Chapter 9: The Evacuation of Central Norway 
The expedition designed originally for the capture of Trondheim had fallen apart at an early stage into two expeditions under separate control, based respectively on Namsos and Aandalsnes. Both expeditions had met with serious and partly unexpected military reverses. Both had been discouraged by enemy air supremacy in the battle area; both lost all chance of recovery when that same enemy air supremacy destroyed their bases and imperilled their lines of communication. So far as the Government was concerned, the evacuation of the two forces was a single problem requiring a single decision. The engagement at Vist had been fought and lost on 21st and 22nd April; the defeat of Brigadier Morgan’s Territorials had been completed at Tretten on the 23rd; the Gladiator squadron was destroyed and the position at Kvam abandoned on the 25th and 26th. On 25th April—the day when ‘Hammer 2’ was under consideration1—the Chiefs of Staff instructed the inter-Services planning organisation to collaborate with General Massy’s subordinates in preparing plans for evacuation. On the 27th, General Massy’s appreciation of the situation was considered by the Military Co-ordination Committee and final instructions for him to evacuate the two forces were approved by the Committee and issued over Sir Edmund Ironside’s signature. The order to evacuate was telegraphed to both bases in the early afternoon, so that it reached General Carton de Wiart that night and General Paget in the forward area early next morning.
The two evacuations constitute a single naval and military operation of a very difficult kind, which was completed with unexpectedly small losses. But the positions of the two forces, geographically, tactically, and politically, were so different that it will be convenient to treat first the evacuation from Aandalsnes up to its completion in the early hours of the morning of 2nd May, and then separately the evacuation from Namsos which was completed a little more than twenty-four hours later, leaving the features common to both evacuations for some brief consideration at the end of the chapter.
General Paget and the 15th Brigade had been accompanied to Norway by an advance party of V Corps Headquarters under Brigadier D. Hogg, to take over responsibility for the base at
Aandalsnes from Headquarters Sickleforce. This skeleton Corps Headquarters had instructions to organise the base and its anti-aircraft defence, and also to reconnoitre subsidiary bases at Geiranger, which proved to be snowbound, and, as already mentioned, on the Sunndalsfjord. These subordinate tasks never had any practical importance owing to the unfavourable development of the campaign. The laying out of the main base had, however, been planned on 24th April by a reconnaissance group from Sickleforce Headquarters, and the siting of stores was begun accordingly on the 26th. But at this juncture Aandalsnes, as could be expected, suffered the fate that had already befallen Namsos.
There had been air attacks and ensuing damage every day except the first and one other. A number of small ships had also been sunk in the fjord, including six anti-submarine trawlers and the Norwegian torpedo boat Trygg. But it was not until the afternoon of the 26th that persistent raids succeeded in firing the wooden quay, much ammunition, and most of the lower part of the town. The harbour area was rendered useless except in the short night hours, as officers and men had to take cover outside the town, while the moral effect was greatly increased by the fact that the Germans had now begun to bomb from heights beyond the range of our anti-aircraft artillery. The situation was made worse by the fact that on 26th April Molde also had its first serious attack; this destroyed the electric power supply, so that we could no longer use the Norwegian wireless transmitter by which the expedition had communicated with England. One immediate result of the heavy bombing was the disappearance of the local boats, used hitherto to carry supplies between Molde and Aandalsnes; another was a decline in the working capacity of members of the Services subjected to the heavy strain of air bombardment, causing the naval officer-in-charge (Captain M. M. Denny) to report that it was only a question of time for the port activities to diminish to such an extent that the lines of communication could not be maintained. Aandalsnes had four more raids the following day between 11 a.m. and 4.30 p.m., in which rations, demolition stores, and explosives were lost, and two of the few railway engines available were immobilised by bomb craters outside the engine shed. That afternoon a supply convoy entered the fjord, but it left again at 2 a.m. on the 28th under strengthened escort, with the greater part of a heavy antiaircraft battery, the first to reach Norway, still on board.
Shortly after midnight of 26th/27th April, while Captain Denny was at Molde, his representative in Aandalsnes made a warning signal to the Admiralty that evacuation might be necessary. Twelve hours later, after consultation with Captain Denny and all naval and military staff officers at base, Brigadier Hogg sent a message to the War Office, stating that, in the absence of proper communications
with the front, he intended planning to evacuate from Aandalsnes in the first ten days of May. This proposal had, indeed, been foreshadowed to some extent in General Paget’s first telegram to General Massy, despatched from Aandalsnes in the early morning of the 26th, which said, ‘In view of the rate of the enemy advance, arrangements to evacuate should be prepared if aerial supremacy is not ensured forthwith’. Nevertheless, General Paget’s reaction to Brigadier Hogg’s message, which reached him the same evening—that is to say, before any official order to evacuate came through—was to send an immediate message to the War Office in the opposite sense, urging the need for effective action to deal with enemy aircraft and for artillery support. Given these, he could not agree that the situation at the front rendered evacuation necessary.
