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Churchill’s fiasco in Norway in 1940 propelled him into office—and ensured Hitler would fail to turn back the D-Day invasion four years later.

On April 15, 1940, utterly alone and deeply worried, the commander in chief of Germany’s armed forces, Adolf Hitler, sat in the far corner of a room full of busy staff officers, telephones, maps, and messengers at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. A witness described the führer as “staring vacuously as if immersed in some apathetic meditation; he appeared to be expecting his sole salvation from some phone call.”

Hitler’s apprehension was warranted. The Norwegian operation was only eight days old but it had already cost Germany the cruisers Blücher, Karlsrühe, and Königsberg. The heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, pocket battleship Lützow, and battlecruiser Gneisenau had been damaged, and eleven modern, combatworthy destroyers sunk or scuttled. German vessels had just been driven from the port of Narvik, a vital rail terminal, by a superior British naval force (though it would take French and Norwegian troops until May 28 to recapture the town). The most stunning blow to Hitler was the painful recognition that he had initiated this embarrassing debacle over the strong objections of the German army’s leadership, which had warned him it was the wrong action at the wrong place and at the wrong time.

The wrong place was Scandinavia, which was destined to be a World War II backwater. The wrong time was when Nazi Germany’s military staffs and logistical organizations were only three weeks from launching a 136-division surprise assault on Holland, Belgium, and France. Since the Wehrmacht invasion would face 149 divisions of the Western Allies, many of which were behind formidable defenses, there was every reason for Berlin not to have eight army divisions, much of its air arm —the Luftwaffe—and most of its navy fully engaged in Scandinavia.

Meanwhile in London, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was raising the ire of his commanders. General Sir William Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff, described him as a desperate man who seemed to be more of a liability than an asset, a view that other British commanders would occasionally embrace well after the Norway campaign.

“One of the fallacies that Winston seems to have got into his head,” said Ironside at the time, “is that we can make improvised decisions to carry on the war by meeting at 5 p.m. each day….War cannot be run by the staffs sitting round a table arguing. We cannot have a man trying to supervise all military arrangements as if he were a company commander running a small operation to cross a bridge.”

In Norway, both Hitler and Churchill would gamble not only their careers but also the futures of their respective countries. One would be elevated despite a disastrous performance. The other would gain a flashy, short-term victory—that four years later would help bring about a devastating failure.

During World War I, Scandinavia—the countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—remained neutral. In the early 1930s, Sweden watched Germany rearm, then opted to mobilize in 1936. By 1939, it had increased its defense budget tenfold and procured 300 combat aircraft and considerable weaponry. Any belligerent that violated Sweden’s neutrality faced the likelihood of a bloody ordeal. Norway and Denmark made few military preparations, and by 1939 both were ripe for the picking, Norway in particular. It had no tanks or antitank weapons, few aircraft, and a small and weak navy. Military service was compulsory, but tours of duty lasted only 72 days. Fully mobilized, Norway’s army could be expected to field 119,000 men in six territorial divisions. But in the spring of 1940, even though hurried mobilization was taking place all around it, the country had only called up 13,000 soldiers to bolster its 2,000-man standing army.

The Allied strategic priority in early 1940 was to prevent Nazi Germany from invading France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg). Soon after Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, British forces had moved to planned defensive positions on the continent. Several French and British leaders lobbied to move into Norway. The French believed a northern threat to Germany would draw some of Hitler’s forces away from the Maginot Line. In London, the idea appealed to 65-year-old Winston Churchill who, having regained his World War I appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty, saw an opportunity to diminish German armament production. By securing Narvik, the Allies could control a key gateway through which Germany imported vital iron ore in winter.

Even a diversionary deployment to Norway, however, would siphon Allied forces from the major defense lines in France. And it would not create a clear northern path to Germany, since armed and staunchly neutral Sweden would surely deny overflights and block any Allied ground forces. In fact, Churchill had been stripped of his Admiralty leadership in 1915, after he backed a similar peripheral operation at Gallipoli.

But this was the type of bold move that appealed to the energetic and aggressive Churchill, a Boer War and World War I veteran and the most militarily experienced member of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet. He was unfazed at the prospect of using forces in Norwegian waters or even putting some ground units in Norway.

