The autumn of 1939 declined into a severe winter as the year wore out. Hitler’s armies faced the Allies across the Maginot line at the start of what was now called the phoney war. The governments of both Britain and France were accused in some sections of the Press of having a ‘First War Mentality’. In this static phase none of the protagonists seemed anxious to extend the theatre of operations.
Adolf Hitler, in conferring with his Italian associates, had been reported as saying that Scandinavia should not fear an attack from any source. Nor would the Scandinavians, in his view, attack Germany. They valued their neutrality too highly, with Russia on one flank and the powerful Reich on the other.
The Second World War was two weeks old when the British Government declared that an attack on Norway would meet with the same resistance as an attack on Britain itself. It seemed obvious that both sides wanted to preserve Norway’s neutrality, hoping to benefit from it in some way. Britain wanted to blockade Germany’s sea-borne supplies, hoping that Norway would offer no serious resistance to British naval measures for controlling the passage of the long, narrow stretch of water known as the ‘Leads’.
The Leads lie between the Norwegian off-shore islands and the mainland, running for hundreds of miles southward along the deeply-indented coastline towards the Skagerrak. Kept clear of ice by the Gulf stream, they were an asset to Norway’s large, modernised merchant fleet.
They also provided one of the two sea-routes by which Germany received high-grade Swedish iron ore for her armaments. This travelled by rail from large deposits in North Sweden, either to Lulea for shipment across the Baltic or to Narvik for passage along the Norwegian sea lane. The latter route was the only one available in winter months, when Lulea was closed by ice. Reliable sources estimated that out of the yearly German intake of eight million tons of iron ore, six million tons came from Sweden.
If this supply could be interrupted or cut off, the German war economy would be seriously affected. In September, 1939, Winston Churchill, now First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the War Cabinet, proposed mining the northern approaches to the Leads with a view to preventing the flow of ore to Germany.
The German leaders were well aware of this danger. Their senior naval advisers, Admirals Raeder and Doenitz, privately disagreed with Hitler’s view of the Scandinavian problem. On 9 October Doenitz submitted a paper to Raeder, now Chief of the Naval War Staff, proposing the establishment of a naval base in north Norway, hopefully with the concurrence, albeit reluctantly, of the Norwegian government.
This base should have good port facilities, be a railhead and remain ice-free throughout the winter. Two areas only met these requirements, Trondheim and Narvik. The latter was considered too far north. It stretched communications and it was outside the range of German fighter planes in the event of trouble. At this planning stage Trondheim was selected.
Hitler was preoccupied with events on the Western front, where the possibility of a German break-through in the Low Countries was already being considered. He shelved the plan for Norway, promising to give it his personal consideration. This project was later to form part of the German Weserübung, the invasion of Denmark and Norway.
Churchill’s plan was also postponed. The Foreign Office took the view that the practical difficulties were insurmountable at this stage of the war. They pointed out the necessity of complying with International Law. But in November, 1939, the Cabinet decided to lay a barrage of anti-submarine mines across the North Sea and this led to a tacit understanding that mine-laying in the Leads would eventually follow.
The First Lord received unexpected support on 19 December, when, at a meeting of the Allied Supreme War Council, the French produced a memorandum from Herr Fritz Thyssen, one of Hitler’s earliest supporters among German industrialists but now living as an anti-Nazi exile in Switzerland. Thyssen, formerly a successful steel manufacturer on a large scale, stated authoritatively that Swedish iron ore was absolutely essential to This eased the pressure on Churchill from old political enemies and some Cabinet colleagues who were against direct involvement in Scandinavia. The spectre of Gallipoli, which had haunted Churchill for so long, reappeared. British public opinion would never accept the enormous losses for so little gain suffered in the First World War. The Narvik fiords were being compared with the hazardous beaches of the Gallipoli Penninsula. Churchill himself wrote, ‘I also pondered a good deal on the lessons of the Dardanelles’ (The Second World War, Vol 1, p. 490).
Prior to the Thyssen disclosure, the Ministry of Economic Warfare had informed the Supreme War Council that the stoppage of Narvik ore alone was of doubtful value. They now changed their stance, saying that if the supply of ore was cut off the Germans would be caused acute embarrassment. Such ambiguity irritated Churchill, who was already hampered by the uneasy relationship between the Chiefs of Staff and their civilian masters.
The position of the Chiefs of Staff was itself ambiguous. Their dual function was to act as individual and collective advisers to the War Cabinet and its Military Co-ordination Committee. But, in Civil Service terms, they were ‘high departmental officials serving their three respective Ministers’. And, in the nature of things, they held the welfare of their own particular Service to be paramount.
In reality they worked as a separate and largely independent body. They received no guidance from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, nor did they have effective guidance from the supreme executive power directing the war. On page 495 of his book Churchill explains the dilemma:
The leaders of the three Services had not yet got the conception of the war as a whole, and were influenced unduly by the departmental outlook of their own Services. They met together, after talking things over with their respective Ministers, and issued aide-memoires or memoranda which carried enormous weight. Here was the fatal weakness of our system of conducting war at this time.
This situation changed shortly before Churchill became Prime Minister. He reduced the power of the Chiefs of Staff and brought them more directly under his control by using Major-General H. L. Ismay as a Senior Staff Officer co-ordinating the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Ismay reported directly to Churchill in his capacity as deputy to Chamberlain in the chair of the Military Co-ordination Committee.