The day of the 28th, while the 15th Brigade was resisting the Germans so sturdily at Otta, brought the decisive change in the situation, in the shape of two messages from General Massy which reached General Paget from the base in the early morning. The effect of these was that evacuation had been decided upon in principle: ships would be available on the night of 30th April/1st May, the maximum use was to be made of Molde in preference to Aandalsnes, and evacuation from Molde might possibly be continued on the night of 1st/2nd May. Men were to be got away without regard to loss of equipment. General Paget still maintained the view that he could hold the Dombaas area for a time if further landings were planned and if air and artillery support were provided at once. But assuming the decision to be final, his chief concern was the reaction of the Norwegians, since their Commander-in-Chief had so often asked to know, not when the British were leaving but when more of them were coming. The formal arrangement with General Ruge, by which he had accepted complete command in the Gudbrandsdal, put upon General Paget an obligation of honour to adopt no measure for the evacuation of his own troops that was inconsistent with the safety and welfare of Norwegian troops behind the British front. Moreover, the hazards of a withdrawal would be so much increased as to make it a military impossibility if the Norwegians were to throw us over in disgust and come to terms with the Germans.
Accompanied by his principal staff officer, Lieut.-Colonel C. G. C. Nicholson, General Paget broke the news to General Ruge and his Chief of Staff at their headquarters, a remote farm a dozen miles south of Dombaas, on the morning of the 28th. The interview was inevitably difficult for both parties, and the Norwegian Commander-in-Chief declined at first to accept the decision, though General Paget suggests that he had, as a matter of fact, anticipated it. He despatched a telegram of remonstrance addressed to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, pointing out that the recapture of Trondheim
if postponed would become ‘a great and serious affair’ and referring to the promises of Allied operations, on the strength of which alone he had been able ‘to keep his tired-out troops fighting continuously for these three weeks’. General Paget telegraphed at the same time, emphasising that evacuation was ‘most hazardous’ and making the suggestion referred to above about holding Dombaas. The replies received through General Massy made it clear that the evacuation must take place, basing the decision squarely on the inability to give adequate air support. Meanwhile the harsh necessities of the situation were emphasised by almost continuous air attacks on Aandalsnes. These completed the ruin of the town (and caused the troops to be put on half rations) in spite of temporary relief through the efforts of the anti-aircraft cruisers and sloops: the Black Swan, for example, fired 2,000 rounds of 4-inch and 4,000 of pom-pom ammunition in two days and then left again for Scapa with a 3-foot bomb-hole below the waterline. The subsidiary base at Molde was likewise subjected to increasingly severe attack and, what is more remarkable, the Germans at the same time inflicted even more complete devastation on the port of Kristiansund, north of Molde, which contained no military objective but a camp of German prisoners of war.
The problem of the withdrawal was governed, in General Paget’s view, by four main factors. The first was his obligation to cover the retirement of the four thousand Norwegian troops in the area, as already agreed in outline in his interview with General Ruge. The second was the quantity of shipping that would be available on the nights of 29th/30th April, 30th April/1st May, and 1st/2nd May respectively. This part of the plan depended upon the Admiralty’s judgement of the situation, and remained fluid, both as to the number of nights for the evacuation and as to the distribution of the task between Aandalsnes and Molde. The third factor was the dependence of his withdrawal upon a single railway line and road for a distance of a hundred miles. This was an even greater problem than it sounds. The road was throughout too narrow for lorries, especially the 3-tonners supplied belatedly by the War Office, to pass without careful manoeuvring; the railway was a single-track line; road and railway, even on the mountain plateau round Dombaas, sometimes ran so close together as to afford virtually a single target to enemy bombers; and the precipitous gorge through which the Rauma makes its course from the watershed at Lesjaskog down to Aandalsnes restricts the area of movement so narrowly that the survival of road and railway was already something of a miracle. The fourth factor, in the General’s phrase, was ‘the physical endurance of the troops’.2 A series of delaying actions had by now brought the 15th Brigade as
far as Otta, where they were fighting hard throughout the day on which these difficult decisions were being taken.
