Chapter 10: Narvik—The First Landings 
See Map 10, facing page 220
A return must now be made to the first week in April, when a military expedition under the code-name ‘Avonmouth’ was ready to carry out a landing at Narvik, for which German reactions to the laying of mines (Operation Wilfred) were expected to provide the justifying circumstance.1 The Commander was Major-General P. J. Mackesy, G.O.C. 49th Division, who had served with distinction in the military mission in South Russia (1919-20) and commanded an infantry brigade in Palestine two years before the war. His present force had as its first echelon the 24th (Guards) Brigade, consisting of the 1st Scots Guards, 1st Irish Guards, and 2nd South Wales Borderers, under Brigadier the Hon. W. Fraser, to be followed by a second echelon consisting of Chasseurs Alpins and other French and Polish troops. The original instructions, dated 5th April, said that the object of the expedition would be ‘to secure the port of Narvik and the line of communications inland as far as the Norwegian-Swedish frontier.’ At a later stage, an advance on Galliväre was contemplated, as was an eventual withdrawal, to be preceded by demolition of the ore port. Two general conditions attached to the conduct of the expedition were that it would not land in face of serious Norwegian opposition, and that it would obey approved instructions designed to obviate the bombing of civilians in the course of land, sea, or air operations. The Scots Guards were already embarked in a transport in the Clyde, where a second transport contained the Hallamshire battalion of the 146th Brigade, intended for Trondheim, when, as we have already seen,2 the news of the German ships at sea caused the sailing of the force to be cancelled.
Next day (9th April), when the first measures to meet the German invasion were hurriedly improvised, it was the Hallamshire battalion which was instructed to sail for Narvik, while General Mackesy and the Scots Guards were to be sent at the same time to secure an unnamed base ‘after the port has been cleared of enemy vessels by the Royal Navy’. But before the two battalions, having shared their information and the mortar ammunition of which the Scots Guards were destitute, had got as far as Scapa, a third set of instructions had been signed in London. General Mackesy’s object
would now be ‘to eject the Germans from the Narvik area and to establish control of Narvik itself’, using the Norwegian military centre of Harstad as the first point of landing, if possible, but making no landing in face of serious opposition until ‘sufficient troops’ were available. These instructions, which were brought to Scapa from the War Office by the Deputy Director of Military Operations at midday on the 11th, were accompanied by a hand-written note from General Ironside which made the uncertain position little clearer. General Mackesy would have ‘four battalions together, the whole arriving thirty hours after the arrival of two battalions’, and ‘the other two battalions’ at a further interval of a week. The enemy in Narvik were estimated at 3,000 men and ‘must have been knocked about by naval action’, and it was supposed that the General might be able to ‘work up’ the local Norwegians round Harstad. But the vital point in the message was near the end, where Sir Edmund Ironside wrote: ‘You may have a chance of taking advantage of naval action and you should do so if you can. Boldness is required.’3
Accordingly, General Mackesy with an advance party of two companies of Scots Guards and some staff, including the naval Chief of Staff, Captain L. E. H. Maund, transferred to the cruiser Southampton, which sailed for Harstad at 1 p.m. on 12th April, about twenty-four hours after the receipt of the final orders at Scapa. As we have just seen, he had reason to expect that he would be followed by the other half of the Scots Guards battalion and the Hallamshire, by four more battalions arriving very quickly, and by two more a week later. What actually happened was, that the two and a half battalions completing the 24th (Guards) Brigade, and the Hallamshire and two other battalions constituting the 146th Brigade, all left home waters for North Norway the same day as the General. Travelling in transports and therefore more slowly, they were about 130 miles from their destination when, at 8 p.m. on the 14th, the naval escort under Vice-Admiral Layton received orders to divert the whole of the 146th Brigade to Namsos.4
Meanwhile, at about the same time as General Mackesy left Scapa for North Norway in the Southampton, the Naval Commander of the expedition, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery, set sail from Rosyth in the Aurora. He out-ranked the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, whose post he had held from 1933 to 1935, and had been brought back to the Admiralty in September 1939 by Mr Churchill to organise Plan ‘Catherine’, his scheme for forcing an entry to the Baltic.5 By general repute quick to act, Lord Cork had been given no written instructions for Norway, but had been orally
