First Steps to Freedom
Beset by human error and deserted by luck, the Allies could have been forgiven for thinking their failures in Norway were almost farcical had they not resulted in precious lives and territory lost. But far to the north, within the Arctic Circle, there was a glimmer of hope: Narvik. By mid-May 1940 the possibility of a tactical Allied victory in this imposing region was tantalisingly close. For one sizable contingent, the Polish Independent Highland Brigade (Samodzielna Brygada Strzelców Podhalańskich), Narvik would also represent the first step on the long road to Poland’s freedom.
The race begins
Prior to the development of Narvik’s port at the turn of the 20th century, the shipping of Swedish iron ore in winter was hampered by the Gulf of Bothnia freezing up. Swedish ore was known for its quality and was a key ingredient in the blast furnaces of German steelmakers. To circumvent the problem a railway line was built connecting Sweden’s main ore fields to the port of Narvik, on the northern coast of Norway. This allowed for all-year shipping.
In 1938, it was estimated the Third Reich imported 22 million tons of iron ore, of which 2 million to 3 million tons was shipped via Narvik. The British and French took careful note, with the British Ministry of Economic Warfare computing that Germany needed at least 750,000 tons of iron ore per month in the first year of conflict or risk ‘major industrial breakdown’. Interrupt the flow of Narvik ore and the Allies could inflict a notable blow against Germany’s industrial base. Of course there was also another, less-publicised reason for intervening in Norway: both the British and French considered it an excellent location for a second front. Fighting the Germans to the north would distract them from the west, earning the Allies precious time to continue arming and building up their reserves.
The Germans were well aware of these possibilities and demanded Oslo maintain strict neutrality and strongly rebuff any Allied encroachments. The Third Reich would send forces to ensure Norway’s ‘protection’ if it was unwilling or unable to do this. However, much of this was hypothetical: Hitler knew many British and French politicians were wary of transgressing Norwegian neutrality for fear of incurring the censure of other non-aligned nations. In addition, Britain and France had emphasised time and again that they were fighting to uphold international law in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. Thus their central justification for declaring war would be weakened if they were seen to blatantly violate Norway’s sovereignty.
A stand-off ensued, with the three sides – Germany, France and Britain, and Norway – each trying to second guess what the others’ intentions might be. Tensions were ratcheted further on 30 November 1939 when the USSR invaded Finland. There was great sympathy for the Finns’ plight in the democratic world, with many in France and Britain viewing Stalin as being little better than Hitler.* There was concern in Germany that the Allies would use Finland as a pretext to intervene in Scandinavia, strangling the flow of iron ore in the process. The hunch was correct, with the French notably bullish in joint planning and calling for an expeditionary force ‘to occupy Narvik and the Swedish iron ore fields as part of the process of assisting Finland’.
*All of which would start to change after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Stalin was absolved of his sins in propaganda that projected the image of a benevolent dictator, the pipe-smoking ‘Uncle Joe’.
Another spur for the invasion of Norway occurred in February 1940 with the dramatic interception of the Altmark, a German transport ship that had linked up with the Graf Spee and taken aboard around 300 British prisoners captured by the pocket battleship during its ill-fated rampage. Altmark managed to reach Norwegian waters when she was chased up a fjord and boarded by the Royal Navy destroyer Cossack, with the prisoners broken free. Germany viewed Norway’s passive response to Cossack’s actions as underlining tacit support for Britain.* In response, blueprints for a pre-emptive strike on Norway were drawn up, with the final plan calling for several German flotillas to capture Oslo and other key ports in an audacious surprise attack. On 2 April, Operation Weserübung was given clearance, with the various task forces to leave at staggered intervals to ensure all units arrived at their targets on 8/9 April.
*Conveniently forgetting their own violation of moving POWs through neutral waters.
While the Germans were thinking big, Allied preparations for a Scandinavian expeditionary force had been scuppered after Finland accepted Russian terms on 12 March. In response, the Royal Navy formulated a plan to lay mines in Norwegian waters in order to disrupt the shipments of iron ore. Clearance for an operation was granted at a Supreme War Council on 28 March. It was hoped the Germans would make an aggressive countermove that would allow the Allies to rush troops to Norway and open the second front. The operation was scheduled for 5 April and response units assembled in preparation. However, there was a sudden postponement until 8 April, which created a great deal of confusion. It also meant the Germans were now several vital steps ahead.
