The Battle for Narvik 1940
Norwegian Platoon Leaders in the Mountain War
The Battle for Narvik lasted more than 60 days, from 9 April to 8 June 1940. The fighting took place at the worst conceivable time of the year, during the transition from winter to spring. Combat action took place in a mountainous terrain that, even in the summertime, can present tough climatic challenges.
It was in this region that some of the Second World War’s main players were to meet on the battlefield for the first time. Forces from Great Britain, Germany, France and Poland as well as Norwegian units fought out fierce battles in the mountains, on the sea and in the air. It was also here that the first combined operations in the Second World War took place. The most comprehensive operation that was carried out in the course of fighting was the attack on Bjerkvik, on 13 May. It involved five Allied and Norwegian brigades. Of these, two battalions from the French Foreign Legion were landed on the beaches at Bjerkvik. The attack and the subsequent recapture of Narvik on 28 May marked the end of the Allied land forces’ participation on the Narvik front. A part of this attack was also a sea-landing. The Foreign Legion, supported by a Norwegian battalion, attacked from the north over Rombaksfjord. The entire Polish brigade attacked with full force in the south. From the Allies’ position, the attack was viewed first and foremost as a diversionary manoeuvre to conceal the withdrawal of forces from the Narvik region during the first few days of June 1940. It was during this withdrawal that the Royal Navy was to suffer the operation’s greatest losses, including the sinking of the carrier Glorious on 8 June. More than 1.500 British sailors perished in less than two hours.
This article puts the main emphasis on the land battle and the heavy fighting that took place in the mountains. On the side of the Allied forces, the fighting was carried out by two French Mountain Ranger battalions, two French Foreign Legion battalions, the Polish Podhale brigade and two small Norwegian brigades. A force of around 12 infantry battalions with a few smaller support units. A total number amounting to 8-10,000 soldiers. There was, thus, a big difference between the total number of Allied troops in the region and the number of troops that directly took part in the fighting in the Narvik area. The relative strength of the forces fighting on the front between the Allied and the German units must have been something just slightly less than 3:1. In addition, one should take into account the British naval forces and the German air support, which to a greater or lesser extent left their mark on the fighting. Various historians throughout the years made a number of erroneous assumptions about the participating forces’ relative strengths.
The following three episodes from the battle of Narvik are intended to provide the reader with a deeper insight into the specific challenges the soldiers were faced with. The first episode describes a part of the initial phase of the Norwegian offensive towards the end of April. A heavy snowstorm and the lack of combat experience on the Norwegian side led to a tragic outcome. The second episode is taken from the fighting that took place high up in the mountains one month after that. Here, one can see clear signs that the units had begun to master the conditions of the battlefield. The last episode describes some parts of the attack on Narvik on 28 May. What these three examples all have in common is the focus they place on the reality of war and the way the soldier lives it.
Platoon leaders at Gratangsbotn
Thursday, 25 April 1940"I was woken by shots being fired through the house where we were camped for the night. We threw ourselves down on the floor immediately, since all the deep snow outside provided some cover. Although many had already been hit when the first bursts of fire struck us, there was only one fatal casualty. I gave the order that we had to make our way back up to our alert positions. I then crawled over to the barn and issued the same order over there. Luckily there was so much deep snow that we were able to crawl up to our alert positions unscathed, although we were taking heavy fire from 50 mm mortars.”1 This is how the commander of the 2nd Platoon, 1st Company of the Trönder Battalion experienced his baptism of fire. By last light of the previous evening, the 24-year-old second-lieutenant, Leif Schanche, had found his men billeting for the night at one of the farms highest up in the valley at Gratangsbotn (which is situated in Norway’s second northernmost county, Troms). Before retiring for the night the men had warmed themselves and dried out their clothes. The platoon leader had chosen alert positions on a ridge 200-300 metres east of the farm buildings, and this was where the men were now heading after the enemy had opened fire on them. While the 1st Company’s two remaining platoons were making their way up to their respective alert positions (the 3rd Platoon had "bivvied” further west along with the 2nd Company), the company commander, Cpt Tormod Mitlid, was mortally wounded by a mortar shell. But just before he got hit, the commander had had time to yell orders telling his men that they had to try to return to their positions along the road higher up. It was now up to a 25-year-old 2nd lieutenant, Kjell Dyblie, to lead the company onward. He was the oldest platoon leader and just a few days prior to this event he had been appointed the company’s second-in-command. Leif Schanke continues his story:
"We were, as you know, just two platoons up here, Sergeant Skjevling’s and mine, and we followed a ravine toward the road. It had started to snow and we managed to get ourselves up to the road without skirmishes. Upon crossing the road we came to a little crest on the higher side, east of the tourist station, which blocked our passage and prevented us from reaching our positions from the evening before.
We took up positions along the ridge, facing the road and the ocean in the west. Just as the snowy weather conditions began to clear up, we spotted Germans on the road below. We commenced to fire upon them simultaneously and hit our targets. Some ran for it, while others were left just lying there. But then we ourselves came under fire from the north, which was behind us. The first round of fire wounded two of my men. This was the second time in the course of just a few hours that my platoon had been fired upon from the front and the rear simultaneously. It’s fair to say that this caused some panic, more or less. We fled our positions and withdrew into the forest. We then came to a large rock, which afforded us cover from the north.
