Sunday, March 02, 2014


Monument at Midtskogen Battlefield: "Here Norwegian forces stopped the enemy′s attempt at capturing the King, Crown Prince, parliament and cabinet".

By the spring of 1940, even the most die-hard pacifists in Europe were starting to get the picture that peaceful intent, neutrality and/or the League of Nations wasn’t going to count for much in the near future. One had only to ask the Czechs…or the Poles…or the Finns…or the Estonians…or the Lithuanians…or the Latvians. Even traditional neutrals like Sweden and Switzerland were scrambling to re-equip and modernize their defenses, although their orders for modern tanks had been abruptly cancelled now that the Czech arms industries, thanks to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, were now under new Nazi management.

Norway, on the other hand, remained for the most part a poster child for military unpreparedness. Neutrality had kept Norway safe in the First World War so it would obviously do so again. Only a few cynical war-mongers said the success in WWI might have actually come from strict neutrality plus a massive re-armament program that included a powerful modern navy and formidable shore defenses.

Many Norwegian political groups of the 1920’s and 1930’s were genuine pacifists. In fact, at one time, an individual actually had to do something to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Well-intentioned and genuinely desirous of world peace, these true-believers were among the greatest supporters and most ardent admirers of the League of Nations. They honestly believed that such a world organization would make wars a thing of the past and at one point even floated an unsuccessful ballot bid to disband Norway’s military entirely.

History repeating itself even further, even in the late 1930’s Norway’s Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold and his Labor Union Party continued to regard defense as a nuisance that wasted good money which could be better spent on social programs. And exactly like one particular modern American administration I could mention, Nygaardsvold seemed to select his high-level advisers and cabinet members solely on the basis of shared political beliefs rather than knowledge, qualification or experience.

Case in point, Norway’s pre-war Minister of Defense. Christian Frederick Monsen was a one-time conscientious objector who, in his younger days, had once been arrested by police for the rather contradictory charge of “pacifist agitation”. He had been a city councilman, editor of the Labor Party newspaper Demokraten and the author of anti-military pamphlets with such impartial titles as Military Insanity or Civil Judgment? and Disarmament or Militarism? After three years as Mayor of Hamar, beginning in 1922 he was elected to no less than seven two-year terms in the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) six terms as a member of the Labor Party and, in 1925-1927, representing the Communist Party.

Monsen was actually Norway’s Minister of Defense twice, first under Labor Party Prime Minister Christopher Hornsrud, whose administration lasted only sixteen days in January and February of 1928 before being disbanded by a Vote of No Confidence by the Storting. Monsen again became Minister of Defense as part of Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold’s cabinet from August 1936 until the end of 1939. Just what exactly in his background uniquely qualified him as, “the only man smart enough to fix the military” seems a bit elusive.

To give the man his due, even when Hitler’s rise to power began to slowly reawaken the Norwegian government’s interest in modernizing their military, Monsen wasn’t reckless with the public’s money when it came to defense spending, unlike our modern Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex. For instance, Monsen got the Norwegian Army Air Corps some shiny new Italian-made Caproni Ca 310 twin-engine bombers, not because they were particularly good aircraft or could even function in the Arctic, but because the Italians were willing to accept payment for them in dried cod rather than actual cash money.

Norway’s geographic location, central to Europe’s main belligerents, along with 1,700 miles of ice-free coastline accessing the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, plus one of the largest and most modern merchant fleets in the world all combined to make her strategically important. Then there was iron ore, the vital raw ingredient so important to the foundries and factories of modern war. The iron ore was Swedish but, with the Baltic Sea frozen over as much as five months out of the year, much of this ore went by rail to the year-round ice-free Norwegian Port of Narvik to be shipped all over the world to Axis and Ally alike. In 1939, Nazi Germany had imported 10,000,000 tons of Swedish ore to feed her war industries.