briefed on 10th and 11th April with varying degrees of informality by the First Sea Lord, by a meeting of the Military Co-ordination Committee, and by Mr Churchill in his car travelling from the Admiralty to the House.6 Seven cruisers were assigned to his command, two of them only until the convoy had been discharged, one net-layer, also for temporary duty, and five destroyers. As the Admiral approached the Norwegian coast on the 14th, he received the signal previously mentioned7 from the naval force which had fought at Narvik, in which Admiral Whitworth, while citing a Norwegian estimate that there were 1,500–2,000 enemy troops in the town, had stated his conviction that it could be taken by direct assault by a small landing-force without fear of serious opposition, given naval support of the strength which had been used there the previous day.8 Lord Cork thereupon ordered the Southampton to meet him that night in Skejelfjord, with a view to a landing at Narvik on the morning of the 15th by 350 Scots Guards carried in the cruiser and a party of 200 seamen and Marines from the ships present. But the difficulties of wireless transmission in North Norway (due to the iron in the mountains as well as to weather conditions) prevented the Southampton from receiving this or a second message, conveying the proposal direct to the General, until the troops on board had already been landed elsewhere. General Mackesy, in his reply to the Admiral, expressed doubts as to the feasibility of the scheme, but said that troops could be supplied from the transports following his advance party, which were due on the 15th. On top of this, there came an Admiralty telegram to Lord Cork, saying: ‘We think it imperative that you and the General should be together and act together and that no attack should be made except in concert.’9 The first proposal was therefore abandoned, and the Aurora went round during the night of 14th/15th April from the north side of the Vestfjord to the waters off Harstad.
Narvik itself, the object of the expedition, has already been briefly described,10 but the land operations for its recapture cover a much wider area. The north shore of the Vestfjord, which runs in a generally north-easterly direction towards Narvik, consists of the long chain of the Lofoten–Vesteraalen Islands with Skjelfjord near their outermost extremity. The innermost of the larger islands, Hinnöy, with the small port of Harstad on its eastern coast facing the mainland, provided the nearest point to Narvik with facilities for a base, even on the smallest
scale. From Harstad to Narvik is about thirty-five miles as the crow flies, but the shortest sea approach is through the narrow channel of the Tjeldsund, running south-west of Harstad into the mouth of the Ofotfjord, so that the journey involves two sides of an equilateral triangle, while the third side gives the distance direct. North of Harstad the Vaagsfjord leads into the Andfjord, which in turn leads to the open sea at the north-eastern extremity of the chain of islands. Finally, east of Harstad the mainland on the opposite side of the Vaagsfjord is indented by the Salangen, Gratangen, and a third small fjord, the heads of which give access to the main road running north from the Narvik–Öyjord11 ferry.
Accordingly, General Mackesy, having reached the Vaagsfjord in the early morning of the 14th, hid his soldiers between decks while he made immediate but circumspect contact with the civil authorities at Harstad. He established that there were no Germans in the area and that our forces would be well received by the local population, and initiated arrangements for a base. Then, in the light of the information acquired, he crossed to the mainland, and by 2 p.m. the two companies of Scots Guards carried in the Southampton had been disembarked a few miles west of Sjövegan, at the entrance to an inner reach of the Salangenfjord, called the Sagfjord. This placed them about twenty miles from Fossbakken, a point on the main road north where Norwegian patrols were stationed to hold in check the German advance from Narvik, which was aimed at Bardufoss airfield and the nearby regimental depot for the Tromsö area General Mackesy in his official report says that the early contact with our troops ‘had an important effect upon the spirit and determination of the Norwegian forces.’12 The bearing and discipline of the Guardsmen, who in all their long history had never before been brought within the Arctic Circle, were much admired, though their unfamiliarity with winter warfare was equally apparent.
