The Norwegians in the RAF I

The arrival of the Polish, Czechoslovak and French air crews received plenty of public attention. The Times and the Daily Mirror, for example, both ran a series of short articles highlighting the splendid nature of many individual escapes, and spoke in glowing terms of the immediate and effective contribution each contingent would make to the war effort. This was propaganda, designed to impress the political leaderships as much as the average Briton. These three countries all had special places in the hierarchy of allied forces: the Poles because they were the people in whose defence Britain had supposedly gone to war in the first place; the Czechoslovaks because people of all political persuasions recognised that something distasteful and decidedly un-British had been done to them in 1938; and the French because they were our stout and faithful allies. The press and the BBC, by emphasising the unshakeable esprits de corps and the relentless courage of each group, helped to reassure and inspire the British people, who were still wrestling with the twin horrors of the awesome prospect of imminent invasion and mass infiltration by enemy agents.

Less fanfare greeted the military evacuees from Norway, Belgium and Holland. This was not because they were in any way inferior, but simply because they came in smaller groups and did not command as much political attention as the other three. Even so, this did not mean that serious questions were not asked about their morale and commitment. In each case, pre-war political relations played a major part in the British assessment of the new allies, and the behaviour of their countrymen and national leaders during the short but devastating western war also deeply conditioned the attitudes with which they were initially received.

The first to arrive were the Norwegians. The fate of their nation, which had contributed so much to the eventual downfall of Neville Chamberlain, meant that they were in need of refuge much earlier than any of the other national groups. The battle for Norway had begun in April 1940, though the Norwegians themselves had not thought it likely that they would have been dragged into the war at all. In effect, the Germans and the allies conducted part of their war on Norwegian territory, and eventually the country had been overrun while bringing this sideshow to a conclusion. The Norwegian forces fought hard and valiantly, scoring some notable victories over the German invaders, but neither they nor the allies could prevail. Vidkun Quisling, with Hitler’s tacit support, assumed control of Norway on 8 April while the official Norwegian government was still technically in existence, but by 9 June all effective resistance was at an end. Two days earlier, King Haakon VII had set sail for England on HMS Devonshire with most of his ministers and the remnants of the Norwegian armed forces, which had, with great credit, fought to the last moment.

Churchill had already nailed his colours to the Norwegian mast. After all, he had taken the premiership in the midst of the crisis, and on 23 May had promised the War Cabinet that the King and his entourage would be given refuge in Britain if the campaign ended in defeat. What had begun as an attempt by Chamberlain to stamp his name on the war had finished with Churchill accepting some of the responsibility for its failure, therefore the Norwegians expected, with good reason, every political and military consideration by the British government. This they were not given, at least not entirely, but still the Anglo– Norwegian liaison during the latter’s time in exile remains probably the smoothest of all such relationships during the war.

From the outset, the major problem facing the Norwegian government was similar to that of the Free French: how to establish and retain credibility as a sovereign administration in the face of hostile propaganda issued from the home territory. Indeed, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Halvdan Koht, warned his countrymen against getting too close to a formal alliance with Britain, for any binding commitments made by his government could possibly have rebounded disastrously had Britain lost the war and a negotiated settlement with the Germans been forced upon them. This was practical politics, for the outlook in the late spring of 1940 was truly ghastly as far as the allies were concerned. One factor was in the Norwegians’ favour, however. King Haakon had demonstrated that he had acted at all times in the best interests of his country, and Norway being a placid, democratic monarchy, he became a natural rallying point for the resistance. By contrast, de Gaulle had to overcome the tendency of many of his countrymen to reject him as an alternative leader, hence he was fighting two political battles at once, whereas the Norwegians were fighting only one. Yet this caution was not one-sided traffic, for in early April a meeting of the Allied Military Committee decided that Norway had ‘retreated into a form of jealous neutrality’, and though it is not clear exactly of whom the Norwegians were supposed to be jealous, the report concluded that they were more likely to be hostile to the allies if forced to make a choice. Thus, on both sides of this new alliance, there was room for reflection and perhaps even distrust.