Even with the peaceniks putting out all kinds of positive, peaceful waves, all these strategic assets tended to make Norway a juicy, tempting target to a host of more war-like nations. Especially when she seemed incapable of enforcing her own neutrality, let alone defending herself.

Der Fuhrer was actually only one of the usual suspects looking northward and licking his chops. In early 1940, Great Britain and France had actually assembled a 100,000 man Anglo-French Expeditionary Force which was ready to go to Finland’s aid in their heroic Winter War struggle against the invading Soviets. Oh, and by the way, the expeditionary force couldn’t simply sail to Finland’s ice-free port of Petsamo. No, it would only be able to travel to Finland by way of Narvik and the Swedish iron ore fields, and along the way they would obviously need to occupy and station troops in those areas indefinitely to protect their line of communications. In fact, greater numbers of troops were slated for that mission than for the actual fighting in Finland. French Prime Minister Daladier, Neville Chamberlain and then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill were just as worried (justifiably so looking at Finland, half of Poland and the formerly independent Baltic states) by the prospect of Stalin deciding to take those objectives as they were about Hitler having designs on them. Daladier had also been scheming to fight the Germans in and over Scandinavia rather than see France become a giant battlefield twice in a quarter century. No parties involved considered the Norwegian military an obstacle to their various plans.

In 1940, the Royal Norwegian Navy was roughly a quarter of the size it had been in 1914. Her two most powerful…indeed her only…capital ships were the coastal defense ships Norge and Eidsvold, whose keels had actually been laid prior to the turn of the century, and the war fleet hadn’t actually left port to conduct maneuvers since 1918 due to budgetary constraints. The most modern aircraft in Norway’s inventory, besides the four Italian fish bombers, were 9 British Gloster Gladiator fighter planes, wood-framed fabric-covered biplanes that weren’t even fast enough to catch a German Dornier Do 17 or Junkers Ju88 bomber. They did had six rather nice Hienkel He-115 torpedo bombers, which might have come in handy except for the minor hitch that they had no aerial torpedoes to launch from them. Beyond the standard rifle-caliber machine guns, Norway’s anti-aircraft defenses consisted of a grand total of eight modern 40mm Bofors guns and some old WWI-vintage ack-ack guns of questionable value against WWII-era warplanes (a dozen of them were 1916-vintage weapons originally designated as anti-balloon guns).

The army did not have a single tank nor even a single anti-tank gun. Artillery was of WWI-vintage and deficient in both quantity and ammunition supply; an infantry battalion had only two 81mm mortars for organic indirect fire support, and not all of them had even that. The infantry did not have any hand grenades to issue and they were even short of helmets and bayonets.

In theory, if it had time to mobilize the reserves, the Norwegian Army could field six infantry divisions, although some had three infantry regiments, some only two, and one had only light mountain artillery. Norway did have universal conscription and compulsory military service, although exemptions were freely given out. A young recruit went through 72 days of basic training and then went home, the shortest period of service of any national military in Europe. During the 1920’s, even that had been reduced to 48 total days of training. Again due to budget constraints, these reservists had had no refresher training since 1923.

Somebody in WWII was going to take advantage of Norway, and Hitler decided to jump first on 9 April 1940 with Operation Weserubung, a stunning surprise land, sea and air invasion of Denmark and Norway. Simultaneously, the British were blithely ignoring Norwegian neutrality by launching an operation to lay minefields in Norwegian territorial waters to deny their use by German merchant ships transporting iron ore.

 Operation Weserubung: The German land, sea and air invasion og Denmark and Norway, 9 April 1940.

Even as German invasion fleets appeared off the coasts of Norway’s major cities on 9 April 1940, the Norwegian government held an emergency session and finally agreed to mobilize the military reserves. But it was only a general mobilization and the reservists were to be notified of their call-up by mail. Throughout southern and central Norway, the vast majority of the military armories and mobilization centers were already in the hands of German troops before the reservists knew there was a war on.