Three big transports, escorted by the battleship Valiant and nine destroyers, arrived off Harstad on the morning of 15th April. The 1st Irish Guards, 1st Scots Guards (less the two companies referred to above), and Brigade Headquarters landed the same day, as did the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, R.A., but without its guns. The 2nd South Wales Borderers landed on the 16th. The size of the force was doubled, however, by the number of divisional, base, and lines-of-communication troops, including a railway construction company intended for use at Narvik. Unloading of the transports and clearing of the quays were completed by the 17th and 18th respectively, but the confusion of the start had its counterpart in a more complete confusion in the arrival. The convoy had not been loaded
tactically, so that every cargo had to be sorted on landing and some items even re-despatched to Namsos. In addition, the troops had three kit-bags per man, to carry their seventeen items of special clothing, thirty-five pieces in all—scale of issue as for winter garrison in Tientsin plus items got ready for Finland. No motor transport had accompanied the first flight of the expedition, originally designed for Narvik and the railway, and local hirings could not meet the need for road movement as the troops went farther afield. The Irish Guards received their trucks in time to push them into the sea, unused, for want of cargo space at the final evacuation. On 21st April the general congestion was still so great that the men of a large labour force, which was included in 1,141 new arrivals, were by General Mackesy’s orders sent home in the ship which had just brought them. These administrative difficulties could be, and were, surmounted by time and trouble. More serious, because more lasting, were the physical disadvantages of the base.
Harstad had a population of less than 4,000, with transport and storage facilities roughly in correspondence with its size. The British landings inevitably attracted the attention of enemy aircraft operating from Trondheim, and the first slight casualties from this cause occurred while the landings were still in progress. Relations with the inhabitants were not helped by the fact that our antiaircraft provision could not at first protect the town: a full week elapsed before the first pair of guns was landed. The three ship quays at Harstad were all designed for the coastal traffic, including coal bunkering: only one of them had cranes and there was anchorage for about half a dozen vessels. Most of the sheltered-water area was unfortunately far too deep to anchor in. Our larger ships had therefore, in any case, to depend upon a ferry service between ship and shore. In addition, there was the risk of air attack in fine weather and the hazard of coming too close inshore during the frequent snow blizzards. Consequently, disembarkation and unloading of convoys involved on each occasion a serious temporary strain on local water transport. Further, whatever was brought to the base was liable to require redistribution by water, since we were using an island military base for a mainland operation. A fleet of about 120 Norwegian fishing craft equipped with paraffin engines, popularly known as Puffers, was therefore assembled—a rather cumbersome device which involved all the difficulties of employing civilians under conditions of military service.
The naval base was developed off Skaanland, a tiny village on the mainland fifteen miles south of Harstad, in the angle where the principal channel of the Tjeldsund turns west, providing extensive anchorage for even the biggest ships. A Royal Marine Fortress Unit prepared sites for coast defence guns, but the campaign ended before
the completion of this work or of the carefully planned anti-submarine defences by net and mine. Defence therefore depended upon the patrol vessels which were stationed from the outset at either end of the anchorage and base area. A German submarine had been located and destroyed, and its list of North Sea submarine dispositions captured, as the expedition was first approaching Harstad on 15th April, but there were no further submarine attacks upon the base. This was chiefly attributable to the assiduous work of the destroyers and other escort vessels (including about thirty trawlers), which in the first week sank one submarine and harried a second out of the Ofotfjord, while the Warspite’s aircraft sank a third. But it was due in part to natural difficulties, such as the lightness of the nights, and also to serious technical defects in the enemy’s torpedoes. Another uncovenanted mercy was the failure of the Germans to make more than a single attempt to mine the Tjeldsund from the air. For in other respects they made much use of their air supremacy to harass our ships, sparing some bombers to fly over from Vaernes even before the collapse of the Aandalsnes and Namsos expeditions freed their main force to operate in this area. The two Bofors guns already mentioned were transferred from Harstad at the end of April, more being added a week later, but it was not until 8th May that the first heavy anti-aircraft artillery was put ashore by motor landing-craft. Two anti-aircraft cruisers and two sloops were also sent out to operate in this area. Nevertheless, light nights, clear skies, and windless air later on made bombing possible from very great heights, and ships became unable to anchor. Powerfully defended cruisers might be attacked five times in a day; destroyers could never feel safe; and of the little trawlers no less than half were sunk outright. Harstad shared the fortunes of Skaanland with 140 air raids in eight weeks, though it suffered relatively slight damage, there being no objectives on land comparable with the nearby shipping.
