Operation Weserübung, Invasion of Denmark and Norway
Germany assures iron-ore from neutral Sweden
9 April - June 1940
author Paul Boșcu, November 2016
Germany’s motives for invading the two countries were numerous. Firstly, German industry was dependant on the import of iron ore from Sweden. This ore was sent via the Norwegian port of Narvik. Control of the Norwegian coastline could allow the Allies to implement an efficient blockade of Germany. This blockade could create strategic difficulties for the German forces. The occupation of Norway allowed Germany to control the nearby seas and to organise future operations by German submarines against the United Kingdom.

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Operation Weserübung was the codename for the German plan to invade Norway and Denmark.

Germany’s motives for invading the two countries were numerous. Firstly, German industry was dependant on the import of iron ore from Sweden. This ore was sent via the Norwegian port of Narvik.

Control of the Norwegian coastline could allow the Allies to implement an efficient blockade of Germany. This blockade could create strategic difficulties for the German forces. The occupation of Norway allowed Germany to control the nearby seas and to organise future operations by German submarines against the United Kingdom.

The six-month break between the land-based conflict in the Polish campaign and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway is known as the Phoney War. In the west, few events took place on the land or in the air in this period. Thus, public opinion in Great Britain and France was manipulated into believing that, for them, the war was not actually an issue of life and death.

In that period, nothing seemed ‘phoney’ concerning the war on the seas. Sir Kingsley Wood, minister of the British Air Forces, let out the thoughtless remark that the RAF shouldn’t bomb the ammunitions deposits in the Black Forest, because they were on private property. On the sea, however, no such absurdities were heard. Submarine captains received an apparently unimportant signal about preparations for a reunion for submarine captains. In fact, it was a coded order for each to occupy their positions around the British Isles.

The Kriegsmarine dealt another blow to the British when the U-47 submarine managed to pass through an approx. 15-meter long breach in the defenses of Scapa Flow. The submarine, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien, launched seven torpedoes towards the 29,000 ton battleship HMS Royal Oak. Three torpedoes hit their mark, sinking the ship and killing 810 people from a crew of 1,224 in only 13 minutes.

The first convoy of the hundreds which would cross the Atlantic left Halifax and Nova Scotia. The British had learned from the unhappy lessons of the Great War. They scrupulously used the convoy system, even for ships circulating along the coast, between Glasgow and the Thames. The destroyers, frigates and corvettes used a sonar system called ASDIC - Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee - to spot submarines. At the same time, the commercial convoys sailed together, forming a protective cordon.

One of the missions of the German submarines was to place magnetic mines in the maritime corridors around the British Isles. By November, these had sunk 29 British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy. They also took the new battleship, HMS Belfast, out of action for three years. Due to the courage of bomb defusal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R.C. Lewis and J.G.D. Ouvry, the secrets of the German mines were discovered. These men removed the two mine detonators found in the Thames estuary.

The Royal Navy began the war with only five aircraft carriers, then the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Atlantic area. The ship was swallowed by the waves off the Hebrides Islands in less than 15 minutes. Only half the crew of 1,000 men was saved. Some of the British sailors were saved after an hour spent in the cold North Sea. The sailors kept up their morale by singing popular songs, such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. A survivor recalled that the sea ‘was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle’.

Within a month, the scientists of the British Admiralty discovered a way to counteract the mines. This was carried out by adjusting electric cables around the ships’ hulls. The goal was to create a negative or ‘demagnetised’ magnetic field. Soon afterwards, a way to detonate mines was invented, using trawlers with wooden hulls. These trawlers dragged floating electric cables behind them.

The greatest victory of the Royal Navy, during the Phoney War, was the sinking of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Carrying out its operations in the waters off South America, Captain Hans Langsdorff had sunk ten British ships. In the battle of River Plate, the German ship resisted against the 203.2mm cannons of the cruiser HMS Exeter. It also resisted the 152.4mm cannons of the light cruiser HMS Ajax and of the Dutch cruiser HMS Achilles. Graf Spee damaged the first two quite seriously.

The term ‘pocket battleship’ can be misleading. The limit of 10,000 tons was imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles. The Graf Spee was loaded with six 203.2mm guns, eight 149.86mm guns and another six 104.14mm guns, together with ammunition and provisions. Thus, the vessel actually weighed over half as much again as its prescribed tonnage.

The Graf Spee was forced to enter the port of Montevideo, the capital of neutral Uruguay, due to the hits it had taken. In a gesture of goodwill, Langsdorff freed the Allied sailors he had captured from the ships he had sunk. They reported that they had received good treatment. Langsdorff believed the BBC radio broadcasts which announced the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown.

