Chapter 11: Land Operations: General Strategy (Part 2)
Although the decision to evacuate our troops from Central Norway was not taken until 26th–27th April,1 it is really the assignment of the second demi-brigade of Chasseurs Alpins to the far north, made after much discussion on the evening of 23rd April, which marks the moment when opinion in London began to revert to its original emphasis on Narvik as the main objective in Norway. In particular, the exigencies of the time factor, to which much consideration had been given in the plans made during the winter, were again being stressed: the British Prime Minister calculated that we might not have more than a fortnight left, in which to secure Narvik and arrive in strength at the Swedish frontier beyond, before the Germans, anticipating the moment (about two weeks later) when the thaw would put Lulea at their mercy, might issue an ultimatum to Sweden and prepare to seize the orefields. Thus the evacuation, which monopolised attention in London at the end of the month, at once simplified the strategic problem and emphasised its gravity.
The naval arrangements for the evacuation worked, as we have seen, with remarkable smoothness and discredited the pessimists who had feared a holocaust. This was the more impressive as it had proved impossible to challenge the enemy control of the air over the points of embarkation by the best efforts which our shore—or carrier-based aircraft could put forth, and a planned naval diversion, in the shape of a Fleet bombardment of the forts at Agdenes, had been cancelled at the last moment. But although the period of the evacuation, from the taking of the decision on 26th April to the arrival of the last Namsos convoy at Scapa on 5th May, was one of intense activity crowned by intense relief, the authorities in London were at no time oblivious of the underlying difficulties of the position in which we now found ourselves. The First Lord of the Admiralty had stated only a few days earlier that our biggest interest in southern Norway was to acquire a point d’appui on the coast for the eastern extremity of our intended mine barrage. He appeared then to think that we should still hold on to some suitable area which could be rendered unapproachable from the land side. But nothing came of this. It was
also proposed to contain large numbers of Germans in southern Norway by harassing operations, in which small parties landed by destroyer or submarine would demolish key points in the scanty network of communications and help to keep native resistance alive. This was first discussed in terms of a possible dispersion of the troops at Aandalsnes into small parties or as a likely employment for the newly-formed Independent Companies. A paper on the subject, drawn up by General Massy, was considered by the Chiefs of Staff on 4th May: he argued that, although the Norwegians might be deterred from co-operating by German ruthlessness, the enemy could be kept in a state of alarm and ‘real and lasting damage’ done by demolitions. The use of submarines, it was thought, would obviate the difficulty of concealing the arrival and departure of such parties; but a bigger problem was presented by the remoteness of the most suitable objectives from the coast. In the end, nothing came of this either. On the contrary, the sudden and complete abandonment of any attempt to contest control of that part of Norway in which seven-eighths of the population lived imposed a threefold handicap upon our strategy in the rest of the country.
Firstly, the Germans could now concentrate their attention upon the far north. Forces would automatically be released from other operations, and Trondheim provided the natural point of departure for a thrust towards Narvik by air, sea or land. In addition, they were now in a favourable position if they chose to harass our own East Coast ports by air attack, and might be able to impede to some extent the flow of reinforcements northwards. Secondly, we were less sure of the wholehearted support of the Norwegians, who were tempted to regard the German occupation of their country as an established fact, since the three unoccupied counties of North Norway were at least as remote in the eyes of the majority as the Scottish Highlands to the average Englishman. Moreover, they were only human in attributing the disaster to everybody else’s shortcomings rather than to their own. The British Government had therefore strongly encouraged General Paget’s attempt to evacuate the Norwegian forces from the Aandalsnes area to fight elsewhere; as one Minister put it, the retention of a Norwegian army in being would have great political value. The Foreign Office was very active in asseverating the seriousness of our intention to capture Narvik and at least hold on to territory in North Norway, and was instructed to denounce as a ‘malicious falsehood’ an obviously dangerous rumour that we were advising Norway to surrender. For the rest, it was hoped that our actions at Narvik might speak louder than words. Thirdly, our situation vis-à-vis the Swedes had become more delicate than ever. Their own reaction to Norway’s need for help had been something less than quixotic, but it had been easy for them to question from the outset the value and
sincerity of the help which Britain gave, and the story of our failure to save Trondheim, of which Swedish journalists had witnessed occasional episodes, lost nothing in the telling. Moreover, the support which we could offer if the Germans invaded their country was now limited practically to what could be sent through Narvik if both the port and the railway were captured in a usable condition before, or contemporaneously with, the invasion—a rather big supposition. The Supreme War Council thought of meeting this difficulty, if the worst came to the worst, by offering to pay compensation for the destruction of the iron mines whether by Swedish or Allied agency. How likely Sweden would be to agree to this may be judged by the fact, which was finally established on 7th May, of a recent interchange of letters between King Gustaf of Sweden and the German Fuhrer confirming her neutral status. The anxiety of the British Government to get Narvik quickly was reinforced by legitimate doubts as to the likelihood that Sweden would continue in any serious degree to resist German pressure, much less support Allied measures.