Lord Cork, after his initial proposal to try to seize Narvik by an immediate coup de main on 15th April had proved inacceptable, still hoped for a direct assault to be launched at the next earliest moment. This assault, if successful, could be expected to solve the base problem while gaining for us far more important advantages as regards our prestige and the whole strategic position in Scandinavia. Lord Cork was sure that the implied directive for the operation was to capture Narvik by the quickest, rather than the most economical, means. Narvik harbour and the’ Rombaksfjord beyond were reconnoitred by two of Admiral Whitworth’s destroyers, which on the night of the 15th signalled the opinion that a landing on the far side of the town, to advance on Narvik from the north-east, would not be
opposed by fixed defences and might be covered by destroyers’ guns. During the same day, however, the Admiral and the General had met for the first time, to make the discovery that they had left the United Kingdom with ‘diametrically opposite views as to what was required’.13 
In General Mackesy’s view the tenor of his instructions, which had not envisaged any immediate landing whether at Harstad or elsewhere if he were faced with enemy opposition, was that he should contact the Norwegians (as he had done) and then prepare a careful plan of operations. His message to Lord Cork on 14th April14 shows, indeed, that he did not interpret his orders as forbidding him in all circumstances to consider a coup de main against Narvik; but at best they provided a very serious practical obstacle, since they were the reason why the force had not been organised for an opposed landing. It was now in process of getting ashore at Harstad; it must sort its material before it could fight; and it had arrived with no artillery, ‘practically no mortar ammunition’, and no landing craft of any kind.
Moreover, the terrain of the Narvik peninsula outside the actual harbour front, where wreckage precluded landing, offered special difficulties. The shore line is of rocks interspersed with some small beaches, ideal for the siting of machine guns. The ground behind rises quickly to a low crest, which severely limits the effectiveness of fire from ships’ guns. Across narrow waters, at Ankenes to the southwest and at Öyjord to the north-east, there are dominant heights from which enemy machine guns could take the landing areas in reverse. All these hazards were made worse by the weather, as the General testifies in his official report:
Although nobody without personal experience of Arctic winter conditions can possibly picture the climatic difficulties we experienced in the early days, a word or two of description may not be out of place. The country was covered by snow up to 4 feet or more in depth. Even at sea-level there were several feet of snow. Blizzards, heavy snowstorms, bitter winds and very low night temperatures were normal. Indeed until the middle of May even those magnificent mountain soldiers, the French Chasseurs Alpins, suffered severely from frostbite and snow blindness. Troops who were not equipped with and skilled in the use of skis or snowshoes were absolutely incapable of operating tactically at all. I had no such troops at my disposal when I first landed. Shelter from the weather was of vital importance.15
General Mackesy’s objections also depended in part upon the prevailing uncertainty as to the true situation of the Germans in
Narvik. Had the two naval actions really demoralised them? How numerous were they? What allowances ought to be made for the addition of destroyer crews to the original military force and the subtraction of such units as had been moved forward against the Norwegians? What was the value of the defences constructed by the Norwegians at Narvik, which were known to include some trenches as well as the pill boxes, and to what extent would the Germans have improved upon them already? The answer to the question about morale is still conjectural: the Mayor of Narvik claims to have observed a complete collapse on 13th April and a quick recovery next day, though he also noted that General Dietl’s headquarters was withdrawn up the railway the following week and did not return.16 As for numbers, they were more than doubled from the crews of sunk destroyers, for whom there was an ample supply of machine guns and rifles captured at Elvegaard, but General Dietl valued these men more as technicians than as soldiers—514 of them were apparently sent home through Sweden after the first week17—and used them chiefly to guard the remoter parts of the railway. Regarding defences, it is clear that the operations of the garrison were greatly hampered by the non-arrival of all three of the expected supply ships and one out of two tankers, though thirty-four goods trucks with 350 tons of provisions were accepted in south Sweden on 19th April for transit to Narvik. Moreover, the mountain artillery had been washed overboard from the destroyer decks on the rough voyage; guns dismantled from ships made at best an unhandy substitute. Ten aircraft were wrecked on the ice of Lake Hartvigvatn when four mountain guns were flown in on the 14th, and the experiment was not repeated. We may also notice that Hitler himself in the week following the second naval battle was strongly though fitfully inclined to cut his losses by abandoning Narvik and that, as late as 23rd April, demolitions observable from the sea marked Dietl’s receipt of instructions to get ready for evacuation ‘if necessary’.