Lying up there on that rocky ledge we got our window of opportunity. We saw that we were scoring hits and that boosted our fighting spirit. We could have just continued down the road had it not been for that fire we were catching from behind.”2 It was, thus, on that fatal Thursday, 25 April 1940 at 0500 hours that Major Nils Bøckmann’s 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment came under attack during their bivouac at Gratangsbotn. As a part of the 6th Division’s first offensive operation, the battalion had traversed Fjordbotneidet on skis, from Lavangen to Gratangen the night before. The mission assigned to the so-called Fjordbotn Group was to proceed to Gratangen to cut off the supply lines to German forces stationed at Lapphaugen.
Weather conditions commenced to deteriorate already from the start, however, bringing snow storms and high winds from the southwest. When Bøckmann’s units arrived on the south side of Fjordbotneidet, they soon realized that the road to Lapphaugen could not be blocked by firing positions established at Fjordbotneidet, as initially conceived. Prevailing snow conditions took out most of the visibility toward the road on the far side of the valley. The best solution therefore was to cross over to the other side of the valley and construct positions cutting across the road itself. The battalion commander divided his forces so that he could control the road in both directions, toward the east and toward the west.
During the afternoon of Wednesday, 24 April it would become ever more obvious to battalion staff that the situation was getting very sticky. The all-night march over Fjordbotneidet had taken its toll on the troops’ strength; they were now both drenched and exhausted. The temperature fell a bit in the course of the afternoon, and after a while the soldiers were starting to show signs of hypothermia. So it was a rather exhausted battalion that took shelter there at Gratangsbotn later in the evening, when Major Bøckmann had found it absolutely necessary to attend to his men and to provide them with a little warmth and rest. The positions established on the road were to be manned again the following morning, according to the battalion commander’s order. This was to prove a fateful decision, however.
Let us take a look at how things fared for some of the battalion’s other platoon leaders. 1st Lieutenant Helge Brinchmann, who led the 2nd Platoon in the 2nd Company, had quartered his men farthest to the west in Gratangsbotn. His troops were fated to be the first to make contact with the attacking enemy forces that Thursday morning. Lt Brinchmann describes their situation in the following way:
"A nervous atmosphere prevailed among the platoon that evening and no one muttered any objection when I gave the order to dig firing positions. There was a distance of about 100 metres back to the buildings where the captain and his 1st Platoon were quartered. I hadn’t received any orientation about the company’s night watch, so I appointed guard duty only for my platoon. Since the men were dead tired, I decided to change the guard patrol every hour. At half past four in the morning Corporal Høy entered my quarters and relayed to me that our night patrol was reporting some movement at the boarding school, which was situated 400-500 metres away. It looked like some soldiers were being deployed down a gorge that ran in our direction. I raised the alarm. Høy was ordered to relay the report to the company commander.
It was too dark to make out anything distinctly, but suddenly, rather precisely at 0500 hours, we were treated to a rude awakening. Mortar fire burst out on our camp in an inferno of screeching shells and subsequent explosions. Immediately afterwards MG projectiles whizzed through the walls from two sides. The systematic fire from two sides practically reduced our snow cover to a mere illusion, and there remained only one place at the farm that could afford any cover. And there wasn’t room in there for very many of us. I, therefore, ordered Corporal Slottsveen to gather his squad and cross the fields over to the rest of the company. He went forth with his men, but I saw two of them fall out in the farmyard. Just then I heard a scream from Pvt Johnsen - he had taken a hit in the back. We managed to drag him down into the cellar of the house, where we also took the other wounded. I then sprinted over to the rifle pit we had dug to see how things were there. Three men had been wounded, but not too seriously. Hustad was bleeding profusely, so I took over his job of securing magazines for the MG gunner. He had just reached out his arm for a new magazine when he let it fall, turned to me and said rather matter-of-factly: "I’ll be damned if I can still shoot with something like this.” His arm had four holes clean through it.
My regular orderly, Berg, came over to me and said that some of the boys had started to pull out and head for the open fields. Two of them ended up just lying there. The Germans were now getting much closer. We could hear them talking. Then everything went quiet. The Germans were sneaking up on us under the cover of a stream bed. I made use of that time during the lull to get more of my boys out of there. Then the Germans appeared just 20-30 metres away. We strapped on our skis and, leaving our kit behind, we made our way back over the fields. Along the way we passed Stenberg - he was dead. Not far away lay Aune - he seemed pretty finished as well.