Nevertheless, the evacuation of Central Norway was not all loss. For one thing, the allotment of reinforcements became a relatively easy task, limited by lack of shipping and by administrative difficulties in the reception area at Harstad, but not by the difficulty of finding men. The two battalions of the Foreign Legion and the four battalions of the Polish Brigade were dispatched at once to the north, as were the first five of the British Independent Companies. The second French Light Division was now stationed in the Clyde, where it was joined by the Chasseurs Alpins returned from Namsos, whom it was intended to refit and send on again to the north. A third French Light Division remained poised at Brest awaiting transport, and on 1st May it was agreed in principle that the British 5th Division might also be brought from France as reinforcement. Meanwhile five more Independent Companies were in course of formation, and there was even a notion of transferring Gurkhas to northern Europe. At all events, it was decided to establish a Corps headquarters for a force of about 30,000 men, and its intended commander was told in advance that he ‘must plan and prepare for big things’.
What had happened in Central Norway helped also by showing the paramount importance of air protection. To provide it was not an easy task, since our resources were at this time hopelessly inferior to those of the enemy: the aircraft of an entire fighter squadron had been lost at Lesjaskog; and our anti-aircraft artillery had been depleted by the abandonment in the stress of the evacuation of all four batteries of guns which had been sent to Central Norway. But from this time onwards there was a more obvious sense of urgency in the handling of this problem in London. As regards aircraft, two (or even three) fighter squadrons were earmarked for use as soon as airfields could
be made available in North Norway, including the squadron which had gained the expensive experience at the frozen lake; and a reconnaissance party to prospect for airfield sites was sent to the Narvik area on 30th April. The Chiefs of Staff had already in anticipation instituted a daily situation report to be made by the Air Ministry showing the practical result in terms of aircraft based there. On 1st May the Chairman of the Military Co-ordination Committee called the attention of the Chiefs of Staff to the fact that these were critical days for Narvik, which must expect concentrated attack the moment the evacuation was completed. He therefore urged the transfer of at least one of the carriers then stationed in the Trondheim area to cover the gap until our land-based aircraft could operate. As regards anti-aircraft guns, which were also considered in the note to the Chiefs of Staff cited above, the original provision of one light battery had already been supplemented by 36 more Bofors guns and a heavy battery of eight 3.7s, though another dangerous week was to pass before they were landed on Norwegian soil. But the matter was now considered by the Vice-Chiefs of Staff—who no doubt had in mind the important effect of a similar calculation regarding Trondheim, when the figure arrived at was only one-half as large—to see what we should have to provide as anti-aircraft defence for Narvik itself and for a naval anchorage, two airfields, and other key points in the area. Their estimate totalled 144 heavy and 144 light anti-aircraft guns, as against the figures of 48 and 60 actually allocated (including guns still mobilising in the United Kingdom). No further withdrawals could be made from our forces in France, which had about half as many guns as they required. To take the additional number of heavy guns from the air defence of Great Britain was judged possible: there were 900 guns to take from, though this represented only forty per cent. of authorised scale. To take the additional number of light guns for Narvik was, however, quite impossible, as home defence possessed no more than 166 guns (of which only 36 were mobile) or in terms of the scale a nine per cent. provision. Granted that an authorised scale for home defence may be expected to include a margin for accidents and argument, the figures offer a remarkable commentary upon our power at this time to undertake new overseas commitments within range of the German air force.
