Chapter 4: Scandinavian Misadventure
The advantages of a controlling position in Norway, so strongly urged on the Führer by Admiral Raeder, were not unappreciated in Whitehall. From the end of November 1939, when the Russians attacked Finland, the possibilities of fishing profitably in Scandinavian waters were seriously considered by the British Government. Of the voices that were raised in favour of active measures of this sort, one in particular was clear and insistent—the voice of Mr. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty; for Norway—or some of it—was within easy reach of the Navy.
Clearly the Allies had every justification for supporting Finland. The wanton aggression committed against a weak and unoffending neighbour by a vast dictatorial power on terms of intimacy with the Nazis cried for redress in the name of morality and the democratic cause. Cries for redress, however, are apt to pass unheard until they fall on willing ears. In this case the ears were already well down to the ground.
For some time past the Allies had been studying the possibilities of depriving Germany of the high-grade iron-ore which is found so abundantly in Sweden, and which is so important in the manufacture of armaments. When the Russians attacked the Finns it was at once seen that Allied intervention, by establishing a military force in Scandinavia, might achieve this desired end. The prize was not one to be despised. All our economic surveys pointed to the peculiar significance of Swedish iron-ore in the German war economy; the least optimistic estimate of its worth was that without it the German war effort would collapse within a year; and a confidential memorandum to the French government from Fritz Thyssen, Frankenstein fearful of his own creation, only confirmed the verdict. Nor has post-war research done anything to upset these conclusions. According to recent German admissions, during the opening months of the war
iron-ore from Sweden and Norway in fact supplied two-thirds of Germany’s total consumption of the product.
The iron-ore of Sweden is found in two widely separated areas—the fields around Grangesberg, within easy access of Stockholm, and those around Kiruna and Gallivare, in the extreme north. It is the latter which produce in such great quantities the high grade phosphoric ores. The export of the ore from the fields in the south presents no difficulty, for these are served by the network of railways covering southern Sweden; but the export of ore from Kiruna and Gallivare is another matter. From both these towns there is railway communication to the port of Luleå, at the head of the Gulf of Bothnia; but from mid-December to mid-May Luleå is ice-bound. Much of the ore in consequence travels by a single-track railway, overhung by great rocks and mountains, to the Norwegian port of Narvik, which remains open to traffic all the year round. Thence it proceeds by sea to its destination. And in the early months of the war its destination was largely Germany—by way of Norway’s territorial waters.
The approach of the War Cabinet to what could now be considered the combined problems of Finland and the Swedish iron-ore was hesitant. Sabotage, though it might help, could not interfere seriously with the trade with Germany; only the occupation of the ore-fields and the communications on which they depend would suffice. But a naked seizure of the ore-fields would set all Scandinavia by the ears, alienate neutral opinion generally, and violate the principles for which we were fighting. Moreover, since the fact of German control over the Baltic meant that we should have to approach the ore-fields by way of the scanty communications and mountain barriers of central and northern Norway, a mere descent in force would be militarily unsound. The expedition must thus be undertaken unobtrusively, in the course of carrying aid to the Finns, and only if both Norway and Sweden agreed to cooperate—or at least, not to oppose. And even this would be risking war with Russia.
It was with these difficulties in mind that the War Cabinet in December 1939, after agreeing as a first step to send some aircraft to the Finns, considered the proposal of the First Lord of the Admiralty that we should interrupt the traffic from Narvik to Germany inside Norwegian territorial waters by a combination of mine-laying and naval action. In accordance with the Cabinet’s determination not to offend Scandinavian opinion, Mr. Churchill’s proposal was accepted only to the extent of inquiring how the Norwegian and Swedish governments would regard such measures. The reply was entirely unfavourable. There, for a few weeks, the matter rested.
By February 1940, however, it was clear that without substantial
reinforcements the Finns could not hold out against Russia for more than a matter of weeks. The prospect of having ‘the great barbarians’ within easy reach of the Swedish iron-ore and the North Sea being more than little distasteful, it was decided to ask Norway and Sweden to allow the transit of Allied units across their territory into Finland—units formed on the model of the Italian ‘Volunteer’ brigades in Spanish Civil War. The necessary military and air forces were detailed, and in early March the request was duly made. Once again the only result was a blank refusal. Faced with this, and with the continued insistence of the Norwegians and Swedes on maintaining their exports to Germany, the First Lord of the Admiralty then reverted to the lesser project of mining the route from Narvik. Since this was at best only a partial solution of the problem—the Narvik route accounted, as we now know, for one third of Germany’s total imports of iron-ore from Scandinavia—it was once more rejected by the Cabinet.
The Allies had not reached this point without German suspicions; indeed our intention at least to carry help to Finland had been proclaimed to the world. On 12th December 1939, when Hitler formally decided to secure control of Norway, he was not yet sure how far he could achieve his object by fostering the influence of the traitor Quisling. During the ensuing months he had accordingly catered for both contingencies, at once encouraging the Norwegian Nazis and at the same time preparing a military expedition. The news that the British were actually contemplating intervention in Scandinavia, coupled with our violation of Norwegian territorial rights during the Altmark incident, now convinced Hitler and his Naval Staff that they must act swiftly if they were to safeguard their supplies of iron-ore and obtain their desired vantage-points for the air and sea war against England. As Quisling, by his own admission, could not produce the goods in time, on 4th March Hitler ordered the German armed forces to make ready with all speed.
Hostilities between the Russians and the Finns ended on 13th March 1940. The following day the British War Cabinet considered Mr. Churchill’s view that we should still proceed with our Scandinavian expedition, partly to secure the ore-fields, partly to forestall an eventual Russian advance to the Atlantic. But once more the Cabinet, in default of Norwegian and Swedish consent, rejected extreme courses. Indeed, it now decided to disperse the forces thus far collected—forces which included, among the Royal Air Force units, an air component headquarters, two bomber squadrons, three fighter squadrons, one and a half army cooperation squadrons, a balloon squadron and an observer screen.
After the signature of the Russo-Finnish Peace Treaty the Germans sensed some relaxation in the British preparations, and at the end of March Admiral Raeder gave his opinion that a British descent on Norway was no longer imminent. But at the same time he urged that the Germans must ultimately take over Norway, and that they should do so sooner rather than later. The Führer was entirely of the same mind. On 26th March the German ‘D-day’ for operation Weserübung—the ‘Weser’ exercise, or occupation of Norway and Denmark—was fixed for the period of the next new moon.
Meanwhile the Allies, almost equally reluctant to abandon the chance of a cheap strategic success, were haggling. The French, sensitive to the loss of ‘face’ over Finland, urged that some positive action to control Norwegian territorial waters, either by naval measures or by seizing Norwegian ports, would have a tonic effect on neutral opinion. The British countered that Scandinavian cooperation was essential, even for the most limited project; but at a meeting of the Supreme War Council on 28th March, some ground was yielded on both sides, and agreement was reached. Fresh notes were to be addressed to Norway and Sweden informing them that their interpretation of neutrality had worked against our interests: that they must not oppose us if we decided to carry aid to Finland in a future struggle: and that we reserved the right to take such measures as we though necessary to prevent vital resources flowing to Germany. This message delivered, mines were to be laid in Norwegian territorial waters along the route from Narvik, and operations were to be undertaken against German shipping thus forced out to sea. Should these measures provoke a German invasion of southern Norway, or should there be clear evidence that such an invasion was intended, and should the Norwegians then welcome our support, a few units retained from the original expeditionary force would be rushed across to occupy Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen, and to effect demolitions at Stavanger. With the Germans forestalled at the key points on the west coast, further forces could then be despatched to Norway as necessary—or as available. In all this the Royal Air Force was expected to bear no great part. ‘No air forces’, wrote the Chiefs of Staff, ‘need accompany the … army forces in the first instance. We may, however, have to despatch the air contingent which was included in the original Narvik plan, if the opportunity to move to Gallivare should subsequently arise. A decision on this can be deferred.’
The warning notes were presented to the Norwegian and Swedish governments on 5th April 1940—two days after the first supply ships of the German expeditionary have quietly set sail. The Swedes immediately complained that the British notes ‘brought our countries very
close to war’. The reply of the Norwegians was still awaited when the progress of events made it superfluous.