Once again we were sprayed by a volley of MG fire that hit all around us. My ski poles got shredded, and one of my ski tips was split. At about the same time Hustad called out that he was hit for a second time. I can’t remember anything from the next few minutes, not until I arrived at the house where the company’s HQ had been. There lay Cpt Øveraas, dead.”3 1st Lt Helge Brinchmann managed to work his way east down in the bottom of the valley, together with a few soldiers from the company. The company had gone into complete disintegration. About 700 metres east of the Moen farms, he and a handful of soldiers found their way up through a stream bed and made it back to Fjordbotneidet. But also there they were exposed to German MG fire and a direct attack by German soldiers, who chased them along an embankment. Later that morning Brinchmann and the others established contact with the Alta Battalion, which had dug into positions along the edge of Fjordbotneidet. The 2nd Company suffered 10 killed in action, 17 wounded and all of 67 missing that day.
For platoon leader Helge Wiig, from Cpt Hilmar Mjøen’s 3rd Company, the day turned out very differently, however. 1st Lt Helge Wiig was in charge of the 1st Platoon. Already while serving with the Neutrality Forces in South Varanger, Wiig had earned himself the reputation of being rather "militaristic” in nature. A few of the men had even voiced complaints about him. It was suspected that he harboured Nazi sympathies, but no one knew anything for sure about that.4 The 3rd Company had found quarters for the night at two farms east of Storslett. Shortly before all the shooting started, Cpt Mjøen dispatched his next-in-command, Lt Hafsmo, to the platoons with orders for them to make their way down to the river valley to the south of the farms. Once down in the river valley they were able to find cover from the German machine gun fire and mortar shelling. Cpl. Oddmund Lundemo, who was the leader of the 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, provides us with the following account:
"When we received orders to pull out and head down to the river, I discovered that they had not taken the sled that was loaded with ammunition. With the assistance of the commander of the 1st Platoon and Øye, I, thus, took it with me. But we didn’t manage to get far before we came under heavy fire and were left with no recourse but to just dig in. While we were digging we were hit by a mortar shell that wounded Øye in the hip and I put a piece of shrapnel through my arm. So there we sat in that hole until later in the afternoon. Then the platoon leader removed his distinctions and his pistol. Handing them over to me he said, "I think I’m going over to them” and then he just took off - that was the last we saw of him. Øye and I were later treated by the medical platoon and taken to Foldvik, then to Harstad by fishing boat, where we ended up in the hospital.”5 The action taken by platoon leader Wiig, in practice, amounts to nothing less than desertion. The suspicions that Wiig’s subordinates had had concerning his political leanings were later further supported by his service with the government (i.e. Nazi-controlled) police force and as a volunteer front fighter on the Eastern Front. In 1943 he even shot one of his former fellow platoon leaders from the Trønder Battalion, Øystein Homnes, during an arrest at Stryken, north of Oslo. In February 1945 Wiig was in charge of the firing squads carrying out executions of captured resistance fighters at Åkershus Fort.
The German assault launched against the Trønder Battalion at Gratangen on Thursday, 25 April 1940 was planned and led by Major Ludwig Stautner, commander of the 1st Battalion, 139th Mountain Ranger (Gebirgsjäger) Regiment. On the evening of 24 April, Ludwig Stautner had initially planned for a withdrawal of his companies to an alert position north of Øsevann. This decision rested on the assumption that LtCol Bauer’s 2nd Company, which was holding onto the stronghold at Lapphaugen, had been lost. Bauer had reported on the morning of 24 April that his position was under attack, and after that all contact was lost. Right in the middle of the withdrawal to Øse, however, Stautner regained his contact with Bauer, who had managed to shake off the Norwegian forces at Lapphaugen. He was now able to report that he was on the road, below the tourist station that had burned down. There were no Norwegians to be seen on the road. However Norwegian forces of around 300 men were assumed to be bivouacking at the farms in the bottom of the valley. On the basis of this information Stautner made the decision to carry out an attack as a part of his withdrawal tactics on the way to Øse. The attack was launched at 0500 hours on 25 April. With fire support from heavy weapons positioned west of the road junction at Storfossen, and with the support of Bauer’s company deployed on the main road along the hillside south of the valley floor, Captain Victor Schönbeck’s 13th Company launched an attack through the floor of the valley. Following over 6 hours of fighting, the Germans took around 174 Norwegian soldiers and nine civilians prisoner. In addition, 34 Norwegian soldiers were killed and a little over 60 wounded.6 Three of those who fell on the Norwegian side were in fact company commanders. Losses on the German side were listed as 9 dead and 17 wounded.7 A sensible explanation for why Victor Schönbeck’s company had not suffered heavier casualties might very well be attributed to the fact that the Germans were found using Norwegian POWs as human shields in their advance through Gratangsbotn.
