Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: How the Allies Botched the Opening Round of WW II in Western Europe

Map Showing German Invasions of Denmark and Norway and Subsequent Allied Counter-invasion of Norway — April-June 1940 — Source: Google Images
Map Showing German Invasions of Denmark and Norway and Subsequent Allied Counter-invasion of Norway — April-June 1940 — Source: Google Images

After watching Atlantic Crossing , a Norwegian produced miniseries on the experience of Norway in World War II and the very close (and possibly romantic) relationship between Crown Princess Martha and FDR, I decided to revisit the often overlooked first campaign of the war in the West. I have previously written about the myths and misconceptions surrounding Hitler’s subsequent invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern France but the Danish-Norwegian campaign has its share of those as well.

There aren’t a lot of books on the topic but I found a very good one in the late Richard Petrow’s (1929–2017) The Bitter Years: The Invasion and Occupation of Denmark and Norway April 1940-May 1945. Petrow was a native New Yorker, like myself and at one time chairperson of NYU’s Department of Journalism. My article will focus on the nearly simultaneous German and Allied invasions and the background leading up to them, leaving a discussion of the subsequent German occupations of Denmark and Norway and resistance to them for another time.

As a professor of journalism, Petrow was especially clued in to the propaganda aspects of the humiliating defeat suffered by the Danes, Norwegians, British, French, which they all felt difficult to accept. Myths were spun and fervently believed that the Scandinavian countries could not have been defeated merely by stronger German forces, better strategy or more daring battlefield tactics; something else must have been afoot, as Petrow writes, “something secret, sinister and shameful.” The basic explanation for the German victory eventually incorporated a series of conspiracies and treacheries into a complex and logical theory of defeat. German successes in the field must have been based on a staggering amount of military intelligence collected in the 1930s, by officers posing as attaches, consuls, tourists, explorers, travelers, students and commercial agents, aided and abetted by a domestic Fifth Column of traitors. But as Petrow notes, although Germany did, of course, have agents scattered throughout Scandinavia, as it had in other European countries, the military intelligence available when planning for the invasion was in fact woefully inadequate.

Both Denmark and Norway had managed to remain neutral during World War I and they were hopeful of being able to do the same as war clouds began to darken over Europe in the late 30s. In their favor was the fact that Hitler’s overriding goal after the successful completion of the September 1939 Polish campaign, was an immediate attack in the West to knock France out of the war. Hitler could then perhaps make peace with Britain, thus securing his western flank, so he could then turn his attention to the real prize: the Soviet Union. It was Gross Admiral Erich Raeder who first looked to Scandinavia as a possible sphere of action. Raeder and other naval leaders viewed Norway, in particular, as the key to a German victory at sea. They considered the experience of World War I, where Britain’s blockade and mining of the North Sea had severely limited the operations of the Imperial Navy. If Germany had acquired bases in Norway, Britain’s “hunger blockade” might have been broken and German surface ships allowed to operate in the Atlantic.

Gross Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the German Kriegsmarine from 1935 to 1943, the first to argue for an occupation of Norway Source: Google Images
Gross Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the German Kriegsmarine from 1935 to 1943, the first to argue for an occupation of Norway Source: Google Images
Gross Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the German Kriegsmarine from 1935 to 1943, the first to argue for an occupation of Norway — Source: Google Images

Another factor which turned the German admiralty’s eyes northward was the fact that their country’s sole supply of vital iron ore came from Swedish fields via the Norwegian port of Narvik. As early as October 1939, Raeder attempted to make the case for the occupation of Norway but Hitler’s mind was still focused on the invasion to Germany’s more immediate west. Norway was of secondary importance if not an unwelcome distraction.