One of the three 1893-vintage 11-inch Krupps cannon at Oscarsburg Fortress. One gun was dropped into the fjord during installation and was dubbed Moses afterwards.

In Oslo Fjord the old coastal fortress of Oscarsborg protected the capital and was one of the few Norwegian military garrisons to be at least partially (1/3-staffed) manned and ready on the fateful day. The shore battery consisted of three ponderous 1893-vintage 280-mm Krupps cannon dubbed Moses, Aron and Josva. There were only enough trained artillerymen for one complete 30-man gun crew, but leavened with the garrison’s cooks and clerks and some new trainees they managed to load all three guns and man two of them. The commanding officer, 64-year-old Colonel Birger Eriksen could not get any coherent answers from the government about what the hell was actually going on, but when German cruisers came steaming up the fjord towards his nation’s capital he prepared to engage, waiting until the ships were at such close range even his ancient guns and untrained crews couldn’t possibly miss. He told his men, “Either I will be decorated, or I will be court-martialed. Fire!”

The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) flotilla was led by the brand new cruiser KMS Blucher. Commissioned only the previous September, this 18,500-ton Hipper-Class heavy cruiser was Nazi Germany’s newest warship and one of the showpieces of the new Kriegsmarine surface fleet. She was 666 feet long, had three inches of belt armor and four twin turrets mounting eight 8-inch (203mm) SK C/34 guns capable of lobbing 300-pound shells to a range of 21 miles. Her construction had taken over three years and cost 85,860,000 Reichsmarks. History records this as Blucher was so new she still had the sticker on the window.

As Blucher tried to lead the German flotilla through the fjord's narrows, Moses and Aron only got off one shot apiece, but both hit and heavily damaged the ship, starting raging fires in the float plane fuel and a secondary ammunition magazine. Then the Drobak Battery fired its underwater torpedo tubes. This installation was so old that German intelligence had over-looked it as part of Oslo’s defenses. The two Austro-Hungarian 45-cm torpedoes manufactured in 1901 still ran straight and true and both slammed into Blucher. Her fires began to rage out of control. At 0530 a main powder magazine caught fire and exploded. Blucher slowly rolled over and sank. The remainder of the German task force turned around and sailed back down the fjord, the cruiser Lutzlow also damaged by shore fire.

 The German heavy cruiser KMS Blucher capsizes and sinks in Oslofjord after being hit by Norwegian 50 year-old guns and 40-year old torpedoes.

This single instance of successful Norwegian military resistance threw a great big monkey wrench into the gears of the German’s carefully orchestrated invasion. Loss of life was heavy, 650-800 men, as Blucher had been carrying a large number of passengers, a special detachment of troops and numerous “specialists” (Gestapo agents and Nazi Party hacks). Their mission, once landed in Oslo under the protection of the fleet’s big guns, was to move swiftly to capture Norway’s King, Cabinet, Parliament and gold reserves in one fell swoop before the Norwegians knew what hit them. A German puppet government was to be immediately set up. While the German flotilla carrying the main force was stopped by the ancient guns and torpedoes, the planned airborne assault on select targets around Oslo was also delayed by thick ground fog. 

When the weather cleared later in the morning, of course, the Luftwaffe bombed the shore defenses to pieces...the guns were in open-topped casemates built before there were airplanes. Fallschirmjaeger paratroops troops were dropped and then air-landed at Oslo's main airfields. But by then it was too late.

The Norwegian government was able to send its gold reserves by train to temporary safety in Lillehammer. The gold was later smuggled out of the country right under the Germans’ noses with the help of Norwegian children. Back in the day, before Heather Has Two Mommies became mandatory reading, just about every school child in America knew that story from the classic children’s book Snow Treasure.

Another special train was assembled that transported King Hakon VII, Prime Minister Nygaardsvold, his Cabinet and members of Parliament out of Oslo northward into the country's interior at Hamar. Thus, the German’s initial coupé-de-main fell flat as their main objectives left the city ahead of them.

