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Background to the Norway Campaign in World War II

John Gethin Morgan-Owen was involved in Norway in WWII.

At the beginning of World War II much of the high-grade Swedish iron ore bound for Germany passed through the Norwegian ice-free port of Narvik, and could continue to do so as long as Norway remained neutral. The ore was a key element for the production of high-quality steel, and therefore critical to the armaments industries of both Great Britain and Germany. There were major differences of opinion amongst politicians and military leaders in Britain as to how to deal with this problem. Churchill’s opinion of the neutral countries was that Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, that the crocodile will eat him last. After diplomat efforts to halt the supplies failed, early in April 1940 Churchill's proposal to lay mines in Norwegian waters was carried out; he was then First Lord of the Admiralty.

Because Norway represented such an important strategic location, Britain and Germany both decided to violate Norwegian neutrality at almost the same time. Unknown to the other side, and only hours apart, Britain and Germany dispatched large fleets to Norwegian waters. Tension over Norway had been mounting - Quisling had sought Hitler’s support and the British had boarded the German ship “Altmark” which had been sheltering in a Norwegian fjord and released the 299 British personnel on board – so it was hardly surprising that this was also the moment when the crocodile decided to show its teeth. Germany also launched a land assault and, though Norwegian forces resisted stoically, the Germans quickly occupied the south of the country.

At this time most of the British troops were committed elsewhere but from the less than two divisions left in Britain some were sent to Scotland to train for assaults on Norway. 2/SWB was attached to 24 Guards Brigade, and became part of a small allied force which included a Polish Brigade and some of the French Foreign Legion and Chasseurs Alpins, that was sent to the aid of the Norwegian army north of the Arctic Circle. It was not until 18 April, three days after the traitor Quisling had been ousted, that the Norwegian government, in the shape of the new "Administrative Council", officially declared war on Germany. By then some Allied troops had landed without the permission of the Norwegian government but had found Norwegian troops in the area very cooperative. 2/SWB landed at Harstad in the north of Norway three days later on 21 April 1940.

Harstad is some 96km from Narvik, and separated from the port by a sea channel and snow-covered mountains. The battalion moved in Norwegian fishing boats to the Ankenes Peninsula opposite Narvik where they were to support a drive towards Narvik by the Chasseurs Alpins. The Germans had captured Narvik on 9-10 April.

This whole Norway Campaign was ill prepared and mismanaged; clothing to combat the cold barely allowed movement, there was a shortage of munitions and there were no anti-aircraft, guns skis or snowshoes. The men and equipment of 146th Territorial Brigade had been on two ships one of which was diverted from Narvik to Namsos, midway down the east coast, whilst its CO aboard the other ship sailed on to Narvik, as did some of the brigade’s equipment. Those who were redirected had no maps of the Namsos area. So difficult were conditions when unloading the ships with constant enemy strafing and bombing from the air that some equipment was never unloaded and returned to England. Fortunately the Chasseurs Alpins had some appropriate equipment and were better trained for the conditions. Other equipment had to be requisitioned locally.

It must have been a particularly gruelling experience. Desmond Spencer Gordon of the Green Howards – he was later to command 146 Brigade - said of the weather conditions there that they varied from the difficult to the impossible. Travelling sometimes involved crossing mountainous terrain, covered with deep snow, intersected by fjords and with few roads. Since the Luftwaffe had complete command of the air Allied troops were constantly harassed by bombing and strafing, as were their bases.

Neville Chamberlain's announcement, not long before the Germans occupied South Norway, that Hitler had missed the bus had proved to be ill judged and a censure motion in the House of Commons on 7 and 8 May was followed by his resignation. Winston Churchill whose political career had almost ended after Gallipoli – he was then First Lord of the Admiralty and held by many to be responsible – now found himself Prime Minister.

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