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Hitler’s Pre-Emptive War: The Battle for Norway, 1940

By Henrik O. Lunde. 400 pp. Casemate, 2009. $34.95.

 One of the least documented campaigns of World War II occurred in Norway’s forbidding landscape in the spring of 1940, during the Phony War— the period of alleged inaction that marked the conflict’s first eight months. There was nothing phony about this brief, bloody episode.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had long been concerned about German access to Swedish iron ore, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of munitions. Nearly half the 20 million tons required annually to feed Hitler’s war machine came from northern Sweden and was transshipped via the all-weather Norwegian port of Narvik. Thus German vessels used Norway’s neutrality to avoid the British blockade and move the iron ore to German ports.

Determined to halt the flow, Churchill launched a military operation in Norway in early April 1940. The 62-day campaign that followed was a disaster for Britain and France, which supplied part of the expeditionary force. Abysmally planned and led, repeatedly interfered with by Churchill, what ensued was a perfect example of everything that could go wrong with a military operation.

Churchill’s gambit and Hitler’s decision to invade Denmark and Norway were independent but virtually simultaneous. The Germans made effective use of airborne forces to capture Oslo and Stavanger, while their navy transported ground forces supported by the Luftwaffe—the first employment of combined operations in World War II. The series of naval, air, and ground battles left the Allies on the short end, forced into a humiliating defeat and evacuation that was an ominous prelude to Dunkirk.

Despite their victory in Norway, the Kriegsmarine suffered irreversible losses: 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 10 destroyers, and 6 U-boats. Although occupied Norway became a staging area for the interdiction of Allied shipping in the North Atlantic, Hitler was obliged to retain a force of 400,000 there for the remainder of the war, men badly needed in France and on the Eastern Front.

For the Allies, Norway was a fiasco, rife with poor coordination, tentative and haphazard planning, flawed intelligence, split forces, and a dysfunctional command structure. The real irony of the Norway campaign is that its failure can be laid directly upon Churchill—yet Neville Chamberlain took the fall, and Churchill replaced him on May 10, 1940.

Henrik O. Lunde is exceptionally qualified to write this book. Norwegian by birth, he immigrated to the United States after World War II and served in the U.S. Army in a variety of airborne, Special Forces, and staff assignments, retiring as a colonel. Thoroughly researched, objective, and thoughtfully written, Hitler’s Pre-Emptive War is a highly recommended addition to the historiography of World War II, and sheds new light on this misunderstood campaign.


Originally published in the November 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here