Norway’s politicians reacted to events on 8/9 April with disbelief and vacillation, despite receiving intelligence that a German invasion had started. This included the testimony of around 100 bedraggled German soldiers fished out of the sea by Norwegian vessels after their transport ship, Rio de Janeiro, had been sunk off the southern coast on 8 April. The survivors said they had been heading to Bergen as part of a German operation to protect Norway from the Allies. Their ship had been sunk by the Polish submarine Orzeł under the command of Captain Grudzinski.
In 1939, as the Blitzkrieg swallowed up Poland, Orzeł had escaped by sailing for the safety of Tallinn, Estonia. But the crew and its captain were unwilling to remain interned under the rules of neutrality; the submariners had soon kidnapped their Estonian guards and escaped in their vessel. Without charts or compass, they reached the Swedish coast, landing their captives and handing them whisky, cash and cigarettes by way of an apology. In a triumph of seamanship and daring, the submarine reached Britain not long afterwards. Dutch-built Orzeł was a modern submarine and an extremely welcome asset for the Royal Navy to call on. She was involved in several other engagements in Norwegian waters after sinking Rio de Janeiro until contact was suddenly lost in early June, the vessel vanishing without a trace.*
*Numerous theories about this disaster have been proposed, although the most likely cause was striking of a sea mine. In summer 2008, a Polish expedition searched the area where Orzeł was presumed lost. Although several wrecks were discovered, she was not among them. Follow-up efforts have been unable to find her either and the fate of the submarine and 63-man crew remains a mystery.
Back on land, German units consistently outfoxed and outmanoeuvred the Norwegians. At Narvik, the taskforce arrived after destroying two superannuated dreadnoughts that had bravely but forlornly tried to halt the invaders. Led by General Dietl, 1,200 men – Gebirgsjäger of the German 3rd Mountain Division – quickly secured the port, whose overwhelmed defenders either slipped away or surrendered. The Allies were now on the back foot in Norway and would remain so until the end of the campaign. However, they scored some early naval successes at Narvik: on 10 April and 13 April, the Royal Navy contained and then decimated the German flotilla in the harbour and neighbouring fjords.
The Kriegsmarine’s misfortune proved advantageous for Dietl as the surviving naval personnel were placed under his command, almost doubling his available manpower. And while their quality as soldiers was poor, they allowed the German general to plug important gaps in his defence lines. Later on, with the German perimeter shrinking and the casualties mounting, Dietl was reinforced through variety of means that included transport aircraft and seaplanes ferrying men and equipment; parachutist drops; and the crossing of neutral Sweden into Narvik by German ‘specialists’ on civilian visas. However, the numbers involved were not large; for example, only 300 men and two anti-tank guns arrived within the German perimeter from 14 May to 22 May.
Aside from the naval success at Narvik, the British response to the Norwegian intervention had proven rushed and poorly executed. For example, the elite 24 Guards Brigade was landed in the Narvik theatre, while raw territorial troops – far too few in number and weakly armed – were thrown into central Norway to face the main German juggernaut now pushing north out of Oslo. Although these men put up some stiff resistance, and had the advantage of defensive terrain, they were without vital anti-tank capabilities. They were also under constant threat from the air as the Germans had almost complete mastery of the skies.
Back at Narvik an operational base was established at the small port of Harstad, 55km to the northwest. The commander of Allied land forces, Maj Gen Mackesy, favoured a step-by-step approach along both sides of Ofotfjord that leads to Narvik. Mackesy argued that the grim weather* and the lack of vital equipment, including skis, precluded any other form of advance. The navy, led by Lord Cork (soon appointed the theatre’s overall commander) believed an opposed landing offered the best possible solution. He was vetoed by Mackesy, who considered an operation of this sort too dangerous, while Cork made his opinions on the matter known to his superiors.
*It is worth noting the European winter of 1939/40 had been abysmal and the bleak conditions experienced at Narvik lasted well into May.
