THE INVASION OF NORWAY
Safe in Germany, Hitler began planning the occupation of Norway and Denmark under the code-name "Weserübung," or "Wesser Exercise." His original plans called for a neutral Scandinavia, but after time he feared northern Europe could be used against him. Consequently he sought to establish his forces there before the Allies, who had their own plans in the region. A British-controlled Norwegian coastline would directly threaten German positions along the Baltic Sea, as well as impose a costly blockade. Besides, Hitler wanted Norway for its valuable resources, especially its iron ore, a necessary war material, which was exported from the northern Norwegian port of Narvik. Narvik had a major rail junction and ore-crushing plant for Swedish iron, and was also the lone ice-free port that Germany could use to transport the iron back home. Additionally, Norway would serve as the perfect strategic naval and aerial base to attack England and Hitler boasted that "weakness in numbers will be made good by skillful action and surprise in execution." For the most part, Hitler was right.
The Norwegian armed forces, later headed by Maj. Gen. Otto Ruge, would not be able to defend such a long stretch of coastline. In Norway's favor, however, their steep mountains, icy fjords and thick woodlands would make a blitzkrieg impossible. Instead, the Germans planned to make them surrender by gaining control of the Norwegian ports and the capital city of Oslo with airborne drops and rapid infantry assaults. Britain had a similar plan, but was designed to protect Norway from the Germans. Initially the British were unsure of what course of action to take, and decided to mine the waters between Norway and its offshore islands, known as the "Norwegian Leads." Dubbed "Operation Wilfred," this would prevent German ships from sneaking through neutral waterways. The British also planned to send in troops to secure the ports and convert the port city of Narvik to an Allied naval base. They told Norway and Sweden if they allowed the Germans to use Scandinavian sealanes for any reason they would lose their neutrality status. This was something to consider because both countries wanted desperately to stay neutral like they did in the First World War. The German ships sailed on 7 April 1940, the same day the British ships set sail to mine the Norwegian waterways, and mining began the following day.
Under the command of General Nicholas von Falkenhorst, the Germans were set for an invasion with approximately 9,000 troops aboard 71 ships masquerading as British warships to confuse the Norwegians. Rumors of the invasion swept across Scandinavia, but each country assumed it would happen to another country and not themselves. Britain also misread the German naval build up as an attempt to break through their blockade, and ignored several signs that indicated the Germans' intentions. Deadly naval battles followed, one especially notable on 8 April west of Trondheim, when the diminutive British destroyer Glowworm was mauled by the massive German cruiser Admiral Hipper. Rather than sink gracefully, the Glowworm turned full steam into the Admiral Hipper in a last ditch effort to avenge her inevitable death. The Glowworm was survived by only 31 sailors, but the Admiral Hipper was damaged enough to make her return to port.
The following day a massive German offensive began on the coastal cities of Bergen, Kristiansand, Narvik, Oslo, Stavanger and Trondheim with inevitable heavy naval losses. At the northern tip near Narvik two major battles ensued, damaging several ships including the cruiser Gneisenau as well as losing ten destroyers and a U-boat. Captain Bey, leading the German ships, had proved to be indecisive and squandered any chance for escape. The British, under Captain Warburton-Lee, were far better armed and only lost two destroyers. At the southern tip near Kristiansand, the German cruiser Karlsruhe was sunk by a British submarine, but as a small consolation the British battleship Rodney was damaged. Off the coast of Bergen the German cruiser Königsberg was wounded by shore batteries, then became the first major warship to be destroyed by dive bombers. In the fjords south of Oslo, the new German cruiser Blücher was taken by surprise by Norwegian coastal defenses and sunk at the loss of 1000 lives. The panzerschiff ("pocket battleship") Lützow behind her saw the ship explode violently and assumed there was a minefield ahead. She turned around, calling off the naval attack on Oslo, but on her way home she was badly damaged by a submarine torpedo. Further naval losses included several merchant ships from the convoy to Oslo.
