German landing in Norway. The picture features German cruiser Blücher sunk later during the Norwegian campaign.



The German invasion of Norway started on 9 April 1940. The day before an Allied submarine to patrol the waters of Skagerrak spotted a strange big vessel going without a flag. Her name was Rio de Janeiro, and the Deutscher Lloyd's register showed that her port of registration was Hamburg. The ship was stopped and her captain was called to report with ship documents aboard the submarine. But it was not until a warning machine-gun series was shot, that the ship lowered a boat and simultaneously submarine's wireless intercepted a hectic call for air support. While the Germans tried to get out of the dangerous trap they were ordered to abandon the ship within fifteen minutes. They still procrastinated though. It was not until the first torpedo, that the dead empty decks got animated. Hundreds of men in feldgrau uniforms rushed out and started jumping into the water. The second torpedo split the ship in halves; within three minutes she disappeared from the sea surface.

This accident frustrated chances for surprise. Some Germans were rescued by Norwegian cutters. The castaways knew the goal of their not-so-peaceful journey: it was Norwegian Bergen. German plans had become clear. Immediately a general mobilization was proclaimed in whole Norway. But it was too late to accomplish it as eleven German invasion flotillas were already steaming for Norwegian coasts. By the evening 9 April they were completely in enemy hands. Small, freshly mobilized Norwegian army could not efficiently resist the invasion. The Norwegian navy gallantly fought until it was almost completely destroyed. The biggest success of this short but resolute campaign was sinking of the German heavy cruiser Blücher in Oslofjord.

The German attack took place at the time, when the Allies already had resolved to occupy Norway. They just needed a good pretext. The Germans did it without a pretext. They brought their fleet to Norwegian coasts almost without losses, but Rio de Janeiro, and disembarked troops in all the important places of the country. The ships were sailing out at different times, sometimes alone, and their routes were scheduled in the way that at the same hour they had reached various places, at times located a thousand miles away, on the very long and complex Norwegian coast. It was a perfectly accomplished operation. Somewhat by the way, and practically without a shot, was occupied Denmark. Unfortunately, little good may be said about the Allied counter-action. It was actually prompt, but chaotic and first of all carried out with too little forces usually deprived of adequate air support.

Yet on 10 April at dawn a squadron of British destroyers attacked German ships gathered in Ofotfjord near Narvik. Each side lost two destroyers and the squadron commander. Three days after the British attacked again in the same place and this time sank all the German ships. Altogether the Germans lost in two battles in Ofotfjord (also known as battles of Narvik) ten destroyers, one submarine and many transport vessels, and their land troops operating in the vicinity of Narvik found themselves without artillery support. They compensated it with seizure of the mobilization centre of the Norwegian 13th Division in Bjerkvik. They found a use for captured weapon and equipment: when the sailors from sunken ships started to gather on the shores, they were given Norwegian uniforms and Norwegian rifles. Later they were fighting the Allies as infantry.

The Allied intervention in Norway started on 14 April from British and French troops' landing in Harstad, on island Hinnoy north-west to Narvik, and in Namsos in central Norway. Within next days further troops landed in Andalsnes and Alesund. A combined attack from Namsos and from Andalsnes-Alesund had to take Trondheim - one of the biggest Norwegian ports and simultaneously an important road and railway junction. This attack however had brought a total fiasco. The Germans also attacked from Oslo to Trondheim and were about to push Allied troops down to the sea. They enjoyed absolute supremacy in the air while the Allied landing was supported by only one squadron, maximum 18 planes, of obsolete biplanes Gloster Gladiator. No wonder, that on 27 April an order to retreat was issued and Allied forces left this part of Norway by the beginning of May.

A completely different situation had occurred in Narvik. It was a port of capital importance: from there the iron ore was exported to Germany from Swedish mines in Gallivare, linked with Narvik by a railway. In Narvik port, the only all-weather ice-free outlet in Far North, the ore was loaded to the ships. The sea communication with Germany along the Norwegian coast during the first war months was completely uninterrupted, since Norway tried to maintain by any means not only her neutrality, but also good relations with Germany. After Norway's occupation the seafaring in her waters would be even safer.

The first units from the Allied expeditionary corps landed in Harstad on 14 April. Those were three battalions of the British royal guard, three battalions of French alpine rifles and two battalions from the French Foreign Legion. On 7 May, after several days of wandering in the open sea, arrived in Harstad four battalions from the Polish Podhalańska Independent Rifle Brigade. The command over the corps was assigned to a British General, Adrian Carton de Wiart, a veteran of the First World War, during which he lost an eye and an arm; then he spent twenty years on diplomacy and private business. The corps was supported by several Norwegian battalions on the land and a navy division on the sea: battleship Resolution, three cruisers, three anti-aircraft cruisers, aircraft carrier Ark Royal and a squadron of destroyers. The corps possessed some field artillery, which proved useless in the mountains, which require rather mortars, as well as a dozen of tanks, which also could not be made use of.

A former secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and a leading British and NATO strategist, Lt.Gen. Hastings Lionel Ismay wrote in his memoirs that

for more than three centuries it had been one of the most cherished and consistent features of British foreign policy to prevent the ports of northern Europe falling into the hands of a great military power. It was primarily for that reason that we had fought Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Kaiser Wilhelm the Second. (...) Possession of the Swedish ore fields is the main objective of the whole of the operations in Scandinavia. [Ismay H. L. Baron (1960).]

