France & Norway 1940
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Norway opted to remain neutral. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland, the U.K. and France commenced planning for an expeditionary force to be sent to aid the Finns. It would be landed at Narvik in northern Norway, then transit through Sweden to reach Finland.
On the 16 February 1940, H.M.S. Cossack went into Norwegian waters to board the German ship, Altmark, to rescue two-hundred and ninety-nine British merchant seamen.
The first action of the Norwegian campaign was at sea. H.M.S. Glowworm, sighted the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. H.M.S. Glowworm engaged the Hipper, eventually ramming the larger vessel. H.M.S. Glowworm sunk soon afterwards, taking most of her crew with her.
The German landed on the 9 April. The main towns were seized quickly by German troops, but the German Navy suffered several significant losses to both Norwegian and British naval activity. The British responded to the German invasion of Norway with offensive naval actions. On the 10 April 1940, an action took place that is now known as the First Battle of Narvik. On the 13 April, the Royal Navy re-entered the fiords at Narvik to sink the remaining German destroyers.
The Chiefs of Staff decided to capture Trondheim through a pincer movement from north and south. The northern pincer was to be Maurice Force landing at Namsos; with the southern pincer being Sickle Force based in Aandalsnes.
Initial landings at Namsos were made at dusk on the 14 April. By the late evening of the 17 April, Maurice Force was ashore. By the evening of the 21 April, the 146 Brigade was strung out along the road to Steinkjer and Namdalseid. Engagements with German troops started at about 7.45 am in the vicinity of a village called Vist, with the enemy attacking the flanks of the brigade.
British troops started landing at Aandalsnes on the 17April 1940. Having landed successfully on the 18April, the men moved rapidly inland towards Kvam. Sickle Force secured Dombass, placing it in a position to turn north towards Trondhiem. They were then ordered to proceed onto Lillehamer. The brigade then fought a series of rearguard actions back to Dombass.
Reinforcements began landing at Aandalsnes during the evening of the 23 April. The 15 Infantry Brigade moved forward to a position at Kvam. Here a battle was fought on Thursday 25 April 1940 and the next day. Even though the British fought tenaciously, they were forced to withdraw. Other actions were fought at Kjorem and a village called Otta.
The Evacuation of Sickle Force and Maurice Force
The original plan for a two pronged advance to capture Trondheim was now redundant. The Royal Navy cruiser H.M.S. Glasgow put into Molde to embark King Haakon and the Crown Prince of Norway. The Royal Navy arrived at Aandalnes on the 30 April and embarked the British troops.
By 2.00 am, the quay was deserted and Sickle Force was no more.
The evacuation of Maurice Force took place overnight the 2 to 3 May 1940. The Norwegian Army south of Trondheim surrendered on the 3 May, with those to the north surrendering on the 4 May.
The repercussions of the failure of the campaign in Central Norway reverberated widely. It led to a contentious debate in Parliament that resulted in the Prime Minister, Neville CHAMERLAIN, resigning. Winston CHURCHILL was then asked to form a National Government.
Narvik was one of the key objectives of the British involvement in Norway. The first force planned for Narvik was codenamed ‘Avonmouth’. The French government committed some troops and Polish units under their command. The first troops arrived on the 15 April.
It was decided to send British forces to Mo to block the road towards Narvik. For this purpose, Scissors Force was formed. It comprised five of the independent companies recently formed in the United Kingdom. Then, on the 10 May 1940, the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France changed matters with Norway relegated to a sideshow in terms of strategic matters. On the same day, German forces landed at Hemnesberget, about fifteen miles from Mo. No.1 Company fought a determined battle against the German troops, but they could not hold the quayside and fell back.
The position at Mo was determined by two related events. On the 14 May, the Irish Guards embarked aboard the Polish troopship Chrobry to be carried to Bodo. En-route, it was attacked by German aircraft. Although only a few men died in that attack, it decapitated the command structure of the battalion as the commanding officer and several key officers were killed. The battalion was taken back to Harstad to rest and reorganise.
On the evening of the 17 May, this incident was compounded when H.M.S. Effingham ran aground about twelve miles from Bodo. She was carrying The South Wales Borderers and the brigade headquarters. The ship was evacuated, with the men being returned to Harstad.
This left the Scots Guards at Stein vulnerable to the attack that started on the 17 May. The Germans steadily gained ground, leading the British troops withdrawing. The Scots Guards fought two other delaying actions. After they were forced, a strong defensive position was created at Pothus on the River Saltdal. The British outpost positions first encountered German troops at about 08.00 am on the 25 May. The battle continued through to the 26 May, but once again the British were forced to retreat.
French and Polish troops landed near Narvik on the 13 May. The two landings met some opposition but they succeeded in making the first opposed landing by Allied troops during the Second World War. The final assault took place overnight the 27 to 28 May. The French were established on shore by 04.00 am. They made steady progress. It became clear the Germans were withdrawing towards Sweden. At about 5.00 pm on the 28 May, the French allowed the Norwegians to be the first troops to enter Narvik. They secured the town later that evening.
The decision to evacuate Norway had been taken even before Narvik had been captured, however, the boost of an Allied victory was judged to too important to miss. The Norwegians found this decision difficult, but the British and French now had other considerations.
The British troops were evacuated by warships and local ‘puffers’ from Bodo back to Harstad on the 29 May. The main evacuation from Narvik and Harstad commenced on the 2 June 1940 in a major operation undertaken by the Royal Navy. The last to leave boarded H.M.S. Southampton at about 09.00 am on the 8 June.
The greatest loss was that of the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, H.M.S. Acasta and H.M.S. Ardent. They were sighted by the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst, which shelled them from fifteen miles away. The two destroyed tried in vain to protect the carrier, all three being sunk by gunfire, but not before the Acasta hit the Scharnhorst with a torpedo. 1,515 men were lost, there only being 32 survivors picked up by Norwegian ships over the next few days.
So ended the Norwegian campaign.