Meanwhile, German Fallschirmjäger, or airborne troops, dropped near the southern cities of Oslo and Stavanger, whose airport was invaluable for future operations in western Europe. The German success was startling as infantry landings fanned out, capturing other cities and linking up with other units. The capital city of Oslo surrendered on 9 April, choosing to be an "open city" instead of committing to certain destruction like Warsaw. Rather than meet the German forces head on, the Allies wanted to land at Harstad (just west of Narvik) and Namsos (north of Trondheim) until they reached sufficient strength to push southwards. Yet the Germans would not let the Allies gain a foothold in Norway and mercilessly bombed Namsos, flaunting their air superiority. To further complicate things, the Norwegian infrastructure was collapsing. King Haakon VII, the Norwegian Royal family, and most of the government fled as Hitler demanded that a fascist government be established to run the country. The King said he would rather abdicate, but an ambitious pro-Nazi Norwegian politician, Vidkun Quisling, helped Hitler with his invasion by proclaiming himself the new President. The Norwegians despised him (making sure he was executed when the war was over) and his name became synonymous with "traitor," much like Benedict Arnold in American history. However, on 15 April he resigned and was replaced by Ingolf Christensen’s puppet government. After the main coastal cities were either threatened or in German hands, the chances of saving Norway were dwindling. Even though the Royal Navy was superior to the Kriegsmarine, the Luftwaffe was too much of a threat to British ships and the Allies simply could not build troop strength ashore. The Germans defended their actions by claiming they were protecting Norway from an Allied occupation when in fact they became the occupying army.
THE SILENT BLITZKRIEG
At the same time the Norwegians were fighting for their country, the German ambassador to Denmark von Renthe-Fink notified the Danish foreign minister that Denmark would either accept German occupation or their capital, Copenhagen, would be bombed without mercy. Realizing that the tiny Danish army of 15,000 would be no match for the mammoth German Wehrmacht, the Danes reluctantly gave in without a fight. The decision was probably the right thing to do, because even as the Danish king and his cabinet were discussing the ordeal, the Germans had already docked at Copenhagen with an invasion force of 1,000. A couple hours after the Danish surrender, over 40,000 German troops marched up the Jutland peninsula. It was a great shock to the Danish people, who just 24 hours ago were going about their normal routines with no knowledge of an occupation. Now surprised citizens lined up by bridges and roads to watch the advancing troops. Most Danes were too shocked to offer any resistance and had to accept the German soldiers, one of whom remarked "in Prague they spat at us, in Warsaw they shot at us--here we are being gaped at like a traveling circus." The Danish invasion was extremely successful and before noon the Germans were using captured Danish airfields in their siege of Norway. Denmark was occupied by 130,000 German soldiers, under the guise that they were protecting the Danes from an Allied invasion. Although they felt more inconvenienced than enslaved, the Danes soon learned they were in fact captives in their own country. The Germans set up checkpoints at all key locations, but let civilians travel after passing an inspection.
THE FAILED RESCUE OF NORWAY
Even though their country was slipping through their fingers, the Norwegians continued to fight back, as King Haakon VII escaped capture and managed to set up a government-in-exile in Britain. The Norwegian army was in shambles, but it equipped many civilians with personal weapons and vehicles. Although they knew they could not drive back the Germans, they hoped to use guerrilla-style tactics to stall them long enough for help to arrive. The Norwegian ships also put up a fight but were eventually overpowered by the stronger German navy. Norway, like Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Poland would not be rescued by the Allies, whose resources were stretched to the limit. They were also hampered by poor planning, lack of communication and indecisiveness. By the time they realized it was a full scale campaign, they had reached the Germans in mid-battle, and had trouble establishing solid defensive positions. Much of the difficulty in putting troops ashore was because of the German air superiority. The Luftwaffe was so effective that the British could not cut the Germans off from Norway via the Skagerrak, the inlet separating Denmark from Norway.
