In October, 1939, the German Naval War Staff instructed Grossadmiral Raeder to place before Hitler a strongly-worded recommendation that (with the Russians) Germany should put pressure on Norway in order to obtain bases for ‘a fundamental improvement in our strategic and operational situation’. They named certain ports which were ice-free, including Narvik and Trondheim.
Raeder reported that Hitler, though hesitant, had shown some interest. The Service chiefs bided their time. They knew too well that the Führer preferred to dictate his own strategy and regarded any initiative other than his own with suspicion. His current obsession was a breakthrough in the West involving a surprise attack through Luxembourg and the Low Countries.
The aim was to capture northern France, thus providing the necessary bases for an attack on Britain. At this stage Hitler, on the advice of Ribbentrop, (the former German Ambassador to Britain), was convinced that the British lacked the will to fight, leaving him to concentrate on the Masterplan, the subjugation of Russia.
But in mid-December his attention was re-directed to Norway through a visit to Berlin by Vidkum Quisling, a former Norwegian Minister of Defence. On the nth he was interviewed by Admiral Raeder, who knew that Quisling was an ardent disciple of National-Socialism and had founded a political party called Nasjonal Samling, based on the Nazi philosophy. Quisling occupied a position in Norway in the 1930s somewhat similar to Sir Oswald Mosley’s in Britain. His aim was to establish a Hitler-type régime but his followers were few.
Raeder reported to Hitler next day in the presence of Generals Keitel and Jodl, when he claimed that Quisling appeared to be a reliable person, though caution was needed. It was always difficult with such (unsolicited) offers of co-operation to know how far the persons concerned were pushing their own interests or to what extent they had Germany’s interests at heart. On the other hand, Norway must not fall into the hands of the British. Accordingly, on 13 December a working party was set up for ‘Studie Nord’, (a Besetzung [occupation] of Norway by peaceful or other means). This secret study was restricted to fewer than ten participants at its inception.
Quisling in person was brought before Hitler on 14 December and again on the 18th. It appeared that the Führer considered the occupation of Norway as a preventative measure, preferably with the consent of the Norwegians. Hitler publicly professed his admiration for this Nordic race, stressing the long-standing friendship and trade links between the two peoples. In private he despised them for their ‘spineless neutrality’. But Quisling seriously considered himself to be the saviour of Norway and seemed confident that its people would, in the event, prefer his leadership to that of King Haakon and his democratically elected government.
By the end of January, 1940, ‘Studie Nord’ had developed into a project with a very small planning staff, a code name (Weserübung), and a scope which might include action against Denmark. But Hitler’s naval advisers wanted quick action in Norway which, to them, posed a worsening political, military and economic problem. In this their thinking paralleled that of Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff, (but not Prime Minister Chamberlain and the majority of the Cabinet).
The German Naval War Staff were determined to keep the Leads clear for the transport of Swedish ore. Privately they criticized Hitler’s reluctance to move against Scandinavia. They accused him of following a strategy opposed to the great German tradition of Bismarck, of lack of experience, of wishful thinking. Professor Walther Hubatsch, the German historian, lecturing at London University in 1958 on the problems of the Norwegian Campaign said: ‘Hitler behaved in a fashion which the entire system of European states had persistently combated since the days of William of Orange’. That is to say that the Führer believed in the Divine Right of Kings, seeing himself privately as the Kaiser incarnate.
On 1 March, 1940, possibly influenced by the famous Altmark incident, Hitler issued a formal directive for the occupation of Norway and Denmark. Two days later, acting in character and against the advice of Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe chief, he reversed his military priorities and decreed that Weserübung should now precede any German initiative in the West.
General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, an apolitical Infantry commander in his early sixties, was appointed as overall co-ordinator of the top three Service directors. As far as Norway was concerned Falkenhorst’s brief was to occupy Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, employing six divisions. The Luftwaffe now emerged, for the first time, as a fully independent branch of the Wehrmacht, with its own operational role. This included the mass transportation of troops for the initial assault.
For reasons probably connected with scarce resources, Falkenhorst was specifically debarred from occupying certain minor ports, including Namsos and Aandalsnes, (ironically, weeks later, both ports became British beach-heads). Transportation of such a huge mass of men and material presented the German Staff with a major problem. Speed and secrecy were essential. Falkenhorst decided against slow and vulnerable troop transports in favour of naval vessels. Complementing the air-lift the first nine thousand men would travel in warships, accepting the risk of a handicap if a sea-fight developed.
The bulk of the vast amount of equipment, ammunition and stores needed in Norway would be ferried in by merchant vessels. Narvik, in the far north, was served by the German tanker, Jan Willem, working out of Murmansk with Russian connivance. She would provide fuel oil for the warships and supplies for the German garrison when it arrived. In a largely sea-borne enterprise of this kind much thought was given to the selection of the commander but it was not until two days before the first echelon sailed that Admiral Carls was chosen. He summed up the chances of success in these words:
I think we can achieve the vital part of our task, and therefore we shall achieve it if we carry it through with ruthless determination and unrestrained vigour. The risk is considerable, bad enough during the first part of the operation and even greater in the second, on the return journey home. We shall incur losses. But the operation is so important that they would not be too heavy even if the greater part of the surface fleet were lost. We must reckon from the outset on a total loss of 50 per cent unless particularly favourable conditions obviate both Norwegian and British intervention. (Hubatsch, 1958)
The warship echelon to transport the maritime operation was organized with Teutonic thoroughness. There were six groups. Group One was for Narvik, escorted by the warships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. It carried two thousand men of the 3rd Mountain Division. The next group was meant for Trondheim, in central Norway, carrying the remainder of the Mountain Division. The escort was the heavy cruiser Hipper, accompanied by four destroyers. They would travel with group one until the latitude of Trondheim was reached. The third group headed for Bergen, carrying almost two thousand men of the 69th Division. Their main escort was the light cruiser Köln and also the Königsberg, supported by fast patrol boats.
