Scandinavian Prelude 3 September 1939 to 8 April 1940 Part III

norway

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The British preparation for events in Scandinavia roughly paralleled that of Germany. But a democracy, by its very nature, lacks the clear-cut direction of a dictatorship. The alliance with France had its centre on the Western front. The French were regarded as equal partners in the Supreme War Council, but in Scandinavian matters seem to have delegated executive power to the British. Nevertheless, they pressed strongly for quick action in Norway.

The Expeditionary Force of Chasseurs, Poles and Foreign Legionnaires, originally assembled for service in Finland, stood ready for action. On 28 March, 1940, the Council, without enthusiasm, agreed to assemble a force in readiness to act against a possible German attack on Norway. Churchill expressed the hope that the German battle fleet, if it emerged, would be promptly engaged and decisively defeated. At this stage of the war the Allied command structure was inexperienced, unwieldy and complicated. In any organization where uncertainty exists, a form of leadership, either individual or collective, will emerge. In this case the Admiralty, with Churchill as First Lord, acted impulsively when intelligence reports confirmed that elements of the German fleet had left Kiel and other northern ports on 4 April. Orders were issued by the First Sea Lord, by-passing the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet.

The Admiralty continued to get intelligence reports of German naval activity in the Wilhelmshaven Roads, including a sighting by the RAF of the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst. On 7 April the Admiralty sent a telegram to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet:

Recent reports suggest a German expedition is being prepared; Hitler is reported from Copenhagen to have ordered unostentatious movement of one division in ten ships by night to land at Narvik, with simultaneous occupation of Jutland. Sweden to be left alone. Moderates said to be opposing the plan. Date given for arrival at Narvik was 8 April.

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.

The British preparation for events in Scandinavia roughly paralleled that of Germany. But a democracy, by its very nature, lacks the clear-cut direction of a dictatorship. The alliance with France had its centre on the Western front. The French were regarded as equal partners in the Supreme War Council, but in Scandinavian matters seem to have delegated executive power to the British. Nevertheless, they pressed strongly for quick action in Norway.

The Expeditionary Force of Chasseurs, Poles and Foreign Legionnaires, originally assembled for service in Finland, stood ready for action. On 28 March, 1940, the Council, without enthusiasm, agreed to assemble a force in readiness to act against a possible German attack on Norway. Churchill expressed the hope that the German battle fleet, if it emerged, would be promptly engaged and decisively defeated. At this stage of the war the Allied command structure was inexperienced, unwieldy and complicated. In any organization where uncertainty exists, a form of leadership, either individual or collective, will emerge. In this case the Admiralty, with Churchill as First Lord, acted impulsively when intelligence reports confirmed that elements of the German fleet had left Kiel and other northern ports on 4 April. Orders were issued by the First Sea Lord, by-passing the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet.

The Admiralty continued to get intelligence reports of German naval activity in the Wilhelmshaven Roads, including a sighting by the RAF of the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst. On 7 April the Admiralty sent a telegram to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet:

Recent reports suggest a German expedition is being prepared; Hitler is reported from Copenhagen to have ordered unostentatious movement of one division in ten ships by night to land at Narvik, with simultaneous occupation of Jutland. Sweden to be left alone. Moderates said to be opposing the plan. Date given for arrival at Narvik was 8 April.

All these reports are of doubtful value and may well be only a further move in the war of nerves.

In fact the first two groups of German warships had left port and at 8 p.m. on 7 April were off the Norwegian coast between Egersund and Bergen. Within twenty-four hours HMS Glowworn had been sunk and the long-awaited encounter with the German fleet had begun.

The British plan R4 was abandoned. New dispositions, both naval and military, were set in motion. The four cruisers lying at Rosyth, packed with troops for Bergen and Stavanger, hastily disembarked the soldiers and sailed north to rejoin the fleet. The proposed frontal attack on Trondheim was off and the third phase of the minelaying operation in the Leads was abandoned.

This critical step, which involved the abandonment of a carefully considered military expedition, seems to have been taken by the Admiralty independently and to the surprise of the Prime Minister. The First Sea Lord issued the order; the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, who already had superior forces at his disposal, was not consulted. Thus the measures adopted to secure the traditional object of a decisive encounter at sea, which was not secured, deprived us of our last chance to restore the position on land.

The forces earmarked for Norway were again re-shuffled. The 24th Guards Brigade, made up of the 1st Scots Guards, 1st Irish Guards and 2nd South Wales Borderers, were still in the Clyde, awaiting sailing instructions. This Regular Brigade was experienced and well trained, having seen service in either the Palestine ‘troubles’ or the insurrections on the North-West Frontier of India. It was commanded by Brigadier the Hon. W. Fraser, and destined for Narvik.

The French contingent, who were to join them later, included the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion (two battalions); the 13th, 53rd and 67th Battalions of Chasseurs Alpins, trained as ski-troops; and the Polish Highland Brigade of mountain troops. In the event, the Chasseurs were diverted to Namsos, where they were commanded by the French General Audet.

The British attempt to capture Trondheim was now envisaged as a pincer movement coming from Namsos, in the north, and Aandalsnes, to the south of Trondheim. The force to land at Namsos was 146 Brigade, consisting of ¼th Royal Lincolns, ¼th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and ¼th York and Lancasters (the Hallamshire battalion). The Territorial soldiers who made up this brigade had been denied the training and experience of the Regular force earmarked for Narvik. They were poorly equipped and lacked the essential support of tanks and artillery. The 5th Demi-Brigade, Chasseurs Alpins, would join them later. 146 Brigade was commanded by Brigadier C. G. Phillips with the legendary hero, Major-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, V C, in overall command of the force.

Another Territorial force provided the troops to land at Aandalsnes. 148 Brigade had only two battalions, 1/5th Royal Leicesters and 1/8th Sherwood Foresters. Their commander, Brigadier H. de R. Morgan, had transformed them in a few months from ill-trained amateurs into someting resembling a competent fighting force. Again, they were unsupported by heavy weapons and, in common with the others, lacked anti-aircraft cover. This contingent was later to be joined by 15 Brigade, then serving in France. They were the 1st Green Howards, 1st King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and 1st York and Lancasters, all Regular soldiers, commanded by Brigadier H. E. F. Smyth.

The Chiefs of Staff, under pressure from the French to continue to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force in France, were unable to find the resources to back up the expedition to Norway. The Territorial brigades were from the start looked upon as second-line troops, responsible for garrison and line of communication duties, and they were equipped accordingly.

Churchill had been at odds with most of the planning staff over the dispersion of the limited forces available for Norway. To him Narvik seemed to be the focal point of the Allied attack and he had consistently opposed an attack on Trondheim. ‘Left to myself I would have stuck to my first love, Narvik …’ Then, later, ‘Although Narvik was my pet I threw myself with increasing confidence into this daring adventure, and was willing that the Fleet should risk the petty batteries (at Trondheim).’

But, as we have seen, the direct assault on Trondheim was dropped and the very ports that the German Staff had forbidden General von Falkenhorst to occupy (Namsos and Aandalsnes) were chosen instead. In the event what appeared at the time to be a logical choice turned out to be disastrous. Both landings were short-lived.

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