World War 2 was an industrial war – the second, and final, war to completely harness the entire industrial might of the largest of the world’s developed nations. All of them – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the USSR and, biggest of all, the United States – turned the entirety of their peacetime industrial output, one way or another, toward waging wars for national and cultural survival.
Other nations lent other assets to the various war efforts. Sweden had massive iron ore deposits, Romania, Arabia, Iran and Indonesia, oil in quantities scarcely imagined at the time; China and India had immense supplies of manpower.
And little Norway, with a population scarcely larger than Minnesota even then? With one of the largest coastlines on earth, it had a massive merchant fleet by any standard, even more so measured per capita. Nearly 1,000 merchant ships sailed under the Norwegian flag as the war began – about one for every 3,000 Norwegians.
And without ship, and lots of them, all that industrial capacity – especially in Britain, isolated as it was from all raw materials, and the US, far removed from all the battlefronts – would be utterly useless.
In a war that was lopsidedly decided by logistics, the Norwegian fleet was a weapon of exceptionally disproportionate importance.
Ten years ago, First Ringer and I did a series of anniversary stories about major events in World War 2. I’m re-running, and updating, them on their 80th anniversaries.
It was seventy years ago today that World War II came to Norway and Denmark.
As with the previous episode in this series, the Invasion of Poland, history has spawned all kinds of myths about this campaign.
Norway and Denmark, like many other smaller European nations, had actively embraced the idea of neutrality as their best defense against huge potential enemies like Germany, the USSR and, believe it or not, France and the UK. Indeed, that was what “neutrality” meant, in the full legal sense of the term, for countries that embraced it; they could not distinguish between liberal democracies like Britain and fascist dictatorships like Germany; they had to treat all nations as the same, and all belligerents in a war as equally culpable.
This, believed the Danes and Norwegians, was their best shot at avoiding war; taking absolutely no side in the conflict.
And it’s one of histories great accidents that in Norway’s case it didn’t turn out to be true, at least legally. Winston Churchill noted that much of the steel that ran Germany’s war machine came from iron ore mined in northern Sweden, and exported via train to Narvik, Norway, and thence shipped to Germany. Churchill hatched a plan; to send a brigade of British soldiers to occupy Narvik first, and work out the diplomatic details with the Norwegians later. And so in the days leading up to April 9, 1940, the British embarked a brigade of infantry onto a couple of cruisers and got ready to send them to Norway.
The Germans got there first.
They had engineered a pretty elaborate surprise attack; they put most of their troops on warships, fast cruisers and destroyers, rather than on regular transports and landing ships. They also staged the world’s first major airborne assault, sending the paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger) to capture Norway’s major airport and, they hoped, King Håkon and his cabinet.
The German surprise attack wasn’t a complete surprise; British intelligence got some word out in advance. A Polish submarine, the Orzel, which had itself escaped the conquest of Poland only eight months before, sank a transport off Lillesand, and a British sub damanged a cruiser full of troops. And one group of German ships encountered the Norwegian patrol boat Pol the night before the invasion, as the ships were staging to launch their assaults in the morning. They sank the Pol, whos captain became the first fatality of many the next day.
But it was a home-field game for the Germans; Denmark was on their own border, and Norway was much closer to Germany than to the UK or France.
Despite the three naval actions the day before, the word was slow in getting to the governments in London and Oslo; the Norwegian government, realizing they had no hope of preserving peace, ordered an alert – which, being far too late, did little good – and started packing up the nation’s gold reserves (which did succeed).
And so on the morning of April 9, a coordinated six-point assault with elements of six infantry and mountain divisions simultaneously invaded the six most important cities in Norway. Two German battlescruisers carried elements of a Mountain Division to Narvik, well above the Arctic circle, destroying two of Norway’s ancient “battleships”, the Eidsvold and the Norge, leaving a few dozen survivors out of crews totalling 300 men. Other ships landed troops at Trondhjem, Bergen, Kristiansand and Egersund; the biggest detachment sailed up Oslofjord to try to capture Oslo, link up with the paratroopers, and try to decapitate whatever command and control Norway had.
And so the Germans essentially drove into Denmark, and debouched from ships and planes into Norway. The Danes, having a tiny military, indefensible terrain, and no real chance at defense, worked out an armistice quickly that enabled them to keep at least some small degree of autonomy under German rule – which would hold for the next couple of years.