One particular German wasn’t quite ready to give up. The German Embassy’s Military Air Attaché in Oslo, Luftwaffe Captain Eberhard Spiller, was, among his other duties, an espionage agent. He was good at his job, well-connected and well-informed. It wasn’t long before he learned about the special train evacuating the government, and he had a very good idea where it was headed.

Captain Spiller managed to take command of a German airborne company that had landed at Fornebu Airport after the weather cleared. The paratroops packed onto four busses confiscated from the Oslo Public Transit System and a commandeered Norwegian Army truck and set out in pursuit of the government train with Captain Stiller leading the convoy in his own personal automobile.

Warned by telephone that the Germans were on their way, Colonel Otto Ruge took action. Ruge was at the time Inspector General of the Norwegian Infantry but in the confusion following the German invasion and the absence of Commanding General Laake, he stood up on his hind legs and took charge of what little military had been assembled.

The government evacuation train was sent on to Elverum. A company of soldiers from the Hans Majestet Kongens Garde, the King’s Royal Guard, had accompanied the train. The majority stayed to protect the government officials and form a foundation for the defense of Elverum upon which mobilizing reserves in the area could build upon.

Ruge tasked Colonel Olof Helset to take a group of soldiers and volunteers to set up a roadblock to stop the Germans. About twenty of the men were trained professional soldiers from the King’s Royal Guard, which was a light infantry battalion whose companies rotated through ceremonial and royal residence guard duties; they included two machine gun teams, each with a Colt m/29 machine gun. A group of Norwegian Army officers and NCOs who had been in the area taking a training course in NBC Protection joined in, along with a handful of what have been described as “raw recruits”; it’s unclear whether they had completed their 78 days training or not.

Colonel Ruge asked for volunteers from the crowd to reinforce the small military contingent, and a number of men belonging to local area rifle clubs stepped up. Some even brought their own rifles; others were issued one from the mobilization center. This brought the contingent to 93 men total. The live ammunition on hand to issue amounted to only around forty rounds per rifleman. Ruge told the group, “Your mission is to stop the Germans on their way here to capture the King and the Government….The fate of Norway is in your hands.”

Taking whatever transport they could find, the group drove out of Elverum back down the road towards Hamar roughly three miles. Restricted by Norway’s mountainous terrain, the Østerdalen Valley runs roughly southwest to northeast, and in 1940 the highway and railroad that followed the river bottom was the only developed route in or out of the area. The ground along the valley floor was fairly open from farm fields, pastures and creek bottom clearings, but on both sides of the valley the foothills of the mountains were fairly steep and covered with thick pine forest.

The Guards set up at Midtskogen Farm, where the partially frozen river took a sharp jog to the north and the road and rail bridges crossed the watercourse side by side perhaps a hundred meters apart. The road bridge was barricaded with civilian vehicles and materials available at the farm (the railroad bridge wasn’t passable for cars or trucks) while the Guards positioned their machine guns at the farmyard to cover both bridges. The ad hoc groups of military and volunteer riflemen, divided into squad-sized elements under the command of military officers, set up on the east bank of the river between the two bridges and in the edge of the pine forest on the north and south.

There was at least two feet of snow on the ground, but the road itself had been freshly plowed, and the night was bitterly cold. Imagine yourself as a volunteer, huddled in a hastily scratched hole in the snow beneath a pine tree along the woodline. As you look out across the river bottom clearings, you squint through the smoke of your own breath, and hunch your shoulders beneath your coat against the icy chill. Occasionally you remove a woolen glove and stick one hand into a pocket to warm your fingers, unconsciously counting those precious few 40 cartridges. The fear of the unknown looms large, the uncertainty of not knowing how you personally will stand up to the test of combat, of just how many German soldiers are coming. Can you stand against paratroops? Your heartbeat pounds in your ears and adrenalin surges each time you spot a pair of headlights coming up the valley. Is this it?