Norway also had another useful asset in her merchant fleet. Despite substantial losses in the battle of April–June, no less than 1,876 merchant vessels of all sizes reached allied ports. Apart from rendering a significant contribution to the Atlantic supply chain, the income generated by this fleet also enabled the Norwegian government to finance its allied war effort without assistance from Britain, and this had a small but direct impact on the air policies which emerged. Nevertheless, the Norwegians still felt excluded from the high table during their time in Britain. As Olav Riste has shown, the Norwegians were presented with a novel experience when it came to negotiating allied agreements, for their long-standing principles of neutrality were inevitably compromised by the new situation. Even though the British kept effective control of the merchant fleet, and persistently refused to grant access to matters of strategic policy, the Norwegians stoically accepted their position and pledged full co-operation for the duration of the war.

The composition of the Norwegian air forces at the outbreak of war was reflected in their eventual deployment during their time in Britain. Both their Army and Navy had their own air forces, but modernisation had been put on hold for some time before the outbreak of war. François Kersaudy noted that the military had ordered a batch of Caproni aircraft from Italy, ‘not because they were the best, but simply because they could be paid for in dried cod’. The British were also aware of the limitations, and the abilities, of the Norwegian air services. In a report supplied to the Chief of the Air Staff in February 1940, Norwegian pilots and ground crew were described as disciplined and well-trained, but the equipment was ‘largely obsolescent and in some cases unsafe.’ In fact, the reserve officers’ association had petitioned the parliamentary military committee in the spring of 1939 and bluntly informed it that the aircraft of the Naval Air Arm were ‘wholly unserviceable’.

At the time of the German assault on Norway, a long overdue order for new aircraft from America was still in crates awaiting delivery. On 11 May Porri (then still with the Directorate of Intelligence) wrote to various administrators noting that nine officers and five other ranks of the Royal Norwegian Naval Air Service (RNNAS) had arrived in the country and were seeking immediate training. He had been informed by the Norwegian Legation in London that there were plans to evacuate a further twenty to thirty pilots from Norway to form a unit in Britain supplied with British aircraft and maintained by British mechanics, which could then be posted back to Norway for active operations. In his view, however, this was an unlikely event; therefore he suggested that the detachment should be split between the Royal Navy base at Calshot and the Army depot at Aston Down. This would allow the men ‘to absorb a certain amount of atmosphere, technique and language which would facilitate any further arrangements made’. He received a reply two days later which amended the proposal in favour of sending the men to Coastal Command for initial assessment.

The Chief of the Air Staff in Norway was Col Thomas Gulliksen. He informed Porri that the men had engineered their escape from Fornebo aerodrome on 9 April, proceeded to Lillehammer, where they destroyed some other aircraft to prevent their capture, and then boarded SS Sjogutten to arrive at Lerwick in Scotland. In Gulliksen’s opinion, the men were all fully trained and capable of flying Gladiators, but the Air Ministry replied that insufficient aircraft of this type existed to form a separate flight, though it was content to begin training on British planes. It was also noted by Porri that Gulliksen was already manoeuvring himself to be the senior officer in a reconstituted Norwegian air force in Britain.

Things then moved quickly for the Norwegians. On 17 May, the Air Ministry hosted an inter-departmental conference to discuss the position of the air force personnel then in England. The C-in-C of the Royal Norwegian Army Air Service (RNAAS), Capt Bjarne Øen, informed the delegates that 10 Army and 6 Navy pilots, plus 4 or 5 skilled mechanics, were then in England awaiting orders. He added that the maximum number likely to arrive from Norway would be 100, though a possibility existed that more might arrive from America. As for aircraft, 5 Curtiss Hawk P36s were in crates at Kirkwall, but another 36 were due from America plus a further 36 Northrop float-planes. All in all, suggested Øen, this was more than enough to form a solid core of a Norwegian air force in Britain.

But this proved to be only the first hurdle, not the end of the race. Porri and Wg Cdr Garraway (attached to the Directorate of Plans) rejected the idea on the premise that maintaining Curtiss aircraft in Britain would be impossible due to lack of spares and the unpredictability of the supply routes from America. Porri suggested sending the men for training in Canada, thereby solving the spares problem and making use of the incoming aircraft from America. Garraway added that it would be of little use to create a new squadron in Britain which used different planes from the RAF, and since they had no aircraft to spare at that moment, he suggested drafting the men into the RAFVR for training in RAF squadrons; once competent, they would then be posted back to Norway for service. This would go some way towards solving the language problem, and it might therefore be possible to consider the formation of a Norwegian squadron once the situation in Norway had been resolved. Øen accepted this proposal, with the added caveat that RAFVR enlistment should not prejudice the formation of a truly independent unit composed entirely of Norwegian personnel, should the opportunity arise. The meeting then heard that the Norwegian government was prepared to pay all expenses connected with the training scheme, and in a later minute of 18 May, all relevant departments were brought up to date. Most of the personnel spoke English ‘reasonably well’, and it was accepted in principle that a full Norwegian squadron would be formed as and when the men became available, but in the mean time every effort would be made to get their aircraft out of America and into service. The scheme was commended to the Foreign Office, which swiftly replied on 27 May, raising no points of objection.