As the back-and-forth argument between the two men continued, the Royal Navy conducted an ineffectual bombardment of Narvik’s hinterland by the British battleship Warspite and several destroyers on 24 April. At least there was some positive news filtering back from the region north of Narvik as Norway’s 6th Division, which was responsible for defending the area, had been rallied by the tough but irascible Maj Gen Fleischer. While it suffered from inexperience and also struggled against the dismal conditions, its efforts were now keeping the enemy engaged and causing casualties.
A world away
Far from the icy and forbidding fjords of Narvik, thousands of Polish troops had been busy training in the countryside around Coëtquidan, Brittany. Among them were the soldiers of the newly-formed Polish Highland Brigade, which officially came into existence on 29 February 1940. Manpower for the Polish Army in France primarily came from two sources: the thousands of troops and civilians that escaped Poland via its southern borders or from France’s large Polish immigrant communities. Sometimes labelled Carpathian Chasseurs, few of the unit’s members actually came from the mountainous region of southern Poland. Interestingly, the brigade also contained a smattering of troops that had seen action fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
The aim was to quickly create an elite formation for operating in harsh environments like Norway and the training was intensive by necessity. The unit included 1st Half Brigade, comprising the 1st and 2nd Battalions, and 2nd Half Brigade, which included the 3rd and 4th Battalions. In overall command was Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko – promoted to Maj. Gen. on 9 April – who had served in the Tsarist army during the First World War and had led the Polish 16th Division in 1939. Polish High Command placed the brigade on alert as soon as the German invasion of Norway started. A full parade took place on 10 April, with the Polish leader and commander-in-chief General Wladyslaw Sikorski in attendance. ‘It will be your honour to lead the way,’ he said, before presenting the brigade with its new colours, a gift from the army field bishop, Józef Gawlina.
On the night of the 23/24 April, the 4,778-strong brigade boarded three liners bound for Norway. Following a dull voyage that was punctuated with the excitement and fear of a submarine contact, the Poles arrived off Tromso on 5 May. The dramatic Norwegian coast filled many with awe and some trepidation. ‘The hearts of the Polish soldiers sank at the sight of the huge, tooth-like mountains,’ Karol Zbyszewski and Józef Natanson wrote later in 1940. Few Poles had ever seen a landscape like it. Misguidedly, the Allies intended to move the brigade into East Finnmark province, which bordered Russia. The aim was to free-up Norwegian troops stationed there, enabling them to fight in the Narvik theatre. The Norwegians vigorously opposed this move as stationing Poles next to Russians would have been more than impolitic given the USSR’s annexation of eastern Poland in 1939. Quickly seeing sense, the Allies ordered the Poles to land at Harstad, which they did on 7/8 May.
The Polish 1st Half Brigade camped outside the small port along with the headquarters staff and support troops. Meanwhile, 2nd Half Brigade’s 3rd Battalion was transferred to Ballangen for use as a security force, while its 4th Battalion was sent to Salangen. The Poles would have been informed about the destruction of the Polish destroyer Grom in Ofotfjord; she had been sunk by an enemy air strike for the loss of 59 men on 5 May. The 2,144-tonne vessel was hit by a bomb on the torpedo tubes, detonating the warheads and blowing the ship apart. Its destruction was also evidence, if evidence was needed, of Germany’s growing aerial might in the theatre as airfields in central Norway were brought into use by the Luftwaffe.
*Grom was one of three destroyers that had raced to Britain from Poland at the start of the war.
The Poles had landed shortly after several French units, including the 27th Half Brigade of elite Chasseurs Alpins that arrived on 28 April and the 13th Half Brigade, comprising two Foreign Legion battalions and several support elements, which arrived on 6 May. French and Polish forces were under the overall command of Bdr. Gen. Marie Emilie Béthouart who had already been involved in operations at Namsos, central Norway, until ordered by French High Command to take control of units in the Narvik theatre.