A further factor, not specifically mentioned by the General, was the almost complete breakdown of communications between his headquarters and the base. The Norwegians claimed that the situation, already impaired by the bombing, was made worse by the British action in taking away what was left of the telephone-service staff at Aandalsnes. The Norwegian Army was still able to organise the details of its own retirement by a roundabout use of the civil telephone, passing its messages to Aalesund, from which town there were still wires available to the neighbourhood of Dombaas. But the British were left in the last stages dependent entirely on motor-cycle despatch riders, using the single road crammed with refugees and supply traffic and bombed faster than it could be repaired. Thus, for example, on the 29th Lieut.-Colonel D. W. Clarke, RA, bringing a direct message from the Chief of the Imperial General Staff to General Ruge, took the best part of a day to cover the hundred miles. In the early morning of that day, Brigadier Hogg despatched a further telegram to the War Office about the evacuation, supposing that it would cover two not three nights, and stating his general intention of forming a defensive line in the neighbourhood of the base, behind which to evacuate non-fighting troops ‘and General Paget’s if they returned to base’. His ignorance of the General’s precise intentions was due partly to the imminence of battle in the forward area but partly also to his dependence for liaison upon a single staff officer.
One aspect of the evacuation problem, which affected equally the forward area, the lines of communication, and the base, was the need for air support. As we have already seen,3 the request that enemy communications south of Kvam should be bombed had not been met. Direct assistance was limited to the one-hour patrols over the Aandalsnes base by makeshift long-range fighters (Blenheims), which were supplemented by Hudson bombers to give partial protection to the evacuation convoys after they had left Aandalsnes for home. Namsos was entirely out of range. Accordingly, the Royal Air Force aimed at giving the maximum of indirect assistance to the operations from Aandalsnes and Namsos by a series of light bombing attacks upon Stavanger, Fornebu (Oslo), and Aalborg (North Jutland), which were to be stepped up to full strength one day before evacuation was due to begin. It was hoped that this would seriously reduce activity at the three airfields from which the Germans were believed to be operating. Accordingly, on the night of 30th April and during the following day thirty-one aircraft attacked Stavanger, and on the night of 30th April fourteen also attacked Fornebu. On the night of
1st/2nd May Stavanger was again attacked by fifteen aircraft and Fornebu by six, while five aircraft also attacked Aalborg. All that could be noted at the time was a reduced scale of enemy air attack at Aandalsnes on 1st May and at Namsos on 1st and 2nd May, which might be attributable to the German belief that their bombing had reached saturation point and, in the case of Namsos, to unfavourable weather. But post-war disclosures show that Stavanger airfield was put temporarily out of action except for emergency landing.
Help was also planned from the Fleet Air Arm. The carriers Ark Royal and Glorious, accompanied by two cruisers and six destroyers, under the command of Vice-Admiral L. V. Wells, had reached the Norwegian coast from training work in the Mediterranean on 24th April, when the Gladiators were flown off the Glorious. Vaernes had then been attacked by thirty-four aircraft from both carriers on the 25th and by eighteen from the Ark Royal—her consort having gone home—on the 28th. The French considered that these attacks, delivered at a time when the thaw impeded repair, were effective, even though reports from Trondheim also told of 800 civilian workers being conscripted at once to restore the surface of the airfield. The Fleet Air Arm had also flown small daily patrols from positions about 120 miles to seaward over both Aandalsnes and Namsos. On 30th April the Ark Royal, which had moved farther out to sea to rest her airmen after five days’ action and serious losses, came in to the coast again, followed by the Glorious the next morning with new aircraft brought from home. The intention was that the Fleet Air Arm should cover Aandalsnes on 1st May and Namsos on the 2nd and 3rd; but sustained enemy air attack on his ships caused Admiral Wells to withdraw the squadron (with a total loss of fifteen aircraft) at the end of the first day, as being unable to ‘maintain a position from which aircraft could give support to our forces’. They had destroyed at least twenty of the enemy; but it must be admitted that German air supremacy was not seriously affected at any time during these operations, and that failure to press home the advantage was due primarily to weather conditions and to the fog of war.
