RAF: A Scandinavian Misadventure I

RAF Gladiator fighter in Norway.

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.

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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 was 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.

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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 ware 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.

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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.

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