Success and failure
Although total Allied numbers in the theatre now stood at around 25,000, Mackesy’s cautious strategy still dominated. However, the arrival of French and Polish troops injected some much-needed animation on the Allied side, with a methodical advance to Bjerkvik on the northern shore of Ofotfjord soon proposed. The South Wales Borderers and a French ski platoon were then landed unopposed at Skjomnes, on the south shore and just west of the Ankenes peninsula. Their goal was the village of Ankenes that overlooks Beisfjord, with Narvik immediately beyond. Although there were only weak German outposts in the area, they were able to call in machine gun (MG) and artillery support on the only road west of the village, stopping the Borderers from reaching their objective. Alerted to the threat, the Germans then rushed Gebirgsjäger and naval personnel to the peninsula and counter attacked. British and French reinforcements were pushed back until the enemy came under naval fire and was also forced to retire.
The most notable Allied success in the following days was the capture of Bjerkvik. At Béthouart’s insistence, two battalions of the French Foreign Legion took this strategic village and its environs at the head of Herjansfjord on 12/13 May using early versions of landing craft. Simultaneously, the Norwegians and Chasseurs Alpins were continuing to fight and gain ground in the north. The Poles also played a small but notable part in this action; the Highland Brigade’s 2nd Battalion landed at Lenvik and, supported by Norwegian ski detachments and British ships, was able to clear the northwest side of Herjangsfjord on 13 May. It then linked up with the French on 14 May. The enemy’s security force fell back in response, but soon discovered its line of retreat had been cut off. Heading into the mountains, this platoon-sized unit became lost until it stumbled into Gratangsbotn on 16 May, where it was swiftly captured by the French. Success at Bjerkvik gave Allied forces a badly-needed shot in the arm, as did the arrival of Maj. Gen. Auchinleck, who took over from the disappointing Mackesy. However, news from north-central Norway was becoming increasingly grim; Allied efforts to stem an advance by the German 2nd Mountain Division to reach and relieve Dietl were failing.
For the Poles, a second naval sinking occurred when the converted Polish liner Chroby, carrying the Irish Guards in Vestfjord to the south, was hit by an enemy airstrike. Fortunately, the soldiers and sailors were transferred to ships that raced alongside and around 700 men were saved. However, ten Poles and three British crewmen were killed, as were several Irish Guards officers. The aerial threat had become such a menace that Cork and Auchinleck decided to prioritise the preparation of an airfield for RAF fighters. Efforts were centred on Bardufoss, northeast of Narvik, which became operational in late May. Several Gladiator biplanes from No.263 Sqn arrived on 25 May, joined the following day by Hurricanes from No.46 Sqn. But with good news came bad: Allied command in Narvik on 24/25 May was informed that operations in Norway were being brought to a close. With German armies now punching through the Western Front, the fate of France hung in the balance and Norway had become a secondary concern. However, it was stressed that the capture of Narvik and the destruction of its iron ore installations remained a priority before evacuation occurred.
The Ankenes peninsula had become an exclusively Polish concern by 19 May. The transfer of control started on 14 May with the arrival of two Polish battalions ferried in small boats from Bjerkvik to replace the South Wales Borderers, who were then shipped south to try and help tackle the advance of the German 2nd Mountain Division. Another Polish battalion arrived soon afterwards and it replaced the French 12th Battalion Chasseurs Alpins. They were followed by the final Polish battalion and headquarters staff, which arrived on 19 May. The Poles had the support of British artillery units and a small number of anti-aircraft guns.
Opposing them were two companies of Gebirgsjäger: 6 Company 139th Regiment (Reg.), which defended positions in and around Ankenes village, while 7 Company 139th Reg. held several hills to the south. On 17/18 May, under the dim glow of a midnight sun, the Polish Highland Brigade’s 2nd Battalion attempted to move its lines forward but met fierce resistance. Nine Poles were killed and 15 wounded. However, the pressure on the Germans was such that Dietl was forced to send reinforcements; 6 Company was relieved by 8 Company 139th Reg. on 18/19 May, while naval personnel, engineers and reconnaissance platoons were also sent across. A major boost for the defenders came with the arrival of 118 men from 2 Company 137th Reg. that had parachuted into the Narvik theatre on 25 May and was moved to the peninsula on 27 May. However, the Poles continued to make localised advances, making good use of protective cover whenever the defenders called in an airstrike. Momentum was on their side and victory was in their sights.