A few hours after the Allied notes were delivered in Oslo and Stockholm, most of the forces intended to cover the mine-laying left Scapa. The operation, scheduled for the early hours of 8th April, was to take place in two areas; one field was to be sown in the Vest Fjord, on the direct approach to Narvik, the other farther south. While the vessels for these tasks proceeded towards Norway, the troops who were to forestall the Germans at the west coast ports embarked in transports and cruisers, ready to sail, if need be, as soon as the mines were laid.
By 8th April, however, the situation had lost its pristine clarity. By that time reports of unaccustomed movements by German naval units had been coming in for many hours. On 6th April a sizable German force, including the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, had been photographed at anchor in the Wilhelmshaven roads; but in the course of the evening it sailed, and the leading ship, the cruiser Hipper, was reported during the night by Bomber Command aircraft as proceeding on a northerly course twenty miles north of Heligoland. The following morning—the 7th—Coastal Command Hudsons were ordered to search for this vessel. They spotted a cruiser and attendant destroyers on a northerly course, but were driven of by German aircraft. Their information, however, was good enough to warrant an attack, and at 1325 hours twelve Bomber Command Blenheims of No. 107 Squadron came up with the target. Unfortunately, their bombs missed; but their sighting report was of the highest value, for it now gave the composition of the force as a battleship, a pocket battleship, two or three cruisers, and a large destroyer escort. This estimate was not entirely accurate, for the force in fact consisted of two battlecruisers ( Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), a cruiser ( Hipper) and destroyer escort; but at least it was clear that a very substantial number of German warships was proceeding north. A further attempt to impeded its progress was accordingly made later in the afternoon by two squadrons of Wellingtons. Bad visibility robbed them of success.
While the Blenheims were attacking what in fact was the German expedition for the seizure of Trondheim and Narvik, a signal was on its way from the Admiralty to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet. It ran thus: ‘Recent reports suggest German expedition is being prepared. Hitler is reported from Copenhagen to have ordered unostentatious movements of one division in ten ships by night to land at Narvik with simultaneous occupation of Jutland. Sweden to
be left alone. … Date give for arrival at Narvik was 8th April.’ This was a very significant warning; so significant, that the information was also passed to the Norwegian government. It was, perhaps, a little unfortunate that the signal went on to say: ‘All these reports are of doubtful value and may well be only a further move in the war of nerves.’ Nevertheless its general purport, coupled with the news of the large German force proceeding north and the failure of our bombing attacks, determined the Commander-in-Chief to put to sea that evening in an effort to intercept the enemy. At the same time, for fear of a clash with powerful forces, the Admiralty recalled the more southerly mine-laying group. The following day—the 8th—anxious to free as many ships as possible for the forthcoming battle in the North Sea, the Admiralty turned the waiting expeditionary battalions and their stores out of the cruisers in the Forth, so that these vessels might join the fray.
When 8th April dawned, one British mine-laying expedition was thus completing its work off Narvik; another was on its way home with its mission unfulfilled; a powerful German naval force was heading north; and the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, as yet with scanty resources, was hastening east to intercept. Throughout the day, the Royal Air Force continued its efforts to throw further light on the situation. Patrols by Hudsons and Sunderlands covered as many areas and contingencies as possible, but in a day of mist and rain only one contact was made with enemy. A Sunderland of No. 204 Squadron, detailed to escort the Home Fleet in its progress east, had been diverted by the Commander-in-Chief to search for the German force. The aircraft reached the Norwegian coast, flew coast-wise to Ulla, near Kristiansund, and thence proceeded due north. Visibility at this time was no more than one to two miles in constant rain, with 10/10ths cloud at 800 feet. Suddenly the captain, who was sitting in the second pilot’s seat, saw warships about one mile ahead. Seizing the controls, he turned steeply to starboard, then ordered the second pilot to fly round the force at visibility distance. It was instantly recognized to be German and was judged to consist of a battlecruiser, two cruisers and two destroyers. Within a few minutes the flying-boat had paid for its discovery by receiving a stream of bullets in the hull and petrol tanks; but despite this damage it succeeded in drawing clear of the vessels and reporting to base their composition, course and speed. Unfortunately the course was reported without qualification as 270 degrees (due west), thought the crew of the aircraft, under fire and manoeuvring rapidly, were hardly in a position to make sure, and the second pilot disagreed with the estimate.
This report misled the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, in two important respects. The vessels in fact were the cruiser Hipper and four destroyers, which had broken off from the larger force reported earlier; and they were heading north-east for Trondheim, not west of the Atlantic. But in view of the Sunderland’s report of a powerful force steering west, and the failure of later reconnaissance that day to regain contact on account of the persistent bad weather, the Commander-in-Chief placed himself in the path of a break-out into the Atlantic. He thus remained far to the west of his quarry. Meanwhile Admiral Whitworth, who had been covering the mine-layers further north, was warned to guard the approaches to Narvik; but though he had a brush with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the two battlecruisers had already parted company with the destroyers bound for Narvik, and so the Narvik expedition itself eluded him.
This preoccupation with the German units in the North Sea, coupled with the extremely bad weather, resulted in the remaining German forces escaping detection from the air. These, as it proved, were destined for Bergen, Egersund, Kristiansand, Arendal and Oslo. But in conditions of very low visibility aircraft of Bomber Command failed to notice any unusual activity in the Heligoland Bight; while those of Coastal Command, finding visibility nil in the Skagerrak, had to return home with their task unaccomplished. Strong enemy forces were reported by the Naval Attaché in Copenhagen passing up towards the Kattegat in the afternoon of 8th April, and during the evening British submarines reported enemy vessels steering west past the tip of Jutland; but these were thought to be shaping to follow the other enemy units into the North Sea. The Norwegian government, indeed, took warning at the last moment from the fact that a German vessel bound for Bergen, and sunk by submarine, turned out be carrying large numbers of soldiers; by the time, however, that the Cabinet had met and decided upon partial mobilisation it was past 9.p. So it came about that, in spite of the many signs and portents, and in spite of our glimpses of the various task forces, the German warships achieved a large measure of surprise when, less than three hours later, they began to appear off the Norwegian ports.
The German vessels entered Norwegian territorial waters under cover of darkness. Only in Oslo Fjord, where the minelayer Olaf Trygvesson damaged the Emden, and a stiff fight off the island fortress of Oskarsborg disposed of the Blücher, were the enemy’s plans disrupted. Elsewhere the German Navy, despite gallant opposition by Norwegian ships, had matters all its own way. Arendal and Egersund, almost undefended, were there for the taking; at Kristiansand the
first attack was beaten off, but enemy destroyers later gained an unopposed entry by flying the French flag; at Bergen merchant vessels lying peacefully in harbour suddenly ran up the Swastika and revealed themselves as supply ships for the expedition; at Trondheim the batteries at the entrance to the fjord were undermanned, short of ammunition, and baffled by a snow-storm; at Narvik the bravery of the Norwegian naval units was stultified by the treachery of the local military commander—a supporter of Quisling—who handed over the town without resistance. Everywhere brutal force and base cunning swiftly attained their ends.
By daybreak on 9th April, despite the failure of the attack upon Oslo Fjord, the German Minister had presented himself at the Norwegian Foreign Office to demand the country’s instant capitulation. Meanwhile an impressive bonfire of documents in the gardens of the British Legation was being extinguished with great promptitude by the Oslo Fire Brigade. Three hours later the Luftwaffe, somewhat delayed by fog, appeared on the scene. For Weserübung nearly six hundred operational and over six hundred transport aircraft had been made available, and powerful forces of twin-engined fighters now swept in and overwhelmed the small Norwegian Air Force at Stavanger/Sola and Oslo/Fornebu airfields. Next came clouds of parachutists, to be followed almost immediately by airborne infantry; indeed, at Fornebu some of the aircraft bearing the latter actually landed before the paratroops—the one mishap in an otherwise perfectly timed programme. By midday Oslo/Kjeller airfield was also in enemy hands, and both at Oslo and Stavanger/Sola—which was captured entirely from the air—transport aircraft were streaming in with men and supplies, while bombers, fighters and reconnaissance machines were already taking off in support of the German troops. During the afternoon enemy forces moved into Oslo itself and by nightfall the German stranglehold was complete. Within a few hour King Haakon and his Cabinet, having appealed to the Allies and rejected the German demand to surrender power to Quisling, were vainly seeking some stable seat of government north of Oslo. From successive refuges they now strove to mobilize their army—a desperately difficult task with the capital, the main railway terminals and the chief ports all in German hands. Meanwhile the almost bloodless occupation of Denmark had assured German of easy access by air and sea to the new theatre of war.
