RAF: A Scandinavian Misadventure III

Hawk 75A-6

The reinforcements, consisting of French Alpine troops under General Béthouart, Foreign Legionaries and Poles, began to arrive on 27th April. Thus far, enemy aircraft had not been unduly troublesome—many of those that appeared were float-planes carrying stores. With the Luftwaffe rapidly establishing itself at Trondheim/Vaernes airfield, however, we could soon expect attack of a far heavier order—attack which could be countered only by land-based fighters. While the Allied troops improved their positions, two Royal Air Force officers, of whom the senior was Wing Commander R. K. R. Atcherley, were accordingly sent out from England to examine the landing grounds—or sites for landing grounds—in the neighbourhood of Narvik.

The arrival of Atcherley’s Sunderland at Harstad coincided with an enemy air raid, which it inadvertently scared away. After reporting to General Mackesy, whom he found in a half-dressed state retrieving possessions from the headquarters building, which had just been hit, Atcherley went onto explain his mission to the local Norwegian Army Commander. His reception was not encouraging. The news of the evacuation of Aandalsnes had just reached the Norwegian forces in the north, and Atcherley was asked to sign a formal undertaking not only that large quantities of British supplies would be available for the Norwegians but also that the Royal Air Force did not intend (in Atcherley’s phrase) ‘to cut and run’. Eventually the General was pacified—the Staff Officer bearing his representations apparently succumbed to a judicious mixture of eloquence and whisky from Lord Cork—and the reconnaissance proceeded. Deep snow made the task one of the utmost difficulty, but fortunately the Norwegians placed a ship, and Lord Cork a Walrus Amphibian at Atcherley’s disposal. Even so, the searchers were compelled to confine their investigation to places of good local report. In the end the most promising sites were found to be the existing Norwegian landing grounds at Bardufoss and Banak, and some undeveloped ground at Skaanland. The last of these was the best placed geographically, being only fifteen miles by air from Harstad and twenty-five from Narvik. Bardufoss, at fifty-five and fifty miles respectively, was also within fighter range of both base and objective; but Banak, over two hundred miles north-east of Narvik, would be useful only for bombers.

What was achieved at Bardufoss gives some idea of the appalling obstacles that were overcome. The local authorities having gathered together an impressive, if predominantly amateur, labour force (first of Norwegian territorials and later of civilians) on 4th May work began. Atcherley was in charge, and he was assisted by technical officers of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Engineers and the Norwegian Army. With daylight almost continuous, and a thousand men to call on—after a broadcast appeal, volunteers, according to Atcherley, ‘rolled up in their hundreds’—work proceeded for twenty hours out of twenty-four. First, the two existing landing strips, 715 by 95 yards, were cleared of snow five feet deep This meant not merely moving the snow aside, but taking it some distance away—otherwise the advent of the thaw would have spelled disaster. Then the six-inch layer of ice beneath the snow was attacked with pick and gelignite. The soil being at last exposed to view, more drains were dug, soft spots of clay were cut out and filled with gravel, and the whole surface was flattened by means of a roller made from two forty-gallon drums welded together and filled with concrete. After this the better of the two runways was extended to 1,000 yards—a task which involved clearing bush and felling trees. It was scarcely completed when the thaw arrived. Only mass digging of the most feverish kind prevented torrents of water engulfing the newly cleared surface.

All this was but part of the undertaking, for Atcherley, warned by the Air Ministry of the vital necessity of protective measures, was determined to avoid another fiasco on the lines of that at Lesjaskog. Four taxying lanes, each eight yards wide, were cut from the runway to the heart of the woods surrounding the landing ground; snow, ice, trees, bushes, moss and top surface were all cleared, and the whole laid with gravel. Blast-proof pens made from double lines of tree trunks filled with gravel were built for the aircraft, camouflaged, and connected by satellite lanes to the taxi tracks. Shelters of a still stronger kind, dug down to a depth of five feet, were constructed for the men, both in the woods and at convenient points near the runway. Twenty miles of road leading the nearest fjord was cleared and repaired. Two hundred hastily recruited mules speeded the painful progress of supplies.