Less than six months previously the world had been stunned by the speed and intensity of the German Army’s new so-called Blitzkrieg style of “Lightning War” when it was unleashed upon Poland. In reality, the vast majority of the German Army was straight-leg infantry and horse-drawn artillery, but the newsreels only showed the endless columns of panzers, halftracks and trucks racing across the countryside with swarms of Stukas and Messerschmitts snarling overhead. Airborne troops were still a novelty and had not yet seen widespread use as they would in Holland and Belgium, but the unknown was part of their mystique, too. Fallschirmjaeger were an elite new breed of soldiers who dropped from the sky to fight, obviously tough and well-trained.

German Fallschirmjaeger paratroops in 1940, armed with an MG34 General Purpose Machine Gun mounted on the "heavy" Lafette tripod and MP40 9mm submachine guns.

Although they fought on the ground as crack light infantry, the German Fallschirmjaeger were actually members of the German Luftwaffe, the air force, rather than Army (Heer) soldiers. These airborne forces gave the pompous Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, additional prestige within the Nazi hierarchy, and he and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wasted no opportunity to play up the paratroopers’ martial prowess to Germany and the world.   

In 1940, the airborne troops were equipped with standard German Army infantry weapons, but these were all well regarded. There was, of course, the old standby, the Kar 98k Mauser bolt-action rifle, accurate and hard-hitting with its 7.92x57mm Mauser round.

Newspapers, magazines and film of the day played up the “intense firepower” and “streams of bullets” spewed forth by the sexy submachine gun or "tommy gun". In this case it meant the sinister and modernistic-looking MP40 9-mm machine pistol with its compact size, folding skeletal metal stock and 550 rounds per minute cyclic rate of fire.

Then there were the real, honest-to-God machine guns, the high-quality MG34s with their gleaming ammunition belts and deadly-looking perforated barrel jackets, spewing out 7.92x57mm rounds at a rate of 900 rounds per minute. Weighing less than 25 pounds, firing from its own folding bipod, and carrying an initial 50-round belt coiled in a compact drum that clipped to the feed block of the weapon, one man could handle and fire the MG34 as a light machine gun, firing and moving quickly to another spot to fire again.

Virtually everyone was also familiar, again from the newsreels, of the long-handled German “potato masher” hand grenades. Fallschirmjaeger carried lots of those, and had a higher proportion of automatic weapons than the standard infantry squad (a year later in Crete, one paratrooper in four would be armed with an MP40, while in the 10-man army infantry squad only the squad leader carried one), to add shock power to their assaults.

Early Model 1892 Krag-Jorgensen "Long Krag".
Against all that, you look down at the rifle in your hands, the Krag-Jorgensen. Uff da!The weapon was the local favorite, designed in the late 1880’s by Norwegians Ole Krag of the Kongsberg Weapons Factory and gunsmith Erik Jorgensen. Most were Model 1894 “Long Krags”, the standard infantry rifle with a 30-inch barrel, in caliber 6.5x55mm Swedish. The Krag has long been known for being the smoothest of all the military bolt-action service rifles, and the Norwegian Krags were quality-made and accurate. In sporterized form Krags remained a very popular hunting rifle throughout Scandinavia and the United States for many decades, well through the 1960’s.

 Detail of the Krag-Jorgensen rifle's unusual side-loading magazine.

In strictly military use, however, the Krag had an Achilles’ heel in its magazine system. The 5-shot magazine extended from the right side of the rifle’s action and featured a hinged loading gate that required the rifleman to reload cartridges individually by hand. It did possess the very real advantage of allowing the soldier to “top off” his magazine while keeping a round in the chamber ready to fire.