Even after Germany told them to surrender or be destroyed, the Norwegians would not give in. However, Britain's uncoordinated and inefficient army could not keep up with the attack and Norway was nearly out of supplies. When the British finally settled in Lillehammer on 21 April 1940, the Germans hit them hard the next day and easily captured the city. On 23 April the Allies tried relief landings at Åndalsnes and Molde while a British task force led by the battleship Warspite shelled German positions to force a surrender at Narvik. The bombardment was unsuccessful so the Norwegians put their own pressure on the port with their troops. The British were in disarray: some were captured, some escaped to Scotland, and others got lost in the Norwegian wilderness. The fact that Allied supporting armies were made up of several different countries made it difficult to sustain an organized resistance as the Germans tenaciously pursued the British across the snowy countryside. On 27 April the British abandoned their effort to save Trondheim and spent the last days of April pulling out of Åndalsnes and Namsos under harassment from the Luftwaffe. By 2 May the Germans had entered Åndalsnes, and the British and French set up defenses at Mosjoen, hoping to stall the German advance on Narvik from the south. On 5 May French and Polish troops bolstered the Allied presence north of Narvik at Harstad and Tromsø. Just as Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland on 10 May, Prime Minister Chamberlain resigned and was replaced with Winston Churchill. The logical successor had been Lord Halifax, who had support of conservative majority and Labor minority. Yet for political reasons he was not the best choice, being a member of the House of Lords. Churchill was formerly the head of the Royal Navy, called "Lord of the Admiralty," and was a respected WWI sailor. He wanted to continue the Norwegian evacuation, but also hold Narvik, for morale purposes at least.
On 27 May the Allies made an amphibious assault on Narvik 1250 men strong, but were hindered by attacks from the Luftwaffe and hidden German infantry. Despite this, the Allies pushed on and took the vital port city by the 28th. Unfortunately it was a hollow victory as hundreds of thousands of Allied troops evacuated mainland Europe, and a garrison in Narvik could not be realistically held. The city was abandoned and by 6 June the Germans were once again in control. General Ruge, however, decided to stay with his Norwegian soldiers and negotiate a peace. Fortunately, the British navy had made short work of the German warships, who paid a great price for the victory: they lost half their destroyer force, 14 supply ships and had several important ships damaged. On 9 June 1940 General Ruge and the German General Dietel agreed on a cease-fire, ending Allied hopes for securing Scandinavia. Casualties on both sides were surprisingly low considering the intense fighting: both Axis and Allies each had around 5,000 killed, wounded or missing. Both sides also learned valuable lessons from the Norwegian campaign. The Germans learned that a precise coordination of their army, navy and air force could bring victory despite the odds being against them. For the British, their poor planning, poor coordination and indecision had led to disastrous results. It was also a wake-up call that their powerful navy was not effective without proper air cover and that their ships were extremely vulnerable to air attacks.
SWEDEN HOLDS ON TO ITS NEUTRALITY
During the invasion of Scandinavia, Sweden kept neutral, but because much of their income was generated by exporting iron, they continued to sell it to Nazi Germany. Sweden would not help Finland fight off the Soviet attack, but 8,000 Swedes volunteered for the Finnish army. Sensing the impending trouble, nearly everyone in the country pitched in to bolster the Swedish defense lines. The meager Swedish army nearly doubled overnight from volunteers and by war’s end tripled from that. Civilians built shelters, scanned the skies for enemy aircraft, donated time and money and made military vehicles and supplies. Germany told Sweden to stay neutral, but "pro-German," meaning they would have to abide by Germany’s demands. The Swedes would not listen to Germany’s threats and told the Germans if they invaded the Swedes would blow up the iron ore mines. Although Sweden was surrounded by chaotic war, its citizens led relatively normal lives. However, every Swedish family was affected by it because so many civilians were called into the military reserves.
After Germany conquered Denmark and Norway they blockaded Sweden from the outside, forcing Sweden to deal exclusively with Germany. This imposed terrible food and supply shortages, but the resilient Swedes made the best out of a bad situation. They pushed their food production to the limit and used enormous amounts of timber for countless by-products. Censorship was rampant and anti-German and anti-Communist sentiments abounded, which was only compounded when Sweden’s King Gustav V let Germany move their troops across Swedish land. Hitler did not invade Sweden because he did not want to waste valuable troops in Scandinavia when he had other concerns. The Swedes proved their neutrality by not letting Germany use Swedish airspace: when the Germans flew over Sweden to attack Norway, the Swedes fired back with anti-aircraft guns. The Swedish reluctance to bend under German pressure infuriated Hitler, but he had more important things to worry about--the invasion of western Europe.