But the Norway’s strategic significance also occupied the minds of the British. On September 19, 1939, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill proposed to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the War Cabinet that British ships lay a minefield in Norwegian territorial waters to force German iron ore ships into international waters, where they could be stopped, seized or sunk by the Royal Navy. Despite Churchill’s urging, the Cabinet took no action. Churchill tried again in November and got the Cabinet to agree to mine the North Sea but not Norwegian territorial waters, opting instead for a study on the economic and military consequences of such a move. But before the study could be completed, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, inserting a new factor into the Scandinavian question.

The Soviet invasion produced mass sympathy for the Finns in both Britain and France (and the still neutral United States). On December 11, Churchill asked his colleagues what the British response would be if the Soviets followed up their attack on Finland with attacks on Sweden and Norway. The Foreign Office replied that the Soviets would not dare do so for fear that the Norwegians and Swedes might call upon German assistance. Churchill, undaunted, again pushed for the mining of Norwegian territorial waters. He acknowledged that this could not be accomplished without violating Norwegian neutrality but brushed aside all objections saying, “Small nations must not tie our hands when we are fighting for their rights and freedom.”

It was France that next suggested the dispatch of a joint Anglo-French force to assist Finland. It was assumed that because of their own pro-Finnish sympathies, Norway and Sweden would permit the passage of this force through their territories. The Russo-Finnish conflict also made Hitler fearful that the Allies might use it as an excuse to establish bases in Norway under the guise of assisting Finland. This made Hitler more inclined to listen to Raeder, who also now had support from the Norwegian Nazi Vidkun Quisling, who was in Berlin seeking German support for a coup d’etat. Quisling was a former Norwegian Army officer, who had briefly served as minister of defense in 1931. He had maintained close ties with Alfred Rosenberg, the “philosopher of the Nazi movement,” throughout the 1930s and founded the Nasjonal Samling (National Union) Party, though its membership was miniscule and it had failed to gain a single seat in the Norwegian Parliament. Hitler met personally with Quisling on December 14 and was impressed enough to order a two alternative plans for a Norwegian invasion. One would entail a coup carried out by Quisling with minor support from German forces, the other a full-scale military occupation. Quisling himself was kept in the dark about this.

Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945), the Norwegian Nazi leader, who’s name became synonymous with traitor for selling out his country — Source Google Images
Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945), the Norwegian Nazi leader, who’s name became synonymous with traitor for selling out his country — Source Google Images
Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945), the Norwegian Nazi leader, who’s name became synonymous with traitor for selling out his country — Source Google Images

The Allies also made their plans to invade Scandinavia. A meeting of the Supreme War Council was convened in Paris on February 5 to agree on a joint final policy. There Chamberlain argued that, as the defeat of Germany was their primary interest, the correct Allied strategy in Scandinavia was to combine aid to the Finns with a thrust at the Swedish iron ore fields. Three or four regular Allied divisions were deemed necessary for the operation, though the might be disguised as “volunteers.” France would also contribute a specially trained Alpine Brigade and a brigade of Polish exiles would be part of the effort as well. The invasion forces, under British command, would make landings at the major port cities of Trondheim and Narvik. At this juncture, the capture of the German fuel supply tanker Altmark, which had earlier served the doomed pocket battleship Graf Spee, by the Royal navy in Norwegian territorial waters, gave a sense of urgency to the preparations for war under way in both Berlin and London.

The Altmark incident convinced Hitler that Great Britain would not respect Norwegian neutrality and that Norway itself could not be counted on to oppose British violations of its territorial waters. He accelerated the pace of planning for the simultaneous invasions of both Norway and Denmark under the operational name Weseruebung (Weser Exercise). The operation was put under the command of Lt. Gen. Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, a corps commander whose primary qualification for the job seemed to stem from a few months service with German forces in Finland in 1918. Until summoned by Hitler, Falkenhorst had no previous knowledge of planning for the invasions, yet on the day they first met around 1 p.m., Hitler ordered the general to provide his preliminary operational plan by 5 p.m. the same day! Falkenhorst came up with a simple plan to dispatch one Army division to each of Norway’s five principal harbors: Olso, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik. Falkenhorst also proposed a full military occupation of Denmark.