For the most part, the strikes on Norway went off with surgical assurance and with little overt resistance; Norway had nearly disbanded her military, and had only very recently realized that pacifism needed some form of defense; they’d begun building a few new destroyers (to replace vessels commissioned in the 1890s), and bought fighter and anti-submarine planes from Britain and the US – although by April 9, only 12 British-built Gloster Gladiator biplanes were combat-ready.
All 12 were destroyed by the end of the first day – although not before shooting down several German planes full of paratroopers first.
But for the key part of the German plan – the capture of King Håkon, his cabinet, the Storting (Parliament), the gold reserves and the legitimate government of Norway ? The wheels came off, unpredictably, bright and early.
The biggest of the German invasion forces stormed into Oslofjord on the morning of April 9. Lead by the heavy cruiser Blücher, the force included two other heavy cruisers, three destroyers, and eight other ships crammed with German infantry. Norway had very few formal defenses – but the Oscarsborg fortress, sitting in at a narrowpoint in the fjord, was one of them. The commander of the fortress, Colonel Birger Eriksen, sensing trouble, had put his troops on alert on his own initiative, disobeying an order to stand down.
And at 5:15AM, his searchlights illuminated Blücher; his fortress’ main battery, two 11-inch cannon that’d been installed in 1892, engaged the cruiser.
Two hits blew a turret off of the cruiser, and forced it to stop – leaving it a sitting duck for an 1890-vintage torpedo, fired from a glorified log flume on shore, which caused Blücher to tip over on its right side and sink, ablaze, killing 1,000 sailors and soldiers, including many specialists and administrators who were to take over the running of the Norwegian government.
This blocked the fjord, preventing the force from getting to Oslo long enough for the King, Cabinet, Parliament, and the gold supply to evacuate.
The Germans needed Håkon and his Cabinet; if they could be captured and induced to capitulate, it would mean that Germany controlled Norway’s legitimate government. And so they sent an elite force of paratroopers in a convoy of commandeered civilian trucks to try to intercept Håkon’s convoy as it fled into the interior.
And so Håkon and his government managed to escape into the interior, where they led Norway’s tiny, hardscrabble Army in resistance for nearly two months, before evacuating from Tromsö aboard a British cruiser on June 7.
Norway thus became the only country conquered by Hitler to never surrender to the Nazis. Håkon, leading Norway’s legitimate government (no country ever recognized, even by the dubious standards of world diplomacy, Vidkun Quisling’s puppet regime) at the head of over 20,000 troops in exile, 50,000 troops in the underground, and the 22,000 men and hundreds of ships of Norway’s merchant marine.
It was five years to the day later that Håkon returned to Norway at the head of his military (escorted by the US 99th Infantry Battalion, made up of Norwegian-speaking GIs from Minnesota, the Dakotas and Michigan) in 1945.
As I’ve done throughout this series, I’m here to debunk myths.
There are several in re the war in Scandinavia.
No Pushover: While the popular history has it that Norway rolled over quickly for the German attack, the fact is that not only did Norway never surrender (as noted above), but the campaign became a bit of a quagmire, at least initially, for Germany. The initial invasion used six divisions and parts of a seventh, and still couldn’t conquer the whole country.
To make matters worse for the Germans, the British expeditionary force originally slated to invade Norway ended up arriving in Narvik after the Germans – to be seen as liberators and rescuers. The British navy task force delivering them, led by the battleships HMS Warspite, wiped out the German naval force at Narvik, including ten destroyers – a blow from which the German destroyer force never recovered throughout the war.
The Allied ground force – including British, French, Norwegian and Polish-Army-In-Exile forces – drove the Germans out of the city, and held until evacuated in June. The Norwegians operating outside Narvik, under General Fleischer, delivered the first tactical defeat suffered by the German Army in World War II.
Farther down-country, the Norwegians – again, mostly gun-club “reservists”, with French and British troops in support- delayed, and then halted, the German advance up-country during the campaign around Namsos, which was finally overcome only through the lack of Allied air support and, finally, the fall of France.
As the quagmire dragged on, the Germans got desperate, carrying out terror-bombing attacks on Nybergsund, Andalsnes, Molde, Elverum, Kristiansund, Namsos and Narvik.
The last Norwegian army unit fighting in Norway didn’t cease organized resistance until June 10; Norway resisted longer than than of any of Hitler’s other conquests.