The full implications of the enemy’s initial success were not at first generally appreciated in England. Instead, there was some tendency
to believe that, since Hitler had committed his forces across the water, and since Britannia ruled the waves, German communications would be rapidly severed and the whole expeditionary brought to disaster. Unfortunately such agreeable anticipations were to be quickly dashed to the ground. For the regrettable truth of the matter was that the sea routes from German and Denmark to southern Norway were controlled, not by the Royal Navy, but by the German Navy and the German Air Force: that the Germans had seized control of every airfield and port of consequence in the whole of Norway: and that the Luftwaffe was now either based in Norway or could refuel there, or could operate from Danish bases no more than 200 miles away. The Allies, on the other hand, were faced with the problem of operating over sea lines of communication anything from 600 to 1,000 miles lone; and they would be compelled to rely—unless they could recapture a major port—on tiny harbours and exiguous railways. Without airfields in a country in which there were few natural landing grounds, Britain and France could not possibly bring to bear anything like the weight of air effort which the Germans were capable of applying. Once, then, the enemy had succeeded in his first swift blows, the situation was in fact highly unpromising.
While the Allies concerted their military plans, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy took what immediate measures were possible. The first concern was to hunt down the German warships which had been engaged in the expedition, and which were under orders to return go their home ports as soon as they had discharged their troops and stores. From 9th April to 12th April Coastal Command accordingly strained every nerve to spot the enemy vessels. On 9th April, though tasks in other areas were not neglected, coastal aircraft flew extensive patrols over a large part of the North Sea and the Norwegian coast and repeatedly reconnoitred the occupied ports. Five sorties were over Bergen during the day, confirming the presence of two cruisers—the Köln and the Königsberg1; two sorties reports a light cruiser—the Karlsruhe—in Kristiansand; and a Sunderland of No. 204 Squadron confirmed the presence of another cruiser—the Hipper—in Trondheim. Urgent naval requests also led to the despatch of a Sunderland—the only coastal aircraft with the necessary range—on a task which was particularly unsuitable for a flying boat; for the crew were instructed to make landfall at German-occupied Stavanger, cross the 150-odd miles of mountains to Oslo, and search for naval vessels in the neighbouring fjords. Not unexpectedly, the aircraft ‘failed to return’.
Acting on the information thus gathered, Bomber Command rapidly despatched twelve Wellingtons of Nos. 9 and 115 Squadrons against the two cruisers at Bergen. Their attack, according to the enemy, was ‘vigorously pressed home’, but it resulted in nothing better than some near misses and a few wounded German sailors. The Köln made good her escape that evening, but the Königsberg had been damaged by the Norwegian shore batteries during her approach; and after a dawn reconnaissance by an aircraft of Coastal Command had established that she was still there the following morning—April 10th—Fleet Air Arm Skuas from Hatston caught her with two well and truly aimed bombs, and so earned the distinction of being the first aircraft to sink a major warship in battle. Apart from this, the Karlsruhe, sailing from Kristiansand in the evening of 9th April, was sunk by a British submarine; and the destroyers which had carried the landing parties to Narvik were disposed of by the naval actions of 10th and 13th April. Almost all the remaining German naval forces regained their home ports in safety. Early in the morning of the 12th the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau—now joined by the Hipper, which had left Trondheim on the night of the 10/11th—were picked up by Hudsons of Coastal Command off the south-west coast of Norway; but the striking forces despatch the same day, amounting in all to ninety-two aircraft, were once more frustrated by the weather. As a last resort twelve of these machines—Hampdens of Nos. 44 and 50 Squadrons—tried to attack a warship in Kristiansand. They were caught by German fighters, and having no defence against a beam attack were ‘hacked down from the wing man inwards’ until half their number had perished.
Thus ended the first phase of the invasion of Norway. The German Navy had got there in safety; had landed enough troops and supplies to capture all the key points; and had subsequently suffered loses which were severe in relation to German naval strength, but insignificant when weighed against the hazards, and the success, of the venture. The Allies could take consolation, however, from the fact that the most daring part of the stroke could not be repeated. Though the German troops in southern Norway could be supplied both by sea and air, the Luftwaffe alone must revictual the isolated units at Trondheim and Narvik. And supply on this scale purely by air, if it was accomplished, would mark a new achievement in the history of warfare.
The attempt to bomb the German Navy on its return voyage having failed, our air attacks were now convinced against the German-held airfields. Of these, the most immediately important to
the enemy was Oslo/Fornebu, since the main German advance northwards would be directed from that area. As far as our own needs were concerned, however, the most important was the ill-developed but commodious landing ground at Vaernes, near Trondheim; for whereas Allied forces could not possibly sail through the Skagerrak and land near Oslo, they had ever prospect of securing a lodgement in the neighbourhood of Trondheim. Moreover, Trondheim was perhaps the best centre of communication for the country as a whole; it was the third largest port in Norway; and the German force in occupation was both small and isolated. To put the Luftwaffe out of business at Vaernes would therefore be of the utmost benefit to our plans. Unfortunately, however, neither Fornebu nor Vaernes was within the effective striking distance of our daylight bombers; the former was 580 miles away from our nearest bomber bases, the latter 760 miles. Only the Whitleys could strike at this range without undue risk, and these had to operate by night, when the chances of identifying an airfield in Norway were slender. The result was that our main air effort came to be directed against the airfield which was easiest to reach, to locate, and to attack—that of Stavanger/Sola, where for once the mountains of Norway sweep down, not to the sea, but to an open coastal flat.
Stavanger/Sola, 450 miles from our bomber bases on the east coast, was raided for the first time of 11/12th April, and more heavily on 14th April. Thereafter it was bombed regularly; for by 14th April British forces were landing on Norwegian soil, and the bombing of Stavanger was one of the few available means of reducing the weight of German air attack against them.
The key to recovery in Norway was of course Trondheim. If we could recapture this large and flourishing port, with Vaernes airfield no great distance away, the northern half of Norway could almost certainly be held—for near Trondheim the country narrow sharply, and the distance across to Sweden is only sixty miles. Forces could then be built up for a subsequent advance to the south. With this in mind, and with the knowledge that the German troops in possession numbered as yet no more than two thousand, the Norwegians therefore urged the Allies to undertake an immediate and direct assault. But an operation of this kind could not be carried out without heavy losses among our ships, and though the plan was adopted in principle it was not applied. Instead a beginning was made with a subsidiary movement—an overland advance on Trondheim from two directions. One wing of this was to land at the small harbour of Namsos, 125 north of Trondheim, the other at the equally small harbour of Aandalsnes, 200 miles by road to the south.
Meanwhile, a third and entirely independent force was to recapture the remote and isolated port of Narvik.
The first naval party put ashore at Namsos on 14th April. The same day British forces began to land near Harstad in Vaags Fjord, the base selected for operations against Narvik; and on 17th April an advanced party disembarked at Aandalsnes. All these landings were unopposed, and since some initial progress was quickly made from Namsos and Aandalsnes the plan of a direct assault on Trondheim up the fjords was abandoned with relief, and all efforts were concentrated on the advance over land.
The troops at Namsos were under the command of Major General Carton de Wiart, V.C., a soldier whose gallantry from the day of the Boer War onwards had become almost a legend. De Wiart, who arrived by Sunderland flying-boat on 15th April to the accompaniment of German bombs, lost no time in pushing forces south through the vital defile of Steinkjer. A halt then ensued while further troops—a French demi-brigade—were brought into Namsos on 19th April. But the Frenchmen were no sooner landed and the ships withdrawn than the Luftwaffe, whose activities over this area had thus far been sporadic, appeared on the scene in strength. In the absence of anti-aircraft defences their task was not difficult, and by nightfall on 20th April Namsos was virtually destroyed. ‘The whole place’, wrote a naval eyewitness, ‘was a mass of flames from end to end, and the glare on the snows of the surrounding mountains produced an unforgettable spectacle’. The railway station, the rolling stock and the storehouses on the jetties all suffered in the general devastation, and the road transport disappeared with the evacuating Norwegian population.