Friday, 31 May - Saturday, 1 June 1940"Our company had now reached an elevation 500 metres north of Height 620, which was to be our next assault objective. To get there we had to descend a hill and cross a marsh. The Germans, who were deployed in alert positions on Height 620, had full view of everything we did. We positioned our automatic weapons so as to provide covering fire while the company moved forward. Then fog crept in and in its cover I was able to move out with my platoon and traverse the marsh, ending up right in front of the German positions. We surprised the Germans completely and things turned into hand-to-hand combat. There I used my pistol. The Germans started lobbing grenades at us. Hand grenades were something we hadn’t been issued with. This forced the platoon to pull slightly back, below the edge of the hill and back down into the ravine where we had come from.”8 In the fog and rain of that Friday morning of 31 May 1940, two platoons from the 1st Company of the 16th Infantry Regiment launched the attack on this nameless, desolate and windblown Height 620, which was surrounded by a snow-covered countryside, close to the frontier with Sweden. The snow was wet and spongy, which meant frequently breaking through it, which again supposed greater movement and logistical problems for our advancing troops. During the attack, 1st Lt Dahlberg lost one of the men in his platoon. Pvt Nils Ryeng from Bakkenhaug was hit in the back by a 50 mm mortar shell. This was quite a shock to the platoon leader, who happened to be just a few metres away. In the second attempt to storm the elevation, John Blomi from Bardu was wounded. He had worked his way clear up to the German positions without being spotted, but then was mistakenly hit by friendly fire from our own automatic weapons. Also this attack was thwarted by the Germans.
1st Lt Ivar Dahlberg led his 2nd Platoon, 1st Company of Major Hunstad’s battalion (I/IR 16) during the fighting on the Narvik front in 1940.
Dahlberg had been in active service from 9 April until that time, the end of May. As with the others in the battalion he had been more or less active in operations since 14 April, i.e. for a continuous period of 49 days. Dahlberg’s company commander, Cpt Einar Faller, happened to be a very cautious type of field officer. When attacking, Faller would place himself as a rule with the support weapons or at a lookout point far behind the line of action. The company lacked a next-in-command. During the fighting at Gressdalen at the beginning of May, the commander of the 1st Platoon suffered a nervous breakdown. As a result of these circumstances, it all boiled down to the fact that the responsibility for forward-line leadership on the front came to fall, as a rule, on the 26-year-old platoon leader, Ivar Dahlberg, from Bardu. And this would also turn out to be the case during the action on Height 620.
Major Nils Hunstad’s basic plan for the attack on the elevation was to deploy two rifle companies forward, supported by the battalion’s machine gun and mortar sections, along with an attached 7.5 cm mountain gun. Einar Faller’s company (1st COY) was to attack to the left (i.e. from the north), while Gunnar Elstad’s company (2nd COY) was to attack toward the right (from the south). Elstad’s forward platoon leader, Hallgeir Normann, soon saw that it was useless to force the terrain west of the elevation unless the 1st Company’s attack from the north succeeded. When Cpt Elstad visited the 1st Company’s HQ to present his assessment, Einar Faller’s two attacking platoons lay pinned down on the north face of Height 620. We will have Cpt Gunnar Elstad tell us in his own words the rest of the story about what took place there:
"When the 1st Company was quite demoralised and viewed the whole operation as ridiculous, we proposed that they hold their present positions and that we could simply attack from the east and take the plateau between 698 and 620. Then we could advance toward the elevation. Their platoon, which was being deployed below the elevation, was to remain in position until our first mission was accomplished. And that is what they agreed to. We were to share a joint command post in the ravine NE of the elevation. This proposal never materialised, however, as the commander of the 1st Company deemed it a better strategy to stay in the rear and to make sure that our machine guns fired at the right moments and at the right targets.”9 This first attempt to take the elevation took place during the day on 31 May. Cpt Elstad conferred with the battalion commander and won support for his suggestion to deploy the 2nd Company east of Height 620. During that night, in the early hours of 1 June, the attack was renewed. Gunnar Elstad continues here:
"Our HQ followed our platoons forward. The 1st Platoon [Hallgeir Normann] went west of the 3rd Platoon [Erling Høvde], whose zone of attack lay 300 m east of number 0 [relating to a point on the original map] at 620. The attack came off well and before the enemy knew what hit him, we had captured most of the plateau. En [the enemy] tried to scare us away by peppering us with shells from small mortars [5 cm], but that didn’t work. Over half of the 1st Platoon fled back to the rear. The 3rd Platoon, which held the main position, stood their ground against this pressure. Also there were a few here that were preparing to pull back, but then 2nd Lt Høvde got mad and grabbed the MG away from its gunner, a soldier frightened out of his wits, and then [Høvde] stormed forward in the position, all the while admonishing all against deserting their posts. He saved our honour, and we achieved our first objective.” 1st Lt Hallgeir Normann from Harstad describes his experiences during the attack thus:
"It was now decided that both of the COYS, according to the battalion’s orders, were to attack 620, but with the alteration that our company was to move forward on the left flank. Cpt Elster chooses to move forward with two platoons in the forward line, while I go to the far left flank. Our undaunted captain is coming himself all the way forward with 1st Lt Wraal. Now he wants to see the hill cleared. My squads start crawling cautiously up the hill, moving from cover to cover. It’s completely impossible to spot anything. Then comes a sudden unpleasant surprise, and for those that were uninitiated in the likes, it was a sheer nightmare. The enemy starts shelling us with mortar rounds, so pity on the poor devil who just happens to find himself near the spot where an incoming shell crashes down.” Parts of Lt Normann’s platoon retreated, as described by Cpt Elstad, by the coming of dawn, however, they had once again joined with the platoon leader on the front line. In the course of the morning of Saturday, 1 June, the forward platoons of the 1 and the 2 Companies were also able to take Height 620. The German defenders pulled back at that point and retreated to the south side of Lake Holmvatnet. Platoon leader Ivar Dahlberg relates how, when the whole thing was over, his men went about collecting wooden handles from all the German hand grenades. The handles provided enough wood to cook two pots of coffee.