The British General, however, had to make up his mind on the very little information available to him, though it was a reasonable supposition that the enemy’s difficulties were greater than could be seen. His judgement on 15th April and later was that for him to attempt an opposed landing in the circumstances outlined above was an entirely unwarranted course of action from any military standpoint and could only result in the ‘snows of Narvik being turned into another version of the mud of Passchendaele’. He was supported by many of the senior officers on the spot, naval as well as military, and (as we have seen)18 his policy did not surprise the Director of Military
Operations at the War Office. Nevertheless it must be left an open question whether Lord Cork’s instinct for the offensive, while it involved grave risk of heavy loss, might not have justified itself in the event. Narvik is surrounded on three sides by salt water, which we controlled; the Navy was present in great strength; the Germans were on the defensive, considerably dispersed, on remote and unfamiliar ground among a hostile population. An improvised attack, such as Lord Cork wanted, could almost certainly have won Narvik for us on the evening of 13th April, if troops had been dispatched from home in time to make it. Thereafter its chance of success was daily growing less, which explains and perhaps justifies Lord Cork’s impatience of delay. But General Mackesy, rather than reorganise his men, the first brigade of a larger force, in a desperate hurry for what might prove a desperate venture, planned to act more scientifically, surely, and slowly19.
Accordingly, Lord Cork reported on the 16th that the attack proposed for that day had been abandoned. But on the following afternoon the two commanders received a reply from the Admiralty and War Office pressing for an immediate assault, on the basis that the Warspite would be available in support for only two or three more days, and that the Chasseurs Alpins (diverted to the needs of Central Norway) would not be sent to strengthen the force even if it waited. The project for an attack was then renewed by the Admiral, who suggested that they should ‘gamble on the chance’ that the enemy’s morale could be broken by the overwhelming gunfire from a battleship, two cruisers, and eight destroyers; and at a further conference between the Admiral and the General on the 18th the latter agreed with evident misgivings to have troops ready for a landing if the result of a naval bombardment satisfied him that the task was feasible. The troops would then be put ashore under cover of a second bombardment. After this, General Mackesy set out upon a personal reconnaissance of Narvik in the Aurora, which was delayed by a false report of German reinforcements arriving in five destroyers.
On his return to Harstad on the 20th he informed the Chief of the Imperial General Staff of his opinion as follows: –
Owing to the nature of the ground, flat trajectory of naval guns, and the impossibility of locating the concealed machine guns, I am convinced that the naval bombardment cannot be militarily effective, and that a landing from open boats in the above conditions must be ruled out absolutely. Any attempt of the sort would involve NOT the neutralisation but the destruction of the 24th (Guards) Brigade.
The General proceeded to argue with increased urgency that in the circumstances the only effective bombardment would be one which induced the enemy to surrender before the troops landed, as at
Duala in the Cameroons in 1914, but this would require the inclusion of the town itself in the target area. He therefore formally raised the point that such action might ruin relations with the Norwegians and was in any case contrary to the instructions from the Cabinet,20 which he considered, only a direct Cabinet order could waive. This difficulty was eventually met by the restriction of the bombardment area, agreed between Lord Cork and General Mackesy. Tromsö Radio was used to urge evacuation, and in the upshot the civilian loss of life throughout the siege operations was very small. We may ‘also note that the blizzards which became frequent from the 20th onwards made it easy to agree with the General’s contention that the snow was a really serious obstacle. The Admiral had tested the conditions in his own person and with a section of Marines and ‘found it easy to sink to one’s waist, and to make any progress was exhausting’.