The lesson of this was not lost on de Wiart. The following morning he signalled the War Office ‘I see little chance of carrying out decisive, or indeed, any operations, unless enemy air activity is considerably restricted’. Two days later, after German forces shipped along the fjords from Trondheim had landed on the flank of his advanced troops, and after the Luftwaffe had twice subjected the forward units and the town of Steinkjer to the same treatment as the base at Namsos, de Wiart put it more strongly—that there was ‘no alternative to evacuation’ unless he could have superiority in the air. From this point onwards the General could act only on the defensive, and his best hope, that when the order to withdraw was given, was that he would succeed in getting his forces back on Namsos. The advance on Trondheim from the north had failed.
Meanwhile, the other jaw of the would-be pincers was trying in vain to operate from Aandalsnes. The first formation to land
consisted of some sixteen hundred men, containing a very high proportion of raw troops and a very low proportion of transport and guns. Before advancing north the brigade was ordered to secure the vital junction of Dombaas, where the railway from Oslo divides for Aandalsnes and Trondheim. The bulk of the Norwegian army was at this time well south of the junction, fighting a stout delaying action against the main German drive from Oslo; and if this advance could be halted before it reached Dombaas our own movement towards Trondheim could be conducted without interference. But the hard-pressed Norwegians were naturally reluctant to see our troops merely consolidating a position in their rear, and it was to meet their requests that Brigadier Morgan pushed his men well down the valley past Dombaas to the advanced positions around Lillehammer. Before our men were properly established in the line, however, the forward Norwegian troops had been driven back. At the limit of endurance they succumbed to the combined assault of German land and forces; for the pilots of the Luftwaffe, taking advantage of a settled spell of fine weather most unusual in Norway at this time of the year, were flying up and down the snow-bound valleys at will, selecting their targets with the greatest deliberation. The full shock therefore fell on Morgan’s brigade, who at first fared little or no better than the Norwegians. While they strove to restore the situation, a second brigade which had been landed at Aandalsnes was rushed down to give them support. The Aandalsnes expedition, so far from driving north against Trondheim, was thus desperately engaged in trying to hold off the Germans to the south.
While our troops were struggling to establish themselves in central Norway the Royal Air Force had not been idle. It had repeatedly bombed Stavanger/Sola airfield; it had attempted the more difficult tasks of bombing the two vital airfields at extreme range—Trondheim/Vaernes and Oslo/Fornebu; and it had made its first attacks on the Danish airfield at Aalborg, of which the enemy was making great use. It had not, however, attacked airfields in German, of which the enemy was making even greater use—for the policy of not provoking German air action against this country was still maintained. Nearly two hundred sorties were flown against the airfields in Norway and Denmark between 14th and 21st April; but the distance was considerable, the weather over the North Sea often unfavourable, and the enemy defences too strong to allow our aircraft to operate except by night or under cover of cloud. The net effect on German air activity over Norway was therefore small.
The Royal Air Force had also joined battle against the enemy’s sea communications. Beginning on the night of 13/14th April our
aircraft had laid magnetic mines in the Great and Little Belts, the Sound, the Kiel Canal, the Elbe estuary, and many other areas which our ships could not approach. Though undoubtedly less dangerous than operating over Germany, this was by no means easy work. The flights were long, and might the aircraft to such hotly defend places as the Kiel Canal or Oslo Fjord; the mines, weighing fifteen hundred pounds each and attached to a parachute, had to be dropped from only five hundred feet or so above the water; and in thick weather there was every likelihood of having to turn back and land with the mines still on. By the end of April Bomber Command’s Hampdens had sown 110 mines at a cost of seven aircraft, which others had been laid by Coastal Command, the Fleet Air Arm and the submarines. All this was to prove very profitable in the long run, but it was certainly not decisive for the campaign in Norway. In fact, the enemy took across everything he wanted. Between mid-April and mid-June the Germans lost on the Norwegian route only eight or nine per cent of their shipping and only 1,000 of the 100,000 officers and men transported.
The mining and the attacks on airfields had their value, but it was not apparent to troops who were spending their time dodging German bombs. Our men in Norway, ludicrously short of anti-aircraft guns, were also desperately in need of fighter protection. The problem was easier stated than solved. No Royal Air Force units had been detailed for central Norway; all known airfields had been seized by the enemy; and emergency landing grounds could hardly be constructed with any great speed in mountainous country several feet under snow. To achieve what was possible in the circumstances, the aircraft carriers Glorious and Ark Royal were recalled from the Mediterranean and despatched on 23rd April to give support off Namsos and Aandalsnes; and on board the Glorious went one fighter squadron of the Royal Air Force. It was No. 263, from Filton; it was chosen because its obsolescent Gladiator biplanes could operate from small landing grounds.
The selection of an operation site for the Gladiators had been no easy task. In that wild and mountainous country, where a forced landing is an impossibility and the parachute is the pilot’s sole hope in emergency, only a frozen lake offered any chance of a flat surface. At Lake Vangsmjösa, where there was very little snow, some remnants of the Norwegian Air Force were operating off skis. To Squadron Leader Whitney Straight, who had been sent to explore the district, the best solution the best solution seemed for the Gladiators to join the Norwegians there; but the Chiefs of Staff rejected the recommendation on the ground that the site was exposed to a German advance and could be
supplied only a separate and dangerous route. Instead, they approved Straight’s second choice, Lake Lesjaskog, which lies in the valley connecting Aandalsnes and Dombaas, and was therefore along our existing lines—or line—of communication. This decision taken, Straight at once got down to business. Within two hours of his arrival at Lesjaskog he had 200 civilians—an almost incredible number in a place so sparsely populated—hard at work on the task of clearing a runway through the two feet of snow that covered the ice.2
Shortly before midnight on 22nd April a Royal Air Force advanced party under Wing Commander Keens arrived at Aandalsnes. Its function, until a full Royal Air Force Headquarters could be set up, was to establish a base at the port and servicing facilities at Lake Lesjaskog. The night was spent in clearing stores from the jetty, and the following morning some of the servicing facilities at Lake Lesjaskog. The night was spent in clear stores from the jetty, and the following morning some of the servicing party proceeded up the valley of the lake. There they arranged fuel dumps around the newly cleared runway and in the woods which go down to the water’s edge. Twenty-four hours later, at midnight on the 23rd, the servicing equipment arrived at Aandalsnes. It was rapidly unloaded, but only two lorries—impressed form the local population, for the British authorities had none—were available to transport it up to the valley to the lake. Only the most vital items could go forward; and this meant opening every box to examine its contents, since no schedule of equipment had been provided. But by midday on the 24th the equipment had been provided. But by midday on the 24th the essential gear and the remainder of the servicing flight had left for the lake, and during the afternoon Wing Commander Keens signalled the waiting carrier—by way of the Air Ministry—that the Gladiators could land at 1800 hours.
When the time came for Squadron Leader Donaldson, the Commanding Officer of No. 263 Squadron, to fly his aircraft off, the Glorious was 180 miles from the shore in the thick of a heavy snowstorm. Donaldson was a brave man, but he had little relish for the task that lay before him; for his squadron, with four maps between them and no more navigational facilities than those usually to be
found in fighters, had to make their first take-off from the deck of a carrier, locate in poor visibility an unknown spot set among mountains, and land on ice. He asked the captain if a Fleet Air Arm Skua might lead the squadron to the lake. The request was readily granted; the eighteen Gladiators flew off without mishap and without mishap they landed on Lake Lesjaskog.