Resistance: Tens of thousands of Norwegians escaped Norway; fifty thousand more fought in some capicity or another in the Resistance. The Milorg achieved some spectacular successes, including the destruction of the German “Heavy Water” supply during the Vemork raid. Germany stationed a total of eighteen divisions in Norway on occupation duty during the war – partly testament to the importance of Germany’s bases, which supported U-boat and air raids on convoys crossing the Atlantic and especially those supplying Lend-Lease supplies to the USSR – and also to the effectiveness of Norway’s resistance. It was the highest ratio of occupation troops to civilians anywhere in Europe.
Denmark resisted as well; indeed, given the more difficult terrain, the Danish resistance was especially crafty, adaptible and ferocious. And both nations pulled off the incredible; during a three-week stretch in 1943, the Danish resistance managed to smuggle 86% of Denmark’s Jews to safety in Sweden, after word got out that Hitler was about to abrogate the terms of Denmark’s armistice and round the Jews up for extermination.
Norway similarly got 75% of its Jewish population smuggled to Sweden, albeit in less dramatic fashion. Both nations’ resistance groups are listed collectively among the “Righteous Among Nations” at Yad Vashem.
Exile: Among the Norwegians and Danes who escaped to fight onward, many distinguished themselves. The Canadian government, using airplanes Norway had bought from the US but were not delivered, set up a training base for Norwegian pilots, “Little Norway”, near Toronto. The Norwegian pilots served with distinction; 331 and 332 Squadrons, flying Spitfires, became among the highest-scoring squadrons in the Royal Air Force late in the war, flying air cover over the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Holland, and the crossing of the Rhein River.
At sea, Norway’s huge merchant fleet was a huge part of the Allied effort to first keep Britain from starving, and then to support the invasion and liberation of Europe. Beyond that? Norwegian crews on British-built torpedo boats and gunboats, and two British-built submarines – the Uredd, lost in a minefield, and the Ula, which sank more enemy tonnage than any other Allied submarine in the Atlantic during World War II – vexed the occupiers up and down Norway’s long coastline.
Lessons Learned: Norway has always had a reputation for big-L “liberalism”, which it passed on to its descendants in Minnesota.
But it learned its lesson, too. During the Cold War, when faced with an enemy historically even worse than Hitler (remember – Norway and Turkey were the only NATO nations to share borders with the USSR), they backed up their innate pacifism with a big stick.
Although the nation has about the same population as Minnesota, it built up a sizeable navy to defend its long, craggy coastline from invasion – and turned virtually its entire male population into an army. Norwegians served in a system similar in many ways to that of Switzerland and Israel, keeping their weapons at home, ready for the worst. The nation’s military was trained for guerilla warfare; a hypersecret branch of Norway’s special forces spent the Cold War years building the infrastructure to make another occupation of Norway a horrible and bloody thing for the next round of enemies.
For it’s part, the Danish military after World War II developed a reputation for fierceness; Danish troops serving in Bosnia/Herzegovina were reportedly among the most aggressive in smacking down Serb aggression. It’s worth noting that Danish special forces – the Jaegerkorpset, among the most admired special opertions forces in NATO – accompanied the US in its initial invasion of Iraq, along with those of Poland, another nation that had learned the hard way that freedom needed fierce defense.
As we confront our nation’s own tribulations, we’d do well to remember the examples of the people of Norway and Denmark.
Update 2020: A few years of genealogy have given me a deep appreciation of the era; my great-grandfather’s hometown was a conduit on the route from Norway to Sweden, smuggling spies, shot-down allied airmen, Norwegians trying to go to fight, and Jews escaping deportation. Looking at the geneology books for the area, a group of people with the same name – not an uncommon one in that part of Norway, but in a small area nonetheless – were recorded as members of the resistance.
It was seventy years ago this morning that Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II in Europe – beginning what was, in a sense,the end of a war that’d begun 25 years earlier, taken a 21 year break, and then re-ignited, killing tens of millions of people directly on the battlefield and, in ways never before seen in human history, off of it. In another sense, it began the final act of the Old World – the world of European dominance, of its kingdoms and alignments and customs defining “civilization” for the rest of the world – and was the beginning of the world we have today, a world who’s denouement is at this moment very much in play.
But that’s a story we’ll recap in seventy more years, God willing.
In reading the story of the German Blitzkrieg into Poland most of my cognitive life, I became fascinated with the history of Poland – or, really, of all of the smaller European states that Hitler swallowed up. A lot of legends sprang up around each of these nations and their record during the awful year that followed the invasion of Poland.
I would like to address some of them.
Poland started the war with a couple of strikes against it.
For starters, its terrain is just not defendable.