Hitler, then 50, was not unlike Churchill in some respects. Both were charismatic speakers and exasperating to military leaders, constantly questioning their decisions and judgments, and often micromanaging military matters. Both took risks that frightened subordinates. But, unlike Churchill, Germany’s leader was pathologically racist, domineering, and often lazy, a tyrant who could only tolerate servile subordinates whom he expected to shape and administer state policy out of his stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Hitler’s overarching aim was to create an expanded Europe under German leadership. Churchill, too, often differed with his aides and advisers, but unlike Hitler, he tolerated spirited arguments that sometimes led him to reverse his decisions. That trait would eventually help Britain and the Allies prevail. But in Norway in 1940, the two men seemed far more evenly matched.

Soon after Germany’s September 1939 seizure of Poland, Hitler ordered his senior military officers to open an offensive in Western Europe before the end of the year. The army headquarters, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), strenuously objected, arguing that its forces would not be prepared for war against France and Britain before 1942. German naval leaders agreed with the OKH, but were tempted by the opportunity to gain bases in Norway—bases that would vastly expand access to the Atlantic for German submarines, which would soon blockade the British Isles. They acknowledged a cost: defending Norway’s nearly 1,000-mile coast against British attack. The führer, to the dismay of many, ignored his officers and only delayed the assault in the West until the spring of 1940. Concluding there would still be time for another operation before this invasion, he directed General Alfred Jodl, the chief of operations of the new Armed Forces High Command—the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW)—to produce a contingency plan for seizing Norway and Denmark prior to the invasion of France and the Low Countries.

But it was the ever-pugnacious Churchill who made the first move toward Norway. In February 1940, he ordered the forcible liberation of 299 British merchant sailors taken captive months earlier by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee during its wide-ranging raid against British shipping in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic. The Graf Spee had made a secret rendezvous with a naval auxiliary vessel, the Altmark, which was to take the prisoners to Germany. On February 14, the Altmark hid its guns and entered Norwegian territorial waters. When Norwegian officials boarded, the Altmark’s skipper proclaimed it a simple merchant ship making a lawful passage to Germany.

On February 16, Churchill, armed with intelligence that British prisoners were being transported aboard the Altmark, bypassed his top naval officer and directly ordered the commander of a destroyer flotilla to disregard Norway’s jurisdiction, find the Altmark, and seize it. Within two hours, Churchill’s orders were carried out. The German ship and its shepherding Norwegian gunboat were sighted, chased, hauled to, and boarded. Shots were fired, and after four German crewmen were killed and five wounded, Altmark’s crew yielded their prisoners to the rescuers.

At 3 a.m., news of the success was wired to London. No one was more relieved than Churchill, who had been waiting since midnight for a report. He had risked a great deal; an unwarranted violation of Norwegian neutrality would have seriously jeopardized Britain’s chances to gain Oslo’s support in the war. Delighted, he declared that the “hand and the prestige of the Admiralty had been strengthened.” The lightning-quick, no-nonsense operation instantly made Churchill the darling of the British press, the one leader in London who had shown strength and brought good news in the otherwise boring, gloomy “phony war.”

In Berlin, Hitler was furious. “No resistance! No British losses!” he shouted when informed of the boarding and German casualties.

With Norway’s neutrality now violated, Churchill pressed harder to establish bases there to menace Hitler’s northern flank. The French agreed to participate as well and the plans were drawn up. By March, six British battalions had been identified and readied for embarkation. A 200-man advance party departed Britain on April 11 to establish coordination with Norway’s armed forces.

But Churchill failed to foresee Hitler’s reaction to the humiliating Altmark episode. Correctly guessing the Allies might put forces into Norway, Hitler on February 19 ordered OKW to immediately accelerate the Scandinavian plan. General of Infantry Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, one of the few German army officers who had experience in amphibious assaults, was to command the operation.

OKH responded with alarm and anger when it learned of Hitler’s decision to deploy up to eight army divisions for an operation in Scandinavia. Since there was little reason to believe the Norway-bound force would be able to join the offensive in the West, it appeared the nation was headed into what the German General Staff had always dreaded: a two-front war.