What they found at Lesjaskog might have dismayed less cheerful hearts. The valley being wide at this point, there was no difficulty about the approach, and the single road and railway from Aandalsnes ran close to the lake. But the prepared runway was some distance from the shore, for the ice at the edges was already beginning to melt; the only transport available to take stores from the road to the runway was an occasional horse-drawn sledge; the servicing party, designed and equipped simply to operate until the squadron ground staff arrived, had no petrol-bowser and only two refuelling troughs; the starter trolley batteries were uncharged and had no acid; and there was no warning system to report the approach of hostile aircraft. It was to conditions of this sort that the Gladiators arrived, in a district over which German aircraft swarmed at will; indeed, the preparations on the lake had already been systematically observed by the enemy. But, though their Commanding Officer had noted with apprehension the bomb damage along the railway, the pilots of No. 263 Squadron were far from downcast. They were young, they were amid the glittering beauty of the snow and the ice and the stars, they were comfortably housed in the little summer hotel nearby, they were at last on the threshold of action, they were superbly cheerful. They would have been still more cheerful that evening but for the bore of having to disperse their aircraft. Their outlook was that of the British solider in Aandalsnes who, seeing them fly over on their way to the lake, remarked to a local inhabitant, ‘Here come our fighters—no more German bombers now’.
The dawn brought swift disillusion. The Gladiators were put up a patrol over the Dombaas area at 0300 hours. But the sharp frost of the spring night had frozen the carburettors and the controls, and ice locked the wheels to the runway. Only after two hours’ struggle did the first pair of aircraft get off the lake and proceed to Dombaas, where their appearance over our lines put fresh heart into the troops. Meanwhile, the desperate efforts of the squadron to start up the rest of the Gladiators were surveyed by two German aircraft, which dropped a few ineffectual bombs. Two hours later the serious business began. In relays of threes, unescorted Ju.88s and He.111s returned again and again, while the engines of the Gladiators still defied attempts to wake them to life. At length some accumulators
were commandeered from passing lorries, and under attack from bombs and machine-guns two more Gladiators managed to start up and take off. While they circled the lake others succeeded in joining them, and from then on the squadron was able to give a good account of itself. Starting up, however, was merely the first of its difficulties; for the part included only one armourer, and with the limited equipment available and the enemy constantly overhead, refuelling and re-arming was a painful, lengthy and dangerous process. Such conditions could have only one end. Despite the pilots’ best effort in the air and despite the heroic work of a small naval party manning two Oerlikon guns near the lake, by midday ten of the eighteen Gladiators had been put out of action on the ground.
It says everything for the pilots of the squadron that in conditions such as these they were able to make upwards of thirty sorties during the day, to fight many combats, and to shoot down several of the enemy. But one day was enough. Towards evening, when the runway as well as the squadron was virtually destroyed, the Squadron Commander flew down to Setnesmoen, near Aandalsnes, and landed on a small plateau which was being hastily cleared as an emergency landing ground. Finding it reasonably satisfactory, and well placed to reflect the base, if far removed from the front line, he ordered the four remaining Gladiators to join him. During the night the few available lorries brought down to the coast such fuel, stores and ammunition as remained; and when the morning sun rose on Lesjaskog, it revealed only a scene of smashed and splintered ice, broken trees and burnt-out aircraft.3
From Setnesmoen on 26th April the surviving Gladiators made their last effort. Between them the five carried out a useful reconnaissance and a patrol over the forward lines; then there were three. These three attempted to engage the German aircraft which attacked Aandalsnes at leisure throughout the day, but with no oxygen the pilots were completely unable to operate at the 20,000 feet from which the enemy, respecting their presence, chose to bomb. Finally, one Gladiator alone remained doubtfully serviceable; and for this there was no petrol. Nothing remained but to withdraw the pilots in a cargo vessel. Surviving several attacks from German bombers they reached Scapa Flow safely on 1st May—exactly ten days after they had sailed to Norway from the same place. Their adventure had been
brief, and expensive in aircraft, but at least well rewarded in experience. For the story of No. 263 Squadron as Lesjaskog will forever stand witness to the futility of exposing a handful of machines, with hastily contrived and inadequate arrangements on the ground, to the full blast of operations by a powerful enemy.
The destruction of No. 263 Squadron meant that there was now little hope of keeping Aandalsnes in use; for the gallant and skilful work of the Fleet Air Arm pilots of the Glorious between 24th April and 27th April could not avail to save the base from the frightful effects of German air superiority. In the words of the naval officer in charge, ‘… the wooden quays destroyed, the area surrounding the single concrete quay devastated by fire, the roads pitted by bomb craters and disintegrated by the combined effect of heavy traffic and melting snow, the recurrent damage to the railway, the machine-gunning of road traffic—all made it patent to those on the spot that it was only a question of time for the port activities to diminish to such an extent that the line of communication could not be maintained.’ With the neighbouring port of Molde in no better case, our ships in harbour in constant danger, and Namsos—despite fine work by the aircraft of the Ark Royal—as badly hit as Aandalsnes, the end was indeed certain. Though everywhere hard-pressed and withdrawing, our troops in contact with enemy ground forces could have held on longer; it was the air bombardment of their bases which threatened disaster complete and irreparable. Recognizing this, Lieutenant-General Massy, the Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force—whose headquarters were still in London—regarded the destruction of No. 263 Squadron as decisive; almost as soon as he heard of it, on 27th April, he advised the Chiefs of Staff to abandon the entire Central Norwegian project. The following day the local commanders received the order to withdrawn their forces.
The function of the Royal Air Force during the evacuation was to reduce the enemy’s air activity by bombing his airfields, and to give what cover it could to the withdrawal from Aandalsnes. The second part of this task demanded what we so conspicuously lacked at the time—a good long-range fighter. The makeshift Blenheim fighter was all that we could boast in this category; and of these only one squadron was available for operations. The intention was that these aircraft should land and refuel at Setnesmoen, but before they could do so the Luftwaffe had put the landing ground out of action. All operations were accordingly carried out from this country, with the result that each sortie could spend no more than an hour near Aandalsnes. As for Namsos, this was quite beyond the range of any Royal Air Force fighters; but protection was to be given by the
Ark Royal and the Glorious, which had returned home to refuel and were due back off Norway on 1st May.
In accordance with this plan Bomber Command attacked Stavanger/Sola and Oslo/Fornebu airfields by day and night throughout the entire period of the evacuation, besides directing a less number of sorties against the Danish airfields of Aalborg and Rye. The heaviest raid was on the night of 30th April/1st May, when twenty-eight Wellingtons and Whitleys bombed Stavanger at a cost of five aircraft. This effort, coming on top of those already undertaken, had its effect, for by 1st May the Germans were confining the use of the surface to emergency landings. During the critical days the weight of enemy air attack on Aandalsnes and Namsos was therefore materially less. All the same, there was plenty of activity against our ships at sea—so much, in fact, that when the two aircraft carriers duly reappeared off Norway on 1st May, and were promptly selected for special attention by the Luftwaffe, they were soon ordered home. this meant that our forces had to make good their escape from Namsos with no air cover whatsoever.
In spite of the scanty measure of protection that could be supplied by the Blenheims the evacuation from Aandalsnes went well. The enemy air force made no attempt to interfere with the embarkation during the hours of darkness, the final parties were cleared on the night of 1st/2nd May, and all vessels reached British ports safely. Up to this point the Germans, strangely enough, seem to have been unaware of our intentions; having captured the plan for building up our forces through Aandalsnes, they perhaps imagined that we were still coming, not going. But on 2nd May, before de Wiart’s men at Namsos had even begun to embark, Chamberlain announced in the House that we had withdrawn from Aandalsnes. The inference that we might also be withdrawing from Namsos was not difficult to make, and perhaps because of this the Luftwaffe was able to subject the Allied convoys to repeated assaults on their homeward passage. Two destroyers were sunk. Only when our ships came within the orbit of Coastal Command did the attacks.
While Central Norway was witnessing the first of those evacuation which were to feature so prominently in our military efforts during 1940 and 1941, the expedition in the North was in a fair way to success. For whereas Namsos and Aandalsnes were within easy reach of airfields held by the enemy, Narvik was not.