All of its major cities sit on a broad, flat plain, cut by few rivers (whose banks are, largely, not major obstacles to much of anything). The road from the German or Russian border to the capitol in Warsaw, or its industrial heartland around Katowice/Sosnowiec, or its intellectual and cultural heart in Krakow has no more physical speed bumps than a drive from Fargo to Grand Forks.
And while Poland knew very well that it was surrounded by a couple of rapacious dictatorships who, as they had through all of history, meant it nothing but ill, and they did their best to prepare for eventualities, they did something that’s all too familiar to modern IT executives; at a time in history when military technology was evolving at a pace that the world had never before seen (and in many respects hasn’t seen since), the Poles, like the French, laid their cards on the table early, standardizing and mass-producing equipment that turned out to be obsolete a mere 5-10 years after it rolled off the assembly line. The Polish Air Force was mass-producing the Pzl fighter plane and the Karas fighter-bomber at a time when the Germans had just started developing the planes with which they’d launch the war, the Bf109 fighter, the Ju87 Stuka dive bomber, the He111/Do17/Ju88 bombers.
(The French military, like the British navy, likewise bet long on mid-thirties technology that served it less effectively than later designs). Likewise, they built thousands of tiny, two-man machine-gun armed “tankettes”, state of the art in 1933 but useless as anything but mobile machine guns in 1939 against the German tanks that were just going up on the drawing boards.
By 1939, Poland was just starting to produce the excellent “7TP” tanks – as good as any German Panzer…
In the days before radar, they were supported by a large, comprehensive ground observer network that did a surprisingly good job of detecting German air raids and vectoring Polish fighters onto the target. The Polish Navy, in contrast (and as an ironic result of its relatively lower standing at budget time) standardized rather later, and went to war with some of the finest equipment in all of Europe; the Blyskawica-class destroyers and Orzel-class submarines (both built in Holland) were among the best anywhere, certainly outclassing anything in the German or British navies. And, since they were standardized late and in dire economic times, there were exactly two of each in service.
The Poles had one other thing; centuries of vassaldom to the Germans and Russians. Other than the brief Republic of Krakow in the mid-1700’s, and the 21 years of independence (marked by a war for survival against the Soviets), Poland had been under one boot or another since the end of the Jagiellonian era. The Poles wanted their freedom. And even though the government in 1939 was at least partly a dictatorship – a response to a paralyzing indecision in the face of both the Great Depression and the gathering threat from east and west – Poland was an outpost of small-“l” liberal sentiment. It also built an intellgience service that, like that of many counteries surrounded by enemies (see Israel), disproportionally excellent; indeed, Polish Intelligence helped with one of the great coups of the war; it was the Poles that made the first inroads into breaking Germany’s “Enigma” encryption system. The Polish mathematicians fled to the UK, and joined with the British thinkers at Bletchley Park to complete the job. The fact that the Allies could read Germany’s “secret” transmissions in near-real-time (by cryptology standards) was one of the key factors in winning the war; without that, the U-Boat offensive in 1941-43 would have likely succeeded in starving Britain to the negotiating table with Hitler.
Unlike France – misconceptions about whom we’ll address on their own 70th anniversary, in about eight months – this gave Poland a deep will to fight.
It wasn’t enough, of course – but it came a lot closer to evening things up than contemporary propaganda credits them. ———-
Two myths grew up around the German invasion of Poland; that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground in the opening minutes of the campaign, and that the Polish Army’s cavalry was such a medieval throwback, it resorted to charging at tanks with lances.
Both are propaganda myths spread by the Germans and parrotted, in a story all too familiar to modern consumers of news, by an incurious, uninformed Western news media.
The Polish Air Force was not caught on the ground. Far from it; they dispersed away from their major airfields, according to pre-war plans that recognized not only the Luftwaffe’s superiority in numbers and equipment – by this point, German bombers could outrun Polish fighter planes – but Poland’s few aces in the hole.
And when the German bomber streams started appearing over Poland, the observers saw and heard them, and phoned in the information to HQ, who vectored Poland’s old fighters into position to do the only thing they realistically could against planes that were faster than their own; wait in ambush over the targets, take the most direct approach they could to their targets, and fight like hell.
And they did. The Polish Air Force shot down over 230 German planes during September of 1939, about 250 more were damaged, many of them beyond repair. The Lotnictwo Wojskowe lost about 100 shot down or otherwise destroyed by enemy action, with about as many being lost as the pace of the German advance, and later the Russian invasion, made repairs impossible and swallowed up the warning network and, finally, teh airfields themselves.