The minutes of the May meeting give rise to a small controversy. According to Gen Wilhelm Mohr, the proposal to send the men to Canada for training was a suggestion made by the Norwegians themselves, but the documents clearly indicate that it was Porri and not Øen who tabled the scheme. Indeed, Mohr goes as far as to state that the British were ‘reluctant’ to go along with the idea, citing the urgency of using trained pilots in the Battle of Britain as his evidence, but we can see here that the RAF was making its decisions on a realistic basis, and despite the enthusiasm of the allied pilots to go into action in their own national squadron, insurmountable problems of supply and maintenance meant that their ambition would have to be postponed. Mohr’s error was to rely on documents dated June and July 1940 – a different case altogether so far as the air war was concerned – but these papers merely confirmed the arrangements made at the earlier time. Sholto Douglas stated in a short note to the DAAC in July 1940 that he had not been a supporter of the training scheme when it had first been suggested, ‘but I did not pursue the matter [because] on security and political grounds it was highly desirable to let the Norwegians go’. Unfortunately, his reasons are not recorded, but it is likely that his views were those which gave rise to Mohr’s interpretation of reluctant acquiescence.

By early July, the Norwegian ministry of defence had reorganised itself in London. The army wing contained thirty-five fully trained pilots, and the Air Force had thirteen pilots in various stages of training, and a handful of other ranks. The land forces and the navy were much better off. As well as a submarine, a couple of MTBs and various patrol vessels, the destroyer Sleipner lay alongside at Portsmouth, while at Rosyth the destroyer Draug was waiting for orders. Also in Scotland, at Dumfries, about forty officers and a thousand other ranks had regrouped at a camp vacated by the British Army. Compared to some other allied exiles, therefore, the Norwegians had arrived with the nucleus of a credible force.

The proposal to train Norwegian crews in Canada was swiftly executed. By mid-August 1940, Medhurst was informing the Air Council that all the selected personnel had left British territory. Uppermost in the minds of his superiors, however, was the importance of maintaining healthy relations with the Canadian government, and Medhurst was told that the situation would require ‘careful handling’, and that the Canadians ‘should not be requested to take on any additional commitments’. This was a euphemistic way of saying that they should not be expected to foot the bill, but there would never be any worries for the British on that score. The income generated by their extensive merchant fleet promised a steady flow of resources for the Norwegian war effort, and besides paying for their training in Canada, they bought their own planes as well.

Training continued at a furious pace in ‘Little Norway’ near Toronto. Recruits continued to stream in from the Continent, and by September 1940 the Norwegian Legation informed the Air Ministry that it could list 70 trained pilots, 100 partly trained, and 100 more awaiting basic instruction. To this it could add radio operators, navigators and about eighty mechanics, but even all of this expertise could not fulfil the basic establishments of the three independent squadrons it had asked the RAF to form when the time was right. Yet again, the aspirations of an allied force broke down because of the shortage of ground crew, but unlike some other exiled groups the Norwegians were pragmatic enough to accept this, and scaled down their proposals accordingly.

In fact, by the summer of 1941, all the indications were that the Anglo–Norwegian relationship promised to be a stable, mutually beneficial alliance considerably lacking in the tensions which had marred air arrangements with other exiled groups. This might have been because of the blunt yet important fact that they could pay their own way; or because of clear political objectives of either side which had no strings attached fore or aft, or because of the Norwegians’ attitude to the alliance itself, whereby they recognised the seniority of the British but felt in no way inferior themselves. These were all powerful factors, and though it is scarcely possible to pinpoint one as being definitive, it remains true that the files contain very little which is critical of the Norwegian air forces during their time in Britain. Even the Canadians informed the Air Ministry in January 1941 that their Scandinavian guests had acquitted themselves with honour and impeccable behaviour. In short, this was an alliance which needed the barest minimum of political or military maintenance – a gift for the British, and a relief for the Norwegians.

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