Meanwhile, the three British battalions were disposed as follows. The Irish Guards were brought round by sea to occupy positions at the Bogen inlet on the north side of the Ofotfjord, about ten miles in a straight line from Narvik, but thirty miles distant by road and ferry. They were billeted in two or three small villages, the easternmost of which was laid open by the withdrawal of some Norwegian volunteers to a possible attack by German patrols operating across the snowbound road from Bjerkvik. But there was only one exchange of shots during the four weeks of the battalion’s stay. The 2nd South Wales Borderers, who were brought to Skaanland, were about twice as far from Narvik on the same road; but both battalions having completed their moves on 19th April could easily be embarked from the positions they now occupied in the event of an assault on the town after naval bombardment. This left one half of the Scots Guards in reserve at the base, the other half being at Sjövegan.
The final decision, not to attempt an opposed landing at Narvik but to try to induce the enemy to surrender outright by a powerful naval bombardment, the troops going in only on display of the white flag ashore, was taken by Lord Cork on the 21st, on which day news had been received of the Government decision placing him in supreme command of the expedition. Heavy snow had begun to fall the previous day and continued without real break until the 24th, the date fixed for the attack and, as the Officer Commanding the Irish Guards observed, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landings in Gallipoli. For the bombardment, Lord Cork had his flag in the cruiser Effingham, and the other ships in the attack were the battleship Warspite, which fired some 150 rounds of common shell from her 15-inch guns, the cruisers Aurora and Enterprise, and the destroyer Zulu. The weather prevented the Fleet Air Arm from giving support from the Furious,
but it also prevented any intervention by German aircraft. The main bombardment, which was directed exclusively against military objectives, lasted about three hours, but it appeared to be lacking in depth and a thick carpet of fresh snow obscured every target. An outlying pier was shelled by the Effingham and a vessel alongside it was sunk, the Enterprise shelled both sides of the harbour entrance, and some damage was done to railway rolling-stock. A part of the military stores remaining at Elvegaard was also destroyed. But the all-important machine-gun defences, which were the chief obstacle to a landing, remained invisible and, presumably, undisturbed. The embarkation of the Irish Guards for the hypothetical case of a German surrender or a chance to exploit an uncertain situation by a quick dash ashore, for which the Guards had also laid their plans, was countermanded by Lord Cork just after they had gone aboard the Vindictive at Bogen. The result of the bombardment disappointed both the Admiral and the General. The former reported that weather conditions, which had been tempestuous as well as snowy, were entirely against a landing, while the low visibility prevented any estimate of the effect achieved by the bombardment. A later conclusion was that ‘nothing indicated any intention to surrender’, though a Norwegian who escaped from Narvik three days after the bombardment claimed that enemy casualties had been considerable.
On the day of the bombardment the first important reinforcements for the expedition, the 27th Demi-Brigade of Chasseurs Alpins, no longer held in reserve for Mauriceforce,21 had left Scapa for Norway; it therefore became possible to develop the plan of action which General Mackesy had always intended to substitute for the much-discussed frontal attack on Narvik. This was to organise an advance by land against the Narvik peninsula from all three sides, so as to take both Ankenes and Öyjord and cut the railway at Hundalen, only eight miles from the Swedish frontier, causing Narvik to fall into our hands eventually ‘like a ripe plum’. The Norwegians naturally enough had from the outset pressed for joint operations by their forces and ours to push the Germans back down the road, advancing from the positions they already occupied north of Narvik. Their point of view, which the British did not altogether share, was that, if the present might be regarded as a period of operational difficulty due to the snow, it would certainly be followed within a week or two by a period of operational impossibility due to the thaw. General Mackesy objected on principle to depriving his troops of any prospect of naval co-operation, but he had allowed a very limited degree of participation
by the Scots Guards in the first Norwegian counter-attack, which was also launched on the day of the bombardment.