In other respects besides the measurement of artillery resources the evacuation coincided with a tightening-up of machinery for the conduct of the war, which might be expected in any case to follow what Mr Churchill called ‘the first main clinch’2 but which was probably expedited and intensified by the shock of its result. On 1st May the Prime Minister (Mr Neville Chamberlain), in order ‘to obtain a
greater concentration of the direction of the war’,3 reorganised the Military Co-ordination Committee so as to give an increased power of control to its chairman—a position which, it will be remembered, was held by Mr Churchill in his capacity as senior Service Minister except when the Prime Minister himself was present. The Chiefs of Staff Committee, while retaining its primary responsibility to the War Cabinet, was now to receive certain additional guidance. The Chairman of the Military Co-ordination Committee was made responsible for giving directions to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, which he might ‘summon for personal consultation at any time’; he would in particular give directions for them to prepare plans, which would normally be submitted to the Military Co-ordination Committee before or instead of the War Cabinet; and he was to be provided with a ‘suitable central staff’ for this work—in practice the Military Wing of the War Cabinet Secretariat—the head of which was to serve as an additional full member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Major-General Ismay accordingly joined the Chiefs of Staff on 2nd May, and the new scheme may be assumed to have come fully into force with the next meeting of the Military Co-ordination Committee, which was held on 6th May. The fact that the latter committee came to an end with the change of Prime Minister four days later makes it impossible to pass judgement on the efficiency of the scheme; but it is not without importance for the strategy of the North Norway operations that the scheme was in operation just at this juncture.
Other minor structural changes were made at this time. One was the institution of a Narvik Committee, which met under the chairmanship of the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, to ensure that the administrative requirements for the defence of Narvik were handled expeditiously by all Departments concerned. This acted mainly as a clearing-house, the planning of the defence being expressly reserved as ‘the responsibility of the Chiefs of Staff through the normal interservice machinery’, but the arrangement shows a sense of urgency which had been less evident in the preceding month. On 8th May, as a natural sequel to the admission of Norwegian representatives to a part of the meeting of the Supreme War Council, it was agreed by the Prime Minister that Norway should be represented on the Allied Military Committee in London. Tentative arrangements were made by the Chiefs of Staff for Norwegian officers to serve in a liaison capacity in each of the Service Departments; they would then be in a position to attend meetings of the Committee when necessary. If the general military situation had developed more favourably in the next few weeks, this belated arrangement might have solved many liaison difficulties, especially regarding the provision of a necessary minimum
of material for the Norwegian forces, for which their Legation in London had made numerous ineffectual requests. As it was, the main result was to give a useful precedent for the immediate attachment of Belgian and Dutch officers when their countries were invaded on 10th May.
In so far as the operations against Narvik could be considered in isolation, the strategic effect of the decision to abandon Central Norway was relatively straightforward. One additional objective could be stated—‘To preserve a part of Norway as a seat of government for the Norwegian King and people’4—and a second, namely to offset the reverse sustained by Allied arms farther south, was self-evident. The need to act quickly, before the German air force came north in strength, before Sweden was overrun, before the Norwegians (to say nothing of our friends in neutral countries) finally lost heart, was also very obvious in London. Troops were now available sufficient to intensify the hopes of Mr Churchill, who on the night of 27th/28th April addressed Lord Cork as follows:
It is upon Narvik and the Gällivare orefields that all efforts must now be centred.... Here it is we must fight and persevere on the largest scale possible.... Plan out your scheme for establishing a strongly defended base and ask for all you want. Of course no large-scale operations can be conducted unless the port and town of Narvik are in our hands.
This was the first and perhaps the least explicit of a series of messages in which the Government renewed the pressure for an assault on Narvik, postponed since the naval bombardment of the 24th on account of the heavy falls of snow. Meanwhile, the authorities at home could give the attack their single-minded though distant support.