Langsdorff did not have the necessary means to rent a small plane to see if things really were as the BBC reported them. Langsdorff took the Graf Spee into the entry of the port in Montevideo just before sunset and scuttled it. The explosions could be seen by the 20,000 spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions of people around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland managed to reach Montevideo. The BBC had patriotically given disinformation. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Hitler ordered the OKW, the Supreme Command of the German army, to begin making preliminary plans to invade Norway after the conquest of Poland. This plan, called ‘Studie Nord’ planned for only one division of German paratroopers to participate in the conflict.

The plan was developed through decisions concerning two essential factors. Firstly, the element of surprise was vital in reducing the Norwegian resistance and British intervention. Secondly, warships must be used to transport troops, instead of commercial ships, which were much slower.

Once these factors were provided for, all targets could be occupied simultaneously. The plan also involved using an entire army corps, including a division of paratroopers.

The main targets of the German Wehrmacht were the cities of Oslo, Bergen, Narvik, Tromsø, Stavanger and Trondheim. Command of the operation was given to General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst. This man had fought in Finland during World War I, thus was familiar with winter warfare.

As much as the case of Poland and Finland demonstrated the impotence of Great Britain and France, the Norway campaign represented a definitive defeat of western powers. Due to the German-Soviet successes in Poland and Finland, many English and French concluded that the appeasing spirit was still present amongst their leaders.

The great Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a means of protecting the transport of iron ore from the Gällivare mines in northern Sweden. At the same time, an invasion of Norway was necessary in order to establish submarine bases along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. At that point, Hitler didn’t want to move away any of the troops destined for the attack he was planning in the west. However, he was persuaded to do this after receiving signals that the Allies themselves were planning to invade Norway. The Allies were probably using aid for Finland as a pretext for their actions.

An incident in which the Norwegians, officially neutral, sided with the British Royal Navy convinced the Führer that Norway was not fair. This incident took place when the HMS Cossack saved 299 British prisoners from the German ship Altmark. Telling General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst that a British invasion of Norway ‘would lead them into the Baltic, where we have no troops nor coastal fortifications’ and eventually to Berlin, Hitler decided to strike. In order to simplify the lines of communication, Denmark would also be invaded.

The Allied planes dropped mines into the Norwegian Channels, in deep navigable channels, sheltered between fjords and in islands along the coast, from Stavanger to the North Cape. The Allies did this in the hope of forcing German ships loaded with ore to enter the Norwegian Sea, where the Royal Navy could sink them. These actions were officially known as Operation Wilfred.

Operation Wilfred was a flagrant invasion of Norway’s territorial waters, which preceded the invasion carried out by Germany. At the end of the Nuremberg Trials, Admiral Raeder received a life sentence, partly for violating Norway’s neutrality. This hypocrisy led to accusations of applying ‘victors’ justice’.

By the middle of March, after the Treaty of Moscow was signed between Finland and the USSR, the Allies no longer had a ‘Finnish excuse’ for intervening in Norway. These countries planned to invade neutral Norway in order to prevent Germany from reaching the Gällivare ore fields. They amassed troops at the border, close to Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy base in the Orkney Islands.

The British had naval superiority in the Norwegian Sea, so the British Admiralty considered it impossible for the Germans to carry out an amphibious invasion of Norway. As a consequence, they were taken by surprise when Operation Weserübung led to the successful landing of troops. Soon, the cities of Oslo, Kristiansand, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik were occupied. The latter of these was the end of the railway line towards the iron ore fields in Gällivare.

Chamberlain spoke of Adolf Hitler in Central Hall, at Westminster, only five days before the German invasion of Norway. He stated: ‘One thing is certain – he missed the bus.’ Along with his prophecy of ‘Peace in our time’ after meeting Hitler at Munich, it was one of his less impressive predictions. However, Chamberlain was not the only one to have spoken too soon. Churchill also said in the House of Commons, a few days after the invasion, that ‘We are greatly advantaged by… the strategic blunder into which our mortal enemy has been provoked.’

The first German ships set off for the coast of Denmark. Due to its location in the Baltic Sea, the area was important for the naval control of major ports, both Russian and German. A small and relatively flat country, it was ideal for the type of war waged by the German forces. The small Danish armed forces were unable to put up a solid resistance.

In the morning, approximately 1,000 German infantrymen landed in the port in Copenhagen. They rapidly captured the Danish garrison close by.