Major von Schleebrügge was in charge of the eastern section of the German defence sector, from Øvre Jernvann and over to the frontier [i.e. the border with Sweden]. While the fighting raged on the Kuberg plateau in the northwest, Heights 620 and 698 had been occupied by Naval Company Steinecker. (The Naval units consisted of crews from sunken German destroyers). This unit had constructed a horseshoe-like defence perimetre on Height 620. The position was built from rocks and snow, and controlled the surrounding terrain quite effectively. On the back side of the elevation they had constructed bivouac areas for the men, partly out of stone. The position could not be bypassed since it was jointly supported by positions at Holmvasshøgda and at Height 698, near the stone frontier marker 267A.
Subsequent to his withdrawal from Kuberg Plateau, von Schleebrügge received the attachment from Senior Lieutenant Ploder’s 3rd Company of the 138th Mountain Ranger Regiment to achieve better control of the terrain all the way to the frontier. SenLt Ploder deployed Lt Hopfe’s mountain platoon to the elevation of Holmvasshøgda. Naval Platoon Braun, which had been deployed there earlier, was relieved and moved from there over to Height 698. The company staff and Lt Körber’s platoon from the 2nd Company of the same regiment was assigned responsibility for Height 620. All in all, the size of the force deployed to Height 620 amounted to about 60 men. Held in reserve for Ploder’s own area was Lt Adler’s ski platoon. Naval Company Steinecker was pulled back to Rundfjellet, and was then attached to Naval unit Kothe, whose purpose then was to add depth to the defence of the Germans’ western flank.
German sources account of the repeated Norwegian attacks on Height 620, describing them as intense. Senior Lieutenant Ploder was wounded in an early phase, and the German Mountain Rangers gradually came to fight in small groups of 4-5 men. Ammunition was in extremely short supply, and the situation for the defenders became critical. At that time Senior Lieutenant Renner (commander of the 2nd Company, 138th Regiment) turned up with a 30-man platoon from the division reserves. SenLt Renner collected the remaining troops in a last ditch attempt to regain the elevation in the early morning hours of Saturday, 1 June. But he failed to do so. Completely exhausted, the German Gebirgjägers pulled back. German losses were reported as 7 killed and 14 wounded.10
The recapture of Narvik
Wednesday, 28 May 1940"Then came the orders from our company commander: The reserve platoon, the 2nd Platoon, is to join the fighting and proceed straight up to the front. The terrain that lay before us there was laced with enemy crossfire, and the legionnaires, who were professional soldiers, were pulling back, while we were supposed to push forward. I understood this as a sure death sentence, which could only result in certain death, like we were marching down "death row” to our own place of execution. Indeed a hopeless situation. I took it for granted that I was never going to get any older than my present 23 years. [...] We prepared to move forward, but we had no idea where the enemy positions were situated. In the mean time, the enemy threw a heavy counterattack at us. First, small mortar shells and hand grenades rained down in the midst of our platoon’s sector. Then we were sprayed with automatic fire. The lead whined around our ears. Ole Olsen from Hadsel got hit several times and fell right in front of my feet. Panic broke out in the platoon and the men ran for cover. I managed to drag Ole Olsen to cover behind a rock. I made a tourniquet around his wrist with the string from a mess kit cover, because a bullet had cut across an artery. Unfortunately, as it turned out, he had been hit also by other bullets, so he died sometime later. During all the chaos, two of the machine-gunners had run off, leaving their weapons behind. So Arne Reinholdsen and I grabbed one MG each, packing the magazines inside our wind-jackets. We took these weapons with us during our later advance.”11 This is how platoon leader Johan Kristian Larssen describes the situation when the attack on Narvik on 28 May 1940 reached its most critical phase. It was only a few days previous to this that he had taken over as platoon leader for the 2nd Platoon in 1st Lt Angell’s 6th Company, of II Battalion/15th Infantry Regiment. The battalion commander was Major Ivar Hyldmo. The previous platoon leader had been detached to the French Mountain Rangers as a liaison officer and guide. It was now Sgt Larssen’s fate to lead this platoon in what was to be its hardest test.
Major Hyldmo’s battalion had received its baptism of fire in a heavy storm at Lapphaugen over a month earlier. The battalion launched their attack on a German company strong point. On that day practically everything went wrong that could go wrong for the battalion. Little or nothing seemed to work. Most serious was perhaps the leaders’ inability to get their units to function in such extreme conditions. The result led directly to the worst defeat any Norwegian army unit suffered in battle during the 1940 campaign. The Trönder Battalion lost more than 200 men in the fighting there at Gratangsbotn a few hours later on that fateful day.