Once evacuation had been decided upon, General Paget’s first task was to break contact with the enemy. At 6 p.m. on the 28th, he ordered the KOYLI to occupy a position south of Dombaas rail junction and about twenty-five miles up the valley from the scene of the fighting still in progress at Otta. His troops were by this time tired but had the great satisfaction of feeling that they had latterly inflicted more damage than they received. In addition, General Paget had obtained from the Norwegians small but valuable detachments of ski troops for his flanks, as well as four field guns and the use of such
transport as was available. A train was assembled at Dombaas and run forward to Rudi, on a stretch of the railway which follows the right bank of the Laagen, about four miles up the valley from Otta. Available motor transport was assembled at an almost exactly parallel position on the road, which here follows the left bank. Fighting slackened after dusk, as we have seen, and a successful withdrawal began about 11 p.m. By daylight, the troops from the front line were in Dombaas, covered by the KOYLI. As the British forces made their withdrawal, a section of Royal Engineers exploded demolition charges in the wild Rosti gorge, where the road bridge crosses on to the right bank of the river, and at a railway bridge farther back towards Dombaas. The Rosti road-block was thought to be secure against a forward move by wheeled vehicles, including tanks and guns, for at least forty-eight hours.
Apart from the problem of escape along a route known to the enemy and exposed to air bombing throughout, there were two special problems to be faced. One was the responsibility for an additional Norwegian detachment which, as explained above, had had the task of delaying any advance upon Dombaas from the north along the Trondheim-Dombaas route which the enemy were fast approaching from the Österdal4. General Ruge made it known that this detachment could not reach Dombaas from the direction of Hjerkinn until the following night, which meant that—a daylight withdrawal being obviously impracticable—the British withdrawal beyond Dombaas must be postponed until the night of the 30th. In other words, Dombaas must be held for forty-eight hours. The other problem was the protection of the line of retreat against paratroops. The main body of the Norwegians was now being withdrawn as quickly as possible from the Romsdal to escape air attack, leaving the valley unprotected. The task was therefore entrusted to the remnants of the 148th Brigade, but these failed to reach their positions next day, apparently through a misunderstanding, so that the neighbourhood of Lesjaskog was left unguarded except for the anti-tank company minus the anti-tank guns. It was a fortunate chance that the Germans (perhaps on account of Göring’s lack of interest in the campaign) did not again resort to the technique that had caused serious trouble in the same area a week before.
The day of the 29th passed at Dombaas according to plan, with the troops resting in positions well hidden from German air observation. The last Norwegian detachment duly passed through from Hjerkinn and the 1st York and Lancaster left by rail for Aandalsnes at 10 p.m. But on the afternoon of the 30th the KOYLI, from their position three miles south of the village, saw the enemy coming up the road.
They were on foot—having apparently circumvented the principal demolition in the Rosti gorge by moving up the railway on the right bank of the river, the tunnels of which were left intact—and were using hand-carts to carry mortars, etc. A single aircraft dropped stores for them. The enemy were doubly taken by surprise, for not only were our positions extremely well hidden in a series of dips and by a railway tunnel, but also the four Norwegian field guns on the hillside behind Dombaas opened up in support. The Germans suffered heavy initial casualties, and when the aircraft bombed our positions it was fortunately disposed of by small-arms fire. Even after the surprise had been exhausted, the engagement went well for us, and as the river guarding our right flank was now swollen by the thaw the Germans could only attempt the crossing in rubber boats, all of which were destroyed by a company of the Green Howards brought forward from Dombaas.
It is significant that on this occasion, when the enemy had no artillery or air support—the Luftwaffe was concentrating its attentions on Aandalsnes—our troops were able to hold them and, as Brigadier Kent-Lemon reported at 6 p.m., could even adopt ‘an aggressive attitude’.5 An hour later successive companies began to fall back on the station, from which they were due to depart at dusk. The enemy followed close on the heels of the last company but were held in check by the Green Howards, who had been guarding the approach to Dombaas from Hjerkinn and now provided the rearguard covering the village. The train had been backed into the station by the Norwegian railway staff from its hiding place in a convenient tunnel and, though pursued by desultory rifle-fire, it steamed safely away about 11.30 p.m. for Aandalsnes. The two rear companies followed in trucks half an hour later under cover of demolitions of the bridges where the road and rail routes cross the River Jora, a tributary of the Laagen, about a mile and a half north of Dombaas railway station.