The plan Falkenhorst was to carry out called for about 68,000 men to arrive in Norway at several key areas with the support of 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft and the better part of the German surface navy. Ground forces included seven divisions and three Luftwaffe parachute companies, along with three antiaircraft battalions. About one-half of the aircraft would be transport planes. These would enter the country on April 9 around the same time. About 2,000 troops aboard 10 destroyers escorted by 2 cruisers would land at the key port of Narvik. Four destroyers and a cruiser would transport another 1,700 men to Trondheim. Designated for Bergen were 1,300 ground troops on two cruisers. Other landings were scheduled for Stavanger, Kristiansand, Egersund, and Arendal. The largest attack was aimed at Oslo and featured air-landed and parachute forces, plus 2,000 troops aboard three cruisers and three destroyers.

The great bulk of the troops and supplies would be shuttled in later over a period of about two weeks. Despite working on the plan every other day for a month, Hitler insisted on a final briefing with all participating generals and admirals on April 1, a week before d-day. The führer quizzed each officer before he pronounced his full satisfaction with the plan he himself had shaped. Later, General Falkenhorst said Hitler “left nothing to chance; it was his idea, it was his plan, it was his war.”

The attack on Norway began before dawn on April 7, 1940, when Falkenhorst’s invasion groups with the longest transit distances, such as those targeted at Narvik, Trondheim, and Oslo, sailed out of German ports near Cuxhaven and Kiel. At 9:50 a.m., British aircraft spotted invasion-bound ships. The next day a British destroyer attacked a German cruiser; badly damaged, it sank in a failed attempt to ram the cruiser. At 4:40 a.m., April 9, the Narvik group began landings and was fired on by two Norwegian coastal defense ships. Both were promptly torpedoed. At Narvik itself, surprised Norwegian defenders surrendered to a longtime close associate of Hitler, Generalmajor Eduard Dietl, the commander of the 3rd Mountain Division.

Before dawn on the 9th, the Trondheim group began landing after a spirited gun duel between shore batteries and German destroyers. The invaders were reinforced by 14 Luftwaffe troop-carrying floatplanes landing later in the day. By nightfall, Trondheim was secured. Bergen fell after offering only weak resistance. British bombers unsuccessfully attacked one landing operation by German seaplanes. Stavanger was taken on the 9th by German paratroops and two air-landed infantry battalions after Luftwaffe bombs pummeled the town. A German dive-bomber operating from the Stavanger airfield got a hit on a Norwegian destroyer and sank it. Norwegian coastal batteries delayed the landing at Kristiansand until German divebombers finally silenced the artillery. The news for the Allies wasn’t all bad: On the 10th, 16 British Blackburn Skua divebombers of the Fleet Air Arm got three hits on the light cruiser Königsberg, sinking it at Bergen. (This is believed to be the first major warship sunk in combat by air attack.)

The Germans suffered only one setback during their approach to Oslo. In the first few minutes after midnight on April 9, the landing forces were seen and reported by a Norwegian patrol boat. At 4:40 a.m., the Blücher, Germany’s newest cruiser, was taken under fire by 280mm coastal defense guns and shore-deployed torpedos and sunk with the loss of about 1,000 men. The Oslo naval invasion group halted. A hasty decision was made to land the remaining troops well short of the city. Air-landed operations, delayed by antiaircraft fire, took place at about 8:30 a.m., and German troops had little trouble establishing themselves in the capital.

Taking advantage of the flight of Norway’s King Haakon VII and entourage, the country’s Fascist Party leader, Vidkun Quisling, proclaimed himself head of the government. That sparked public resistance, forcing the Germans to rely on arrangements with remaining civilian authorities. Loss of the Blücher and so many men was a serious blow, but German troops soon began to probe out from all the landing sites and beat down scattered Norwegian resistance on the snow-laden roads.

Hitler had preempted an Allied move into Norway. His bold strike came as the Allies were still readying their force to occupy Norwegian ports in cooperation with Oslo’s forces.

Churchill had planned to send a brigade-size force to Narvik, with other landings at Trondheim, Bergen, and Stavanger. But when German naval movement was reported to London on Sunday, April 7, a shocked Churchill said, “We have been completely outwitted.” He urgently ordered the navy to take immediate action.

That night, 3 Royal Navy battleships, 4 cruisers, and 25 destroyers began to depart from British ports heading northeast. A preoccupied Churchill began a lengthy, turbulent vigil with the naval staff in the war room. As armed conflict drew nearer, he became cheerfully optimistic, giving directions, making decisions and, all too often, changing his mind. One officer said his conflicting decisions, suggestions, and endless questions resulted in chaos among the navy staff. In short he created confusion when calm, coordinated action was badly needed.