The crises which arose in the course of these Herculean labours were frequent and acute. Food gave out, there were too few tools, the weekly Walrus failed to arrived from Harstad the drop the labourers’ wages. But every setback was triumphantly overcome by the combined efforts of the three Services and the Norwegians, and within the incredibly short space of three weeks Bardufoss was fit for use. Skaanland, too, was declared ready; while at Banak all difficulties yielded before the cheerful onslaught of a thousand Lapps under the inspired direction of one British able seaman.

All this time the headquarters of somewhat grandiloquently styled Royal Air Force Components of the North-Western Expeditionary Force was waiting to sail. Formed at Uxbridge on 22nd April under the command of Group Captain M. Moore, it was originally designed to control air operations both in central and northern Norway. With their field of activity now confined to the Narvik area, the headquarters staff sailed on 7th May. The same vessel carried Lieutenant-General Auchinlek, whose instructions were to assume command (if he thought fit) of the Allied troops, and to report on the forces needed for the tasks of holding northern Norway as the seat of King Haakon’s government, stopping German supplies of iron-ore through Narvik, and interfering with shipments from Luleå. The General landed at Harstad on 11th May, just twenty-four hours after the German invasion of France and the Low Countries had knocked the bottom out of his mission.

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The threat of a German offensive in the West had throughout gravely handicapped Allied efforts in Scandinavia. Now the act proved decisive. The forces which Auchinlek considered necessary to hold northern Norway—he dismissed as impracticable any idea of interfering with the ore shipments from Luleå—included seventeen infantry battalions, one hundred and four heavy and ninety-six light anti-aircraft guns, and four squadrons of aircraft. These could not possibly be spared at a time when the Allied armies were reeling under the impact of the German blows in Belgium and France. Even the small but steady effort of Bomber Command against the enemy-occupied airfields in Norway and Denmark had now to be abandoned in favour of sterner tasks elsewhere. So, when the Chief of Staff made their final survey on 21st May—it was on the day on which the enemy first gazed across the English Channel at his next objective—their summary of the position was very clear: ‘The security of France and the United Kingdom is essential; the retention of northern Norway is not.’ They accordingly recommended to the War Cabinet that the Allied force should proceed to capture Narvik, that the harbour and its installations should be demolished, and that the expedition should be withdrawn.

It was while these matters were approaching decision in London that No. 263 Squadron, with a fresh supply of Gladiators, once more appeared on the Norwegian scene. The pilots had sailed in the Furious on 14th May, and had spent some days waiting offshore while the final preparations were made at Bardufoss. In the early morning of 21st May the first flight took off. But visibility was no more than three hundred yards, the savage outlines of the coastal peaks were obscured by low cloud, and the navigating Swordfish, slightly off course, led the first section straight into a mountain side. Two of the Gladiators crashed, and the pilot of a third saved himself only by turning violently as the white and black mass suddenly loomed up before him; the remainder turned back to face the further peril of their first deck landing—assuming they could find the carrier. Fortunately all landed safely. The next day, in better weather, the Squadron establish itself successfully at Bardufoss and flew nearly fifty sorties before the brief Arctic twilight called a halt to operations.

By this time the Allied ground forces were well enough placed—numerically, administratively and geographically—to make their attack on Narvik. The enemy’s frequent air attacks, mounted from Trondheim/Vaernes (and its neighbouring fjords) 400 miles to the south, had made matters unpleasant for our ships, but had not prevented our forces gather strength. Before long, however, these attacks might be many times heavier; for German troops were forcing their way up the coast from Trondheim towards Bodö, where there was flat ground suitable for an airfield within thirty minutes’ flight of Narvik. Tactical as well as strategic considerations therefore dictated an immediate move by the Allied forces. Advanced detachments accordingly attempted to hold the enemy south of Bodö while the assault on Narvik was prepared. The thaw had arrived, and the attack was to begin as soon as the rest of the fighters assigned to the expedition—the Hurricanes of No. 46 Squadron—were established at Skaanland.