King Christian X of Denmark didn’t have the chance to flee. When he woke that day, at 5:15 am, he was handed a list of 13 ultimatums by the German minister Cecil von Renthe-Fink. The king considered that his country was surrounded and incapable of putting up significant resistance. Thus, the king and his cabinet prevented a massacre by ordering general surrender.

The German forces then headed towards the Royal Palace to capture the king. Under these circumstances, compounded by the threat of the German air forces bombing the capital, the Danish government signed the document of surrender. The Danish attack was the shortest operation carried out by the German army during the whole of World War II.

An excuse was invented, through which it was announced that Denmark agreed ‘to place her neutrality under the protection of the Reich’. This was a rather a euphemistic expression, however it allowed the country to keep its non-Nazi government.

The fall of Denmark happened in less than four hours. Thus, the Aalborg aerodrome could be used by the Luftwaffe to transport supplies and troops to Norway. This aerodrome was in North Jutland and was vital. The capture of the aerodrome meant that the British Royal Navy could only enter Skagerrak using submarines.

The 21st Army Corps, under the command of General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, began operations for invading Norway. The main combat force was transported towards the Norwegian shores. At the same time, troops of German paratroopers would land in airports in Oslo and Kristiansand, and also in the perimeter of the air base in Sola. This was the first airborne attack in the history of mankind.

Norway’s main cities, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, were attacked and occupied in the following 24 hours. This was one of the great blows of World War II. During the day, paramilitary troops also captured the aerodromes in Oslo and Stavanger. The British could not believe the news telling that such a northern place as Narvik, at almost 2,000 km from Germany, had fallen. They thought it must be an error made in transmission, and that the name should have been Larvik, a town close to the mouth of the Oslo fjord.

The main land-based campaign of the Norwegian invasion took place close to the city of Narvik. The Norwegian troops, supported by the British, tried to resist the attackers. The Germans were forced to retreat from the town. However, due to the deterioration of the situation on the European continent, the Allied troops were forced to retreat and the Germans reoccupied the town. The overcast weather and sinuous coastline, together with the efficiency and coordination between the German services, meant that the Allies were unable to stop the German operation. The large distances involved constituted another obstacle.

The Norwegians were taken by surprise and didn’t have time to mobilize. They had concentrated more on the threat to their sovereignty coming from the Allies than on that coming from the Axis powers. The Norwegian navy was designed solely to defend the coastline, and their army was too small. The Germans used only three divisions, supported by 800 fighter planes and 250 transport planes. Each of these fulfilled their objectives by the end of the first day of operations.

Bergen was captured by the light cruiser Köln, which managed to enter the port using British radio signals. Two Norwegian coastguard ships resisted at Narvik, but were sunk. At Trondheim, the Admiral Hipper blinded the coastal batteries with its floodlights. It destroyed one of the batteries which managed to open fire. Outside Bergen, the X Aerial Corps of the Luftwaffe scuttled the destroyer HMS Gurkha and damaged the cruisers HMS Southampton and HMS Glasgow. It also sank the cruiser HMS Rodney.

The Allied strategists considered the bombing the Royal Navy would later suffer during this campaign at the hands of the Luftwaffe, to be the most important lesson from Norway. The military power had moved its center of gravity from the seas to the air. With only one of its four functional aircraft carriers, HMS Furious, the British could not compete with the Luftwaffe. The HMS Ark Royal and HMS Glorious were sent immediately from Alexandria to support the Allied counterattack, but they arrived 15 days after the beginning of the campaign.

Norway surrendered two months after the beginning of hostilities. Operation Weserübung did not also include a military assault on Sweden. An assault was not necessary, since, with control over Norway and Denmark, the Third Reich surrounded Sweden from the north, west and south. In the east was the Soviet Union, with which Germany was still on good terms. This was due to the pact of nonaggression signed before the beginning of World War II.

Sweden’s commercial activities were entirely controlled by the Kriegsmarine, the German navy. Sweden allowed German soldiers to transit their territory. This had strategic importance in view of the upcoming war with the Soviet Union.

The Allied reaction to the German invasion was quite prompt, but haphazard and extremely disorganized. Plans were changed many times, even while underway. This produced confusion and sometimes chaos. British troops, which were embarked for the Norwegian invasion, had to be disembarked in Scotland so that the battle cruisers could be chased.

The RAF never managed to put together a battle formation of more than 100 airplanes during the campaign. The English were fighting against over 1,000 German airplanes. These were taking off from aerodromes in Oslo and Stavanger, close by. In the end, the RAF managed to put together improvised aerodromes in Norway. However, its planes had to be kept running day and night and ‘had to be refuelled with jugs and buckets’.