In March, news that Finland has capitulated to the Soviets caused both the Allies and Germany to temporarily pull back from the brink of war in Scandinavia. But the Germans made the first move on April 9th, which was designated “Weser Day.” The Danes were militarily weak and utterly unprepared for the invasion. In fact, after the German invasion of Poland, Denmark had actually cut its ground forces by more than 50 %, thereby earning the dubious distinction of being the only European country to weaken its defenses at a time when possible danger to the country was growing. Danish border defenses were practically nonexistent. German units fell upon Denmark exactly on schedule, delivering simultaneously timed attacks on Jutland, Copenhagen and the strategic island of Fyn. Danish units offered only token resistance before falling back from the German assault. The German advance was aided by pro-Nazi Danes, who helped direct units to their destinations, many of them wearing Nazi armbands, giving the stiff armed salute and “Heil Hitler” greeting. As German bombers flew over Copenhagen just to show the Danes what might happen if they continued to resist, King Christian X and his government bowed to the inevitable and capitulated. The invasion of Denmark lasted less than six hours and was the shortest military campaign conducted by the Germans during the war.

The attack on Norway proved to be much more difficult for several reasons. The first was that the Germans would have to face to more powerful British Royal Navy in attempting landings in Norway. By the evening of April 8th, British and German naval units were strung out along the whole length of the Norwegian coast, each aware that the enemy was at at sea but uncertain of each other’s precise strength, position, direction or intention. It would merely be a matter of chance if contact was made but it was in the waters off Narvik early in the morning on April 9th. Weseruebung’s naval commander, Admiral Gunther Luetjens ordered the destroyers under his command to make a run for Narvik, while he on his flagship Gneisenau broke northwest in a diversionary move, accompanied by the battleship Scharnhorst. The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were sighted by a lookout on the British battlecruiser Renown, which did not have radar. The Renown scored several direct hits on the Gneisenau, while suffering only minor damage herself, while the Scharnorst, though not hit, had its forward turret flooded by the huge swells off the Norwegian coastline. Luetjens ordered both of his ships to beat a hasty retreat.

The Gneisenau, flagship of Operation Weseruebung’s naval commander, Admiral Gunther Luetjens — Source: Google Images
The Gneisenau, flagship of Operation Weseruebung’s naval commander, Admiral Gunther Luetjens — Source: Google Images
The Gneisenau, flagship of Operation Weseruebung’s naval commander, Admiral Gunther Luetjens — Source: Google Images

The second problem for the Germans was that Norway actually had a real army and navy, however inferior these might have been, and that the Norwegians also intended to resist the long enough for the Allies to arrive on the scene to lend critical assistance. One of the high points of early Norwegian resistance was when the torpedo batteries of the Oscarsborg Fortress, which guarded the narrows below the capital city of Olso, destroyed and sunk the cruiser Bluecher, which had been carrying a general and 1,000 German troops. Though the fortress itself dated back to the 1850s and its guns to the early 1900s, it still packed a deadly punch and delayed the occupation of Oslo. Nevertheless by the conclusion of April 9th, all of Norway’s major ports, including Olso, had been captured.

Though he had no advance knowledge of the German invasion, Vidkun Quisling also made his move to take power on April 9th. With the aide of Hans Wilhelm Scheidt, a personal emissary of Quisling’s longtime Nazi Party backer, Alfred Rosenberg, Quisling broadcast a message to the Norwegian people at 7:30 pm on April 9th telling them that the Germans were there to help Norway fend off the Allied violation of its neutrality and that resistance was not only futile but would result in the criminal destruction of life and property. Though both the German Foreign Minister in Oslo, Curt Brauer and his boss Joachim von Ribbentrop in Berlin thought Quisling was a joke, Hitler was so euphoric over the progress being made that he decided to back Quisling and ordered Brauer to do so. On April 10th, Brauer met with Haakon VII to try to persuade the king to capitulate. Haakon in turn presented a formal written message to his government refusing to appoint Quisling as prime minister and vowing to abdicate if German demands were met. The Germans reacted violently to Haakon’s refusal to surrender, sending bombers over the village of Nybergsund, where the king and his government were holed up. The Germans hoped to kill the obstinate king, his son and heir, toOlav and their advisors but they all escaped in time to a nearby forest and survived the attack.