But a further distraction interposed itself. The French, it will be recalled, had at first cherished the hope that the whole of their force at Namsos might be able to withdraw overland into the north. This in the face of German air power was an obvious impossibility, but it gave place to a smaller scheme, approved by the British Government, for a fighting rearguard to contest the ground from Grong towards Mosjøen so as to delay the Germans, who might otherwise press forward towards Narvik. The commanders on the spot for a variety of reasons deemed this to be impracticable, and never carried out the proposal; but while the controversy still raged a small initial force was taken round by sea from Namsos to Mosjøen, so that the troops retiring overland might have a point d’appui on which to fall back. From this unpromising start there developed an involved discussion
as to the strategy which it was appropriate for us to adopt in relation to the whole of the long coastal strip separating the triumphant enemy garrison of Trondheim, with its outpost at Namsos, from the beleaguered enemy garrison at Narvik. The matter was not finally settled in principle until in practice the area was overrun by Germans. It involved the fundamental dilemma to which the inadequacy of our resources so often exposed us: we needed all our available air protection for the Narvik area, but by depriving our forces farther south of such protection we hastened pro tanto the speed of the German advance into the north, which in turn would render the air protection we were now zealously providing in the Narvik area either less effective or more expensive or both. The answer to the question about air protection would in turn settle the size of the ground forces to be employed, since it was now taken for granted that only small units widely dispersed could hope to escape or at least to survive the unhampered attentions of German aircraft. General Massy, who refused to dismiss the notion that we might be able not merely to stop but to throw back the Germans and renew our own advance south, wanted a considerable force to hold the Mo-Mosjøen area and pleaded for the establishment of a proper base there, with a reasonable equipment of anti-aircraft artillery and an airfield. In his opinion nothing else would make certain of holding up the Germans at a safe distance from Narvik. This view was shared by General Gamelin and the French Government, which continued to express anxiety about the security of Mosjøen as late as 9th May—the day before the Germans attacked it. The other view, which owed something to the recent advocacy of guerrilla warfare as a means of distracting large numbers of Germans in the south of Norway, supposed that no systematic regular defence would be called for. The Germans were to be stopped by demolitions along the road, by guerrilla activities on their flanks, by raising the countryside against them, and by preparing to deal firmly with whatever small parties they might land from the sea or the air. This was to be the work of the Independent Companies, which were so organised as to need air defence neither for themselves nor for their base.
Broadly speaking, it was the second point of view that won the day. Of the three coastal ports south of Narvik the nearest, Bodö, was given a garrison of one company from Lord Cork’s forces; a small scale of anti-aircraft defence was intended, and the idea of constructing some kind of landing ground also actively pursued. But both Mo and Mosjøen were to be left unprotected from the air, as ‘the only course open to us would be to attempt to deny these two places to the enemy for as long as possible by means of small easily-maintained forces, of the type which were being put ashore’. The War Office had shown foresight in deciding as early as April 18th to
provide the Independent Companies to which the description refers, five of which (as previously noted) were ready to proceed overseas at the end of the month.
The strength of a Company was about 20 officers and 270 other ranks, all of them volunteers, and all drawn from the Territorial Army except the officers, who included a small number of Indian Army and other Regulars. Scissorsforce—the official name derived from the intended function of the five companies—was placed under the command of Acting-Colonel C. McV. Gubbins, with a staff approximating to that of an infantry brigade.5 Each Company was divided into three platoons consisting of three sections each commanded by an officer, and the war establishment included sappers, signals, a support section of four Bren guns, and, last but not least, some Norwegian interpreters. For the essential feature of the Independent Company was its ability to operate throughout as a self-contained unit based on the country in which it found itself. They had no transport of their own, though the intention had been to allocate some trawlers and drifters to their exclusive use. Equipment included Alpine rucksacks, snowshoes, Arctic boots, sheepskin coats, and a five-day mountain ration of pemmican. It also included £4,000 to each Company in hard cash. The Independent Companies were not, however, trained or equipped to bear the brunt of a determined enemy attack, and in this respect were made the victims of a twofold miscalculation. On the one hand they had been designed for guerrilla warfare in which the local population would be playing a large part. A historically minded Minister put it to the Military Co-ordination Committee, with the Prime Minister’s approval, that they should aim at making Norway a ‘running sore’ to the Germans in the manner of the Peninsular War. But the previous meeting of the same Committee had recognised that this result would be largely dependent on Norwegian co-operation, ‘of which, so far, there had been little sign.’ This might be disputed in detail; what cannot be disputed is that in the area of the fighting in which the Companies took part the population was in any case too small and too scattered for serious co-operation. On the other hand, the vigour of the German drive forward along a difficult route exceeded all expectations, even after allowing for the effects of our failure to establish the rear-guard from Namsos. On 8th May the nearest enemy was believed to be 100 miles from Mosjøen; on the 11th he was there.