 Norwegian Army infantryman circa 1940 with Krag-Jorgensen rifle, wool uniform and leather belt and ammunition pouches

On the other hand, an opponent armed with a Mauser rifle could insert a 5-round stripper clip or “charger” full of cartridges into the receiver bridge and, with one swift, sure shove of the thumb, fully reload the entire magazine in one motion. When American soldiers had been armed with the Krag-Jorgensen in caliber .30-40 at the turn of the previous century, they took stiff casualties from Spanish troops armed with ’95 Mausers in Cuba. A Mauser-armed rifleman could completely reload his magazine and continue firing while the Krag-armed soldier was still fumbling with the loading gate and individual cartridges from belt loops or pockets.

As noted, the men present that night had only about 40 of those cartridges apiece in their pockets or ammo pouches. What we think of as the standard 6.5x55mm military load, the 139-grain spitzer, wasn’t actually adopted by Sweden until 1941. At the time, the Norwegians were still using the skarp patron m/94 projektil m/94, which fired a long 156-grain round-nosed bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,380 feet per second. Since 6.5mm diameter bullets enjoy a high ballistic coefficient, even this bullet proved accurate out to long ranges.

The Norwegian Army's standard heavy machine gun in 1940, the water-cooled Colt m/29, seen here with the anti-aircraft extension attached to the tripod. These provided the only anti-aircraft defense available to Norwegian field forces.

The King’s Guards were the only soldiers with their complete field gear, including helmets and bayonets, and the HMKG contingent also had two Colt mitraljose m/29 heavy machine guns, the Norwegian Army’s standard support weapon, actually a license-built version of the tried-and-true Browning Model 1917. Being water-cooled they were heavy, the gun, tripod, ammunition and water adding up to about a hundred pounds total for the gun crew to schlep around. The weapon had to be disassembled, moved and then reassembled by the crew between each firing position. Without the proper anti-freeze, all the older water-cooled machine guns like the Colt, Maxim, Vickers or Browning “had issues” in cold temperatures. The m/29 didn’t have a muzzle booster and the cyclic rate of fire was exactly half that of the MG34, 450-rounds per minute. In keeping with the Norwegian defense mentality of marching to a different drummer, the Norwegian Army’s land service Colt heavy machine guns alone used the one-of-a-kind 7.92x61mm Norwegian cartridge firing a heavy 219-grain bullet. Nobody else used it. You couldn’t utilize captured enemy ammunition, you couldn’t even borrow extra from Allies or even your own nation’s sister services; even the Norwegian Army Air Corps and the Royal Norwegian Navy used the standard 7.92x57mm Mauser ammunition in their machine guns.

Both sides were about equal in manpower...96 Germans v 93 Norwegians...but the Fallschirmjaeger had a big edge in firepower, training and unit cohesion. What did the Norwegians have to help even the odds in such a predicament? Well, at least the majority of them could shoot, and shoot well.

Parsimonious right from the beginning, as early as 1860 the Norwegian Parliament nonetheless managed to encourage rifle marksmanship on a national level via the Landsskytterstyret.

Shooting sports initially fell under the auspices of the Norwegian Central Olympic Committee, and both Norway and Sweden consistently had very strong showings in the Olympic shooting events. In 1882 the Folkevaepningssamlag voluntary shooter association formed amongst non-Olympic shooting sport enthusiasts, the result of dissatisfaction with the Central Committee’s "Olympics-only" direction and the fact that the Committee did not have to answer to shooters or the public. In only eight years, membership in the Folkevaepningssamlag had risen to 18,000 and their voice had become too loud to ignore. In 1892, the King issued a royal decree for cooperation between the Folkevaepningssamlag and the army, to include the loan of rifles. Recognition from the Storting followed, and on 1 July 1893 they were incorporated into the creation of the new Norwegian DFS (Det Frivillige Skyttervesen) or National Rifle Association which was officially charged with the goal, “Promote practical shooting skills within the Norwegian people and thereby prepare for the national defense.” The DFS has always worked closely with the Army in general and the Homeguard (National Guard) in particular.