At Narvik, Churchill’s prime target, the Royal Navy wiped out the German invasion fleet. On April 10, five British destroyers, steamed into the fjord leading to Narvik and engaged five German destroyers and several merchant ships. The British seamen sank 2 destroyers, damaged the other 3, and reduced 10 German supply ships to smoldering hulks. Two of the British warships were wrecked and the rest damaged. On the 12th, the British aircraft carrier Furious launched a dive-bombing attack on Narvik. The next day, the Royal Navy’s battleship Warspite made another foray leading nine destroyers and they battered the remaining eight German destroyers beyond repair without the loss of any British ships.

Hitler learned of the disastrous extent of the Narvik losses two days later at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. The OKW staff found him stunned and depressed. Having stolen a march on Churchill, Hitler had been prepared to reap glory.

There was reason to believe at this early stage in Norway that the operation might fail. On April 14, one German general noted that Hitler was in “frightful agitation” over the vulnerability of his troops in Narvik. Until he was talked out of it, he wanted to withdraw them from the northern port. Then, from April 18 to 23, Hitler fretted about British troops that had landed around Trondheim.

But Allied hopes were dashed less than a week after fighting began, because of poor performance of ground forces, confused top-level planning, and vastly superior German ground and air action. The Allies’ trouble started on April 15, when a convoy carrying lead elements of the British 24th Guards Brigade and other Polish and French units arrived in Norway at Harstad Island, 60 miles from Narvik. There, the British commander, Major General Pierse J. Mackesey, declared he had to postpone the advance on Narvik because of waist-deep snow and London’s failure to properly equip its troops with skis and snowshoes. An exasperated Churchill urged the British chiefs of staff to change Mackesey’s mind—to no avail.

The situation deteriorated further. Constant changes in plans, sometimes at Churchill’s urging, resulted in confusion, with British and French ground units shuffled about and sometimes separated from their supplies, artillery, and even appropriate maps. Recounting these days, Churchill, in a revisionist twist, blamed others: “It fell on my lot…to bear much of the burden and some of the odium of the ill-starred Norwegian campaign….Had I been allowed to act with freedom and design when I first demanded permission, a far more agreeable conclusion might have been reached in this key theater.”

On April 16 the British 146th Brigade landed well below Narvik, 100 miles north of Trondheim. This brigade and three French battalions made slow progress toward Trondheim. The 148th British Brigade landed about 150 miles south of Trondheim on the 18th. The Norwegian army was finally rallying and it delayed the German advance in several spots. By April 22, the Allied advance north of Trondheim, now 80 miles from the port and under attack by German troops, began to be subjected to nearly continuous Luftwaffe air attack. On April 24, in a vain attempt to counter the Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force sent a squadron of 18 Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters that landed on a frozen lake at Dombås, about 80 miles south of Trondheim. Within 24 hours all 18 were put out of action by German bombing or other causes. Soon the British 146th Brigade was forced back to its landing site. Unable to support Allied troops with artillery or even adequate supplies, London approved a request to evacuate the 146th Brigade and accompanying French units on April 28. The re-embarkation was completed on May 3.

The 1,000 lightly equipped, ill-trained British soldiers of the 148th Brigade were even less successful than their sister brigade. A strong surge of German forces was coming from the southeast. The 148th abandoned its thrust north toward Trondheim and instead traveled from the coast on April 20 some 150 miles southeast by rail to join a Norwegian force in hopes of stopping a strong tank-led German offensive moving northwest from Oslo. Hampered because they could not bring in heavier equipment and weapons, the Allies were attacked on April 21 by three veteran German battalions supported by mortars, tanks, and a blizzard of dive-bombers.

This was merely the spearhead of a three-division force Falkenhorst was directing to control all of southern and central Norway. Suffering heavy casualties in deep snow, the British and Norwegian troops retreated for three days and were either killed, captured, or scattered. Only nine officers and 300 men of the 148th British Brigade made it back to the coast.

On May 1, a dour Churchill directed these battered survivors aboard Royal Navy warships in a flight to safety. Only a few specially prepared companies of British troops were left in south and central Norway to delay the resolute march of German forces north toward Narvik and ultimately to the control of the whole country.