General Otto Ruge, the commander-in-chief of the Norwegian Army knew his troops could not prevail in all-out battles with the superior equipped Germans, so he ordered them to hold their ground as long as possible but to withdraw when they faced being overwhelmed. As the Norwegians retreated into the interior of their country, a third problem confronted the Germans: Norway’s mountainous terrain, coupled with the fact that there was still deep snow in many places in April. Here resistance stiffened in the narrow valleys where though outgunned, the Norwegians had the upper hand.

Now, the fourth problem for the Germans came into play as the Allies were finally beginning to gather something resembling an expeditionary force, albeit at a pace more attuned to 1914 than 1940. Overlapping British commands and poor coordination with the French further slowed to effort. Churchill complained to Chamberlain, “there are six Chiefs of Staff and three ministers who have a voice in Norwegian operations but no one is responsible for the creation of military policy.” Nevertheless, the initial landings at Namsos, just north of Trondheim on April 19th, began well. The Allied forces linked up with Norwegian troops and stuck out for the city. They outnumbered the 4,000 Germans better than two to one. Hitler panicked at the news but his fears eased as an additional 5,500 German troops joined the battle by April 30th, while the Luftwaffe gained control over the skies above the Namsos/Trondheim area. Incredibly, the Allies had no air support at all and no artillery of any kind. German bombers reduced Namsos to ashes in a devastating raid that pounded Allie ground positions at will. London lost heart almost immediately and even though some anti-aircraft guns arrived by April 27th by the morning of May 3rd, all British and French troops had fled the area, leaving 2,000 discouraged Norwegians to surrender to the Germans on May 4th.

British Prisoners in Norway, one wearing a makeshift winter uniform consisting of a sheepskin hat and winter parade ground coat — Source: Google Images

Norwegian civilians turned on the retreating Allied soldiers with a vengeance. One British officer complained that their resentment was, “as strong against the British for letting their country by ravished by the Germans as it was for the Germans doing it.” And even when Norwegian officers sought to place their troops in defensive positions, they were repeatedly asked by farmers to move elsewhere for fear that their farms and homes would be destroyed. By April 26th, after less than one week after Allied troops went into battle, British command made the decision to withdraw without even consulting the French, who were shocked when they found out. They had agreed to send reinforcements just a few days before and were worried about the effect withdrawal would have on civilian morale. Churchill also worried about this, even trying to argue for a time that British troops should remain in Norway to fight as irregular guerillas.

Now only the capture of Narvik, the grand prize of the campaign remained a possibility. And after a fierce battle, the Allies took it on May 28th, although the German commander, Eduard Dietl and his troops were able to slip out of the city at the last minute, retreating towards to border with Sweden. Relief came for Dietl from an unexpected quarter. Allied troops were ordered to evacuate the city they had fought so hard to take because they were now urgently needed for the defense of France. By the end of May, Churchill, who had become prime minister, was calling for the end of the operation he had done so much to champion.

The Norwegian campaign turned out to be a disaster of wasted men, resources and opportunity for the Allies. Things might have tuned out differently if they had struck more rapidly, decisively and with proper air support and artillery. The Norwegians were left to fight on their own but they were hopelessly outmatched by the Germans. Many Norwegian troops were able to flee, along with the king, royal family and much of the government. Some of these troops would return to fight in special commando operations, under British command, including the destruction of the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant, which helped to prevent the Germans from getting the atomic bomb. Others remained behind to form an army of resistance. But Norway would still face over four years of German occupation with all that entailed, including the persecution of the country’s small Jewish population.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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