In the following weeks, Hyldmo’s battalion was to learn more about war’s brutal reality in the battle for the Roasme plateau beneath Mt. Leigastind, north of Bjerkvik. The battalion grew with the tasks. After Bjerkvik was recaptured on 13 May, the Hyldmo battalion withdrew from the mountains. The battalion was then placed under French command and was to join the attempt to recapture Narvik. For various reasons, the time for this attack kept getting postponed and did not finally come about until the night of 28 May 1940. The Norwegian battalion made up the force that General Bêthouart had at his disposal for the second wave of assault east of the town. Assigned to attack Mt. Ankenesfjell and Beisfjord, west of the town, was the Polish brigade. British warships and fighter aircraft contributed the main support for the attack. In addition, the French brigade was supported by Norwegian artillery, which was grouped on the Øyjord Peninsula.
The bridgehead for the Norwegian battalion’s landing was to be secured by the French Foreign Legion’s I Battalion. The French Legionnaires were to secure Orneshaugen and form a front line facing the town. In the east they were to push on towards Forsneset. In the south they were to occupy the plateau at Taraldsvikfjell, until they were relieved by the Norwegian battalion. On 27 May Major Hyldmo gave the order to attack:
"After disembarking, I am to advance up to the plateau at Mt. Taraldsvikfjell with two companies and an [attached] MG platoon. The first objective: to occupy and conduct mopping-up operations on Taraldvikfjell Mountain. The 5th COY is to advance along the western slope of Taraldsfjell. The 7th COY, with the MG platoon attachment, is to advance along the eastern slope of Taraldsvikfjell. The companies are to maintain contact with the other. Taraldsvikfjell Mountain is to be cleared all the way down to the foot of Mt. Fagernesfjell. The rest of the 8th COY, plus the mortar platoon, are to render supporting fire to the companies on the forward line, as soon as they can make their way up far enough to find positions. The companies furthest forward are to indicate their forward-most lines with signal markers. My reserves are to be the 6th COY.”12 "My reserves are to be the 6th Company” was the mission for 1st Lt Arne Angell. The battalion was split into two waves during the boarding, and since Company No. 6 was in reserve, it was to join the second wave. According to the plan, the boarding of the troops was to take place in Øyjord harbour by 0115 hours, and their disembarkment around 15 minutes later. Sgt Larssen supplies us here with his impression of this part of the operation:
"After we had arrived at the clearing above the quay at Øyjord and were awaiting further orders, 2nd Lt Ilsaas appeared with orders to the effect that there was to be no boarding onto the vessel from that quay, because the quay was controlled by German artillery fire. The battalion’s reserve ammunition had been delivered down to the quay beforehand. I then received the order to pick out 10 men who, along with me, were to pick up the ammunition and get it on board a barge that was supposed to arrive at the quay. The 2iC was to be in charge of the remainder of the platoon, and was directed to a boat that lay by the shore rocks further west.
When we moved down to the quay, we heard canon fire from the navy boats anchored off Øyjord, but it was also accompanied by fine music. Somebody was playing a piece from a familiar work of music. It turned out to be a legionnaire, who was squatting beneath a pine tree, playing a wind instrument - a flute or harmonica. And he really knew how to play. The thought hit me that this was a huge contrast - on the one hand the ferocious roar of the canon, reminding us of the horrors of war, and on the other this beautiful music that reminded us of the cultural refinements and beauty of life. But when we got down to the quay, we were met by a gruesome sight. The Germans had placed a cannnon on a railway car inside the opening of Djupvik Tunnel. At the precise moment, they rolled the car out of the opening and were able to fire directly across the fjord at Øyjord Quay. The legionnaires must have all gone down to the quay in one group, because there lay all the dead and mutilated soldiers, heaped up on one another in a pile.
The barge that was to fetch the ammunition hadn’t yet arrived at the quay. So we wouldn’t give ourselves away, we had to lay down among the dead. And any second it could be our turn to meet a similar fate. But then a navy vessel arrived and positioned itself so as to cover the quay area, while it commenced to fire toward Djupvik Tunnel. Finally we noticed smoke coming out of the other end of the tunnel.
Then the danger was over. Right afterwards a barge appeared at the quay and we got our mission accomplished. We then moved further west into the mountains, and there we found fishing boats waiting with the rest of our platoon. During the passage across the fjord we all lay flat on the deck of the boats. When we got closer to the other side of the fjord, we were hit by a burst of fire that took out a corner of the pilothouse. Apart from that, everything went fine. On the other side, the legionnaires had built a bridgehead. The first German prisoners were already standing there at the shoreline.”13 The incident on Øyjord quay made a deep impression on Johan Kristian Larssen, although meeting death up close was no longer anything new to him. For the Foreign Legion’s I Battalion the incident had an effect that was later to paralyse the battalion’s leadership apparatus during a crucial phase. The battalion commander was one of the fallen. For the second time in less than two weeks the French battalion had lost its commander.