When the British troops were re-embarked for a counter invasion, they didn’t have the correct equipment. Thus, an air of incompetence began to haunt a campaign which was about to take a turn for the worse. In the end, this campaign led to the downfall of the Chamberlain government.

The Royal Navy could have punished the Kriegsmarine as soon as it landed its invasion force. However, the fear that the German ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were at Bergen or in Trondheim meant that the chance of regaining the ports was lost from the beginning. As it was later discovered, however, the German battle cruisers were not there. In two battles carried out in the fjord besides Narvik, no less than 9 German destroyers were sunk or put out of action, most by the cruiser HMS Warspite.

The Allies landed 200km north of Trondheim, at Namsos, and at a point 305km further south, at Åndalsnes. The Allies hoped to be able to cross the snow-filled deserts stretching between the two places and capture Trondheim from the land. The commander of the British Admiralty, Major-General Frederick Hotblack, was told about this operation at the Admiralty headquarters. He later suffered a heart attack on The Mall, on the way back to his club. His successor’s plane crashed on its way to Scotland.

The Allied forces landed at Namsos, under the command of Major-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart. The landing took place under the pressure of ceaseless bombing from German Heinkel bomber planes. Thus, hopes of taking Trondheim were over. ‘The town was destroyed, the timber houses burned, the railhead and everything on it obliterated. Electricity and water supplies were cut off, even the wharves were wrecked,’ recalled one of the witnesses. ‘Namsos had ceased to exist.’

The bombing of Norway seemed to never end, and was demoralizing for the Allied troops. Added to this was the fact that a French ship carrying skis, winter footwear, weapons and tanks, proved to be too big to enter into port.

General de Wiart, aged 70, who had only one hand and one eye, was one of the most courageous British officers of the 20th century. He had been wounded in previous wars in his ankle, hip, ear and leg. Even so, the General didn’t even entertain the possibility of heading south without the support of the RAF. Namsos was evacuated by the beginning of May. During this time, the British forces had already evacuated Åndalsnes.

Even though artillery from the Oscarsborg fortress, close to Oslo, had sunk the cruiser Blücher, one of the very few victims of coastal cannons from World War II, Norway’s capital fell.

King Haakon VII and his government had enough time to flee. They courageously retreated through the fighting, to the north. During their flight, Otto Ruge was named the new Chief of Staff of the Norwegian Army.

At Narvik, the Allied force which had landed at Harsted, in the Lofoten islands, would soon number 20,000 soldiers, compared with the 4,000 Germans there. Even though relations between the Allies worked well, relations between the British army and the British navy short circuited at Narvik. This happened because, unbelievably, they were acting under contradictory orders. The Admiral of the fleet, Earl of Cork and Orrery, received the order to take Narvik with any price. At the same time, the commander of the land troops, Major-General Pierse Mackesy, was authorised to wait for the thaw before taking the city.

While the Admiral and General were arguing and Mackesy was trying to take Cork out of the equation, German provisions were arriving in the city. The Germans built cannon emplacements, and their morale was rising. However, Mackesy, whose troops were left without winter footwear which inexplicably had been delivered to Scotland, was right. Cork discovered this himself when he went on reconnaissance and found himself up to his waist in snow. The communications problems between services were soon resolved. At the time, however, they didn’t throw a good light on the Chamberlain government.

Some of the best Polish mountain ranger troops, two battalions of the French Foreign Legion and General Béthouart’s Chasseurs Alpins together with British and Norwegians, took the city of Narvik. The Allies captured a well-equipped aerodrome with wire-meshed runways and camouflaged shelters. Even so, after Hitler’s victories in France and the Netherlands, such a Scandinavian outpost was insignificant. The Narvik forces were evacuated together with the royal family and the Norwegian government. Norwegian General Otto Ruge decided to remain with his men and was imprisoned.

Operation Weserübung was a major success for Germany. Germany took Norway, and especially Denmark, by surprise. Denmark was defeated in only a few hours. After the end of the military operations in the two countries, a period of military occupation followed, which continued through the war.

In Denmark, the German occupation was less harsh than in other countries. The Germans allowed the Danes to govern their own country, since they considered them an Aryan people. The Danish army was demobilised and significantly reduced in number. Danish soldiers who had been captured during battles were allowed to return home. During the occupation, most Jews in Denmark were not rounded up and sent to Nazi concentration camps. The Jews were sent to Sweden by the Anti-Nazi resistance in Denmark.

