French, British and Germans in Norway

April-June 1940

Narvik in 1940. HMSO
Narvik in 1940. HMSO

From 9 April to 10 June 1940 were two months and one day of fighting in Norway. It was a first for the Allies: a combined-arms, mixed-force, inter-Allied landing operation (France, Britain, Norway and Poland) comprising nearly 100 000 soldiers, in a strained political and military context, with victories on the ground and the troops subsequently recalled due to the catastrophic situation on the Western Front. Such large numbers of soldiers also made it a first for the Germans: Operation Weserübung (“Weser exercise”) was a combined-arms, mixed-force operation under the responsibility of an operational planning command distinct from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) and the Oberkommando der Marine (OKM)[1]. To conduct the operation, the Germans applied three principles: economy of resources, concentration of effort and freedom of action for subordinate tiers of command. Lastly, it was a German logistical success: control of the air by the Luftwaffe, despite very heavy losses for the Kriegsmarine. Thus it was a first for both sides: how to plan, develop and conduct operations jointly?

Corps 1

The Allies had been engaged since September 1939 in a defensive, peripheral, long-term war strategy: concrete (the Maginot Line), gold (purchase of military hardware), the colonial empire, with the Royal Navy and French navy as decisive elements in that strategy. Norway – weak, peaceful and well disposed towards the Allies – was one of the possible keys to a campaign that would weaken Germany on three levels: shipping, the transport of oil and, more importantly, Swedish iron, essential to its war industry, which was shipped (in winter) via Narvik, then across the Baltic[2]. From as early as October 1939, the Allies began thinking and planning such an operation, albeit with no clear direction.

On 30 November 1939, Stalin attacked Finland. The Russo-Finnish war became a decisive factor for the Allies, from November 1939 to March 1940. The two heads of government, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart Édouard Daladier, redirected to Finland an operation planned for Norway, involving a naval operation, with mines and patrols, and an offensive on Narvik, in northern Norway. There was no overall strategy, but separate plans, notes and studies. Yet troops were made ready: a mixed brigade was formed in France, comprised of Chasseurs Alpins (the elite mountain infantry) and Legionnaires, and merchant navy vessels were chartered or requisitioned, to serve as auxiliary cruisers. There was no agreement on who would be in command of the operations, but the British were charged with drawing up the plans. On 12 March 1940, General Béthouart’s brigade was given orders to embark. On the 13th, the Fins surrendered and signed the armistice.


général Béthouard

General Béthouart, commander of the French Expeditionary Force at Narvik. Source: SHD


From March to April 1940, the Allies therefore redirected their plans to Norway. The Allied decision was taken in a new political and military context: Paul Reynaud replaced Édouard Daladier on 21 March; the Expeditionary Corps was dissolved, the vessels dispersed and the offensive abandoned. Against a backdrop that was to be the hallmark of this campaign – organisational failings both at high command level and in the command of what were a number of separate theatres, isolated due to their physical geography, coupled with difficult political and military relations among Allies – an operation to Narvik, in Norway, was planned for between 5 and 12 April, based on reworked plans, with troops that were, in some cases, poorly equipped and ill-prepared, using incomplete intelligence, with no properly defined objectives[3]. Putting new wine in an old bottle had operational consequences: what about the Norwegians? What were the rules of engagement? What coordination should there be between arms, forces and Allies?

attaque allemande Leiteberget

German forces attacking at Leiteberget, Bagn Bygdesamling / Valdres Folkemuseum, Norway.


But neither adversary was aware of the other’s plans.

Germany had the initiative at the outset of operations. On the German side, a unified political vision under the authority of Adolf Hitler determined an operation in three coordinated waves (southern, central and northern Norway) on 9 April. The near-totality of surface forces were mobilised to carry two Kampfgruppen[4] to Narvik and Trondheim, and four others to southern Norway, including Oslo. By 9 April, all the objectives had been achieved, the Norwegian aerodromes were in German hands, as was Denmark. The Germans had an opening onto the Atlantic for their ships and submarines. They paid a high price: between 9 and 11 April, the heavy cruiser Blücher and the light cruiser Königsberg were sunk, the cruisers Nürnberg and Karlsruhe were seriously damaged, as was the Lützow. It was a lightning manoeuvre, against an Allied force that was staid and out of its depth, forced to conduct an operation against one that was already under way.