The port of Narvik is some 600 miles north of Oslo as the aeroplane flies, and 400 miles north of Trondheim. Within the Arctic circle and
set amidst mountains wild to the last degree, it gives the impression of some desperate triumph of man over nature. The port remains open throughout the year, but between September and the beginning of May the country is entirely covered with snow and ice, and in mid-winter the only light of day consists of two hours of murk and gloom. Remote and inhospitable, Narvik has few communications with southern Norway: the single track railway runs directly east to the Swedish ore fields, and the traveller who attempts the journey south by road—if road it may be called—faces the prospect of shipping his car across several fjords. Even the all-conquering aeroplane which bids fair to ‘put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes’, is at a disadvantage. A flight between North and South Norway is usually marked by swift and treacherous changes of weather which may spell death to the airman who ventures on; great down-draughts snatch at the aircraft as it tops the mountain peaks or noses its way through the defiles; and there are few places within fifty miles of Narvik where anything other than a float-plane or flying-boat could possibly alight. Of such landing grounds as there were in 1940, though one or two of them were normally occupied by small detachments of the Norwegian Air Force, none could be dignified with the name of airfield.
The British element of the Narvik expedition sailed on 12th April ,a few hours before Admiral Whitworth disposed of the German destroyers by his action in the fjords. The military commander was Major General Mackesy, who instructions were to establish a base at Harstad, a small fishing port on an island in Vaags Fjord, fifty-five miles by sea from Narvik. When the news of Whitworth’s victory reached the commander of the naval forces, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery, he at once proposed that the Harstad project should be cancelled in favour of an immediate and direct assault on Narvik; but the suggestion made on appeal to Mackesy, whose brigade had embarked for an unopposed landing, had been neither trained nor equipped for movement over snow, and would have had to advance unsupported through snow waist deep in the face of enemy gunfire. Although the German forces at Narvik were small, our troops therefore landed, as originally intended, at Harstad. A plan was then made to capture the ground north and south of the peninsula on which Narvik stands so that the port itself might be taken from the rear. This involved waiting for reinforcements—and the thaw.
The reinforcements, consisting of French Alpine troops under General Béthouart, Foreign Legionaries and Poles, began to arrive on 27th April. Thus far, enemy aircraft had not been unduly troublesome
– many of those that appeared were float-planes carrying stores. With the Luftwaffe rapidly establishing itself at Trondheim/Vaernes airfield, however, we could soon expect attack of a far heavier order—attack which could be countered only by land-based fighters. While the Allied troops improved their positions, two Royal Air Force officers, of whom the senior was Wing Commander R. K. R. Atcherley, were accordingly sent out from England to examine the landing grounds—or sites for landing grounds—in the neighbourhood of Narvik.
The arrival of Atcherley’s Sunderland at Harstad coincided with an enemy air raid, which it inadvertently scared away. After reporting to General Mackesy, whom he found in a half-dressed state retrieving possessions from the headquarters building, which had just been hit, Atcherley went onto explain his mission to the local Norwegian Army Commander. His reception was not encouraging. The news of the evacuation of Aandalsnes had just reached the Norwegian forces in the north, and Atcherley was asked to sign a formal undertaking not only that large quantities of British supplies would be available for the Norwegians but also that the Royal Air Force did not intend (in Atcherley’s phrase) ‘to cut and run’. Eventually the General was pacified—the Staff Officer bearing his representations apparently succumbed to a judicious mixture of eloquence and whisky from Lord Cork—and the reconnaissance proceeded. Deep snow made the task one of the utmost difficulty, but fortunately the Norwegians placed a ship, and Lord Cork a Walrus Amphibian at Atcherley’s disposal. Even so, the searchers were compelled to confine their investigation to places of good local report. In the end the most promising sites were found to be the existing Norwegian landing grounds at Bardufoss and Banak, and some undeveloped ground at Skaanland. The last of these was the best placed geographically, being only fifteen miles by air from Harstad and twenty-five from Narvik. Bardufoss, at fifty-five and fifty miles respectively, was also within fighter range of both base and objective; but Banak, over two hundred miles north-east of Narvik, would be useful only for bombers.
What was achieved at Bardufoss gives some idea of the appalling obstacles that were overcome. The local authorities having gathered together an impressive, if predominantly amateur, labour force (first of Norwegian territorials and later of civilians) on 4th May work began. Atcherley was in charge, and he was assisted by technical officers of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Engineers and the Norwegian Army. With daylight almost continuous, and a thousand men to call on—after a broadcast appeal,
volunteers, according to Atcherley, ‘rolled up in their hundreds’—work proceeded for twenty hours out of twenty-four. First, the two existing landing strips, 715 by 95 yards, were cleared of snow five feet deep This meant not merely moving the snow aside, but taking it some distance away—otherwise the advent of the thaw would have spelled disaster. Then the six-inch layer of ice beneath the snow was attacked with pick and gelignite. The soil being at last exposed to view, more drains were dug, soft spots of clay were cut out and filled with gravel, and the whole surface was flattened by means of a roller made from two forty-gallon drums welded together and filled with concrete. After this the better of the two runways was extended to 1,000 yards—a task which involved clearing bush and felling trees. It was scarcely completed when the thaw arrived. Only mass digging of the most feverish kind prevented torrents of water engulfing the newly cleared surface.
All this was but part of the undertaking, for Atcherley, warned by the Air Ministry of the vital necessity of protective measures, was determined to avoid another fiasco on the lines of that at Lesjaskog. Four taxying lanes, each eight yards wide, were cut from the runway to the heart of the woods surrounding the landing ground; snow, ice, trees, bushes, moss and top surface were all cleared, and the whole laid with gravel. Blast-proof pens made from double lines of tree trunks filled with gravel were built for the aircraft, camouflaged, and connected by satellite lanes to the taxi tracks. Shelters of a still stronger kind, dug down to a depth of five feet, were constructed for the men, both in the woods and at convenient points near the runway. Twenty miles of road leading the nearest fjord was cleared and repaired. Two hundred hastily recruited mules speeded the painful progress of supplies.
The crises which arose in the course of these Herculean labours were frequent and acute. Food gave out, there were too few tools, the weekly Walrus failed to arrive from Harstad the drop the labourers’ wages. But every setback was triumphantly overcome by the combined efforts of the three Services and the Norwegians, and within the incredibly short space of three weeks Bardufoss was fit for use. Skaanland, too, was declared ready; while at Banak all difficulties yielded before the cheerful onslaught of a thousand Lapps under the inspired direction of one British able seaman.
All this time the headquarters of somewhat grandiloquently styled Royal Air Force Components of the North-Western Expeditionary Force was waiting to sail. Formed at Uxbridge on 22nd April under the command of Group Captain M. Moore, it was originally designed to control air operations both in central and
northern Norway. With their field of activity now confined to the Narvik area, the headquarters staff sailed on 7th May. The same vessel carried Lieutenant-General Auchinlek, whose instructions were to assume command (if he thought fit) of the Allied troops, and to report on the forces needed for the tasks of holding northern Norway as the seat of King Haakon’s government, stopping German supplies of iron-ore through Narvik, and interfering with shipments from Luleå. The General landed at Harstad on 11th May, just twenty-four hours after the German invasion of France and the Low Countries had knocked the bottom out of his mission.
The threat of a German offensive in the West had throughout gravely handicapped Allied efforts in Scandinavia. Now the act proved decisive. The forces which Auchinleck considered necessary to hold northern Norway—he dismissed as impracticable any idea of interfering with the ore shipments from Luleå—included seventeen infantry battalions, one hundred and four heavy and ninety-six light anti-aircraft guns, and four squadrons of aircraft. These could not possibly be spared at a time when the Allied armies were reeling under the impact of the German blows in Belgium and France. Even the small but steady effort of Bomber Command against the enemy-occupied airfields in Norway and Denmark had now to be abandoned in favour of sterner tasks elsewhere. So, when the Chief of Staff made their final survey on 21st May—it was on the day on which the enemy first gazed across the English Channel at his next objective—their summary of the position was very clear: ‘The security of France and the United Kingdom is essential; the retention of northern Norway is not.’ They accordingly recommended to the War Cabinet that the Allied force should proceed to capture Narvik, that the harbour and its installations should be demolished, and that the expedition should be withdrawn.
