Eighty years ago, the British land in Norway in a campaign worthy of the debacles of the eighteenth century

British involvement in the Norwegian campaign got firmly under way. Even though Britain had had adequate intelligence of the German invasion plan, the operations were largely improvised. Before the invasion Britain had been working on plans to land in the north of the country – under the pretext of assisting the Finns against the USSR – and block exports of iron ore to Germany. This was a pet project of Winston Churchill and he was at odds with the desire of British generals to focus on Trondheim in the centre. In the event the British divided their forces between both zones. 

Recapturing Trondheim from the Germans became a political priority, advocated by the Norwegian government as proof that Britain meant business. The British began by considering a seaborne attack up the fjord. This was briefly championed by Churchill in an unhappy echo of his plans for the Dardanelles in 1915. This was dropped and the British opted for a poorly focused land operation. Separate army brigades were landed at Namsos and Andalsnes, either side of and a long distance from Trondheim; they were fatally handicapped by lacking the means to challenge German air superiority. Initially the land and naval commanders were co-equal but they disagreed on how to attack Narvik. After a few days Admiral Lord Cork and Orrery was put in command of all British forces. The most important weapons had been loaded at the bottom of ships' holds and were the last to be unloaded. As an exercise in poor planning, inadequate control and muddled strategic thinking, Britain’s attempt to fight Germany in Norway could bear comparison with any of the less distinguished campaigns of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

One of the US Navy’s most senior admirals, Joseph Taussig, testified to Congress. He advocated aggressively a programme of building battleships on the grounds that he believed that war with Japan was inevitable. During the First World War Taussig had publicly claimed that the US Navy have been ill-prepared for war which earned him the life-long enmity of Franklin Roosevelt, then the Secretary of the Navy. He might have been a candidate for supreme command but when FDR became President he was assigned to subordinate commands. Already aged over 60, he had little reason to pull his punches. It was an unwelcome intrusion of reality into a fraught political environment; powerful isolationist forces were chiefly opposed to any involvement in Europe, but there was little public appetite for a resolute stance towards Japan The Navy Secretary Harold Stark publicly denied that Taussig’s views were those of the Navy and the admiral was formally reprimanded. FDR ordered the reprimand removed from Taussig’s record after the Pearl Harbour attack proved him to have been entirely correct. The Admiral’s son was also a Navy officer and was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery on 7th December 1941 when he was severely injured, losing a leg. 

Switzerland was bracing itself for the threat of invasion. School children were forbidden from taking their class atlases of the country home. The army staff warned against requests from Germany for postcards of landscape scenes or other material that might be of use to an invader. An aggressive campaign of counter-propaganda was launched against stories aimed against France and Britain. Germany’s 200 strong legation in Bern was accused of being responsible for these stories.


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