The Strategic Context of the Scandinavian Campaign of 1940

Seen from hindsight, the Scandinavian campaign of 1940 seems preordained. It becomes easy to accept the notion of a German master plan to conquer Europe systematically, beginning with Poland, continuing with Denmark and Norway, and culminating with France and its neighbors before turning to England, where the plan unravels. This belief overlooks the haphazard nature of Hitler’s planning and the active role of the western Allies, especially Britain, since the declaration of war in 1939. Both sides had an interest in the disposition of neutral Norway, and both were willing to act aggressively, if necessary, to secure those interests.

The German Perspective

Germany’s war economy depended heavily on the free flow of shipping from Norway. Neighboring Sweden provided much of Germany’s iron ore, delivering more than ten million tons annually. In warmer weather, these shipments could be delivered through the Baltic Sea, but during the winter, the port of Lulea would freeze, halting the iron ore shipments. The only realistic alternative was to send the iron by rail to Norway, and then to ship it to Germany from there.

The iron mines were located far in the north, near Kiruna; at that latitude, Norway only occupied a thin stretch of coast along the Swedish border. That part of Norway boasted a port that never froze during the winter: Narvik. Accordingly, winter plans called for the delivery of iron to Narvik, where it would be loaded onto steamers bound for Germany. As long as Norway remained neutral in the war and willing to cooperate with Germany economically, these vessels could steam through Norwegian territorial waters, where, by international law, they were safe from enemy action. As long as Britain remained willing to respect international law in this matter, these shipments were actually safer with a neutral Norway than they would be with Norway under German occupation. Hitler had a powerful incentive not to intervene unnecessarily.

The other major interest concerned naval strategy. During World War I, the German Navy had contributed little more than a large measure of Britain’s initial hostility. While it is true that the Royal Navy had outnumbered the Kaiser’s Navy, it was geography that had proven most decisive. The British had been unassailably strong in the English Channel and at the boundaries of the North Sea; if the Germans sought to test British strength, as they did at Jutland, they then faced the prospect of being met by converging battle groups. Britain had been able to enforce its blockade from hundreds of miles away.

A combination of practical reasoning and wounded honor inspired a group of German naval officers to suggest the seizure of Norway in order to challenge the British control of the North Sea. Narvik was only one of several major ports that were suitable for large naval operations, while the many fjords offered possibilities for submarines and small vessels. German control of Norway would threaten the northern flank of Britain’s naval defenses. The voyage of the Bismarck in 1941 offers a glimpse at what might have been possible if the new battleship had returned home safely. While the mission was essentially a surface raid, it was also a challenge to British naval superiority in the north, and one that the British took very seriously.

The case made by these officers was sufficiently compelling that Grand Admiral Raeder saw fit to present the idea to Hitler, even though both men preferred to maintain Norwegian neutrality at that time. The benefits of invasion did not seem to justify the costs, as long as matters stayed as they were. Hitler’s main concern was that Britain might take action on its own; if that seemed likely, then he would strike preemptively. A December visit made by Norwegian fascist Vidkun Quisling would serve to fuel Hitler’s fears on this count.

The British Perspective

As with Germany, the British government was divided on the subject of Norway. The Chamberlain government was content to see Norway remain neutral, and indeed hoped to avoid any unnecessary expansion of the war into Scandinavia. As First Lord of the Admiralty, however, the ever-pugnacious Winston Churchill saw Norway as the easiest way to strike a telling blow to the German war effort. On September 29, he called for the laying of mines outside of Narvik. His call was denied, but Churchill persisted; by October 10, the German government had learned about the prospect.

Oddly enough, the only major belligerent in Europe to perform major operations was the Soviet Union. The Soviets invaded Finland on November 30, beginning operations characterized by poor performance but overwhelming numbers; the Winter War dragged on until March, far longer than it should have done, but with an outcome that was reasonably certain.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact had turned the politics of the Winter War on its head. Under other circumstances, Germany would have aided the Finns; German trade with both Finland and Sweden were threatened by the Soviet gambit. Hitler’s hands were tied by treaty, however, and Finland received little support from the south. The western Allies, however, were eager to help. After the partition of Poland in September, the Soviets were considered German allies in 1939; indeed, they were more recognizably German allies than the Italians, with whom the Pact of Steel had been signed but who had not yet declared war on anyone in Europe. Aiding Finland was seen as a way to do something productive in the war, and if successful, the Allies would have repulsed a German ally.