There had been some slight skirmishes with the advancing Germans as the Norwegians withdrew to Fossbakken, already mentioned. General Dietl then turned his attention to clearing the railway; by a surprise attack near Bjornfjell he overwhelmed the Norwegian garrison that had escaped from Narvik on the 9th and secured control of the line from the frontier, substantially undamaged. But the Norwegians were able to bring in fresh troops from farther north, including two convoys from Kirkenes, for which British cruisers under Admiral Cunningham provided escort. These were troops which had been employed in the so-called Neutrality Watch and others newly mobilised, but all of them accustomed to the climate and terrain. They were therefore preparing a counter-attack towards Gratangen, west-south-west of Fossbakken, for which they now disposed of four battalions. The Germans employed two out of their three infantry battalions on this side of Narvik, making very effective use of small machine-gun posts, though these were as much as half a mile apart. They were, however, handicapped by the close British naval control of the fjord waters, which was maintained by a detached squadron of two cruisers and five destroyers under Captain L. H. K. Hamilton (HMS Aurora); this forced the Germans to employ a long and difficult line of communications from Bjornfjell down to Bjerkvik across the mountains north of Hartvigvatn. The Norwegian plan provided for a frontal attack from the north-east against the German post at Lapphaug, which is at the highest point on the road from Fossbakken before it descends again to the fjord-level at Gratangen. While the main forces were sent in there, one battalion was to advance due south over the mountain from a base on an arm of the fjord further north, so as to cut the German line of retreat.
It was agreed that the two companies of Scots Guards should hold a rear position for the main force, but they were not to be employed offensively. They were fitted out with snowshoes and camouflage cloaks from Norwegian stores and duly moved into Fossbakken when the Norwegians went forward to the attack. A heavy snow storm began on the 23rd and continued the next day when the attack opened. Its severity was such that a Norwegian battalion native to the country and expert on skis, not cumbered with heavy equipment, took eight hours to move less than two miles with a rise in height of about 300 feet. By 7 p.m. the 150 Germans in their entrenched position had repulsed the attack: three feet of snow had fallen in twenty-four hours and there was consequently no prospect of artillery support. Unfortunately for the Norwegians, the other wing of their attack had achieved rapid progress, and the men made their way down to the road at Gratangen, where the battalion could get shelter for the night. A
second battalion was sent forward from reserve to support this right flank, but when morning came there was still a gap between the two Norwegian battalions; and the Germans, successful at Lapphaug, were able to surround the battalion at Gratangen, and opened machine-gun fire upon their position in the village. A part broke through at a cost of about 100 killed and wounded (three company commanders being among the dead) and about 150 taken prisoner.22 The Norwegians had largely sacrificed one of their most efficient battalions; but the action was not without result as the Germans, to economise their forces, abandoned both Lapphaug and Gratangen within a day or two.
The Gratangen area was chosen by General Mackesy for the starting-point of an advance overland on Bjerkvik by two out of his three new battalions of French Chasseurs Alpins, though Lord Cork would have preferred to place them nearer Narvik in readiness for a direct attack. They landed on 28th April in the neighbourhood of Sjövegan, where General Béthouart conferred with the Norwegian General Fleischer before handing over the direct command of the demi-brigade to Lieut.-Colonel Valentini. The 14th Battalion was left for the moment in reserve, while the 6th was taken round by water to Gratangen for an advance up Labergdal, where on 1st May they made their first contact with the enemy. The Norwegians at this time had reorganised their expanding forces into two brigades. The 6th Brigade on the left, composed of three battalions and one mountain battery under the command of Colonel Löken, continued its fight in isolation, pressing the German outposts slowly back in the wilderness of mountains along the Swedish frontier. The 7th Brigade, composed of two battalions, one mountain battery, and one motorised battery, and commanded by Colonel Faye, held the right flank and worked in close co-operation with the French, who supplied two companies and a mortar section for the main line of advance along the road from Elvenes towards Bjerkvik. The two companies of Scots Guards were withdrawn to Harstad on 1st May, but the French were not only a far more numerous replacement, they were by definition mountaineers.