GERMANY ATTACKS THE WEST
In the spring of 1940 the Germans had been poised on the western borders of Germany since the campaign in Poland ended months before, and had been waiting for favorable weather to launch the next phase of the war: the conquering of France. The German soldiers had been waiting to hear the code word to launch the attack--"Danzig"--since 20 November 1939, but the Germans did not have a set plan to attack the west. Despite this, the Allies misjudged the Germans’ abilities to conquer France. They thought that the flat plains of Poland and the mountains and forests of France were vastly different, and France could not be invaded as easily as Poland. The secret plan of the Germans was to push through the Ardennes forest, thought to be impenetrable by the Allies. The Allies expected an invasion from the north, so they put their weakest forces in the Ardennes and relied on the Maginot Line far too much. On 10 May, however, the Germans used blitzkrieg tactics to punch through the supposedly impassable Ardennes.
The blitzkrieg, literally "lightning war," was a name given by the Allies for a new style of attack developed by legendary German General Erich von Manstein, who devised the German invasion of western Europe. The idea was to select the weakest point in the enemy’s line and attack to the sides of that point, drawing troops to that area and further weakening it. Then the Germans would use the Luftwaffe to bomb behind enemy lines, causing great confusion and disorder. In this case, the Germans had a staggering 3900 aircraft available. The armored vehicles would then punch through the weak spot easily, and German infantry would pour through the hole in the enemy line, using motorized troop carriers whenever possible. Portions of the spearhead would break off to guard the flanks in a shield for further reinforcements and supplies to support the attack. In response to this the French used their "Plan D," which was an advance up to Belgium to meet the 29 invading German divisions under Field Marshal von Bock. Unfortunately there were 45 more divisions moving through the weakly protected Ardennes at the same time, under Field Marshal von Rundstedt. The Allies played right into German hands and paid dearly. By using a two-pronged attack, they encircled the Allied troops, cutting them off. Chaos engulfed western Europe as roads were cluttered with fleeing troops and constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe.
The attack on Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France was simultaneous and deadly. The invasion of the low countries was known as "Operation Yellow," with its main goal to siphon the British and French troops from their defensive postures to protect neutral Holland and Belgium. In Holland, thousands of Fallschirmjäger, or German paratroopers, parachuted behind the weak Dutch border defenses, while German motorized and mechanized forces plowed through the front lines. The Dutch strategy was to retreat to their two main cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but it was only a matter of time before their defenses crumbled. Rotterdam was infiltrated and within 4 days the Germans threatened to destroy the city unless the Dutch resistance immediately surrendered. The Dutch offered no immediate answer, and the Germans responded by dispatching a team of bombers. The Dutch then surrendered but supposedly the German bombers never received the recall message and thousands of innocent Dutch civilians were killed in the subsequent raid. Belgium was invaded with a similar plan, but in a more calculated manner. In order to capture Paris, the elaborate Maginot Line had to be bypassed, so once again Germany had to cross Belgian borders. The chief obstacle would be Fort Eben Emäel, a heavily armed citadel on a canal on the Meuse river. Up to 1200 men could be stationed there under Major Jottrand’s command, it was considered to be impossible to crack. Yet even with their 120mm and 75mm guns, they could not fire without expressed permission, could not fire on the Dutch side of the border, and the turrets did not fully support one another. However, Hitler knew more about the Belgians' strengths rather than their weaknesses, particularly that conventional bombs and artillery shells would hardly scratch their reinforced concrete bunkers. The only realistic option was to send in a team of commandos and destroy the casemates with "hollow charge" explosives. The hollow charge explosive, pioneered by a 19th century American, was more powerful than conventional explosives because it focused the blast enough to crack a thick wall. The invention was not new, but it had never been used in a major combat operation, and Hitler was eager to use this opportunity to test it. The Germans trained in isolation and secrecy in Cologne, Germany and Czechoslovakia for 6 months, including two full dress rehearsals. The hollow charges were so secret that the soldiers trained with dummy weights instead.