General Massy’s plan having been rejected, mainly on the ground that we must concentrate our resources in the area nearest Narvik, it was a natural sequel that responsibility for the forces concerned, being regarded as an appendage to the Narvik operations, should be transferred
to Lord Cork. The policy was formulated for him, at his request, on 5th May; twenty-four hours later the Independent Companies were placed under his command. The Instruction makes no mention of any corresponding increase in his naval responsibilities, which is perhaps remarkable, as one of General Massy’s arguments for the establishment of a base in the Bodö-Mo-Mosjøen area was his belief that otherwise German air power would enable enemy forces to be moved up the coast by sea. On 1st May, after the Chiefs of Staff had considered a Note by the Chairman of the Military Co-ordination Committee, the Chief of the Naval Staff undertook to ensure such dispositions as would prevent German sea-borne expeditions from landing at Mosjøen, Mo, or Bodö. This was to some extent modified on the 5th, when the Chiefs of Staff agreed ‘that as regards naval patrols, Bodö should take precedence over Mosjøen and Mo’. On 10th May, as the story will show, the enemy made his descent from the sea, between Mosjøen and Mo, unimpeded by any special precautionary patrol.
Meanwhile, the full attention of the home authorities had reverted—for the last time, as it proved—to that most intractable of problems, the assault on Narvik. The London end of the story is quickly told. On 28th April, when it first became clear that the size of force might justify the employment of a corps commander, it was resolved to send out Lieutenant-General C. J. E. Auchinleck at once, in the belief that the change might lead to the immediate capture which the Government desired. But time was allowed to pass while a corps headquarters was collected, and, six days later, the Chiefs of Staff, in re-drafting the object of Operation Rupert at Lord Cork’s request, noted that the definition would be useful for the Instructions to be issued to the General, ‘who would be leaving for Narvik [sic] within the next few days’. On 30th April General Gamelin had sent the Chief of the Imperial General Staff a reminder of the time factor: ‘Il faut faire vite pour ne pas être devancés’,6 a point which was put even more forcibly to Lord Cork by Mr Churchill as : ‘Every day that Narvik remains untaken, even at severe cost, imperils the whole enterprise’. On 3rd May Lord Cork gave orders to prepare for the assault, only to report on the night of 5th /6th May a series of military objections which ‘with great reluctance’ he referred to the judgement of His Majesty’s Government.
The Chiefs of Staff proposed to send a reply which, while refusing on principle to advise on tactics, would probably have been read as encouraging Lord Cork to proceed. But the War Cabinet preferred to ask for his personal appreciation first; the same telegram mentioned that General Auchinleck would be joining him on 12th May. Lord
Cork’s appreciation next day showed that he himself favoured action—he did not consider success certain, but ‘It is quite certain that by not trying no success can be gained’—but had now decided to await the new general. The Chiefs of Staff then sent a further reply, approved by the War Cabinet, to the effect that they would welcome vigorous action, that he would be supported in taking risks, and that Auchinleck’s coming should be left out of his calculations. But the chance, if chance it was, was allowed to pass. Lord Cork’s next telegram announced that he was now committed to other preliminary operations, for which he selected the French troops, and he shortly afterwards asked approval for the transfer of the whole of the British brigade to Bodo and Mo. Neither he nor General Mackesy believed that the tide of German advance which had just set in from that direction could be stemmed by Independent Companies. His proposal was accordingly accepted, subject to the two conditions that it must not lengthen the delay in taking Narvik and must not lead to any additional demands for anti-aircraft guns.