The fourth group, having less seaway to cover, had a lighter escort, the cruiser Karlsruhe and five fast patrol boats. The troops came from the 163rd Division and were to land at Kristiansand and Arendal. The attacking force for the Oslo area came from the same division and was about two thousand men with a strong escort because the fort at Oscarborg in Oslofiord had to be passed. There were the pocket battleship Lutzow, the heavy cruiser Blücher and the light cruiser Emden with eight minesweepers and two torpedo boats. The last group was a small force with the task of taking the cable station at Egersund. It carried a company of bicycle troops about 150 strong and was escorted by minesweepers.
Many of the troops had been assembled at short notice. With the exception of the Mountain battalions they were not fully trained. In quality they can perhaps be compared with the best of the British Territorial Divisions, for example the 51st Highland or the 53rd Welsh. Like their British counterparts they were woefully short of equipment and heavy support weapons. In contrast the German 3rd Mountain Division was fully trained for snow and mountain warfare, with some battle experience in Poland.
Although inexperienced in combined operations, the Germans carried out their preparations for the invasion with efficiency and guile. The three Services conformed to the overall provisions of Weserübung free of many of the constraints experienced by the Allied planners. In the propaganda war, with an eye to the implications of international law, they justified their invasion by referring to the mining of the Leads by the British. They stressed ‘the necessity of forestalling an Anglo-French action against Norway’.
The German intelligence build-up in Scandinavia had been going on long before the outbreak of war in September, 1939. A scattering of German refugees had found temporary homes in Norway after 1918. Some of their children had grown up speaking Norwegian. Later, after suitable training, some of these had returned to Norway as ‘tourists’ with intelligence-gathering as their main role.† German merchant seamen were familiar with the main Norwegian port facilities.
The German invasion plans included elaborate and ingenious arrangements for using the names of British warships when communicating by wireless in Norwegian waters. To further confuse port officials some of the German ships were to fly the British flag. German naval representatives actively paved the way for the invaders, working with Quisling’s sympathizers, while the German Air Attaché at Oslo, having requisitioned the necessary transport for the first wave of parachutists, actually guided them to their first objective.
Herr Hagelin, a Norwegian accomplice of Quisling based in Berlin, used his widespread trading activities to observe and report on the British military build-up after the Russo-Finnish war. In retrospect the value to Germany of the traitor Quisling’s ‘Fifth column’ was much exaggerated. But in the days preceding the invasion their activities added to the uncertainties that beset the Norwegian people, who were totally unprepared for war.
At 8.15 p.m. on 7 April, 1940, the Home Fleet, keeping strict wireless silence, sailed from Scapa Flow in the north of Scotland for Norwegian waters. That same evening the First and Second Cruiser Squadrons left Rosyth and turned north. The destroyer Glowworm, part of the screen for the battle cruiser Renown, was forced to stop in heavy weather to pick up a seaman fallen overboard. She had been alerted by signal to look out for a German expedition believed to be heading for Narvik. She sighted and engaged two German destroyers, who broke off and wirelessed the Glowworm’s position to the German heavy cruiser, Hipper.
The Glowworm was hopelessly outmatched. The German warship opened fire at about ten thousand yards, hitting the Glowworm squarely on the bridge. The British destroyer replied with a salvo of torpedoes, putting up a smoke screen as part of her defence. The Hipper came through the smoke into the destroyer’s path and the ships collided, tearing away about a hundred and forty feet of Hippel’s outer armour. Glowworm was able to signal the enemy ship’s position to the main flotilla before blowing up and sinking with heavy loss of life.
Further south the Polish submarine Orzel was patrolling the mouth of the Skagerrak. She sighted and challenged the German transport Rio de Janeiro off Lillesand. When the transport failed to stop, the Orzel sunk her. About one hundred survivors were picked up by Norwegian fishermen. On landing, they turned out to be uniformed German soldiers, who, when interrogated, said that they were part of a fully armed expedition sent to ‘protect’ the Norwegian port of Bergen.
This information alerted the British ships guarding the mine-layers off Bodö, near the Vestfiord. Among them was HMS Renown. In the early dawn of 9 April she sighted ‘two heavy German warships’. They turned out to be the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, two of the enemy’s most formidable armoured ships. Hampered by poor light and heavy seas the Renown engaged both enemy ships at a range of some ten miles. As the range shortened Gneisenau’s main gunnery control centre was hit by a 15-inch shell from Renown. In the running fight which followed the Gneisenau sustained further damage while the Renown, though hit by three of the German ship’s heavy shells, came through comparatively undamaged. At about 6.15 a.m. the enemy ships broke off the engagement and ran for cover. The Gneisenau eventually got to Wilhelmshaven where she was repaired.
Conflicting intelligence reports were flooding in to the Admiralty on 8 April, 1940. When analysed, checked and verified there was no doubt that the expected German invasion of Norway was under way. The dispositions of the Home Fleet were quickly revised in the hope of locating and bringing to battle the German warships heading for Narvik. Yet, when the Chiefs of Staff were roused from their beds for an early meeting, it was decided that we could still ‘peacefully occupy’ Narvik, but not until ‘the naval situation had been cleared up’.
The Allied Supreme War Council, with its committees, revised their own military organization to cope with the new emergency. Meanwhile the Germans had achieved that most important element, surprise.