Between 12 and 26 April, Allied troops set sail from French, English and Scottish ports and landed at a number of locations along the coast of Norway, with no inter-Allied planning, so that their troops were scattered, with frequent orders and counter-orders. The calibre of the artillery, the mobility of the Kampfgruppen and superiority in the air were the Germans’ strength, enabling them to sink the destroyer Bison, on 3 May, when the French were evacuating Namsos.

Meanwhile, at Narvik, French troops engaged in fierce fighting alongside their British, Norwegian and Polish comrades, driving back German forces on 28 May.  The “Iron Road” was cut off – on the day Belgium surrendered. The Allied troops were evacuated from 2 to 8 June, and the Norwegian Campaign ended on 10 June, against a backdrop of the defeat of our armies on the Western Front. The Baltic was closed off, the “Iron Road” was open, the barrier of the North Sea was broken.

patrouilleurs norvégiens Narvik 1940

Three destroyers and the three Norwegian patrol boats captured and moored in the port of Narvik. © German Federal Archives/Max Ehlert


What can be learned from the Norwegian Campaign? The Germans showed an excellent use of their capabilities in planning and execution, despite overwhelming Allied naval superiority, made up for by decisive air superiority. What a lesson! Confident of their naval superiority, the Allies fell in behind the British, who assumed the command of the operation as a result. A combination of intelligence, logistics and control of the air created the surprise. Yet by the close of the campaign, the Kriegsmarine had lost 50% of its operational capacity. By the time of the Dunkirk operations, only one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers and four destroyers remained[5].

A Franco-British expeditionary corps to combat the Soviets, formed, dissolved, then re-formed to fight the Germans who were ahead of them, then landing after them. A different conception of the operations, minimal operational planning and a conduct of operations based on planning for a different purpose, in a different theatre, but with the same troops, for the Allies. Disorganised decision-making processes, shambolic political reactions and their corresponding military responses, and very poor coordination between the Allies, as in the case of the British 146th Infantry Brigade, which, due to land at Narvik, was rerouted to Namsos without informing the French, the Norwegians or its own general!


canon norvégien Narvik 1940

A Norwegian Army 7.5cm field gun in action during the fighting north of Narvik, May 1940. Public domain


For all that, the Allies achieved some brilliant results, without any coordination on the ground, occupying small harbours with no infrastructure, and transporting troops in fast ocean liners and hardware in slow cargo ships, with no anti-aircraft defences and insufficient escort vessels. There were as many theatres of operations as there were fjords! It should be borne in mind that the nature of the terrain, long distances and climate reduced the difficulties of operational coordination and made possible what may have been isolated but were nonetheless very real successes, such as those of the French at Narvik and elsewhere, when all was lost on the Western Front. It had to be done – and they did it.

Tristan Lecoq
Inspector-General of National Education
Associate lecturer in contemporary history
at Paris-Sorbonne University
[1] For the Germans in Norway, operations depended on the nature of the theatre, the setting and other constraints, and autonomy was given to unit commanders on the ground, without overly detailed or restrictive orders.
[2] German industry imported 22 million tonnes of iron ore in 1938. In 1939, because of the war, it received no more than 11 million tonnes, nine million of which were transported through Lapland.
[3] Two brigades of British infantry regulars and two Territorial Army brigades, the 27th and 5th Demi-Brigades of Chasseurs Alpins, one Polish brigade and one Foreign Legion regiment (which became the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, or DBLE) for the French, together with weapons detachments, such as tanks. In addition were a number of elements from the Norwegian army.
[4] The German forces (five infantry divisions, two mountain divisions, paratrooper units) were formed into Kampfgruppen. A Kampfgruppe, or “tactical group”, was a combined-arms unit (infantry, artillery, tanks, engineers, signals, etc.) based on mission-type tactics (Auftragstaktik).
[5 The sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious in Norwegian waters by the battle cruiser Scharnhorst on 8 June in no way made up for these losses, particularly since the German vessel was torpedoed and seriously damaged.