The Hurricanes had already made the passage to northern Norway with No. 263 Squadron, and had been sent back because Skaanland was not then ready. They returned to Norway in the Glorious on 26th May. When they came in to land at Skaanland they found the runway soft and patchy, and after three aircraft had gone up on their noses the remainder of the squadron was ordered to join No. 263 at Bardufoss. This meant that both squadrons had to face some fifty miles of mountain mist and cloud before they could appear over Harstad, Narvik or the fleet anchorage at Skaanland. But distance and climate were by no means the only obstacles to efficient operation. A fighter depends not merely on its own powers of performance but on information of the enemy’s movements; and in Norway arrangements for reporting enemy aircraft were primitive in the extreme. the nature of the coast was such that radar could not be installed without the most prolonged trials; the Royal Air Force and Norwegian observer posts, valuable as they were, possessed in such country an extremely restricted field of view; and the W/T and the R/T then in use were ineffective among high iron-bound mountains. Reports over the ordinary telephone system from the observer posts provided useful warning at Harstad and Bardufoss; but the information they gave was neither quick nor continuous enough for fighters to be controlled from the ground, even had the R/T worked properly. For the most part our aircraft were thus forced to rely on the wasteful method of standing patrols.

Despite all these handicaps, No. 263 Squadron had already enjoyed considerable success by the time it was joined by No. 46. For several days the Gladiators had kept up a daily average of over forty sorties to the benefit of Harstad, Skaanland and their own base. What spirit animated their pilots may be seen from one brief episode. At midday on 26th May three Gladiators took off from Bardufoss for Bodö, where a hastily prepared landing ground was now available for the support of our troops resisting the German advance north. The leader was Flight Lieutenant Caesar Hull, an extraordinarily skilful pilot and a lively character for whom, in the words of a fellow-pilot, ‘every night was guest night’; the other two aircraft were flown by Pilot Officer Jack Falkson and Lieutenant Anthony Lydekker, a Fleet Air Arm armament officer with flying experience, who had volunteered to take the place of a sick pilot during the voyage out to Norway. After surviving a few shots from two passing He.111’s en route, the three Gladiators came in to land on the newly constructed runway. They were immediately caught fast in the mud. Frantic taxying brought them to somewhat drier soil, the aircraft were eventually refuelled from four-gallon tins, and the softest patches in the runway were laboriously covered with wooden snow-boards. While this as going on a He.111 appeared on the scene. Disregarding the state of the runway, Lydekker, whose tanks were less full than others, promptly got his aircraft off the ground and engaged. Then Hull and Falkson, who had meanwhile been briefed by Wing Command Maxton, the officer in charge of the landing ground, prepared to follow. Hull’s diary records the events of the new few hours:

The Wing Commander explained that the Army were retreating up a valley east of Bodö, and were being strafed by the Huns all day. Sounded too easy, so I took off just as another Heinkel 111 circled the aerodrome. God! What a take-off! Came unstuck about fifty yards from the end and just staggered over the trees. Jack followed and crashed. I though the expedition was doomed to failure and that I had better to as much damage as I could before landing again to told Tony to land over the blower, and set off towards the valley.

Saw some smoke rising, so investigated, and found a Heinkel 111 at about 600 feet. Attacked it three times, and it turned south with smoke pouring from fuselage and engines. Broke off attack to engage a Junkers 52, which crashed in flames. Saw Heinkel 111 flying south, tried to intercept and failed. Returned and attacked two Junkers 52’s in formation, Number one went into clouds, number two crashed in flames after six people had baled out.

Attacked Heinkel 111 and drive it south with smoke pouring from it. Ammunition finished, so returned to base. The troops were very cheered by the report, and I thought another patrol might produce more fun. The Wing Commander didn’t like the idea of risking another take-off, but after a lot of persuasion he agreed to it. It was quite shattering, in spite of some wooden planks laid across the bad patches.

This time the valley was deserted, and the only thing I could do was amuse the troops by doing some aerobatics. They all cheered and waved madly every time I went down low—I think they imagined that at last we had air control and their worries were over. Vain hope!