From Ornesvika, Taraldsvikfjell Mountain rises steeply up from the fjord. Nearly 100 metres higher up on the face where the railway extends eastwards. Its rails run through several tunnels, the first being just inside Orneshaugen and appropriately named Tunnel 1. As long as there were German soldiers still inside Tunnel 1, all transport up to the plateau and farther up to Taraldsvikfjell had to be effected over the tunnel roof, which spanned some 70 metres wide. The mouths of the tunnels were guarded by legionnaires. At an altitude of some 300 metres one comes to a ridge that runs in east-west direction, commonly referred to as "the plateau”. On the south side of this plateau there is a marsh that is hidden from view from Rombaksfjorden. Here there were good opportunities for the men to remain concealed. This was not an easy terrain that awaited the attackers.
Already during the transport of the first wave of troops, changes were made in the boarding plan. One platoon from the reserves was ordered on one of the smaller landing craft. Consequently, elements of the reserves landed before the forward companies, the 5th and the 7th. The company commander, 1st Lt Arne Angell, disembarked together with the platoon. The landing beach below Orneshaugen could not be used as a holding area, therefore, as things turned out, these reserves became the first unit in the battalion to advance over the tunnel roof and proceed to the forward French line on the plateau. Eventually, the 5th and the 7th Companies also followed up the slope. The last two platoons of the reserves were ferried across by fishing boats, just as Sgt Larssen describes in his account.
The plateau extends for a good 250 metres, and there the French had established a sparsely manned perimetre. 1st Lt Angell deployed his platoon further behind, at the foot of the eastern section of the plateau. He chose not to man parts of the line before he had obtained a clear picture of what the 5th and the 7th Companies were up to. After a while the 5th Company arrived up on the plateau, however slightly more to the west of Angell’s men. Then came the 7th Company. According to orders, the 5th Company was then supposed to move off to the right, thus covering the western part of the mountain ridge. The 7th Company was to head off toward the left. Due to the character of the terrain, however, the forward line became rather small for accommodating both companies. Sgt Nils S. Johansen from the 7th COY describes the situation in the following manner:
"It was terribly hard going, carrying all our heavy kit and the extra ammo. Every metre cost us an immense effort. The treacherously steep terrain meant we wouldn’t stand a chance if we were attacked. The enemy could actually just lie in a prone position and look right down on us. They had all the tactical advantages. It was, therefore, imperative for us that we get ourselves up on higher ground as soon as possible.”14 A good three hours after their landing, the 5th and the 7th Companies started to move into their positions up on the plateau. It did not take long before they came into contact with the enemy. In the beginning it looked as if they were able to keep the situation under control, but after a while things took a turn for the worse. The Germans launched their counterattack.
Prior to the Norwegians’ landing, the German positions near the beachhead had been held by units of Marine Company von Freytag. German positions at Djupvika, a little further to the east, were manned by the 1st Company of the 137th Mountain Ranger Regiment, under the command of Senior Lieutenant Schweiger. He had, no doubt, clearly understood that there was little to gain by lying in positions along the railway. He, thus, pulled his Mountain Rangers back and sent them up to higher ground on the mountain. This would give him a more favourable position, from which to launch a counterattack. The counterattack, and not the least the force in which it was carried out, came as quite a surprise to the Norwegian units on the forward line. Soon fighting broke out along the entire length of the plateau. Due to their higher elevation, the German mortars and hand grenades had a devastating effect. The forward company commanders themselves became pitched in hand-to-hand combat. Cpt Hærland, commander of the 7th COY, describes the situation as follows:
"I put down my rifle, took my pistol in my hand and lowered myself down behind this knoll, when suddenly a German jumped up around 20 metres off to my left, holding a hand grenade in one hand and a sub machine gun in the other. He didn’t look at me but threw a hand grenade right past me on my left with a terrible roar from his mouth. I took my pistol and aimed and tried to pull the trigger. Then he spotted me and whipped up his sub machine gun, intending to shoot me. There was nothing else to do but to throw myself down and roll myself down the slope, and I heard the bullets whizzing over my head.”15 The fighting on the plateau was brutal. The 7th Company alone suffered 8 killed and 13 wounded. 1st Lt Angell then received the order to move in the reserves. 2nd Lt Gunnar Steiro and his platoon were deployed farthest to the east. He managed to reinforce the French positions ahead of him, but was himself wounded by shrapnel from a mortar shell. Sgt Rolf Kahrs Baardvik’s platoon became engaged in heavy fighting in the middle of the plateau, while Sgt Larssen’s platoon was to deploy in Cpt Hanekamhaug’s sector. As Johan Kristian Larssen recounts:
"Cpt Hanekamhaug, whose 5th Company had the responsibility for the right flank, and who already had fallen men, shouted that it was useless sending troops straight up to the front. We needed to get ourselves around the right flank. Then we got counter-orders, stating that the 2nd Platoon was to attack to the right of the 5th Company. I then managed to collect some of my men and we moved over to the right. Sgt Skogvold, the platoon’s 2iC, received the order to gather the rest of the platoon, who were lying under cover, and to join us. When we worked our way over to the right, we passed Major Hyldmo. He was brandishing a pistol and shouting to some of his men of the 5th COY, who were taking to their heels. He demanded that they were to stand their ground. He appeared most calm and sober-minded, in view of the circumstances.”16 Accordingly, Sgt Larssen managed to get a part of his platoon around the 5th Company’s right flank. Further to the left side of the plateau, a group remained in place to give covering fire. Larssen took four volunteers with him in the ensuing flank attack. The five of them were armed with two machine guns and a sniper rifle. We will let Johan Kristian Larssen himself tell us what happened during the continuing advance.
