With Winston Churchill’s direction, a plan was put together to carry out a raid against German positions on the island of Vaagso. It would not be the first time that commandos had visited Norway. A raid had already taken place earlier in the year much further to the north, called Operation Claymore, when 3 and 4 Commandos landed on the Lofoten Islands. On that occasion the raid had targeted a number of fish-oil factories to disrupt the enemy’s glycerine production and had proved to be a resounding success. A number of enemy vessels had been destroyed and more than 200 prisoners taken, while the returning commandos had been joined by more than 300 local volunteers wishing to escape to Britain.
The raid on the Lofoten Islands had provided the newly formed commandos with a much needed boost. It had also been given great publicity back in Britain to raise the morale of a public suffering the full extent of the Blitz, but it had fallen short in terms of a great amphibious operation, which the commandos had been formed and trained to undertake. While some might have considered a bloodless encounter against an undefended position to be a good operation, others felt what was needed was a commando raid of some magnitude, and one that was a truly combined and amphibious operation.
Ideally, Churchill wanted a raid on Trondheim to take some pressure off the Russians on the Eastern Front, and to provide a welcome break for the Royal Navy convoys heading for the Arctic port of Murmansk, but the British were not capable of making such a large-scale raid at that stage of the war. Nonetheless, Mountbatten wanted to make an impact for his first operation and was keen to go as far as he could towards meeting the prime minister’s wish. And so a raid was planned against enemy positions on the small island of Vaagso – lying on the northern side of the mouth of the Nordfjorden between Bergen and Trondheim, and marking the entrance to a system of fjords in which the German Navy had established anchorages – and its tiny neighbouring island of Maaloy. The area was home to German coastal gun batteries and a garrison of over 200 troops and the raid, called Operation Archery, was to be the first truly Combined Operation of the war.
Overall responsibility for the naval contribution to Archery was given to Rear Admiral Harold Burrough, while Brigadier Charles Haydon, the commander of the Special Service Brigade, was given command of the non-naval aspects of the raid. Chosen to carry out the assault was 3 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater.
Durnford-Slater was 32 years old. He had raised 3 Commando, credited as the first commando unit of the war, and had led the unit’s two earlier raids; the first being on Guernsey in July 1940, called Operation Ambassador – a raid that ended up with no military gain but had proved useful for its planning and operational experience – and the second being Operation Claymore. His raiding force for Archery was to be augmented by two troops from 2 Commando and a small detachment from each of 4 Commando (to provide medical support) and the Norwegian Independent Company 1, led by Captain Martin Linge.
Amongst the many objectives of Archery were the destruction of a coastal battery and enemy barracks, the elimination of the enemy at their strongpoint at Hollevik and in the town of South Vaagso and on Maaloy, and to engage any enemy reinforcements. The raiders would also destroy the fish-oil factories and stores to prevent the German manufacture of high explosives, and destroy any enemy shipping at anchorage in Vaagsfjord. It was also hoped the commandos would bring back some enemy prisoners and Quislings (members of the Norwegian collaborationist government under the German occupation and named after the leader Vidkun Quisling) and provide passage to Britain for any Norwegian volunteers wishing to join the Norwegian Army of Liberation. Furthermore, it was hoped that a large raid of this type would result in the enemy having to maintain, or even increase, its forces in the area; forces that might otherwise be deployed to the Eastern Front.
With a total force of some 570 commandos, Durnford-Slater divided his men into five main groups. The plan was for the first group to land to the north of the town of South Vaagso and to prevent any reinforcements from reaching the town once the attack was underway. The second group would land to the south of the town at Hollevik and deal with the battery and enemy strongpoint known to be there. The two main assault groups were Groups Three and Four. Durnford-Slater would lead Group Four, consisting of four troops of commandos, a total of 200 men, with the task of carrying out all the objectives in South Vaagso. His second-in-command, Major ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill, would lead Group Three with two troops under his command, a hundred men, tasked with attacking the enemy gun battery, barracks and ammunition store on the neighbouring island of Maaloy. A fifth group would be held back on the troop transports as a reserve.
The commandos left their base at Largs in mid-December. On arrival at Gourock on the Clyde they boarded their two troop transport ships, the converted Belgian ferries HMS Charles and HMS Leopold. They then sailed to Scapa Flow to begin planning for the raid, although the exact location of the target was kept from the men before they left for their setting-off post in the Shetlands on Christmas Eve. Then, having enjoyed Christmas Day on board, the two troop transports left the Shetlands with their naval escort the following evening.
Meanwhile, 12 Commando was carrying out a diversionary raid against the Lofoten Islands, called Operation Anklet, and just before dawn on 27 December the troop transports carrying Durnford-Slater’s men approached the western coast of Norway. Having picked up the guiding light marking the approach to the Vaagsfjord, which had been provided by the submarine HMS Tuna, the ships sailed on towards their drop-off point.
As daylight started to break, Hampden light bombers of RAF Bomber Command carried out an attack on the coastal battery and anti-aircraft gun positions, while six Blenheims attacked shipping off the Norwegian coast to draw off any enemy fighters, and a dozen more Blenheims carried out a low-level raid against a German fighter airfield nearby.
By now the commandos had boarded their landing craft and were running in towards their targets. The Hampdens now lay a smokescreen for protection while star shells fired from the naval ships illuminated the area as the commandos approached the shore, just at the point when the final shells of the naval bombardment crashed into the enemy’s defences. Then, when the landing craft were just a minute or so from landing, the red Verey lights fired by Durnford-Slater instructed the naval bombardment to cease.
The commando landings that followed went much as planned. Being winter and quite far north, the short hours of daylight meant that the attack could not start too early and so it was already past 9.00 am. Furthermore, it would get dark again around mid-afternoon, so there was not much time.