Everything now turned upon the condition of the railway, which had been subjected to so much bombing and, with the completion of the Norwegian withdrawal and that of the 148th Brigade, no longer had troops to combine its protection with its repair. The train which carried the York and Lancaster on the night of 29th/30th April had been stopped by a break in the rails at Lesjaskog, the village at the west end of the lake, obliging the battalion to continue its journey by route march with some small assistance from trucks. Nevertheless, the line had been reported to be in working order at 5 p.m. the next day, and no special precautions appear to have been taken against the sort of accident which followed. At 1.15 a.m., after the train had
picked up at a point well west of Dombaas the anti-tank company and the 280 Norwegian ski troops who had guarded our flanks, both engines overturned and the front coach was telescoped at a bomb-crater east of Lesjaskog. There were eight fatal and thirty other serious casualties. No relief train could reach the scene of the accident because the line was blocked above Verma, some seventeen miles nearer Aandalsnes. The whole area was deep in snow—Lesjaskog is nearly 2,000 feet above sea-level—and provided no cover from air attack or other facilities for defence. The troops therefore set out to march through to Verma, while vehicles were brought forward for the injured. They were attacked by enemy reconnaissance planes on the way, the first part of their journey lying over an almost treeless plateau, but reached safety about 9 a.m., very tired but without loss of heart, or even of their equipment.
A railway tunnel 481 yards long which adjoins Verma station provided perfect air cover though far from perfect air (the interior being neither lined nor ventilated) for the resting troops, who were crowded up with an ammunition train and the troop-train in which they were due to complete their journey at dusk. German aircraft tried in vain to block the exits. Meanwhile a party of the Royal Marines, who occupied a post near Verma to safeguard the electric power supply for Aandalsnes, had been hurried forward to hold the scene of the accident until 10 a.m. and then the head of the Rauma gorge, so as to protect the troops on the march from being overrun by an enemy advance from Dombaas. The Marines were joined by Norwegians belonging to a training detachment, left behind for lack of transport in the withdrawal of the 2nd Division. In the afternoon, however, they had a brush with enemy patrols—their main body being apparently held up by our demolition of bridges—and some of the Marines fell back hurriedly upon Verma. They arrived just as the troops had been smoked out of the tunnel by the raising of steam for their train. A company of Green Howards was thereupon deployed about three miles up the road, but about 6 p.m. a small Lewis-gun detachment of the Marines came through intact: this party had remained behind and delayed the enemy advance. It was then decided to risk the final stage of the journey by daylight. The train left at 8.30 p.m., carrying the main body of troops; rather more than one company of Green Howards, with a few Marines forming the last rear-guard, followed in seven trucks.
Meanwhile, preparations for evacuation had been completed at the base, in so far as the impairment of communications, both to the front-line troops and back to England, made co-ordination feasible. As previously related,6 Brigadier Hogg had sent a telegram to the
War Office early on the 29th; in this he asked that the evacuation should begin at 9 p.m. the following evening and should be completed the next night. The base area was now divided into three sectors under the respective commands of Lieut.-Colonel Simpson, RM, Brigadier Morgan, and Brigadier A. H. Hopwood; however, the rear-guard action fought by General Paget’s troops rendered any last stand unnecessary. Enemy air attacks on Aandalsnes continued, and were for the first time prolonged into the night with fresh incendiary bombs amid woods and buildings already burning. At the last moment messages were received from General Massy to the effect that the evacuation could not begin for a further twenty-four hour period. The cruiser Glasgow did indeed put in at Molde, where the want of ferrying-craft (sunk or scared away by bombs) prevented any concentration of troops, but this was for the special purpose of evacuating King Haakon and the Crown Prince of Norway, the members of the Government, and the Allied legations, along with bullion which had been brought overland from the Bank of Norway in Oslo. The town was on fire and night raids were in progress when the cruiser arrived. She came alongside with fire-hoses playing, but her errand was successfully completed, the passengers being transferred to a Norwegian vessel at a point just south of Tromso, which a Cabinet vote taken on the voyage chose finally as their destination. The situation at Aandalsnes was almost equally serious. No less than 340 troops were evacuated in the sloop Fleetwood, which had replaced the Black Swan and went home on the morning of the 30th because she was out of ammunition; but a large part of the thousand men whom it had been planned to evacuate that night remained ashore, dispersed in the woods outside the bombed area.
Admiral Edward-Collins arrived from Scapa at 10.30 p.m. on the 30th with four cruisers, six destroyers, and a small transport. The Galatea and the Arethusa went in succession alongside the concrete quay which was the only proper embarkation place that had survived the air raids, and a small ship carried other troops to the Sheffield, which had anchored off the town. Altogether these three cruisers embarked about 1,800 men, described as ‘dead-beat and ravenously hungry’. Other smaller parties were picked up by the Southampton and the lesser ships from positions just west and to the north of Aandalsnes, including a further small party from Molde, where General Ruge and his staff alone were, at their own insistence, left behind. There was no enemy opposition until the ships were leaving the outer fjords at first light next morning, when a few bombs were dropped near them without effect.