This remark illustrates the importance of the battle for Narvik. Nevertheless this task was assigned to the force created literally hastily. In late autumn 1939 in Paris was concocted an idea to send auxiliary troops to Finland. But neither the French nor especially the British government wanted to openly declare a war on the Soviet Union. So they had decided to use the Poles, the French Foreign Legion and Canadian volunteers. Although the best units were pulled out to comprise the expeditionary corps, military specialists sceptically estimated the whole enterprise, which way too much resembled a proverbial pulling the chestnuts out of the fire with somebody else's hands. Indeed, the Soviet-Finnish war was over by 13 March 1940 and the expeditionary corps was assigned to another task: to seize control of the port of Narvik.

As the troops disembarked in Norway all the results of their hectic formation showed up in full. It seemed that the port authorities in Brest kept in mind only one idea: to use the ships' hold space as much as possible. Then in Norway it turned out for example, that the whole ammunition was stored with one battalion while other battalions were completely deprived of it. Units used to miss machine-guns, stretchers, field kitchens. It used to happen that a unit was loaded to one ship, its equipment to another, ant then both ships were dispatched to different, sometimes distant, places. Some battalions were disembarked as far as 70km one away from another, although the corps had to act as a whole entity. Then soldiers had to cover those distances on foot. Moreover the day in spring in that corner of the world lasts almost 20 hours and the air activities used to cease only for few hours. Whereas the service in troops used to start at dawn. It constituted mostly patrolling the terrain and shores where existed a menace of further German landings. On 15 May first prisoners of war were taken: a dozen of paratroopers including two officers. Two days before Polish units took part in retaking of Bjerkvik. They were brought there from Hinnoy island; before the fights they had to make a long, exhausting march in the mountains. And it is worth to notice that the Podhalańska Brigade despite of its name had nothing common with alpine rifles and had no experience of fights in the mountainous terrain.

After the retaking of Bjerkvik the French commander over units in northern Norway, General Antoine Marie Émile Bethouart, had deemed that the basis had been created for the main task, which was retaking of Narvik. For this operation he had amassed all his troops with few units left in reserve. The Polish Brigade was deployed on the Ankenes peninsula, which with its hills dominated over Beisfjord right across Narvik peninsula. The hills there are as high as 700m above the sea level. The fights on Ankenes, waged while the order to attack against Narvik was awaited, stretched on several days. In their course the Poles were reinforced by the British royal guards, alpine rifles battalion and an artillery battery.

The date of the decisive attack on Narvik was delayed for many reasons. First the whole naval forces designated to support the operation were engaged in fights for Mo and Bodo, where the British royal guards in heavy fights tried to halt German advance aimed to help their garrison in Narvik. Then the Allies badly missed an air support while the enemy had introduced to fights new types of excellent combat machines, like the formidable Messerschmitt Bf-110. It was not until the end of May that a squadron of modern British planes arrived in Norway. Besides the Allies experienced the lack of landing equipment. And as the Allied command gradually improved supplies, as the strategic situation slowly improved, the German defence strengthened. The German commander, Gen. Eduard Dietl, received considerable reinforcements with airborne units as well as so-called "Red Cross workers", who were simply and comfortably travelling in passenger trains from Berlin to the Norwegian border via neutral Sweden.

Eventually the general attack started at midnight 27/28 May. It was supported by artillery fire from two cruisers and five destroyers. The Polish brigade struck against Ankenes and Beisfjord located on the shores of the fjord with the same name. From these two little hamlets the Allies could control Narvik's immediate approaches. In Ankenes the whole day's bloody fights did not bring any success but in Beisfjord the Germans were thrown out from their positions. Simultaneously the French Foreign Legion was waging a battle for passages across Rombakenfjord but was halted by the Germans. Nevertheless by evening the French seized the hill No.457 dominating over the port, whereas the Poles seized Beisfjord and the hill No.650 from where they menaced to cut out the troops on the Narvik peninsula. At 22:00 Norwegian battalions started landing in Narvik as the Germans began to withdraw. The battle for Narvik was won.

But the Narvik victory had turned useless as on those very days, towards the end of May, the France's collapse clearly began to shape. The Allied expeditionary corps started its evacuation. On 31 May the orders to evacuate came to Narvik. The troops had to cease their pursuit from Beisfjord to Sildvik on the Swedish border. They started evacuation on 3 June and by 8 June embarked on ships together with other units. The Germans did not expect such a turnout; quite a contrary, they were prepared to cross the Swedish border and were hecticly destroying their equipment. It was not until 8 June that some German patrol, which ventured as far as to the Allied positions, had spotted there only mocks and helmets on sticks imposting soldiers on their action stations.

On the way back to France the ships with Allied troops entered Greenock. If they had had disembarked there, they would have been spared the misery of France's defeat. Unfortunately, orders dispatched them farther to France. It may be a matter of dispute, whether the corps' commanders could disobey the orders. Perhaps it would be possible in case of a General of an extraordinary courage and imagination, but one must keep in mind that to a responsible officer breach of orders is always a very difficult decision. Anyway, they made their way to Brittany, where they found themselves in the chaos of France's collapse and were dispersed. After all what could they fight with but rifles, as they were ordered to destroy all their equipment in Norway?

The occupation of Norwegian fjords let the Germans to install there their air and naval bases. From there they could reach easier than hitherto British communication routes in the North Atlantic, and in further future also convoy routes from Britain and America to the Soviet northern ports.

The Norwegian campaign had also brought a political result, which was the collapse of Mr. Chamberlain's government. The first of the British capitulationists was accused, after all very rightfully, in political negligence, which led to strategic surprise, and had to step out on 10 May. His office was taken over by an outstanding British statesman, former cavalry officer, journalist and historian, and acting First Lord of Admiralty, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill. Since long he had been known as an eager opponent of the Munich policy, the policy of capitulation before Hitler's Germany. Therefore his assignment to the post of the leader of His Majesty's Government clearly indicated the Britons' greater determination.