Shooting clubs and competitions were quite popular throughout the country, and were fired with military-issue weapons and ammunition. By competing, an individual Norwegian man was able to cheaply purchase what amounted to his own personal hunting rifle, and ammunition for it, at a huge discount from the government. The government, in turn, got a pool of proficient marksmen intimately familiar with the military issue rifle to draw from in times of war without having to spend the time and money for formal military training in that arena.

Many of the sporting competitions began as practical training programs developed from the military’s needs or desires. The Olympic Sport we now know today as the Biathlon was born militarily in Norway. Formerly called the Military Patrol, a team of four men (three riflemen and an officer/NCO team leader) negotiated a 30 kilometer (18.6 mile) cross country ski race wearing 24 kilo (53 pound) backpacks. At the half-way point, three shooters stopped to fire 18 rounds at 250-meter targets, using the standard military service rifle. Each bullseye scored took 30 seconds off the team’s total time in the race.

Viewing the Olympic Games as a chance to showcase Aryan superiority, Adolph Hitler had insisted upon the Military Patrol as a demonstration event at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany. A national and international ski competitor himself, one of Hitler’s favorite party generals, Eduard Dietl of the elite Gebirgsjaeger mountain infantry, was in charge of organizing the event. Much to the Nazi Party’s chagrin, the Italian Alpini handily took the gold medal while Finland took the silver and Sweden the bronze. Germany finished fifth, after Austria.

In years past, Norwegian shooting competitions at one time also included a sort of summer biathlon involving long distance running in between target shooting stations.

“Stang Shooting” involved military-inspired events and was named after former army colonel and Minister of Defense (1900-1903) Georg Stang, and required the rifleman to learn rapid bolt manipulation and quick reloading to score as many hits as possible within a 25 second time limit. Felthurtig or Field Speed Shooting is an event in which the competitor is given six rounds to hit three man-sized targets at unknown ranges out to 600 meters as quickly as possible. This event, naturally, also hones the shooter’s ability to quickly and accurately estimate range and “read” windage.

Shooting matches were quite popular and there were rifle clubs and ranges formed all over the country. Norway at the time having a great deal of undeveloped real estate and entire mountains for use as backstops, quite a few 600-meter and even some 1,000-meter ranges were built, luxuries that more densely-populated European countries had no room for. Even most military forces of the WWII period never shot their rifles beyond 300 meters in training.

Norway’s vast wilderness areas were also home to a plethora of wild game birds and game animals both large and small, from moose to hare, so hunting was both traditional and popular, with the possession and use of firearms especially common in small towns and rural areas. The Great Depression actually stimulated a whole new era of hunting’s popularity as it was seen as a good way to cheaply put meat on the family table. Even .22 Long Rifle ammunition for small game was too expensive to be wasted and young men learned to make every shot count. Skills other than shooting that are the hallmark of the hunter…stealthily movement, keen observation, stamina, camouflage, acclimatization and other field skills…also translate directly and well into the infantryman’s stock in trade.

 Norwegian Infantrymen of the 6th "Polar" Division equipped with Krags, "over-white" snow camouflage suits, skis and sleds near Narvik.

An infantry lieutenant from the 15th Infantry Regiment of the 6th Division later fighting near Narvik put it this way. “The Germans [ski patrols] sought to hide behind their firepower, while ours were hidden by woods and the reverse slope. Now is the time to see without being seen. The grouse and the hare have taught him the art of dressing to blend into the background. The green uniforms are good in summer, in green surroundings, but now against the snow blanket it is an easily visible point that stands out against the grain and makes a good target for the rifle. Therefore, our uniforms are now covered with a white canvas suit, which moreover has a hood which is drawn up over a separately sewn [white] cap.”

No, like the Americans in the late 1700s or the Boers of the late 1800s, not every Norwegian boy was some kind of Dan’l Boone or Kipling's "Piet." But enough of them were good enough to make a difference and, as teaching shooting skills is one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks in military training, even the greenest recruit usually already possessed a working knowledge of shooting and fieldcraft.