Following the goverment’s instructions, as the fight in central Poland became impossible, they retreated to the mountains in the south, and after the surrender made their way, by air or car or foot, first to Romania, then through Africa or Iran or the Mediterranean, then to France (where many fought with the French air force) and finally Britain or the USSR.
The other legend – the horse-cavalry charges with bugles blowing and lances waving – is more pernicious. It’s a propaganda legend, of course, one started as a German reponse to a Polish tactical victory.
In the opening days of the war, Poland had plenty of horse cavalry; they were in the process of trying to retired horses in favor of tanks and armored cars, but the Depression had slowed the process (as it did, by the way, in the US, whose cavalry was still largely horse-mounted in 1939 as well). They didn’t fight in the classic sense of the term; think of them as infantry on horses, using the greater mobility of being mounted to help cover more ground, but dismounting to fight on foot when the action started. And while they had lances, they were for ceremonial occasions only; they weren’t carried in the field. There was never an intention to fight the way cavalry had always fought – the saber charges, the bugles, the mounted dashes.
In the opening days of the war, a squadron of Pomeranian cavalry under Colonel Julian Filipowicz, patrolling in the corridor below Gdansk (Danzig, at the time), encountered a German infantry battalion which, tired from advancing and from a brisk fight with a Polish infantry unit across some nearby railroad tracks, was resting in an open field.
Col. Filipowicz’ unit – about 300 cavalrymen – while scouting the area, found the Germans. As is so often the deciding factor in modern war, they saw the Germans first, and were able to act accordingly. They deployed some modern weapons – Browning M2 machine guns, first built in 1918 and still found on every US Army tank today – to back up a charge led by some very old weapons, the cavalry saber. Filipowicz, seeing an unprepared foe, ordered a charge.
And it cut the German battalion to pieces, killing dozens, wounding hundreds, and leaving the battalion combat-ineffective for quite some time.
As the Poles completed several passes, a unit of German armored cars happened on the scene, and turned their cannon and machine guns on the Poles, causing heavy losses and sending them back into the woods, to fight another day.
German photographers, travelling with a group of tanks that responded to the debacle, photographed a number of the dead Polish troopers alongside the Panzers. The German propagandists spread the report – the Poles were stuck in the medieval era! – as a morale booster. And the tall tale, rather than the story of the boundless courage of Filipowicz’ men, stuck.
It wasn’t the last bloody nose the Poles gave the Germans. When the Germans pushed the Poles back to Warsaw, they tried to storm the city using the same tanks that had led them across the North Polish Plain. The Sixth Panzer Division was ordered to attack the city.
The tanks moved into the warren of streets that made up Warsaw’s western suburbs…
…and got swallowed in a morass of antitank guns, molotov cocktails (which wouldn’t earn their name until the following winter, from the Finns, about whom more in a couple of months) and booby traps.
The Sixth Panzers lost sixty tanks – about a third of its armored strength – in the first day of its assault, a catastrophic hit.
Warsaw would have to fall the old-fashioned way – through infantrymen advancing from house to house.
Or through treachery.
Stalin, as part of his temporary alliance with Hitler, invaded Poland about this time, destroying whatever hope for resistance that the Poles might have had. It was all she wrote.
Oh, they fought on anyway; tens of thousands of Poles went to the UK or the USSR to carry on the war; hundreds of thousands more fought with the various guerrilla groups, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) which hampered German movements throughout the war and in 1944, as the Soviets approached, seized control of much of Warsaw (and were beaten down as the Soviets stopped in the city’s eastern suburbs and refused to cross the Vistula River). The Poles, realizing their excellent but tiny navy had no chance, ordered their most modern ships – their destroyers and submarines to feel to the UK in the opening hours of the war; Orzel, brand new out of the shipyard, ran to Sweden, and was interned (placed under arrest, essentially). The crew escaped, and stole the sub from the docks; the Swedes had seized all the boat’s charts and navigational gear, so it sailed across the Baltic, and through the treacherous Skagerrak, and across the North Sea by guess and by gosh.
The Poles had scant hope holding against Hitler from the west; against both of their hereditary enemies, they had none. The clock ran out fast on the Poles. The nation’s story was one of the great tragedies of the past 100 years; winning their freedom, having it seized, held hostage by one dictator and then another for two generations.
It’s also one of the great inspirations; after all that, they took their freedom back…
….and with it catalyzed a shot at freedom for the rest of the Second World.