Thus the situation a month after the German invasion of Norway, on the eve of their other advances into more vital areas which were to distract the attention of the Allied authorities from any more brooding over lost opportunities in the far north, could be summarised as slightly qualified disappointment. Although all southern Norway was lost to us and no kind of operations seemed likely to be renewed there, Sweden had not been invaded nor coerced into any serious breach of her neutrality. We knew that we could not hold the intermediate zone south of Bodo against prolonged and determined attack, but five Independent Companies were in position and a brigade of Regulars would be moving south to form a stronger line. Our failure hitherto to take Narvik appeared inexplicable in London, but there were nine battalions of French and Polish troops investing it as well as two Norwegian brigades, and high hopes were entertained of General Auchinleck. How we should exploit the victory when won was a little uncertain. We proposed to extend our forces as far as Kirkenes, where the arrival of a battalion as a token force might help the Norwegians to hold the Russian frontier. Soviet intentions were still uncertain: there were persistent rumours of the presence of German troops at Murmansk. The King of Norway would be securely established, though in a limited area, and we should have redeemed a promise—which was not without value for world opinion as well as for the retention of the Norwegian mercantile marine under our control. Narvik itself on closer inspection was no longer coveted by the Navy to make a ‘Gibraltar of the North’, if only on account of the distance from the open sea, but we hoped to establish it as a place of arms, well protected from air attack, which the Germans would make repeated, costly, and ineffectual efforts to recapture. It was assumed
that the ore port and the ore railway, in so far as they were still intact, would be destroyed by the Germans in their retreat to the Swedish frontier. As a long-term policy we were prepared to undertake big repairs to restart the flow of ore for our own use. The more immediate problem, so often discussed, was that of anticipating the Germans at the orefields. From Narvik to the frontier might have to be traversed on foot, all heavy equipment being discarded, with a view to using the railway beyond, in neutral territory, to Kiruna as soon as German action against Sweden gave us the occasion; alternatively, there were thoughts of improvising a light brigade to move across country with sledges. In any case the establishment of two airfields in the Narvik area should mean that, so long as we could afford the wastage of aircraft involved in their use (about which doubts had already been expressed) we should be in a position, if the worst came to the worst, either to bomb the orefields themselves or to stop up the outlet by mining Lulea harbour.
From 10th May onwards the launching of the great German offensive in the West reduced Norway to the status of a minor concern for Ministers in London, to say nothing of Paris, where two members of the Norwegian Government had just been conferring with the French authorities and found that they saw eye to eye about the military shortcomings of the British.7 The formation of the Churchill Government and ancillary changes, such as the creation of the office of Defence Minister as an attribute, or rather a potent instrument, of the premiership, or the replacement of the Military Co-ordination Committee by the Defence Committee, though resulting so largely from the earlier events of the Norway campaign, would need to be considered in a wider context than that of the remaining events in the Scandinavian story. That story, though less regarded than before, was scarcely less disappointing, for it was on 10th May that a German seaborne attack between Mosjøen and Mo ruined our hopes of ‘selling ground slowly and dearly’ to the south of Narvik and gave a fresh shock to Norwegian confidence in us, which was not to be offset by the general reassurances given to their Ministers as they passed through London that day homeward bound. But apart from refusing any special provision to meet this crisis, such as direct convoys from home to the intermediate area, the home authorities’ did not interfere appreciably with the dispositions made by Lord Cork (or General Auchinleck) to stem the advance which in little more than a fortnight was to threaten Bodö. On 14th May, indeed, the new Prime Minister telegraphed to Lord Cork, ‘I hope you will get Narvik cleaned up as soon as possible, and then work southwards
with increasing force’; but a study of the map would suggest that the operative part of the message is at the beginning. The capture of Narvik was still urgently desired, and the success with which the French on the 13th carried out an opposed landing at Bjerkvik to secure the coastline facing the town only strengthened the demand from London for the final assault. Local reasons caused delay and postponement, while a number of telegrams from the Chiefs of Staff and the Prime Minister himself expressed impatience and dissatisfaction. As late as the 20th Mr Churchill still found time to telegraph that delay was costing more men and ships than vigorous action, and the issue of a direct order for the assault was considered by the Cabinet but postponed.
The delay was not due primarily to the denial at this stage of needed reinforcements. In spite of the grave shortage of antiaircraft artillery in this country, the Chiefs of Staff, meeting at 10.30 p.m. on 10th May, resolved to let a further regiment sail, which had then completed loading for North Norway. It is true that no more was spared—notwithstanding a report which claimed that the topography of North Norway rendered any given quantity of antiaircraft guns only one-half as effective as elsewhere—but the total already sent was very considerable. On the 12th, after a crisis in which the 2nd French Light Division, after being held up for some time in the Clyde, was nearly diverted to garrison ‘Fortress Holland’, Lord Cork was asked if he required more troops; and the French troops were in fact retained in Scotland for three more days. Even then the three battalions of the Chasseurs Alpins from Namsos, which had been re-equipped after their return, and five more Independent Companies were kept at his disposal; the former had had valuable experience already, the latter were to complete training at Harstad. They would have sailed on 22nd May, but Lord Cork was for administrative reasons unable to accept the French before the 30th—by which time the game was up. The question of fighter aircraft, which became urgent as airfields in North Norway at last became available (21st May), was appallingly difficult in view of the demands made for reinforcement in France; but one squadron of Hurricanes, of which the diversion to French soil had been authorised as early as 8 a.m. on 10th May, was eventually allowed to go north. No bombers were sent, but the Chief of the Air Staff maintained that the use for which they were in the end requested, namely to protect the rear-guard, was in no way a proper function for a bomber squadron.