The state of the runway made further operations distinctly inadvisable. But some of the troops were being withdrawn by sea during the night, and the tiny Royal Air Force contingent at Bodö was determined to give what help it could. All hands fell to the task of laying down more snow-boards, until these covered almost the entire runway, and an hour before midnight Lydekker took off again. At midnight Hull followed, and in the absence of enemy aircraft amused himself by ‘beating up’ the retiring vessels—much to the delight of the troops. Two hours later he was relieved by Falkson, after which, convinced that further attempts to use the runway would end only in the loss of valuable aircraft, he asked Maxton to call off the patrols. The Wing Commander agreed; and Hull and Lydekker, having despatched a well-earned breakfast, were enjoying—at readiness—the cheering warmth of the morning sunshine, when they experienced something all too familiar to those members of the squadron who had been at Lesjaskog. Hull’s diary again tells the story:

Suddenly at 0800 hours the balloon went up. There were 110’s and 87’s all round and the 87’s started dive-bombing a jetty about 800 yards from the aerodrome. Tony’s aircraft started at once and I waved him off, then after trying mine a bit longer got yellow and together with the fitter made a dive into a nearby barn. From there were watched the dive-bombing in terror until it seemed that they were not actualy concentrating on the aerodrome. Got the Gladiator going and shot off without helmet or waiting to do anything up. Circled the ‘drome climbing and pinned an 87 at the bottom of a dive. It made off slowly over the sea and just as I was turning away another 87 shot up past me and his shots went through me windscreen knocking me out for a while. Cam to, and was thanking my lucky stars when I heard rat-tat behind me and felt my Gladiator hit. Went into right-hand turn and dive but could not get out. Had given up hope at some 200 feet when she centralized and I gave her a burst of engine to clear some large rocks. Further rat-tats from behind, so gave up hope and decided to get her down. Held off, and then crashed.

With Hull out of the combat—and on his way to hospital—Lydekker received the full attention of the enemy. Wounded, and with his aircraft badly shot up, he managed by skilful evasive action to get back to Bardufoss, where his machine was promptly classed as a complete ‘write-off’. All three Gladiators had now been put out of action; but the Luftwaffe was taking no risks. That evening that returned to Bodö in force. He.111’s laid was the town and twelve Ju.87’s and four Me. 110’s made a systematic job of wrecking the runway. So ended the brief history of Bodö landing ground. The attempt to use it had brought about its destruction; but the Gladiators had shot down at least three enemy aircraft, and, at a highly critical moment, had diverted many more attacks on the Allied troops.

While the Luftwaffe was concentrating on Bodö the Allies were beginning the final moves against Narvik. French and Norwegian forces were now firmly establish along the farther side of Rombaks Fjords, north of the Narvik peninsula; and the plan was to cross the Fjord, gaining a footing on the peninsula—where the enemy was in no great strength—and approach the town from the rear. At the same time the Poles would launch an attack in the Ankenes peninsula, to the south. The task of the two fighter squadrons, beginning some hours before the initial assault, was to maintain continuous patrols at a strength of three aircraft over the area of operations.

The patrols during the evening and night of 27th May, when the Allied troops made their landing, were agreeably uneventful. Early the following morning fog descended on Bardufoss, and for a brief spell our aircraft were grounded. During this time the Luftwaffe—which was now reported to have Ju.87 dive-bombers operating from an emergency ground at Mosjöen, only 200 miles to the south—appeared on the scene. The Admiral’s flagship was damaged; then one of our patrols came up and drove away the attacking aircraft. After that the Hurricanes and Gladiators combined with the misty weather to hold off the enemy, and before the day closed Narvik was in Allied hands. Nothing remained but to destroy the facilities of the port—and withdraw.

The destruction was well and truly accomplished. No cargo of iron-ore left Narvik for Germany until January 1941. The evacuation presented problems of greater complexity. In the first place our intention to withdraw had to be kept secret from all except the principal commanders; the remainder—including the Norwegians—were to be encouraged to believe, until the last moment, that we were preparing to move to other bases in Norway. Secondly, to allow time for the arrangements, and to reduce the difficulties in which the Norwegian ground forces would find themselves by a sudden withdrawal of the British, French and Poles, the evacuation was not to begin until 3rd June, and was then to be spread over five days.