In the meantime, with the clock ticking down to evacuation and air cover finally in place, the Allies were finally ready to tackle Narvik. At midnight 27/28 May, French and Norwegian troops landed 1.5 km east of the port. Around 290 legionaries arrived first, racing up the slopes of the beach towards their first objectives. Two H-39 light tanks that were meant to follow and offer support became bogged down. Nonetheless, the French held their ground and, despite delays in bringing up reinforcements, secured control of the beachhead by 04:00. On their right, the Norwegian 2nd Battalion 15th Reg. was fighting to take the high ground on the eastern approach to Narvik.
Although the Germans started to counter attack, their efforts were constrained by incoming naval fire. The tide was almost turned in their favour when RAF fighter cover was forced to return to base after a layer of fog was reported nearing Bardufoss. The Luftwaffe was now free to bomb British ships, which took evasive action as a result. On the ground, the Germans launched another stinging counter attack. As the danger mounted, Lt. Commander Balfour – who had lost his signals lamps in the German push – rushed down to the shore, boarded a landing craft and ordered it back out into the fjord. He eventually reached Coventry, which signalled Beagle to give shoreline support at any cost. Her 4.7 inch guns had the desired effect and forced the Germans to retire.
Shortly afterwards, the fog at Bardufoss cleared and three Hurricanes were scrambled. Their presence was enough to scatter the German aircraft and allowed the British ships to resume their supporting role. A second battalion of French troops had landed by 11:00, adding extra impetus to the drive forward. The Germans were now steadily retreating towards defensive positions, closer to the Swedish border. Victorious, Béthouart was more than happy to grant a Norwegian battalion the honour of officially entering Narvik first. Total casualties stood at 150, with the French suffering 34 dead and 50 wounded.
As the French and Norwegians started the operation to take Narvik, the Polish launched their effort to seize the Ankenes peninsula. The 1st Battalion was to tackle Hills 670 and 773 to the south, while the 2nd Battalion was to eliminate German positions close to Ankenes village. Sections from the 4th Battalion maintained positions on Hills 677 and 734 and acted as close support. The rest of 4th Battalion and 3rd Battalion were placed in reserve. The attack started at midnight, with 3 Company 2nd Battalion heading up the road to Ankenes. The weight of navy and artillery fire impressed those about to go into action. ‘The whole mountain became one continuous explosion,’ wrote Zbyszewski and Natanson. The Poles managed to reach the outskirts of Ankenes village by 02:00 but then stumbled into a lethal cross fire, forcing them to retreat towards Emmenes.
At 00:20, 1 Company 2nd Battalion had also engaged the enemy, but at close quarters this time. ‘Crawling from stone to stone, Germans and Poles were firing at each other at point blank range,’ according to Zbyszewski and Natanson. However, the Poles allowed a dangerous gap to open up that the German 3 Company was quick to exploit. A group of 15 Germans rushed towards Hill 295, exactly where 1st Battalion commander Lt. Col. Dec was located. Although their numbers were small – and it was not long before the attackers were whittled down to just eight – they were able to inflict heavy casualties on Dec’s orderlies and staff who were ill-equipped for a vicious fire fight. ‘The officers had to hold them at bay with their revolvers,’ Zbyszewski and Natanson wrote. Amazingly, the eight Germans managed to hold Hill 295 until 20:00, having used up all their ammunition and throwing back three Polish counter attacks. They then withdrew to Beisfjord, found a boat and cast off, attempting to escape. They were spotted from the shoreline and were promptly sunk by machine gun fire, the bulk of the craft’s occupants killed as a result.
At 02:00, 2 Company 2nd Battalion started its attack and came under machine gun fire to the north of Hill 405. Fortunately for the Poles, two platoons from 2 Company 4th Battalion tackled this position, allowing their comrades to continue towards Nyborg, which they took by 09:00. Here the Poles caught German units attempting to evacuate from Ankenes across the Beisfjord. Again, the enemy’s boats were riddled with Polish fire, with two overturning in the fusillade and several German troops killed or drowned. As 2nd Battalion’s companies battled to make headway, those from 1st Battalion were also struggling against the limpet-like defence. Attacking Hills 650 and 773, the Poles were initially thrown back until 4 Company 4th Battalion sprang into action and forced most of the enemy to withdraw. Unfortunately, a German four-man machine gun team remained on the top of Hill 650, holding off the Polish advance. The position was finally stormed by 1 Company 1st Battalion at 21:00.