The Germans directly ruled Norway up until February 1942, when the Norwegian Nazi leader, Vidkun Quisling, was appointed Prime Minister. He was allowed to lead one of the most autonomous puppet-governments of the Reich. The Germans knew they could trust him from an ideological point of view. He was known as a philanthropist during the starvation in Russia and the crisis of the Armenian refugees in the 1920s. Quisling’s aspirations, concerning a world federation with Nordic rule, had never attracted the Norwegian electorate. His small party, Nasjonal Samling, was only a marginal force in the 1930s.

The Norwegians despised the Nazi leader Vidkun Quisling during the entire period of his rule. If the tribunal which tried him for high treason had not condemned him to death in 1945, his prison guards had determined among themselves to kill him anyway.

The Allies were humiliated in Norway, and the myth of the Führer’s invincibility and his superior race received a new impulse. Even so, the German victory was purchased at a great price. Compared with the 6,700 British, Norwegian, French and Polish men killed and 112 aircraft destroyed, the Germans lost 5,660 men and 240 aircraft in the Norwegian campaign.

The Royal Navy lost one battleship, with three others damaged, one aircraft carrier, eight destroyers and four submarines. The Poles and the French each lost a destroyer and a submarine. The Germans lost three battleships, ten destroyers and four submarines, while the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were out of action for several months. These figures may seem almost equal, but the Kriegsmarine could not suffer such losses as well as the Allies.

Many factors came together to transform the Norwegian campaign into a disaster for the Allies, including the frequent changes of plan. Radio apparatus, which General Sir Claude Auchinleck declared to be worse than those used at the north-western border of India, also contributed to the Allied defeat.

After the surrender of Norway, a fairly prominent resistance movement began to develop there. In spite of the fact that it was infiltrated by the German Gestapo, the movement continued to grow throughout the war. The most important resistance organisation was Milorg. This was allied with the exiled Norwegian government, which carried out acts of sabotage in preparation for an eventual Allied invasion of Germany. Besides the Milorg group, there were also other resistance groups, which acted independently of the exiled Norwegian government.

Once France fell, the Germans took possession of the iron deposits in Alsace-Lorraine and the Atlantic ports. These took the place of the ports of Gällivare and Trondheim. However, approximately 201,000 square kilometers of Norwegian territory still needed garrisons for a good part of the war. These garrisons needed to shelter at least 12 German divisions, a total of 350,000 men.

For several years, Hitler expected an attack on Norway, and kept an exaggerated number of troops there. These troops could have been better put to use on the Eastern Front. Only after D Day, the Allied landing in Normandy, were these moved south. Hitler was, however, right to fear an attack, since Churchill always wanted to secure northern Norway for the Allies. This would have stopped the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe from using that area. Thus, all convoys sent towards Murmansk would have been blocked after Hitler invaded Russia.

The German invasion of Denmark legitimated the Allied capture of Reykjavik and the Faroe islands the following month. There, air bases were secured which were vital for the anti-submarine campaigns in the Battle of the Atlantic. After the disastrous Norwegian and Danish campaigns, Neville Chamberlain’s government was forced to resign. Thus, Winston Churchill became the new British Prime Minister.

The Norwegian campaign was a serious blow for the Allies. The two-day long debate in the House of Commons managed, at least, to bring down the Chamberlain government and raise to power the energetic coalition under Churchill. Ironically, he was the Briton most responsible for the Norwegian expedition and for the Admiralty’s participation in the expedition.

Winston Churchill’s most important, most dangerous, but most constructive character trait was impatience. He showed impatience his whole life, both towards himself and those around him, especially during the imperial wars and World War I. When he became prime minister, Churchill was 65 years old, but he was still at the peak of his considerable intellectual and oratorical capabilities.

Churchill did not delay in taking command, as soon as it became clear that Chamberlain could not continue without the support of Labour, the Liberals, and a smaller, but growing group of conservative rebels. Churchill was impatient to take over the role of prime minister. He told his rival, Lord Halifax, minister of Foreign Affairs, that he couldn’t hold the office of prime minister from his position in the House of Lords.

Churchill had an ideal of heroism, both personally and for the British people. Looking back, these two aspects came together in a great attitude. Many members of the British political establishment considered Churchill’s attitude, at that point, dangerously romantic. For over 40 years, there could hardly be found a major political subject, foreign or domestic, in which Churchill had not been closely involved. He often participated in events on the side of the defeated.

Churchill’s judgement was contested concerning some very important issues, such as women’s right to vote, the disaster at Gallipoli, the adoption of the gold standard for the British pound, the self-governance of India, the abdication crisis, and many others. However, this colossal impatience which characterized him was exactly what the British nation needed. Churchill demanded, with resolutions written in red ink on urgent documents: ‘Action this day!’ And that is exactly what happened!