"I then ducked behind a large rock and signalled with a white towel to mark the most forward point of the line. Just seconds later, bursts of MG fire from Orneshaugen erupted, accompanied by blasts from ship guns. The terrain ahead of us churned with smoke, flying rock debris and shrapnel from artillery shells. There were two or three more times during our advance that I again signalled with a towel, and again it produced the same results. We pushed forward and upward in the terrain, under cover of artillery fire from our guns. But when the smoke settled and visibility returned, we came under [enemy] fire, however, without being hit. Enemy firing positions were observed and targeted. We had then come around the right flank and were now behind the previous German positions. It turned out that the Germans had set up a tent down in the cutting, revealing that a German unit had been there before the landing. Up on the mountain we had a good view of the terrain that lay between us and the town, and also of the ground that lay before us. Despite the great distance, we could see Germans being silhouetted against the sky near the marker on Height 457. I simply must add some words of praise for Arne Reinholdsen and John Johnsen for the bravery, courage and self-sacrifice that they displayed during our advance. The cannonade that fell on Taraldsvikfjellet was clearly responsible for preventing the Germans, who came out of the town, from heading eastwards, because a German unit was on the march below the ski jump and heading west toward Beisfjord.”17 Sgt Larssen’s outflanking manoeuvre caused SenLt Schweiger’s troops to come under fire both from the side and from the rear, while they were attempting to push the Norwegians and legionnaires off the plateau. The direct machine gun fire, together with the artillery fire from Øyjord and the naval bombardment from ship guns in the Rombaksfjord, halted the German counterattack. Gradually the Germans were forced to withdraw. First Lieutenant Schweiger and two of his platoon leaders were killed, while the third platoon leader was critically wounded. Early in the afternoon (Navy) LtCmdr von Freytag led the remainder of the German units towards the east. Mt. Taraldsvikfjell was now back in Norwegian hands and Narvik was recaptured. Our joy was marred, however, due to the fact that the main contingent of the German forces occupying the town escaped along Beisfjorden. The casualties suffered by the Norwegian battalion early that morning in less than one hour were 17 killed in action and 34 wounded. The weeks after their initial baptism by fire had changed the unit from inexperienced young men to soldiers.
1 Extract from Vollan and Berg I trønderbataljonens fotspor 50 år etter (In the Trønder Battalion’s Footsteps 50 Years Later), Wennebergs trykkeri A/S, Trondheim 1990, p. 171.
3 Ibid., p. 157-158.
4 Manuscript by Corporal Rolf Aune of the Trønder Battalion. Copy on file at the Norwegian Army Academy’s library (Krigsskolens bibliotek). P. 68B.
5 Account given by Oddmund Lundemo, extracted from I trønderbataljonens fotspor 50 år etter (In the Trønder Battalion’s Footsteps 50 Years Later), Wennebergs trykkeri A/S, Trondheim 1990, p. 174.
6 Ibid., p. 160.
7 Buchner, Alex, Narvik, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München, 2nd Edition, 1977, p. 54.
8 Vollan and Berg, Fjellkrigen (The Mountain War), Wennebergs trykkeri A/S, Trondheim 1999, p. 354.
9 Report by Captain Gunnar Elstad of 12 August 1940. Riksarkivet (RA) (The Norwegian National Archives), Forsvarets krigshistoriske avdeling (FKA), box 148, shelf 2B 02362.
10 Buchner, Alex, pp. 172-176.
11 Larssen, Johan Kristian, Som troppssjef for 2. tr. / Kp 6 / II / 15, datert 1. januar 2001.
12 Riksarkivet (RA) (The Norwegian National Archives)/ Forsvarets krigshistoriske avdeling (FKA), Major Hyldmos rapport.
13 Larssen, Johan Kristian, ibid.
14 Ilsaas, Ravn and Ryeng, Også vi når det ble krevet (We, too, when it was Demanded), Orkana forlag 2001.
15 Riksarkivet (RA) (The Norwegian National Archives) / Forsvarets krigshistoriske avdeling (FKA), Captain Hærland’s report.
16 Larssen, ibid.
Author: Lieutenant Colonel Knut Werner-Hagen started his career in the Norwegian Army in 1982. He graduated from the Norwegian Military Academy and the Army Staff College I. He holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Oslo. Knut Werner-Hagen has lectured in military history at the Norwegian Military Academy since 1997. In 2009 he won the European Military Press Association’s Award for his article "Mission Moonlight - Norway 1944” published in TRUPPENDIENST 3/2009, pp. 260-270.