On 30 November, 1939, Russia launched an unprovoked attack on Finland. This event pushed the Allies towards the Scandinavians. The Supreme War Council met on 19 December and agreed on positive steps to materially assist Finland. A force of one hundred thousand was envisaged, including one hundred and fifty RAF planes from the sparse Home Defence quota. The French were particularly keen to set up a field of operations around Scandinavia and proposed a naval blockade of the Russian port of Murmansk.
But it was not until the Council’s meeting on 5 February, 1940, that the British finalized their plans. The advance elements of the equivalent of two Allied brigades were to leave for the Finnish front in mid-March. Significantly, they were to land at Narvik and advance along the railway through the heart of the Swedish ore fields to the Baltic port of Lulea.
A separate force would occupy Bergen and Trondheim. Stavanger would also be taken and held until Sola airfield was put out of action. This force would consist of five British Territorial battalions who would defend the Norwegian bases against a possible German attack. A considerable buildup would follow with the British contributing up to one hundred thousand men and the French half that number. A strong naval contingent would sustain the land forces.
The British public in general sympathized with the Finns and this interest was intensified on 16 February when HMS Cossack, commanded by Captain P. L. Vian, RN, attacked the German auxiliary Altmark, which was suspected of carrying British prisoners.
Acknowledging that the Altmark was within Norwegian territorial waters, Vian parleyed briefly with the commander of an escorting Norwegian torpedo boat before boarding the German vessel. Almost three hundred British prisoners, mainly Merchant Navy men, were freed. The British public, bored with the phoney war, was ecstatic. A popular song, ‘The Navy’s here’, was written about the incident and Vian was the hero of the hour.
Churchill’s supporters, numerically weak, now pressed for quick action in aid of Finland. The French strongly advocated an immediate landing at Narvik. But the British Cabinet, under Neville Chamberlain, feared active resistance from the Swedes and Norwegians. They claimed that an uninvited invasion would push the Scandinavians towards the Germans and that the latter would seize the opportunity of marching into Norway and Sweden.
About this time (21 March) M. Paul Reynaud replaced M. Daladier as Prime Minister of France. Adopting a more aggressive stance he demanded positive action, pointing out that Allied inactivity provided good propaganda for the enemy. The Finns had surrendered to the Russians on 13 March and a new initiative was needed.
Predictably, the first move was diplomatic. The Allies delivered to the Swedish and Norwegian legations in London and Paris a strongly-worded note protesting against the brazen violation of Scandinavian waters by German warships and merchant vessels. There was a sting in the tail; the note warned that steps would now be taken to lay mines in Norwegian territorial waters.
Paul Reynaud, urged on by French ‘hawks’ hoping to shorten the war, offered the immediate services of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Scandinavie, a special force which had been standing by in France since 16 February. Some fifty thousand strong, it contained elements of the Chasseurs Alpins, the Poles and the Foreign Legion, with full supporting arms. Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff welcomed this offer but the Cabinet turned it down.
But the tide of war was running towards Scandinavia. The mining of the northern approaches to the Leads, (christened Operation Wilfred by Churchill as it was ‘minor and innocent’), was now scheduled for early April. Linked with this was a military plan, code-named R4, set to be activated ‘the moment German forces set foot on Norwegian soil, or there is clear evidence that they intend to do so’.
The so-called ‘Big Plan’, for which the British Fifth Division, (a Regular force), had been earmarked, was much modified as the two main Allies moved towards agreement. It seemed that the major thrust would come from the Navy and the Royal Marines in the initial stages.
Since severing their Union with Sweden in 1905 the Norwegian nation had looked inwards to its own particular problems. Professor Riste has written of the obsessive concern with neutrality that flourished between the two world wars. The popular catchphrase was ‘We want no foreign policy’. This seemed apposite enough, as, apart from the inevitable interruption of trade, the Norwegians were relatively unaffected by the 1914–18 war. Her merchant fleet had been chartered to Britain and, although it suffered devastating losses, had revived between the wars and was the fourth largest in the world. (This agreement was repeated in November, 1939, when the Norwegian Shippers’ Association chartered their merchant ships to Britain).
Friendship with Britain over many years had been cemented by the closeness of the respective Royal Families. Britain’s continuing naval presence in the North Sea (Scapa Flow was ‘just across the water’ from Stavanger) kept alive the belief that Britain still ruled the waves.
These rather naive convictions lessened the latent fear of Germany as the ever-present aggressor. But as the winter of 1939 waned the incessant pro-German propaganda in the Quisling-owned newspaper The Free Nation, and the added anxieties caused by the Russo-German pact, caused Norway to look to her defences.
When Russia invaded Finland the Norwegians aligned themselves with Britain and France to support the Finns. But when the Allies sought permission to take the short route into Finland both Norway and Sweden refused to allow Allied forces to cross their territories. Suspicion of the Allies was deepened by the Altmark incident on 16 February, 1940.
Preparation for defence centred around the Royal Norwegian Navy, which had been mobilized at the outbreak of war. Resources were scarce as the defence budget had always been modest (one pound sterling per head in 1938). Most of the ships were obsolescent and the training of the conscript sailors had been reduced to just thirteen weeks in the year, the lowest in Europe.
Unlike Britain, Norway had no independent airforce. There were five airfields scattered around the country and on these were eighteen scout aircraft and just six fighters. At the seven naval coastal stations there were thirty seaplanes, used primarily for the co-ordination of naval vessels. Since November, 1939, a brigade of the Norwegian Army’s 6th Division had been stationed along the border with Russia, establishing a military presence as far south as Narvik. Partial mobilization was ordered in the early morning of 9 April, 1940, when the Germans were already occupying the chief mobilization centres. Some thirteen thousand soldiers stood-to in defence of Norway’s neutrality. Many Norwegians now looked to their British friends for help.