The work of the two Royal Air Force squadrons was thus by no means finished. From 29th May to 1st June they were busy, but mainly with single enemy aircraft. Then, on 2nd June, the Luftwaffe arrived in force. Through the day wave after wave of a dozen our shipping and the base at Harstad; but the Gladiators and Hurricanes so harassed every attempt that the German crews either jettisoned their bombs or aimed them wide. By the end of the day the two squadrons had flown seventy-five sorties, fought twenty-four engagements, and brought down at least nine enemy aircraft, all for no loss to themselves. Many of the actions took place in full view of the troops; and General Auchinlek was moved to send a handsome message of thanks.

That evening the Norwegians were informed of our intention to withdrawn, and the following morning the evacuation began. The movement presented a most tempting series of targets, for many of the troops had to be picked up by the local ‘puffers’, taken out to destroyers in the fjords, and then transferred to liners standing off the coast. But a kindly cloak of mist and low cloud concealed the vessels for many hours, and until the last day the enemy’s effort in the air was very small. Such as it was, it was well contained by Nos. 46 and 263 squadrons, and by the aircraft of the Glorious and the Ark Royal, which had returned to take part in the evacuation.

The orders under which the Royal Air Force operated during the final phase were clear and precise. Patrols were to be flown over the vital areas until evacuation was virtually complete; the Gladiators were then to fly on to the Glorious; the Hurricanes, which could not, it was then thought, land on a carrier’s deck, were to be destroyed; and Bardufoss airfield, with the exception of a small strip for the use of the few surviving Norwegian Fokkers, was to be thoroughly demolished. This programme was duly completed, but with one significant exception. The Commanding Officer of No. 46 Squadron, Squadron Leader K. B. Cross, begged that is ten remaining Hurricanes should be allowed to attempt a landing on the Glorious. The risk appeared considerable; for unsuccessful tests had been made with Hurricanes when the squadron was being shipped to Norway, with the result that the aircraft had finally been hoisted abroad from lighters. In Norway, at the tail end of the evacuation, and with their airfield far distant from the waters where the carrier lay, the squadron could clearly not re-embark in the same fashion. The only alternative to destruction was thus to hazard the aircraft and their pilots in a deck-landing. Mindful that Britain stood in need of every Hurricane she could muster, Group Captain Moore agreed to Cross’s request and a call was made for volunteers. Every one of the eighteen pilots responded. So, in the clear Arctic midnight of 7th June, the Hurricanes took off from Bardufoss for their last flight. By then the Gladiators had left, led by Swordfish, and were already stowed away in the Glorious. An hour’s flight and the Hurricanes too came on, each to an admirable landing.

Fate was to mock this last achievement. The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, moving up the Norwegian coast under orders to penetrate the fjords around Narvik, had learnt from air reconnaissance and intercepted wireless messages that traffic was heavy between Northern Norway and Scotland. They had learnt too, that the Glorious and the Ark Royal were at sea. No hunter could neglect so splendid a quarry. The two battlecruisers headed up for the convoy routes, and in the afternoon of 8th June they sighted the Glorious and her attendant pair of destroyers. The German crews, noting with alarm that a number of aircraft were already visible on the flying decks of the carrier, hastened to open fire. Their first salvoes found the mark, and all the valiant efforts of the destroyers could only postpone the end. After two hours the Glorious, blazing furiously, rolled over beneath the waves; and with her went the pilots who had crowned their triumph over the Luftwaffe by their determination to bring their aircraft home. Only Squadron Leader Cross and one other, gaining a Carley float, and defying Arctic cold, the promptings of despair, and the sight of twenty-five of their fellow survivors on the raft dying before their eyes, were picked up later by a passing fishing vessel.

The expeditions to Central and Northern Norway had one fundamental point of difference. The former was conducted form poor bases and along exiguous lines of communication within easy reach of strong forces of the Luftwaffe, and beyond the effective range of the Royal Air Force; it therefore came to swift disaster. The latter was conducted, for most of the time, within effective range of only a single enemy air base, while in its later and more critical stages it enjoyed the protection of Royal Air Force fighters; it had therefore achieved a fair degree of success when the situation on the western front demanded its recall.

