caused one British company to withdraw, and when they counter-attacked the enemy had already secured the position with tanks and machine guns; but a new line was established a short distance west of the hamlet of Kjorem and held until nightfall. Our troops on the right bank, however, were now exposed to enfilade fire at relatively close quarters; and although the enemy advance along that bank met with little success, by six o’clock the cross-fire had compelled a withdrawal from our advanced positions and at 10 p.m. the last troops on the right bank went back to cross the river higher up. At 11 withdrawal began on the left bank as well, complicated by the fact that the enemy had come right over the hilltop behind our men. This enabled them to re-establish a roadblock in our rear, which had been found and dealt with by a battle patrol earlier in the evening, and from it they now opened fire with heavy machine guns at short range. At Otta next morning the strength of the battalion had fallen to 13 officers
and 300 men. The equivalent of one more company from the right bank, having missed the river-crossing and wandered into the Heidal, arrived at Dombaas twenty-four hours later after a march over the snowfields. The York and Lancaster were therefore allotted a reserve role in the rear of the new front.
It was now the turn of the 1st Battalion Green Howards. They were short of one company, which was with Brigadier Morgan’s troops protecting Dombaas; a second company, which had served on the right flank of the York and Lancaster the previous day, sustained serious losses while forming the rear-guard in the small hours and did not reach Otta until 7 a.m.
Otta, which looks not unlike some little North Riding market town, stands about ten miles up the valley from Kjorem on a tongue of land, where the river of the same name flows into the Laagen from the north-west. The main road follows the left bank of the Laagen, with a side-turning across a bridge into the town, while the railway and a subsidiary road follow the right bank. Two steeply rising spurs on the hillside, one on the left bank about one and a half miles in front of the town, the other on the right much nearer in, with sheltered access from the side valley, gave scope for effective cross-fire and would be very hard to storm. Each spur was held by one company; the rest of our troops were posted in and behind the town, where the five surviving anti-tank guns were also carefully sited.
An enemy air reconnaissance at 7 a.m. (28th April) was followed by an air attack which did little damage. At about half past ten, 150 enemy infantry with tanks and artillery advanced against our right flank along the track beside the railway. Heavy casualties were inflicted on them, whereupon they resorted to their usual tactics—a wide deployment to both flanks, artillery action against whatever targets could be located, and the incessant harassing of our forward companies by low-flying aircraft. Tanks were employed again later on both banks, but on the right bank they had very little room to manoeuvre and on the left, where they came along the main road, a single anti-tank gun knocked out three in succession. Another party of the enemy was surprised while crossing the river in rubber boats to attack our forward position on the left bank. A series of attacks on our other forward position was equally unsuccessful. Even the enemy’s usual outflanking manoeuvre this time failed of success. Several small actions were fought by the company protecting the more distant spur, in one of which some thirty members of a German officers’ conference were surprised and disposed of, and by evening the company, having shortened its lines, occupied a post higher up the hillside backing on to the foot of a precipice: from there it pinned down enemy detachments almost twice its own strength.
Withdrawal, in accordance with General Paget’s orders, was timed
to begin at 10 p.m., when the forward company from the right bank crossed the River Otta by a ford after the railway bridge leading into the town had been partly blown up. Heavy fire was at the same time opened by the other companies upon the area which we had abandoned; and a general retirement from the town, after the disablement of our remaining anti-tank guns, was carried out successfully by the Green Howards and by the York and Lancaster in the rear. The advanced company in its strong but isolated position on the left bank did not receive the orders for withdrawal, but at half past ten drove off a superior force of the enemy with heavy loss. It then divided into four parties, which moved back in silence and for the most part on hands and knees at a height of a thousand feet or more above the valley floor along a precipitous slope—already famous in Norwegian story for the massacre of a force of Scottish mercenaries in 1612, when the peasantry rolled boulders down on them—and entered the village at 6 a.m. to find that the battalion had left. The company was still complete in numbers and arms and, though fired on by enemy snipers in Otta, suffered no loss as it set out on the thirty-mile march up the valley to Dombaas.
The break-away this time had been complete, and the enemy made no immediate attempt to follow. The German army reported ‘bitter
fighting for Otta’, and General Paget was able to record that ‘The Green Howards on the Otta position fought splendidly...the enemy suffered many casualties in this battle, and his subsequent actions showed little desire or ability to press home an attack’.6 The event was of importance in view of a complete change in the character of General Paget’s campaign. Owing to a complex of circumstances described in the next chapter, his task was no longer to defend a bridgehead with a view to a subsequent advance. His task was to extricate his force along a narrow valley—route which the enemy might at any time outflank, through a base which lay already in ruins, under conditions imposing a severe strain upon British, much more upon Norwegian, morale.