There remained the more hazardous task of bringing away the troops who had been last in contact with the enemy, as they came down to Aandalsnes by train and truck in the late evening of 1st
May. Aandalsnes was bombed again during the day, though. intermittently, no doubt because there was little left to bomb. During the afternoon the two anti-aircraft ships in the harbour were forced by the weight of attack to put to sea pending the night’s operations, and about seven o’clock a single raider dropped incendiaries on the outlying hamlet of Veblungsnes. This lies opposite Aandalsnes on the south bank of the Rauma, but the height of the intervening headland fortunately prevented the fires from lighting up the quay. Admiral Layton, with two cruisers and five destroyers, suffered several attacks on the way in. One destroyer was detached to collect the party that had been landed at Aalesund and a second put in at Molde to carry General Ruge, who had finally decided to follow in the wake of his king.7 The rest of the force reached Aandalsnes a little before 11 p.m., and by midnight two of the destroyers had ferried nearly 1,300 men to the two cruisers. In the belief that only the rear-guard had still to be accounted for, the Admiral ordered his ships out as quickly as possible. Of the two anti-aircraft ships left behind, one found accommodation for a strength of 755, made up of parties that had been overlooked in the confusion of departure; the other took the true rear-guard of 240 men, who were embarked in seven minutes. By 2 a.m. the quay was deserted and the Gudbrandsdal campaign at an end.
The evacuation from Namsos was, in all except the final stage, a relatively simple operation, for the farthest advance had been only half as far as in Gudbrandsdal and our withdrawal after the first engagement with the enemy had been immediate. The final stage was, as we shall see, complicated by the fact that it took place twenty-four hours after the completion of the evacuation from Aandalsnes. In other words, it was an evacuation of which notice had been given, whereas the ease of the departure from Aandalsnes means probably that the Germans remained uncertain of our intentions up to the last. In the Namsos sector British troops had made no further contact with the enemy by land after the withdrawal which followed the unsuccessful engagement at Vist. A counter-attack had, however, been planned by General Audet, in which the British were to have played a minor part, and, as already noted,8 one of the problems of the evacuation was how to explain away the postponement of this attack without disclosing the secret of our ultimate intentions to the Norwegian forces which were to have taken part in it.
General Massy’s telegram, announcing that evacuation was decided upon in principle, reached General Carton de Wiart late on 27th April, and movement began the next evening; two French
store-ships after they had completed their unloading embarked the 53rd Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins, who were easily withdrawn from their posts along the railway. But the Admiralty plan provided for the main embarkation to be in two halves, on 1st/2nd and 2nd/3rd May respectively. A general withdrawal had now to be organised as unobtrusively as possible having regard to the small and shattered base. For Namsos was heavily attacked from the air on the 28th and again with dive-bombers on the 30th. The sloop Bittern was disabled and had to be abandoned, as were three out of eight anti-submarine trawlers, though the trawler Arab (whose commander, Lieut. R. B. Stannard, received the Victoria Cross) crowned a series of exploits in firefighting and rescue work during these attacks by sinking a German bomber single-handed on her way home. Moreover, it was an essential part of the General’s plan to get the French force away first. He therefore decided to bring both the British and French troops back by a series of leap-frog movements.
The 13th Chasseurs Alpins lay nearest to the enemy, a little more than half-way from Namsos to Steinkjer. Much closer to Namsos were the positions held in succession by the KOYLI, the Hallamshire, and the 67th Chasseurs Alpins; the Lincolnshire were nine miles up the railway to the east. The first stage of evacuation was to be the withdrawal of the 13th Chasseurs Alpins in driblets, which might escape enemy attention, leaving their sections of skiers as a rear-guard. The KOYLI would withdraw after them. It was intended that these two battalions should go round by sea from Bangsund to Namsos but they eventually moved back by road, so that the Hallamshire in their turn provided the rear-guard, with orders to hold the bridge at Bangsund at least until 9.30 p.m. on 2nd May. This would give time for the two battalions previously mentioned to get back to Namsos. In the same way, the 67th Chasseurs Alpins withdrew into Namsos, followed by the 4th Lincolnshire who covered the road from the east, along which a German advance was less likely. The Lincolnshire’s rear-guard would eventually be relieved at the south end of the big bridge into Namsos by the rear-guard of the Hallamshire, who would move back into the town itself at the very last moment, accompanied by the French skiing sections. By the late evening of 1st May the plan was in full operation and the two battalions of Chasseurs Alpins were in the neighbourhood of the quay.