It was while these matters were approaching decision in London that No. 263 Squadron, with a fresh supply of Gladiators, once more appeared on the Norwegian scene. The pilots had sailed in the Furious on 14th May, and had spent some days waiting offshore while the final preparations were made at Bardufoss. In the early morning of 21st May the first flight took off. But visibility was no more than three hundred yards, the savage outlines of the coastal peaks were obscured by low cloud, and the navigating Swordfish, slightly off course, led the first section straight into a mountain side. Two of the Gladiators crashed, and the pilot of a third saved himself only by turning violently as the white and black mass suddenly loomed up before him; the remainder turned back to face the further
peril of their first deck landing—assuming they could find the carrier. Fortunately all landed safely. The next day, in better weather, the Squadron establish itself successfully at Bardufoss and flew nearly fifty sorties before the brief Arctic twilight called a halt to operations.
By this time the Allied ground forces were well enough placed—numerically, administratively and geographically—to make their attack on Narvik. The enemy’s frequent air attacks, mounted from Trondheim/Vaernes (and its neighbouring fjords) 400 miles to the south, had made matters unpleasant for our ships, but had not prevented our forces gather strength. Before long, however, these attacks might be many times heavier; for German troops were forcing their way up the coast from Trondheim towards Bodö, where there was flat ground suitable for an airfield within thirty minutes’ flight of Narvik. Tactical as well as strategic considerations therefore dictated an immediate move by the Allied forces. Advanced detachments accordingly attempted to hold the enemy south of Bodö while the assault on Narvik was prepared. The thaw had arrived, and the attack was to begin as soon as the rest of the fighters assigned to the expedition—the Hurricanes of No. 46 Squadron—were established at Skaanland.
The Hurricanes had already made the passage to northern Norway with No. 263 Squadron, and had been sent back because Skaanland was not then ready. They returned to Norway in the Glorious on 26th May. When they came in to land at Skaanland they found the runway soft and patchy, and after three aircraft had gone up on their noses the remainder of the squadron was ordered to join No. 263 at Bardufoss. This meant that both squadrons had to face some fifty miles of mountain mist and cloud before they could appear over Harstad, Narvik or the fleet anchorage at Skaanland. But distance and climate were by no means the only obstacles to efficient operation. A fighter depends not merely on its own powers of performance but on information of the enemy’s movements; and in Norway arrangements for reporting enemy aircraft were primitive in the extreme. the nature of the coast was such that radar could not be installed without the most prolonged trials; the Royal Air Force and Norwegian observer posts, valuable as they were, possessed in such country an extremely restricted field of view; and the W/T and the R/T then in use were ineffective among high iron-bound mountains. Reports over the ordinary telephone system from the observer posts provided useful warning at Harstad and Bardufoss; but the information they gave was neither quick nor continuous enough for fighters to be controlled from the ground, even had the R/T worked
properly. For the most part our aircraft were thus forced to rely on the wasteful method of standing patrols.
Despite all these handicaps, No. 263 Squadron had already enjoyed considerable success by the time it was joined by No. 46. For several days the Gladiators had kept up a daily average of over forty sorties to the benefit of Harstad, Skaanland and their own base. What spirit animated their pilots may be seen from one brief episode. At midday on 26th May three Gladiators took off from Bardufoss for Bodö, where a hastily prepared landing ground was now available for the support of our troops resisting the German advance north. The leader was Flight Lieutenant Caesar Hull, an extraordinarily skilful pilot and a lively character for whom, in the words of a fellow-pilot, ‘every night was guest night’; the other two aircraft were flown by Pilot Officer Jack Falkson and Lieutenant Anthony Lydekker, a Fleet Air Arm armament officer with flying experience, who had volunteered to take the place of a sick pilot during the voyage out to Norway. After surviving a few shots from two passing He.111s en route, the three Gladiators came in to land on the newly constructed runway. They were immediately caught fast in the mud. Frantic taxying brought them to somewhat drier soil, the aircraft were eventually refuelled from four-gallon tins, and the softest patches in the runway were laboriously covered with wooden snow-boards. While this as going on a He.111 appeared on the scene. Disregarding the state of the runway, Lydekker, whose tanks were less full than others, promptly got his aircraft off the ground and engaged. Then Hull and Falkson, who had meanwhile been briefed by Wing Command Maxton, the officer in charge of the landing ground, prepared to follow. Hull’s diary records the events of the new few hours:–
The Wing Commander explained that the Army were retreating up a valley east of Bodö, and were being strafed by the Huns all day. Sounded too easy, so I took off just as another Heinkel 111 circled the aerodrome. God! What a take-off! Came unstuck about fifty yards from the end and just staggered over the trees. Jack followed and crashed. I though the expedition was doomed to failure and that I had better to as much damage as I could before landing again to told Tony to land over the blower, and set off towards the valley.
Saw some smoke rising, so investigated, and found a Heinkel 111 at about 600 feet. Attacked it three times, and it turned south with smoke pouring from fuselage and engines. Broke off attack to engage a Junkers 52, which crashed in flames. Saw Heinkel 111 flying south, tried to intercept and failed. Returned and attacked two Junkers 52s in formation, Number one went into clouds, number two crashed in flames after six people had baled out.
Attacked Heinkel 111 and drive it south with smoke pouring from it. Ammunition finished, so returned to base. The troops were very cheered by the report, and I thought another patrol might produce more fun. The Wing Commander didn’t like the idea of risking another take-off, but after a lot of persuasion he agreed to it. It was quite shattering, in spite of some wooden planks laid across the bad patches.
This time the valley was deserted, and the only thing I could do was amuse the troops by doing some aerobatics. They all cheered and waved madly every time I went down low—I think they imagined that at last we had air control and their worries were over. Vain hope!
The state of the runway made further operations distinctly inadvisable. But some of the troops were being withdrawn by sea during the night, and the tiny Royal Air Force contingent at Bodö was determined to give what help it could. All hands fell to the task of laying down more snow-boards, until these covered almost the entire runway, and an hour before midnight Lydekker took off again. At midnight Hull followed, and in the absence of enemy aircraft amused himself by ‘beating up’ the retiring vessels—much to the delight of the troops. Two hours later he was relieved by Falkson, after which, convinced that further attempts to use the runway would end only in the loss of valuable aircraft, he asked Maxton to call off the patrols. The Wing Commander agreed; and Hull and Lydekker, having despatched a well-earned breakfast, were enjoying—at readiness—the cheering warmth of the morning sunshine, when they experienced something all too familiar to those members of the squadron who had been at Lesjaskog. Hull’s diary again tells the story:
Suddenly at 0800 hours the balloon went up. There were 110s and 87s all round and the 87s started dive-bombing a jetty about 800 yards from the aerodrome. Tony’s aircraft started at once and I waved him off, then after trying mine a bit longer got yellow and together with the fitter made a dive into a nearby barn. From there were watched the dive-bombing in terror until it seemed that they were not actually concentrating on the aerodrome. Got the Gladiator going and shot off without helmet or waiting to do anything up. Circled the ‘drome climbing and pinned an 87 at the bottom of a dive. It made off slowly over the sea and just as I was turning away another 87 shot up past me and his shots went through me windscreen knocking me out for a while. Cam to, and was thanking my lucky stars when I heard rat-tat behind me and felt my Gladiator hit. Went into right-hand turn and dive but could not get out. Had given up hope at some 200 feet when she centralized and I gave her a burst of engine to clear some large rocks. Further rat-tats from behind, so gave up hope and decided to get her down. Held off, and then crashed.
With Hull out of the combat—and on his way to hospital—Lydekker received the full attention of the enemy. Wounded, and with his
aircraft badly shot up, he managed by skilful evasive action to get back to Bardufoss, where his machine was promptly classed as a complete ‘write-off’. All three Gladiators had now been put out of action; but the Luftwaffe was taking no risks. That evening that returned to Bodö in force. He.111s laid was the town and twelve Ju.87s and four Me. 110s made a systematic job of wrecking the runway. So ended the brief history of Bodö landing ground. The attempt to use it had brought about its destruction; but the Gladiators had shot down at least three enemy aircraft, and, at a highly critical moment, had diverted many more attacks on the Allied troops.
While the Luftwaffe was concentrating on Bodö the Allies were beginning the final moves against Narvik. French and Norwegian forces were now firmly establish along the farther side of Rombaks Fjords, north of the Narvik peninsula; and the plan was to cross the Fjord, gaining a footing on the peninsula—where the enemy was in no great strength—and approach the town from the rear. At the same time the Poles would launch an attack in the Ankenes peninsula, to the south. The task of the two fighter squadrons, beginning some hours before the initial assault, was to maintain continuous patrols at a strength of three aircraft over the area of operations.