The policy of continuing our efforts in North Norway is partly attributable to the momentum which a campaign gathers, making it hard for psychological as well as practical reasons to order its abandonment. Its success would, as the French Prime Minister observed,
do something to offset the bad news from other quarters. We retained a hope, though a sadly diminished one, of influencing or coercing the Swedes in the matter of iron ore, and Mr Churchill in particular wanted to bottle up Lulea; although he at one time contemplated the use as minelayers of aircraft based in south-east England, an airfield in North Norway would be far more convenient. But the main objective in this penultimate phase of the campaign was that disproportionate diversion of German resources to a distant and almost inaccessible theatre of war which had been one of the attractions when we first thought of challenging the Germans in Scandinavia. That it was something more than making the best of a bad job is shown by the strength of the Prime Minister’s reaction to the Mowinckel Plan, which seemed at this moment to offer us a strategic alternative.
It was very natural that a project for neutralising the Narvik area should have originated among the Swedes, since for them the area had a special economic interest to distinguish it from the rest of Norway; they were also painfully aware that the continuance of the military struggle for its control might sooner or later drag them in. A private Swedish kite, flown in mid-April, attracted little attention, but about the end of the month, when Allied prospects looked dark, the former Norwegian Prime Minister Mowinckel, who had rejoined the Cabinet since the invasion, in a conversation with the Swedish Foreign Minister in Stockholm, suggested as ‘a passing thought’8 the possibility of securing the neutralisation of North Norway. The Swedes took the idea up, adding the not very welcome corollary that Swedish troops should be left in occupation of Narvik. The Norwegian Government, who did not wish to lay themselves open to a charge of defeatism or desertion, and who disliked the way in which the project had arisen, were reluctant to commit themselves. The Swedes, however, becoming more apprehensive as the predicament of the Germans in North Norway became more acute, continued to press the Norwegians, and finally, on the day Narvik fell, put their suggestion forward in Berlin. Meanwhile, it had been reported by our diplomatic representatives in Sweden and Norway and was brought to the attention of the War Cabinet, nine days before the entry into Narvik, as a ‘proposal apparently of German origin’ which showed the strain on the enemy. The Foreign Office, which was anxious for the Norwegian Government to remain established in North Norway, even at the cost of reasserting a neutral status, had been disposed to welcome the scheme; after all, the presence of Swedish forces in Narvik might mean that, though neither side got any ore from the port at the moment, a German quarrel with Sweden would subsequently deliver the port, the ore, and the orefields into our hands
intact. But the Prime Minister was adamant. ‘The main remaining value of our forces in Norway’, he told the Foreign Secretary, ‘is to entice and retain largely superior German forces in that area away from the main decision. Norway is paying a good dividend now and must be held down to the job’.
This bold argument was advanced as late as 19th May, when the situation was such that the War Cabinet was awaiting a report on the consequences which would follow the fall of Paris or the withdrawal of the British forces from France. The possibility that the United Kingdom would be exposed to a direct threat of invasion drew attention to the value of every destroyer and every fighter aircraft, while the ordeal through which France and Belgium were passing emphasised the need for anti-aircraft artillery to be shipped home. Moreover, once the idea of leaving North Norway was considered, the timing was seen to be a crucial factor. Since the assault on Narvik was now at long last on the very verge of execution, the arguments which the Inter-Services Planning Staff formulated for the Chiefs of Staff fell on willing ears. The capture of the town still had some prestige value, although the eyes of the world were riveted elsewhere; it would enable us to complete the demolition of the port and railway; and by driving the enemy inland in confusion it would enable our forces to disengage. But once Narvik was captured, the sooner the area was evacuated the better, in order that no part of our naval resources or of such men and material as could be extricated from the north should be still on passage home—and therefore out of service—if and when the country had to meet the supreme test of an attempted invasion.