In the pre-dawn hours of the assault on western Europe, German Ju-52s towing DFS 230 gliders crossed into Allied airspace. Reinforced by Ju-87 Stukas and artillery, the Germans cunningly landed gliders with Fallschirmjäger in the first glider assault in history. Almost immediately a series of blunders devastated the Belgian defenders. The garrison was nowhere near fully manned, the warning shots for reinforcements were not heeded, German gliders were not identified, two of the four AA guns jammed, and the camouflage netting on the guns caught fire and the smoke obscured the gun periscopes. Despite being understrength because a glider team landed prematurely, the Germans disabled the main guns within minutes with just 71 men. Some nearby bridges were blown to slow the Germans down, but German engineers quickly built pontoon bridges in their place. Belgian artillery fire slowed the advance further, but their counterattacks were limited and ineffective—-the fort was captured the following morning. Hitler's attack was a resounding success and he awarded each officer the Knight's Cross and each enlisted troop the Iron Cross, except for one man who had been drunk. Hitler's good fortune seemed unstoppable. In Lanaeken, a team of Ju-87 Stukas destroyed the Belgian headquarters that was supposed to give the order to blow up 3 canal bridges, should the Germans come near. One bridge was eventually destroyed but the other two fell into German hands. With the Allied forces in complete disarray, divisions fell back on one another in retreat. The Germans took advantage of this confused mass retreat by bombing civilian cities, which in turn forced them to flee using the same roads that the Allied armies were using. The result was disasterous as the Allied arteries for retreat became clogged with military forces and their vehicles and civilians with their wagons and horses. This made them an easy target for German air strikes.
As for the British and French troops that had pushed into Belgium, they engaged the Germans as best they could and fought valiantly for days until they realized in horror that the main German attack was not in the low countries, but in the Ardennes. The second phase of Hitler's plan, "Operation Red," was already in motion. The panzers' gains on the ground were supported by the Luftwaffe's aerial shield as Bf-109 fighters decimated Allied bombers trying to hold back the blitzkrieg. By 14 and 15 May the French 9th Army was broken by the German blitzkrieg through the Ardennes and caused a panic amongst the Allies to abandon their positions in Belgium to try to stop the flood of German forces further south. The French 7th Army raced down to hold the front line as quickly and efficiently as possible, while on 17 May French General DeGaulle attacked the flank of the penetrating German forces. Allied pilots could not engage the Luftwaffe properly because the quick advances by German ground forces, and both bases and planes were abandoned in the Allied retreat. Further efforts were made to cut off the German sailent but the Allies did not have the resources available where they needed them to halt them, and the German war machine drove further and further west towards the French coast. From 16 May to the 19th the Allies retreated to the coast and prepared for an evacuation, code named "Operation Dynamo." During this time there was no set front line, and the Allies crumbled under German pressure in spite of repeated valiant counterattacks. By 21 May the Germans had reached the port city of Abbeville, which effectively cut France in two. While protecting their southern flank, the Germans spread out to the north and east and encircled the Belgian army, who surrendered without delay. This left the British and French divisions as the lone defenders of Europe, while the Germans attempted to push them into the English Channel. Dunkerque (Dunkirk) became the last bastion of hope for the Allied soldiers.
A MIRACLE EVACUATION
Complete victory seemed certain for the Germans, as well as the destruction of the Allied forces in Europe, but then something happened that kept the candle of hope lit. Because the Germans had made such unexpected progress, Hitler was afraid he would gain ground faster than he could reinforce it, and consequently he stopped the advance on 24 May. When Göring promised his planes could destroy the Allies on the beach, Hitler left it solely up to the Luftwaffe to deal with the retreating Allied troops, a job much too difficult with the stormy spring weather. By the time he did continue with the attack, the ground was too muddy from heavy rains, preventing any rapid advance. This gave the Allies precious time to rescue their beaten troops, and was a fatal mistake on the part of Hitler. One historical sidenote happened during the Wehrmacht's brief respite: the German Bf-109 and British Spitfire met for the first time, and would soon become each other's nemesis in the coming months. However, most of Britain's fighter strength was kept in reserve for defending England, leaving just a handful of aircraft available to fend off the German attacks on the beaches of Dunkerque.