The French liked the idea of carrying on the fight somewhere else than in France. For Churchill, however, the prospect of aiding Finland offered far more than the opportunity to galvanize the Allies into concrete action: it presented a pretext for severing the trade routes that brought Swedish iron to German steel mills.

There was no realistic way to supply Finland by sea. The Germans were too dominant in the Baltic to entertain such a notion. The only way to present significant aid to the Finns would be to carry it overland, across Norwegian and Swedish territory. The appropriation of the port of Narvik for this purpose, and the creation of allied military supply routes across Sweden to Finland would, fortuitously, block the iron shipments.

The British sought the permission of the Norwegians and the Swedes to set up such a supply route across their territory; both refused. The possibility of doing so by force was considered, and it was not kept secret. Speculation raged in the British press, and again, the Germans were aware of it.

Hitler changes his mind

During his December visit to Germany, Vidkun Quisling attempted to inspire German support for a fascist coup in Norway. Raeder was skeptical of his chances of success, but he brought one piece of information that shifted Hitler’s thinking materially. While Norway had refused to invite British forces into their country, Quisling claimed, the decision had been made to allow the Allies to proceed if they arrived without an invitation.

The threat was no longer theoretical, and Hitler decided to seize Norway first, if he could. Planning began immediately, although the first plan, dubbed Studie Nord, was denied on January 27. Hitler called for a more thorough plan with the code name Weseruebung. Even at this juncture, however, Hitler was not yet dedicated to the idea.

On February 16, the Royal Navy struck at a German vessel in Norwegian territorial waters. The Altmark had been carrying 299 POWs; Churchill had sent the destroyer Cossack to stop the Altmark and retrieve these prisoners. It was this act that fixed Hitler’s mind on the conquest of Norway. If Britain were willing to disregard international law concerning neutral waters in order to carry out its military goals, then it was only a matter of time before the flow of iron through Narvik would be stopped by a British blockade.

Hitler ordered the armed forces to proceed with the operation on February 19; he assigned command to General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst on February 21. The operation was to be expedited as much as possible. Hitler considered it imperative that it proceed before the main attack in France and the Low Countries was unleashed.

Norway’s military was not considered a strong threat. Only the terrain posed a serious problem; travel through the mountains would slow German progress and, with the likelihood of an Allied intervention, speed was essential. The Germans bought some time through a close coordination of the three branches of service, Army, Navy and Luftwaffe, but this required closer airbases than Germany had at home. This, more than just its position as Germany’s neighbor, doomed Denmark to a similar fate. Denmark was to be captured as expeditiously as possible, and the airbases at Alborg would be used to project Luftwaffe support in the battle for Norway.

As it happened, the German operation succeeded, although Allied expeditionary forces fought on doggedly into June. Interestingly, the British were able to capture Narvik in May, and it was the parlous state of the fighting in France that prompted their evacuation in June. For the Germans, this victory secured the delivery of iron and offered many opportunities for naval action. The scope of German naval operations on the surface was seriously curtailed after the sinking of the Bismarck, but submarines remained an important part of German strategy, and surface raiding again became feasible after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, when convoys steamed from Britain to the Russian port of Murmansk, conveniently passing the Norwegian coast. Eventually, even this modest role for the German Navy ceased after the Battle of North Cape in December, 1943. Against this declining role as a naval asset must be weighed the Army and Luftwaffe investment in maintaining the occupation. In the end, holding Norway was an expensive way for the Germans to guarantee the delivery of iron ore until the last months of the war.



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Dildy, Doug.  Denmark and Norway 1940: Hitler’s Boldest Operation.  Osprey, 2007

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