They included, however, only 70 ski troops to each battalion, which restricted their scouting; were short of mules and snowshoes, which slowed up the movement of supplies; and were unaccustomed to bivouacking in soft, deep snow (the depth was five feet on level ground at the top of Labergdal), which cost them as many casualties from frostbite as from enemy action, air attack included. On 4th May a battery of French colonial artillery was landed for support, and a day or two later the 14th joined the 6th Battalion in the line. But the
intended manoeuvre, by which the French advance up Labergdal was to turn the German defences along the main Bjerkvik road, was held up. By 10th May the French ski detachment had secured the top of the 3,000-foot mountain forming the west side of the pass, while the Norwegians were deployed ahead of them in the mountains on the east side: but along the road itself the Germans could not be dislodged from their position on the crest. It had taken ten painful days to advance five miles towards Narvik.
he British advance, made in conjunction with the Fleet and in little apparent relation with the plans or movements of the Norwegians, derived more profit from the thaw, which cleared away the snow at and near sea-level in the first few days of May, but like the French advance was without much immediate effect on the main issue. On the north side of the Ofotfjord, where the Irish Guards had been landed again at the Bogen inlet, the road to Narvik via Bjerkvik ran inland through deep snow. On the south side the road from Ballangen, opposite Bogen, was cut half way by the Skjomenfjord. The southern approach was chosen, and between 26th and 28th April the South Wales Borderers were brought across from Skaanland to Ballangen, followed by Brigade Advanced Headquarters on the 29th. The same day the South Wales Borderers, reinforced with a ski troop of the newly arrived Chasseurs Alpins, made an unopposed landing beyond Skjomnes at a small jetty west of Haakvik, only four miles from Ankenes and within range of German patrols. From Haakvik the advance continued along the main road to where it rounds the corner one and a half miles short of Ankenes. German artillery then opened fire, but a track along the shore gave enough cover for the troops to establish their forward position at Baatberget, on the very corner of the peninsula. A series of posts was also established along the lane leading inland from Haakvik as far as Lake Storvatn, to secure our flank against attack from the high ridge which runs from Ankenes in a south-easterly direction along the entire side of the Beisfjord. Brigadier Fraser while making a personal reconnaissance towards Ankenes was slightly wounded, and command devolved upon Lieut.-Colonel T. B. Trappes Lomax, O.C. 1st Scots Guards.
To threaten Ankenes was almost to threaten Narvik, which might at least be brought under close observation from across the water. There was also the hope that, as the weather improved, we might work round the head of the Beisfjord to the road which leads along its farther shore from Beisfjord village direct to Narvik. But the Germans were also alive to these possibilities. They had only one battalion of infantry and the naval battalion (less a little more than one company which General Dietl reallocated about the end of the month to his northern front) to cover Narvik, the railway, and Ankenes. Moreover, these troops, which had at first drawn their supplies from the Jan
Wellem, were now dependent on what could be brought from Sweden down the railway, often under fire. But their guns in Narvik covered the direct approaches to Ankenes; machine-gun posts at Beisfjord were easy to supply by seaplane; and at the use of the mountain terrain in between they showed themselves here as elsewhere adept. On 1st May a German patrol came down the mountain side at the north end of the Storvatn, and the following day a similar party of about a hundred men made a more serious counter-attack along the road towards Haakvik. The guns of the Aurora inflicted considerable losses on the enemy, who were beaten off, but we made no further progress on that side, although two British field guns were landed and brought immediately into action along the coast road on the 4th. Meanwhile the 12th Battalion Chasseurs Alpins had been allocated to this area. Serving under command of the Guards Brigade, they gradually took over the operation, being better suited to it than the South Wales Borderers, who could not move at all in the snow. On 9th May two French companies on snowshoes, supported by the skiing detachment, succeeded in dislodging the enemy from three main heights on the ridge north of the Storvatn; they could now look down on the waters of the Beisfjord. But the approach to Ankenes by that route was clearly a task for weeks rather than days.
The operations described above proceeded concurrently with a renewed demand for a direct assault on Narvik. But as that demand resulted in a largely distinct series of operations, in which British troops were not engaged, it will be more convenient to interrupt our narrative of events in the Narvik area at this stage, in order to see how the general strategy of the campaign had been affected by the abandonment of our operations in Central Norway. Already on the night of 29th/30th April one company of Scots Guards had been despatched from Harstad by destroyer, at the orders of the War Office, to forestall a possible paratroop landing by the enemy at Bodö. It was the first sign of a cloud in the south ‘as small as a man’s hand’.