Two Comprehensive Volumes on the Battle of Norway

The German Invasion of Norway
April 1940

By Geirr H. Haarr. 474 pp.
Naval Institute Press, 2009. $49.95.

The Battle for Norway
April-June 1940

By Geirr H. Haarr. 458 pp.
Naval Institute Press, 2009. $52.95.

In 1993, the very first issue of Joint Force Quarterly, the official magazine of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, featured a major article on the 1940 German invasion of Norway. It argued that Operation Weserübung (“Weser Exercise”) was worth studying because it was the prototype of a modern joint campaign—one planned and executed by ground, sea, and air forces.

The invasion, the Allied response, and the political and strategic backdrop still have much to teach us. The combination of rapid assaults on multiple strategic points, the creative use of air power to offset weakness at sea, and the ever-present role of chance and human error have a very modern ring. Despite this, even the best studies of this operation tend to emphasize the perspective of one nation or force.

Geirr H. Haarr’s new two-volume work is a tremendous accomplishment. The Norwegian researcher strives for comprehensive coverage: the German invaders, Norwegian defenders, and the British and French expeditionary forces sent to Scandinavia all receive thorough scrutiny. There is perhaps a bias toward naval operations, but given the nature of the campaign this emphasis is entirely appropriate. His concise yet thorough treatment of the aerial dimension is especially noteworthy.

The first volume zeroes in on the critical first days of Weserübung and offers a minutely detailed account of the unfolding action. The author strikes a careful balance between chronology and geography, covering nearly simultaneous events in separate sections. He demonstrates how superior German planning, exploitation of the element of surprise, and the ability to seize fleeting opportunities and capitalize on Allied mistakes enabled them to put forces ashore at multiple points, creating the conditions for victory. But it was a near-run thing: elderly reservists defending Oslo, displaying tremendous initiative, managed to stall the German advance, in the process sinking the brand new cruiser Blücher. The volume concludes with the epic naval battle at Narvik, where the German navy lost most of its destroyer force—and whatever slim hope it had of executing an invasion of the British Isles later that year. The second volume paints on a broader canvas, detailing the Allied expeditionary response and the naval, air, and ground battles throughout the country, culminating with the British withdrawal in June 1940.

Many classic accounts of this campaign omit a key dimension: the Norwegians. Too often they are seen only as passive observers of the drama being played out between the great powers. But the Norwegian government faced an unenviable dilemma. Though sympathetic to the Allied cause, it staunchly sought to guard its neutrality—a stance that proved increasingly untenable when Norway found itself caught between an aggressive, expansionist Germany and a Great Britain determined to act in its own security interests. Thus, on the eve of the invasion, the Norwegian navy was focused on heading off British mining operations at sea even as German naval and airborne forces bore down on the coast. Haarr does full justice to the actions of the outnumbered and outclassed Norwegian forces without exaggerating their overall significance.

The volumes are very well illustrated with photographs, many published for the first time. Numerous appendices contain orders of battle, lists of ships, and key personnel. The maps are well done but there are too few, given the importance of geography and the rapid pace of the operation. Keep a good map of Scandinavia ready to get the maximum use out of this impressive work. Both volumes end rather abruptly; two-page epilogues briefly summarizing the major conclusions might well have been expanded with additional analysis. But these are minor blemishes on a major new contribution.

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