Thus on the evening of 26 May 1940, arguably the most important military evacuation in history took place. The Allies tried to set up a defensive perimeter, along the outskirts of Dunkerque which bought them precious time as the Germans tried to squelch the fleeing Allies by raining bombs and artillery on the already weary troops. The English Channel was littered with ships, corpses and debris from the continuous battles as the Allies struggled to save as many men as possible before the Germans captured the surrounding area. The lingering problem for the French was that their reserves were still too far north from when the German invasion first occurred, while the British had few resources to begin with and could not establish a solid counterattack. Approximately 600 ships were used to transport the soldiers; any available ship was put to use, from sailboats to destroyers, and each one was crammed to maximum capacity and was under fire from the Luftwaffe and underwater mines. The next day, Belgium finally signed an armistice treaty with Germany and was swallowed by the ever-expanding Nazis.
The rescue continued until the evening of 3 June, when it was evident that the Allied resistance would not last against the tenacious Wehrmacht and that the remaining 35,000 troops could not be saved without losing even more men. The evacuation was a marvelous success, although it was costly to the Allies: the British had 11,000 of their finest troops killed, 50,000 captured and thousands more injured. The French had over 2 million casualties, the Dutch 9779 and the Belgians 23,350, while the Germans only had 150,000. However, the hard work and selfless actions of the rescue workers managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops, many of which would cross the Channel again 4 years later, this time to stay. The British also proved their air superiority early in the war, as they only lost 177 planes, while the Germans lost 240. Over the next couple months the RAF would lose many more, but they wisely kept most of their Spitfires in reserve on their home island. The Dunkerque evacuation was a success because of the Royal Navy’s excellent organization under pressure, the patience and determination of the Allied soldiers, unusually calm seas for 9 days, and the relative absence of the Luftwaffe, who were thwarted by the RAF, anti-aircraft guns and cloudy skies.
THE SORROW AND THE PITY
For the time being, Hitler continued his plunder of France, who had just 50 poorly supplied and organized divisions left to defend itself with. French families fled south and evacuated the large cities in the hopes that some miracle would stop the Germans before they occupied their country. There would be no miracle. On 5 June the Germans resumed their attack and within 3 days they had broken through French lines, causing them to retreat to the Seine and Marne rivers. This was only a pre-emptive strike for the armored drive that came on 9 June, which scattered the remaining French defenders over the next 2 days. On 10 June Benito Mussolini and his Italian army led a surprise attack on southern France, leaving the country in utter chaos as the world watched helplessly. In order to prevent Paris from suffering the same fate as Warsaw, the decision was made not to garrison troops there. On 13 June, France's capital was made an "open city" and the following day a nightmare came true--German soldiers marched down the streets of Paris. That same day, 14 June, the Germans finally hit the Maginot Line, with Guderian and his two corps making sure there would be no escape. By this time the French stationed there knew it was only a matter of time before it was overran. Feeling compassion for the French, on 16 June Britain released France from its treaty that forbade it from signing a separate peace treaty with Germany. However, the British tried to convince France to form a "state of union" with them, which was turned down. Instead, France's leaders debated whether to surrender or retreat to North Africa and continue the fight. Having no support from his cabinet, Reynaud stepped down as Marshal Henri Phillipe Pétain took his place. With unspeakable sorrow and pity, France capitulated with the Germans and laid down their arms on 17 June 1940. In northeastern France the 3rd, 5th and 8th armies continued to fight in an isolated pocket of resistance, but it was impossible to carry on. On 22 June they reluctantly ended the last organized resistance. That same day the official armistice was signed in Compiègne, in the same rail car that helped end the First World War. Plucked from its museum, the rail car was merely a ceremonial form of humiliation for the French. Two days later, the French and Italians came to terms with their armistice. The Germans made it a point to prevent the French naval fleet and colonies from augmenting the Allies, while the British refused to let those French possessions become German assets. Britain vowed to continue the fight, voiced by Churchill's memorable speech, "Let us so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say 'this was their finest hour.'"