On the tiny island of Maaloy, Churchill, already a holder of the Military Cross from his days at Dunkirk, lived up to his name of ‘Mad Jack’ as he led his men ashore playing the bagpipes as he went. The naval barrage had been so effective that Churchill’s group met little resistance. Less than fifteen minutes later the fighting was over, and within an hour of landing on the island the last of the enemy had been rounded up. The raiders had taken their objectives without suffering any casualties or losses.
Unfortunately for Durnford-Slater’s group, it had not been quite so straightforward. The barrage had done its job and the landing had been unopposed, but the soft snow, sometimes deep in parts, and the extreme cold had meant that it was not easy going. As Durnford-Slater led his men down the main street into the town they came across fierce opposition. The commandos had come under heavy machine-gun fire, as well as fire from snipers who had positioned themselves amongst the houses. Unfortunately for the commandos, the timing of their raid had coincided with an experienced German mountain unit enjoying a period of leave from the Eastern Front in the town.
The fighting soon deteriorated into congested street fighting and sniping. Durnford-Slater decided to signal the ships to send in the fifth group of commandos that had remained on board as reserves. He also called for reinforcements from Churchill’s group on Maaloy, where the fighting was already over.
Churchill sent the troop led by Captain Peter Young, a veteran of Dunkirk and now taking part in his third operation with the commandos. Young’s troop arrived in the town to find Durnford-Slater’s group pinned down and having suffered serious casualties. Two of the group’s four troop leaders were dead. Captain Herbert Forrester, a giant of a man and a great rugby player and heavyweight boxer, was killed while storming a heavily defended hotel being used by the enemy as its headquarters, and 23-year-old Captain Johnny Giles fell when a burst of machine-gun fire cut him down as he was clearing houses. Furthermore, the commander of the Norwegian Independent Company attached to one of the troops, Martin Linge, was also dead; he had been killed during the same attack against the hotel as Forrester. Three more officers had been badly wounded.
There was little or no space for the commandos to try and outflank the enemy positions. Snow-covered hilly terrain to one side of the town and the fjord on the other meant the enemy were well protected on their flanks and had now got into firmly established defensive positions. It was now, more than ever, that Durnford-Slater demonstrated his strong leadership. With so many of his officers down, the attack was in great danger of stalling but he succeeded in rallying his men, superbly assisted by his very capable non-commissioned officers, many of whom had now taken over command of their men.
Showing great personal courage and complete coolness under heavy enemy fire, Durnford-Slater led his men forward. They had now been boosted by the arrival of reinforcements and were ably assisted by the local Norwegians, who carried ammunition for the raiders and helped with the wounded.
The commandos slowly made their way up the main street and through warehouses along the wharf. Peter Young and another junior officer, Lieutenant Denis O’Flaherty, led their men with great courage and determination as the commandos moved from building to building and house to house. The combination of intense enemy fire from both sides and the wooden construction of the buildings meant that many fires had broken out. Flames raged through houses and buildings where enemy snipers had been dug-in. They had held up the commandos for some considerable time but were now gradually removed one by one as buildings burnt to the ground. Finally, having destroyed four fish factories in the northern part of the town and a herring-oil factory on the far edge of the town, as well as enemy ammunition and fuel stores, and the telephone exchange, Durnford-Slater’s men linked up with the first group that had landed further to the north and had now made their way to the edge of the town.
It had taken Durnford-Slater’s group into the early hours of the afternoon to reach the northern part of the town. Then, having swept through the area, he knew that it was time to start withdrawing south again to where the landing craft would be waiting to take them back to the ships. With less than six hours ashore it was only ever meant to be a hit-and-run raid, although enemy resistance had turned out to be far heavier than anticipated. As the commandos made their way back towards the landing craft they still came across areas of resistance, which had to be dealt with before they could leave.
While the main action had been going on ashore, the naval assault force of HMS Kenya and four destroyers had sunk ten enemy vessels in the fjord. Royal Navy boarding parties had also managed to secure some important documents, including enemy codes. No Royal Navy ships were lost, but four naval men had been killed and four more wounded. The Hampdens and Blenheims of Bomber Command had remained active overhead, attacking several targets of opportunity outside of the town to support the raid, but the RAF had also suffered losses. Eight of the twenty-nine aircraft dispatched were lost.
By mid-afternoon the commandos were back on board the landing craft with nearly a hundred prisoners and four Quislings, plus more than seventy new recruits for the Norwegian Army of Liberation. The voyage back to Britain soon passed and the commandos were welcomed back as heroes; news of the successful raid had already been given huge publicity back home.
The raid was considered a great success, particularly the combined aspects where, for the first time, all three Services had planned and operated together to achieve the same aim. Many factories, stores and buildings had been destroyed, as well as the ten vessels sunk in the fjord, and an estimated 150 of the enemy had been killed. The commandos had also taken back enemy prisoners and Quislings, plus Norwegian volunteers, and the valuable enemy codes that had been captured. But it had cost the commandos dear, with seventeen men killed and more than fifty wounded. There had also been the loss of Martin Linge, the leader of the Norwegian Independent Company attached to the commandos for the raid, a loss that was particularly devastating for the Norwegians, while both the Royal Navy and RAF had suffered a number of casualties.
For his leadership of the raid, John Durnford-Slater was awarded the DSO. He had demonstrated personal courage, complete coolness and a quick grasp of the situation while inspiring his men and ensuring that all the objectives were achieved. Amongst other awards for the raid were a DSO to Denis O’Flaherty, who had been wounded during the action, a bar to his MC for ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill and an MC to Peter Young.
In the aftermath of the raid the Germans were concerned that Britain might try and mount a full-scale invasion of Norway and so diverted an estimated 30,000 troops to the region and increased their coastal defences. Archery had, indeed, been a great success.