Following the crushing Allied withdrawal, the Chamberlain government fell on May 10, 1940. That same day, Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries. Ironically, when Parliament dismissed Chamberlain, it chose to anoint the very architect of the disastrous operation in Norway, Winston Churchill, as the new prime minister, bringing “into power the person who would prove to be Hitler’s most defiant and unrelenting foe,” as historian Ian Kershaw wrote.

For the first two weeks of the massive Wehrmacht blitzkrieg in the West, Churchill saw no need to revise his plans for northern Norway. The Allied thrust to capture Narvik came with a landing 15 miles north of the port at the small town of Bjerkvik on the night of May 12–13. On May 24, three days prior to the scheduled move on Narvik, Churchill changed the plan: Rather than take and hold Narvik, he would seize the port, destroy its facilities, and withdraw from Norway altogether. Allied troops did control Narvik as of May 30, then, after demolition operations in the port, embarked for Britain, arriving there on June 8. The government of Norway signed an armistice with Germany on June 9, and German troops reoccupied Narvik. The 1940 peripheral operation Churchill had triggered seemed to have turned into a deplorable distraction—much like his failed 1915 peripheral scheme in the Dardanelles.

The two-month conflict in Norway was costly. The Allies’ death toll reached 6,261 while German losses numbered 3,692. The Allies lost 112 aircraft, Germany 242; Germany saw 3 cruisers destroyed, the British 2. The Allies lost 9 destroyers and 4 submarines to 10 and 7 for the Germans. The Royal Navy also lost the aircraft carrier Glorious during the withdrawal. Recalling this debacle eight years later, Churchill again put the best face on it, noting that German naval losses left only three battleworthy cruisers and four destroyers available, ensuring Hitler could not land ground forces in the British Isles.

But he also doffed his hat to the German forces and Hitler, asserting that “the superiority of the Germans in design, management and energy were plain.”

For Hitler, the 1940 Norwegian campaign was a hands-down success. He was unabashedly proud of his achievement, declaring it “not only bold, but one of the sauciest undertakings in the history of modern warfare.”

The Norway campaign profoundly influenced the conduct of these two leaders for the rest of World War II. Churchill came away with great respect for the combat skills of his adversaries. And he set about improving the performance of Britain’s armed forces, a task he achieved. For Hitler, the campaign verified in his own mind what had been recently demonstrated in Poland: that his leadership abilities and genius for war were unparalleled. In that sense of infallibility, of course, lay the seed of Germany’s oncoming disaster.

For Germany itself, the conquest of Norway would prove a serious burden, with few benefits. Defending Norway’s long coastline required large numbers of troops. Norway would eventually prove useful as a base for German surface ships and aircraft to interdict Allied convoys supplying the Soviet Union, but Germany was never able to shut down the “Murmansk Run,” the many convoys of supplies from the Allies that helped sustain Russia through the war. And the need for Norway as a base for U-boats all but disappeared as the French coast became available during the summer of 1940.

The most far-reaching importance of the Norway campaign for both Hitler and Churchill did not reveal itself until 1944. By studying German intercepts and other communications, the Allies came to learn Hitler was unduly worried about the defense of his Norwegian prize, a concern that Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower fully exploited. In the months preceding the cross-Channel invasion, Allied deception planners used double agents, dummy communications, misleading messages, and fake units to create the illusion of a coming large Allied landing in Scandinavia. In March 1944, for example, intercepted German military intelligence identified Norway as “the most conceivable target” for a major Allied landing and advised intensified North Sea surveillance.

It worked. After D-Day, the Allies had a fierce seven-week struggle against two German field armies with six corps of defenders that contained the Normandy beachhead but were not quite strong enough to push Eisenhower’s command back into the sea. All the while, far to the north, sat Hitler’s Army of Norway: 11 divisions that would shortly be joined by the Twentieth German Mountain Army coming from Finland. All-together, this huge force—two German field armies with 20 divisions, almost 600,000 troops—was peering out into the Norwegian Sea awaiting an Allied invasion that would never come. Had it been available in France and Belgium in 1944, the Allied beachhead in Normandy might have been crushed, and World War II might have had a different outcome.

More by accident than design, the 1940 Allied campaign in Norway had been the right operation at the right place and at the right time. It was the Churchill-designed peripheral operation that worked.


Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here