Accordingly, on the evening of 20th May the Prime Minister, who had pressed so vehemently and recently for Narvik to be taken, opened to the new Defence Committee his arguments for its subsequent abandonment. They were three in number. As the Germans were now strong enough to insist on passing troops through Sweden, we could no longer contemplate any advance from Narvik to the orefields. To hold Narvik would be a drain on our resources. And Narvik was not essential to us as a naval base. Three days later the War Cabinet was considering an appreciation drawn up by the Chiefs of Staff to show the military implications of a complete withdrawal from Norway. The Chiefs of Staff doubted the importance of maintaining a centre of resistance in Norway because ‘the Norwegians have neither the numbers, the material, nor the heart to offer a firm core on which to build’. They were on surer ground in pointing out that we could spare no more aircraft, had only one and a half divisions in Norway to face eleven divisions of Germans,9 and
were using up temporarily in Norway—pending the passage of two big convoys to Narvik—no less than half the destroyer strength available for meeting invasion. The Chiefs of Staff therefore proposed that Narvik should be abandoned after capture, though the Prime Minister still preferred to leave the matter at the stage of planning. But at a meeting of the Defence Committee next day (24th May) the situation appeared still more dangerous—evacuation would take twenty-eight days from the first order to the last landing, and ‘if an invasion of the United Kingdom began during the process of evacuation it would probably be necessary to withdraw all naval forces immediately’. Accordingly, a telegram ordering the evacuation was handed to the First Sea Lord’s Secretary for despatch that evening. The order was confirmed by the War Cabinet next day and by the Supreme War Council at its meeting on 31st May.
Difficulties arose from the conflict between the need for absolute secrecy in relation to an operation so vulnerable to attack and the obligation to inform the Norwegians of our intentions, but the British Government would not permit anything to be divulged before 1st June. More agreeable to relate is the intervention of the Chiefs of Staff to require in view of the plight of France that as far as possible British troops should be the last to come away. But in general the urgency of the situation caused the Admiralty to be left to conduct the evacuation as they chose; by the 27th the Chiefs of Staff were even considering instead what use the Germans might make of Norway to invade Britain. But the reluctance with which the decision was taken may be judged from the fact that it was three times challenged in the Cabinet during the next few days—on 27th May, when it was argued on behalf of the Admiralty that the Narvik operation was draining the enemy’s forces more than ours; on the 30th when a paper from the Ministry of Economic Warfare was considered; and finally on 2nd June, when the build-up of our home forces made possible by the success of the Dunkirk evacuation prompted the Prime Minister himself to throw out the suggestion of maintaining a garrison at Narvik for some weeks on a self-contained basis.
As the decision taken on 24th May proved final, it only remains to notice our abortive attempts to salvage something from the wreck of our policy. The neutralisation plan, turned down so recently, had received a sympathetic hearing on 22nd May from the Chiefs of Staff, but it was not until after its reconsideration by the Cabinet nine days later that the Foreign Secretary could let the Swedish and Norwegian Governments know that we now supported it. The Norwegians asked for, and obtained, a twenty-four-hour delay in the evacuation programme, so that the Norwegian might meet the Swedish Foreign Minister at Lulea. But the Germans had now lost whatever interest
they may have had in such an agreement; the only practical result, which might have had the direst consequences, was that Dr Koht told the Swede that the Allies had decided to evacuate.10
No greater success attended the revival of the notion of guerrilla warfare. There was a scheme for leaving troops behind in the Narvik area. But the French were judged the most suitable and they were the most needed elsewhere; besides, what could a small force without any air protection achieve in the unfamiliar wilderness? If there was to be guerrilla warfare, it would have to be waged by the Norwegians, who had complained on 1st June that they needed 20,000 rifles and had been given only 1,000 Nevertheless, the last effective orders told Lord Cork to bring home all small arms and ammunition; a counter-order for leaving 4,500 rifles and up to two million rounds of ammunition behind as an encouragement arrived some hours after he had put to sea.
Finally, although the abandonment of Narvik had set the orefields out of our grasp, there remained the possibility of blocking Lulea harbour, which could be reached from aircraft carriers in lieu of airfields, as soon as their tasks in covering the withdrawal from Norway were at an end. On 8th June, the day on which the evacuation of the Narvik area was completed, we knew that at long last the north Baltic port was about to be declared ice-free, and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, received preparatory orders for minelaying and torpedo attacks on ore ships to be attempted. But it was agreed that the likely political repercussions must first be examined; they were found to be serious; and our iron-ore strategy was then finally abandoned.