Admiral Cunningham had sailed from Scapa on 29th April, planning to bring off half the expedition in three big French transports on the first night, and the other half in the British cruisers Devonshire and York and the French cruiser Montcalm on the second night. There was an air attack on the afternoon of 1st May, when the Devonshire and a transport were nearly hit. Then in the evening the Admiral ran into thick and widespread fog forty miles short of his
rendezvous, the Kya Light, which in turn was forty miles short of Namsos. The operation for that night (1st/2nd May) was therefore cancelled by a message which reached Force Headquarters at 9.30 p.m. This meant the re-dispersal of the assembled troops, who just got back into position by daybreak. To make the situation more disheartening, there was clear sky over Namsos itself, as was found by four destroyers which groped their way in through the fog. They were forced to put to sea again without embarking any troops, because the good weather facilitated the renewal of the German air attack; one destroyer suffered twenty-three casualties from a near miss as she hid in a fog-bank which was just too low to cover the masthead.
The situation now became critical. As we have already seen, the full relief from bombing which the RAF had hoped to achieve during the evacuation period of the two expeditions had not been achieved. It could not be long before the Germans grasped the situation and applied a pressure which might put the whole force at their mercy; in point of fact the German air command at Trondheim had already detected and reported the start of the evacuation. The attitude of the Norwegians, from whom our intentions could not be concealed indefinitely, might also create serious complications, and the smoothness of our co-operation with the French might be impaired inasmuch as they would regard the re-embarkation as a British responsibility. Two other factors, unknown to Force Headquarters, made the situation still more precarious. The two aircraft carriers had left Norwegian waters earlier that evening,. and the political situation prevented the Prime Minister from any further postponement of a statement on the progress of the war in Norway, which would announce the completion of the Aandalsnes evacuation and by implication direct the attention of the Germans to the similar move impending at Namsos. The Prime Minister’s statement was made on the afternoon of 2nd May and broadcast, much to the discomfiture of Mauriceforce. It was General Carton de Wiart’s opinion that the shortness of the hours of darkness made the completion of the evacuation in one night as impracticable as it was clearly desirable. But Admiral Cunningham had been warned by the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, at the outset, that the work might have to be done in one lift, and he had prepared and announced an alternative plan on 30th April, when he knew that one battalion of French had been got away in the storeships on the 29th. There were about 5,400 men to be provided for: three transports could embark 1,700 men each at the stone pier, and the balance could be taken by the cruiser York, receiving them from trawlers a couple of miles off the town. Rear-Admiral J. G. P. Vivian, who had been in the port with the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle, shared General Carton de
Wiart’s opinion; but Admiral Cunningham’s transports were running short of fuel and he finally decided to make the attempt.
On the second night (2nd/3rd May) the squadron ran out of the fog forty miles from the Namsenfjord, where it divided. The Admiral with two cruisers and four destroyers waited off the Kya Light while the three French transports, the York, and five destroyers went straight in, arriving off Namsos itself about 10.30 p.m. Two transports loaded at the stone quay; the other two big ships were loaded from destroyers and trawlers, and the destroyer Afridi took the last parties on board at 2.20 a.m. It was touch and go at the end, as the Bangsund bridge was not exploded by the rear-guard until after midnight, leaving them with ten miles to cover to the embarkation area. At half past one, as General Carton de Wiart reports, ‘the translucent twilight over the hills round the harbour became brighter, full daylight was fast approaching’: but the trucks arrived soon after. The shelling of the massed motor transport on the quay by the Afridi on her departure emphasised the haste of the escape.
As it was, the Germans had received enough notice to make this voyage, which began at a point far beyond the range of British fighter escort, much more hazardous than that from Aandalsnes on the previous two nights. The sun cleared the fog early enough for the regular enemy air reconnaissance at 4.30 a.m. to spot the later groups in the convoy—two big French transports each escorted by one of Admiral Cunningham’s cruisers and by destroyers. They were attacked on five occasions between 8.45 and 3.30 p.m.—by which time the first air escort of one Sunderland was approaching the head of the convoy—at distances ranging from 140 to 220 miles off the German-occupied airfield of Vaernes. Steep dive-bombing was for the first time systematically employed. Anti-aircraft fire from the warships and from the French transports under Rear-Admiral Cadart destroyed two or three aircraft out of the fifty or so that came in against us, and the ships were eventually formed for mutual support in single line ahead, with the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle last astern. But the third attack set on fire the French destroyer Bison, which was sunk by our destroyers after they had taken aboard the survivors of its crew. This caused some delay to the destroyers concerned, one of which—the Afridi—was hit by two bombs at 2 p.m. while returning to the squadron. She eventually capsized with the loss of about 100 killed, including fourteen men of the Hallamshire battalion which had formed the rear-guard.