The patrols during the evening and night of 27th May, when the Allied troops made their landing, were agreeably uneventful. Early the following morning fog descended on Bardufoss, and for a brief spell our aircraft were grounded. During this time the Luftwaffe—which was now reported to have Ju.87 dive-bombers operating from an emergency ground at Mosjöen, only 200 miles to the south—appeared on the scene. The Admiral’s flagship was damaged; then one of our patrols came up and drove away the attacking aircraft. After that the Hurricanes and Gladiators combined with the misty weather to hold off the enemy, and before the day closed Narvik was in Allied hands. Nothing remained but to destroy the facilities of the port—and withdraw.
The destruction was well and truly accomplished. No cargo of iron-ore left Narvik for Germany until January 1941. The evacuation presented problems of greater complexity. In the first place our intention to withdraw had to be kept secret from all except the principal commanders; the remainder—including the Norwegians—were to be encouraged to believe, until the last moment, that we were preparing to move to other bases in Norway. Secondly, to allow time for the arrangements, and to reduce the difficulties in which the Norwegian ground forces would find themselves by a sudden withdrawal of the British, French and Poles, the evacuation was not to begin until 3rd June, and was then to be spread over five days.
The work of the two Royal Air Force squadrons was thus by no means finished. From 29th May to 1st June they were busy, but mainly with single enemy aircraft. Then, on 2nd June, the Luftwaffe arrived in force. Through the day wave after wave of a dozen our shipping and the base at Harstad; but the Gladiators and Hurricanes so harassed every attempt that the German crews either jettisoned their bombs or aimed them wide. By the end of the day the two squadrons had flown seventy-five sorties, fought twenty-four engagements, and brought down at least nine enemy aircraft, all for no loss to themselves. Many of the actions took place in full view of the troops; and General Auchinleck was moved to send a handsome message of thanks.
That evening the Norwegians were informed of our intention to withdrawn, and the following morning the evacuation began. The movement presented a most tempting series of targets, for many of the troops had to be picked up by the local ‘puffers’, taken out to destroyers in the fjords, and then transferred to liners standing off the coast. But a kindly cloak of mist and low cloud concealed the vessels for many hours, and until the last day the enemy’s effort in the air was very small. Such as it was, it was well contained by Nos. 46 and 263 squadrons, and by the aircraft of the Glorious and the Ark Royal, which had returned to take part in the evacuation.
The orders under which the Royal Air Force operated during the final phase were clear and precise. Patrols were to be flown over the vital areas until evacuation was virtually complete; the Gladiators were then to fly on to the Glorious; the Hurricanes, which could not, it was then thought, land on a carrier’s deck, were to be destroyed; and Bardufoss airfield, with the exception of a small strip for the use of the few surviving Norwegian Fokkers, was to be thoroughly demolished. This programme was duly completed, but with one significant exception. The Commanding Officer of No. 46 Squadron, Squadron Leader K. B. Cross, begged that is ten remaining Hurricanes should be allowed to attempt a landing on the Glorious. The risk appeared considerable; for unsuccessful tests had been made with Hurricanes when the squadron was being shipped to Norway, with the result that the aircraft had finally been hoisted abroad from lighters. In Norway, at the tail end of the evacuation, and with their airfield far distant from the waters where the carrier lay, the squadron could clearly not re-embark in the same fashion. The only alternative to destruction was thus to hazard the aircraft and their pilots in a deck-landing. Mindful that Britain stood in need of every Hurricane she could muster, Group Captain Moore agreed to Cross’s request
and a call was made for volunteers. Every one of the eighteen pilots responded. So, in the clear Arctic midnight of 7th June, the Hurricanes took off from Bardufoss for their last flight. By then the Gladiators had left, led by Swordfish, and were already stowed away in the Glorious. An hour’s flight and the Hurricanes too came on, each to an admirable landing.
Fate was to mock this last achievement. The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, moving up the Norwegian coast under orders to penetrate the fjords around Narvik, had learnt from air reconnaissance and intercepted wireless messages that traffic was heavy between Northern Norway and Scotland. They had learnt too, that the Glorious and the Ark Royal were at sea. No hunter could neglect so splendid a quarry. The two battlecruisers headed up for the convoy routes, and in the afternoon of 8th June they sighted the Glorious and her attendant pair of destroyers. The German crews, noting with alarm that a number of aircraft were already visible on the flying decks of the carrier, hastened to open fire. Their first salvoes found the mark, and all the valiant efforts of the destroyers could only postpone the end. After two hours the Glorious, blazing furiously, rolled over beneath the waves; and with her went the pilots who had crowned their triumph over the Luftwaffe by their determination to bring their aircraft home. Only Squadron Leader Cross and one other, gaining a Carley float, and defying Arctic cold, the promptings of despair, and the sight of twenty-five of their fellow survivors on the raft dying before their eyes, were picked up later by a passing fishing vessel.
The expeditions to Central and Northern Norway had one fundamental point of difference. The former was conducted form poor bases and along exiguous lines of communication within easy reach of strong forces of the Luftwaffe, and beyond the effective range of the Royal Air Force; it therefore came to swift disaster. The latter was conducted, for most of the time, within effective range of only a single enemy air base, while in its later and more critical stages it enjoyed the protection of Royal Air Force fighters; it had therefore achieved a fair degree of success when the situation on the western front demanded its recall.
This lesson was certainly not ignored by the Commanders concerned, who spoke up with remarkable unanimity of voice. Major General Paget, whose forces could have held on longer had their base at Aandalsnes not been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, wrote thus:–
My considered view in the light of experience remains that which I expressed to the D.Q.M.G. before I embarked. It is that the possibility of maintaining any force through the single port of Aandalsnes
depended primarily upon whether or not local air superiority could be established and maintained. To that view I would add that, since the necessary degree of air superiority could scarcely be expected to exist throughout the whole length of the line of communication, and since that line was peculiarly vulnerable to both air action and to seasonal changes, the Aandalsnes project was not administratively practicable. Operationally, therefore, it was doomed to failure.
Very similar views were expressed by Major General Carton de Wiart about the fighting at Namsos:
Then came the air situation, which was the dominating factor. We had no A.A. defence at all were completely at the mercy of enemy planes. Only twice in the course of operations did we have any British planes over us, and then the enemy planes cleared off at once.
Lieutenant General Auchinleck, too, though he bore witness to the difference at Harstad when the two Royal Air Force squadrons arrived, was powerfully impressed with the performance of the Luftwaffe in supply Narvik by air, in landing small detachments at strategic positions along the coast, and in blasting our troops out of the Bodö area:
The predominant factor in the recent operations has been the effect of air power … the first general lesson to be drawn is that to commit troops to a campaign in which they cannot be provided with adequate air support is to court disaster.
In all of this General Jodl, in his official report to the Führer, wholeheartedly concurred. ‘The Air Force,’ wrote Jodl, ‘proved to be the decisive factor in the success of the operation.’
The campaign in Norway witnessed the first completely conclusive employment of air power. Around Narvik two squadrons of Royal Air Force fighters held at bay an enemy operating from long range; elsewhere it was the enemy, swiftly and strongly established on all the available airfields, who dictated events. The Royal Air Force at home, too far away, too small, and too much handicapped by the need to conserve its effort for the western front, was unable to intervene effectively. And though there were many purely military factors in our defeat in Central Norway, nearly all of them applied the more sharply because of the presence of an enemy air force which, at the peak-point, employed in Weserübung no less than 615 bombers, fighters and reconnaissance machines, and 650 air transports.
The primary and overriding importance of air power was not new as a conception. The Air Ministry, of course, had harped on it for years; and had always given the clearest warnings, whenever intervention in Scandinavia was discussed, that the Luftwaffe by virtue of its size and proximity to the theatre of operations must enjoy a
powerful advantage. If now new as a theory, however, it was new as a fact—new as a fact so abundantly plain, for instance, to the military. And though the Navy had escaped with comparatively light losses for the outstanding work it had accomplished and the many perils it had run, even the saltiest of sea-dogs could, if he chose, now read the writing on the wall.