This lesson was certainly not ignored by the Commanders concerned, who spoke up with remarkable unanimity of voice. Major General Paget, whose forces could have held on longer had their base at Aandalsnes not been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, wrote thus:

My considered view in the light of experience remains that which I expressed to the D.Q.M.G. before I embarked. It is that the possibility of maintaining any force through the single port of Aandalsnes depended primarily upon whether or not local air superiority could be established and maintained. To that view I would add that, since the necessary degree of air superiority could scarcely be expected to exist throughout the whole length of the line of communication, and since that line was peculiarly vulnerable to both air action and to seasonal changes, the Aandalsnes project was not administratively practicable. Operationally, therefore, it was doomed to failure.

Very similar views were expressed by Major General Carton de Wiart about the fighting at Namsos:

Then came the air situation, which was the dominating factor. We had no A.A. defence at all were completely at the mercy of enemy planes. Only twice in the course of operations did we have any British planes over us, and then the enemy planes cleared off at once.

Lieutenant General Auchinlek, too, though he bore witness to the difference at Harstad when the two Royal Air Force squadrons arrived, was powerfully impressed with the performance of the Luftwaffe in supply Narvik by air, in landing small detachments at strategic positions along the coast, and in blasting our troops out of the Bodö area:

The predominant factor in the recent operations has been the effect of air power … the first general lesson to be drawn is that to commit troops to a campaign in which they cannot be provided with adequate air support is to court disaster.

In all of this General Jodl, in his official report to the Führer, wholeheartedly concurred. ‘The Air Force,’ wrote Jodl, ‘proved to be the decisive factor in the success of the operation.’

The campaign in Norway witnessed the first completely conclusive employment of air power. Around Narvik two squadrons of Royal Air Force fighters held at bay an enemy operating from long range; elsewhere it was the enemy, swiftly and strongly established on all the available airfields, who dictated events. The Royal Air Force at home, too far away, too small, and too much handicapped by the need to conserve its effort for the western front, was unable to intervene effectively. And though there were many purely military factors in our defeat in Central Norway, nearly all of them applied the more sharply because of the presence of an enemy air force which, at the peak-point, employed in Weserübung no less than 615 bombers, fighters and reconnaissance machines, and 650 air transports.

The primary and overriding importance of air power was not new as a conception. The Air Ministry, of course, had harped on it for years; and had always given the clearest warnings, whenever intervention in Scandinavia was discussed, that the Luftwaffe by virtue of its size and proximity to the theatre of operations must enjoy a powerful advantage. If now new as a theory, however, it was new as a fact—new as a fact so abundantly plain, for instance, to the military. And though the Navy had escaped with comparatively light losses for the outstanding work it had accomplished and the many perils it had run, even the saltiest of sea-dogs could, if he chose, now read the writing on the wall.

Footnotes

1 The identifications of these ships are as established from German records. The aircraft at the time reported the class of the vessel, not the identity.

2 This was done by sheer manual labour. Straight did not enjoy the good fortune of a small remnant of the Norwegian Air Force from Vaernes, which was faced with the problem of clearing even deeper snow from a lake in a still less populated district. While the dispirited Norwegians wondered how to begin, three thousand reindeer happened to pass nearby on their annual spring journey from the valleys to the mountains. Their keep, a Lapp with a weakness for strong drink, responded to the bribe of 100 percent alcohol offered by the medical officer—no weaker form being available—and consented to direct his herd across the lake. Following their leader, a highly-trained white reindeer, the beasts dutifully pounded the snow into a hard, compressed mass six inches thick. From this the aircraft could have taken off admirably, had there been any petrol.

3 The skeletons of some of these aircraft could still be seen on the shores of the lake, and protruding above its surface, as late as 1947. They are probably still visible to this day. One machine, recovered from the lake, has been polished up by a pious Norwegian and preserved as a museum-piece in a neighbouring boathouse.

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