The pursuit of Admiral Cunningham’s ships by German aircraft so far from the Norwegian coast underlines the essential fact governing the failure of the two expeditions south and north of Trondheim,
namely the virtually unchallenged supremacy of the enemy in the air, which rendered our bases, their sea approaches, and the lines of communication forward quite untenable. This from our point of view was amply sufficient reason for a sudden reversal of policy, to withhold intended reinforcement and cut our losses while they were still relatively small—from Sickleforce 1,402 men (of whom a number had been taken prisoner) and from Mauriceforce 157 all told. But the Norwegians could not be expected to see it in this light. General Paget had carried out his immediate obligation to them as comrades in arms in covering, at serious cost to himself, their withdrawal in advance of our troops to the Aandalsnes area. General Ruge’s original intention was to take some part of the 2nd Division with him to North Norway in British ships, but the troops were too discouraged by the turn of events; so the only practical result of General Paget’s action was that the division was able to prepare for demobilisation before signing the inevitable armistice with the Germans. In the Namsos area there was nothing like this to soften the blow: General Ruge had, indeed, been warned verbally on 29th April, but he was not in touch with the operations. The initial retirement of the French was covered by the suggestion that they were being re-formed for a direct attack on the Agdenes forts outside Trondheim. About half past ten on the night of 2nd May, while the ships were loading, the Norwegian Brigade Headquarters received a letter from General Carton de Wiart in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, enclosed with a more elaborate letter from General Audet, who assured them that he was ‘a victim of the necessities of war and could do no other than obey’.9 Both letters, however, conveyed the bleak fact of the evacuation. The Norwegians found themselves deserted; left even without information as to the prospects of a German advance on the open flank; consoled only by references to material placed at their disposal—but in the inevitable confusion and haste of the embarkation this too was largely destroyed or disappeared.
The Norwegian forces south of Trondheim under General Hvinden Haug signed a capitulation at 5 a.m. on 3rd May; their forces north of Trondheim under Colonel Getz on the same day, with effect from 2 p.m. on the 4th. Resistance by the isolated Norwegian detachments in the Österdal and in the mountains west of Gudbrandsdal (Dahl Group) had ceased on 29th April, the day before the junction of the German forces south of Stören established the relief of Trondheim. The 4th Brigade, which had been pressed back in a series of strongly contested actions through Valdres towards the west, capitulated on the 30th, and its example was followed piecemeal by the other, much smaller, units based on West Norway. Except for scattered
parties which ‘took to the heather’ and often made for North Norway by sea or across Sweden, the end came when, at 5.15 a.m. on 5th May, the white flag was hoisted by the virgin fortress of Hegra.
The total collapse of the attempt to recapture Trondheim, while felt most bitterly by the Norwegians, had wide repercussions outside Norway. At home, it was to lead directly to the fall of the Chamberlain Government, and even the fine feat of arms, by which General Paget had extricated his troops through the narrow valleys with all the odds against him, received little recognition in the prevailing mood of disappointment. Among the neutral powers, from friendly America to unfriendly Italy, what had happened seriously strengthened the view which had already grown up during the so-called ‘phoney war’, that neither our war planning nor the execution of the plans bore any comparison with the German in vigour or efficiency. Among our enemies, any lurking suspicion of the trickery upon which the invasion originally depended gave place to a romantic delight in German feats of arms in a romanticised Northland. But in order to see the full difficulties of our position less than four weeks after the opening of the campaign, we must now turn back to consider the initial phases of the struggle for Narvik. The Prime Minister’s speech of 2nd May emphasised, ‘It is far too soon to strike the Norwegian balance-sheet yet, for the campaign has merely concluded a single phase.’10 He pointed out in another passage that ‘the considerable supplies of ore which Germany was formerly obtaining from Narvik had been indefinitely suspended’.11 In fine, the siege of Narvik, so remote from German air power, and economically of such cardinal importance, might be regarded as the main show, to which our efforts against Trondheim were altogether subordinate.
Additional Note (see p. 139).
The delay in evacuating General Ruge and his staff, for which he had requested the services of the Royal Navy, was due solely to his insistence that the arrangements should be altered to enable him to travel direct to North Norway, instead of via Scapa Flow as was proposed. Special authority to divert a destroyer from the evacuation programme for this purpose had to be obtained from the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet. Had this diversion proved impossible, General Ruge could and would have proceeded north by fishing-boat, but this was not disclosed to Captain Denny, the British naval officer-in-charge at Molde.