“If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 16, 1942*
In the pre-dawn hours of April 9, 1940, German naval, air and airborne forces invaded Norway. In a well-coordinated attack, the Germans seized airports (including Fornebu, outside Oslo, where Odd Nansen had been designing air terminals) and attacked all major seaports along Norway’s coast.
Norway was woefully unprepared. Neutral during World War I, Norway expected to maintain its neutrality during World War II as well, a neutrality which obviated, in its eyes, the need for significant armed forces. Moreover, what little navy, army and air force Norway possessed had suffered through years of austerity and neglect brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Hitler, anxious to deny Norway’s ports to the British (whom Hitler suspected might be planning their own invasion) and determined to assure access to Sweden’s iron ore (which could only reach Germany through the Norwegian port of Narvik in the winter, when all Swedish harbors were ice-bound), Hitler authorized preliminary planning for Operation Weserübung in December 1939.
Luckily, the Royal Family and members of Norway’s parliament (the Storting) fled Oslo ahead of advancing German forces, but this left a leadership vacuum just when the surprised, shocked and confused populace needed guidance the most. Vidkun Quisling, a traitor, attempted to seize the reins of power, and in a radio broadcast attempted to cancel all mobilization orders, and observed that resistance was futile.
Nevertheless, within a few days the Norwegian Army—really a militia of citizen-soldiers—rallied and put up stiff resistance as German forces moved inland. Though a country of less than three million, Norway ultimately held out longer than France, Poland, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark before capitulating on June 10, 1940.
Thereafter, as in most occupied countries, some people chose to collaborate, joining the fascist Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) party in hopes of preferment or better jobs. Many joined in, or stood by, when the Norwegian police rounded up the country’s Jews in the fall of 1942. [It should be said that at this early stage of the war, the designs of the Nazis were not as apparent as they would become by 1943 and 1944. As Odd Nansen’s friend, Sigrid Helliesen Lund—herself recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations—related: “[P]eople forget that many others were also in danger then, for whom transport to safety seemed even more urgent. It would have been critical for members of the resistance, if they had been captured. Many Jews were seized only because they were Jews, not because they had been involved in the opposition movement. At that time, we didn’t realize what was likely to happen to the Jews after they were taken. The pretty word was ‘internment.’”]
Many, on the other hand, fought back. Thousands of young men tried to escape to England (a crime punishable by death) to join the armed forces. Many manned the fishing smacks and small boats used to ferry men out of Norway, and resistance forces and equipment into Norway—a link that was to be immortalized thereafter as “the Shetland Bus.” Many created underground newspapers dedicated to bringing outside news from the BBC to the country’s inhabitants. Many joined resistance networks.
I have previously described the incredible sacrifice of Norway’s merchant sailors (here). I have written (here) about Hjalmar Svae, who stole a German boat to escape to Britain, only to have the engine quit within miles England’s coast. When the current carried him back to occupied Denmark he was seized and condemned to death (which he avoided by escaping from jail). I have also written about Jens Christian Beck (here), who similarly escaped the clutches of the Gestapo, later trained with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), only to drown on his first parachute jump when, weighed down with equipment, he was mistakenly dropped over a deep lake in the mountains of Norway on October 10, 1943. In From Day to Day I describe the British raid on the Lofoten Islands in March 1941, and quote “a contemporary who wrote that the decision of three hundred young people to follow the British ‘after only a few minutes in which to make their decision tell[s] more about the fighting spirit of the Norwegian youth than any words can do.’”
Perhaps the final word on the Norway’s contribution to World War II can be attributed to someone who saw and trained many young men from many different Allied nations. Major George T. Rheam, described as “the founder of industrial sabotage,” ran Brickendonbury Manor, in Herfordshire, England, also known as SOE Station XVII, where the SOE taught its sabotage techniques to operatives and resistance fighters from every Allied nation. [It was Rheam who trained Joachim Rønnenberg’s team for their mission to destroy the heavy water plant at Vemork, but that is another story for another time.]
M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the SOE, described Rheam as “a large man with a large mind,” who did not suffer fools gladly. While his students might think him dour, behind his “stiffish manner” lay a keen sense of humor and an intense sympathy for the European exiles with whom he often worked.
“Of these,” Foot writes, “he once said in retrospect, he thought on the whole the Norwegians impressed him the most, for bravery, for readiness to run risks, and for steadiness in facing the dangers of sabotage.”
Not a bad tribute to the 40,000 Norwegians who, like Odd Nansen, were imprisoned during the war, to the 28,000 who escaped Norway and enlisted in the Allied military services, to the over 10,000 who died, either in the conflict, the resistance, or in prison, and to the countless others who suffered or risked their lives during the occupation.
[*Remarks delivered at the handover ceremony of the HNoMS King Haakon VII, gifted by the U.S. to Norway at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16, 1942. During her war service King Haakon VII sailed 85,000 nautical miles and escorted 79 convoys without mishap. On June 26, 1945 King Haakon VII successfully berthed in home waters in Kristiansand for the first time. In 2005, His Majesty King Harald V of Norway visited the Washington Navy Yard to view events including a reenactment of President Roosevelt’s “Look to Norway” speech, honoring the United States and Norway’s long-term alliance. The ceremony marked the centenary of diplomatic relations between Norway and the United States since Norway’s independence in 1905.]