Tired and exhausted, the Poles now commanded the Ankenes peninsula, with advanced elements in control of Beisfjord village at the head of the fjord. Béthouart used French and Polish units to advance on Sildvik in the final days of May. The Poles often found themselves struggling to make assaults in weather that remained resolutely dismal. And while the enemy was on its last legs – the Germans were critically short of supplies and tired from the constant fighting – their morale was unshaken.
For the people of Narvik, the campaign came to a terrible culmination on 30 May when Luftwaffe bombers targeted the town. ‘The Allies had taken all possible trouble to spare the city. But soon after its capture by them, the Nazis, for no strategic reason, wantonly, out of sheer spite, at one stroke reduced it to ashes,’ Zbyszewski and Natanson wrote. Days later, starting on 4 June, the evacuation was initiated and it proved to be a complete success, surprising not only the Germans but also the Norwegians who had little inkling of the Allied decision.
Leaving on 6 and 7 June, most Polish troops thought they were being redeployed south to help contain the advancing German 2nd Mountain Division as their French and Norwegian comrades delivered the coup de grace to Dietl’s forces, either destroying them or forcing them to cross into Sweden, where they would be detained under neutrality laws. The discovery this was not to be, and that the campaign was over, left many stunned. As the ships left Narvik, Zbyszewski and Natanson wrote that Polish soldiers ‘stood staring, staring at that country, so foreign and yet so much their own, won only yesterday with their toil and blood’. Polish losses stood at 97 dead, 189 wounded, 21 missing and seven taken prisoner.
Thousands of Allied troops were evacuated without incident, with Norway’s King Håkon and General Fleischer among them. Many others were less lucky. Hitler had given Grand Admiral Raeder permission to use the heavy cruisers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Admiral Hipper in a strike on Allied shipping into Harstad. Instead, they stumbled on several retreating Allied ships, some of which fell victim to the German guns. The greatest loss was the aircraft carrier Glorious – of 1,559 listed on board, only 40 survived. At 22:00, on 8 June, Norway’s supreme commander Maj. Gen. Otto Ruge notified the enemy he was willing to enter ceasefire negotiations and German troops soon re-entered Narvik. The Norwegian campaign was officially over and the country’s bitter years of occupation had begun.
For the Poles, the return journey to France was uneventful but depressing. The scant news they received about the Western Front was deeply unsettling and it appeared the Blitzkrieg that ripped Poland apart was being replicated in France. Landing at Brest on 14/15 June, the Poles and were rushed to positions south of St Malo. They were unsupported and without artillery or communications. On the following day, the brigade was ordered east to St Malo and Dol. Again, no support was available. Around a battalion of men and women then managed to board ships evacuating for Britain, while the rest of the brigade was forced to surrender on 18 June at 11:00. Many became prisoners of war, while others returned to their families in France. Those who reached Britain, including Bohusz-Szyszko, were posted to Scotland to help defend the western coast. They became the Podhalańska Battalion, the 6th Battalion of the 2nd Rifle Brigade.
In the Norwegian campaign, both on land and at sea, the Poles had fought hard and won several notable victories. Once able to take stock, there was a realisation that their efforts had been noteworthy; they proved Polish soldiers could defeat the enemy when backed up with the right resources. This fact was vital in sustaining morale as a new Polish army under British auspices was born. ‘The Pole who left Norway took away with him the sight of the German soldiers abandoning their arms and rifles, of the German soldiers with their hands in surrender above their heads looking terrified,’ the Polish Ministry of Information wrote in 1943.
In 1944, Polish veterans of the Narvik campaign would see their enemy surrendering once more throughout France and the Low Countries. Unfortunately, their hopes for Poland would be dashed at a strategic level; Stalin had formulated his own plans for the country and Eastern Europe as a whole. Still, the dream of a free and democratic Poland – a central motivating force for those Poles who battled across the wind-swept Ankenes Peninsula – was never snuffed out. With some justification, it could be argued Narvik 1940 was the first step of a painful journey to freedom that took almost 50 years to complete – when Poland finally removed the Soviet shackles and became a free and democratic nation once more.
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The author would also like to thank Eric McAuley for his witness account of Chroby’s sinking.