A 1941 West Point study of the Norwegian campaign noted, “They would undoubtedly have made a superb army had they been properly trained and equipped, for the men were fearless, hardy and intelligent. Individually, they were excellent rifle shots.”  More than a few post-operational German accounts, especially from the fighting in the far north around Narvik, made note of the Norwegian soldier’s skill in the art of the rifle, and a man in the open was not considered safe within 600 meters of a Norwegian rifleman. Even the veteran Gebirgsjaeger General Dietl wrote, in his personal assessment, that Norwegian soldiers, “…were excellent marksmen, and that plays the key role in a war of this type.”

Back at Midtskogen, terrified civilian refugees had also begun to leave German-occupied Oslo and head north into the heartland. These folks had to leave their vehicles in front of the roadblock and were escorted across the bridge to continue to Elverum afoot and return for their autos later. Thus, at 0130 hours when the German convoy came roaring up the road and braked to a halt behind the long line of parked vehicles, its was no longer visible to the machine gunners.

Map of the Battle of Midstkogen from Wiki. 

The riflemen on the flanks still had clear views and fields of fire, and they opened up. Apparently one of the very first shots hit Captain Spiller before he could even get out of his car, the shot attributed in Norwegian lore to Lieutenant Harald Jektvik, although it’s hard to know how anyone could tell for sure.

The initial fusillade that mortally wounded Captain Spiller also shot out the headlights on his car and on the lead bus. The remaining headlights were instantly shut off and the Fallschirmjaeger piled out of the busses and a firefight ensued.

"Civilize 'em with a Krag", Norwegian style.

True to their training and nature as assault troops, the Fallschirmjaeger rushed the nearest thin line of riflemen on the edge of the woods. Popping illumination flares, the machine gunners put their automatic weapons to work suppressing the muzzle flashes along the woodline as other Paras worked their way forward by bounds, popping off rifle shots or bursts from machine pistols each time they went to ground, helping to cover the advance of their squad mates. Eventually, a few worked their way within grenade range and the potato mashers starting exploding amidst the Norwegian positions. With nothing to throw back and much of their small amount of ammunition already expended, the riflemen in the woods fell back.

The paratroop company quickly consolidated, reformed and advanced on the bridges. When they came within view, the first m/29 heavy machine gun was given the order to fire. The gunner grasped the spade grips and thumbed the butterfly trigger only to have the bolt slap sluggishly forward and not fire. The grease used to lubricate the machine guns, designed to hold up under high temperatures, had thickened in the cold.

The German assault line jumped forward at this chance, a few men in the lead managing to squeeze past the obstacles on the road bridge or scramble across the river ice where it was frozen all the way across.

Then the second Colt machine gun opened up good enfilade fire from their far left and the riflemen on the east bank to their near right joined in simultaneously. The Fallschirmjaeger hit the deck and scrambled for cover, momentarily pinned down flat in the crossfire. As the first enthusiastic fusillade of rifle fire died down, the Germans renewed their advance towards the farm; laying down fire, crawling forward, an occasional sprint to better cover. Their progress was slower in this assault but nonetheless relentlessly continued ever forward.

Fallschirmjaeger battling for Midtskogen Farm with MP40 machine pistols and Model 24 "Potato Masher" grenades.

The first HMKG machine gun team had managed to pull their weapon back to the woodline directly ahead of the advance and put it back into working order. Now it too opened up in earnest, pounding out long, slow bursts of heavy bullets, the gunner deftly traversing the weapon a few degrees between each burst, methodically sweeping the fire back and forth across the path of the Para’s advance at just above ground level. The Fallschirmjaeger had gained a secure foothold on the east side of the river but were now caught in a nasty firesack, taking effective small arms fire from three directions.

The Fallschirmjaeger could no doubt have still prevailed with hard fighting, but casualties were now growing and the company commander decided not to push the attack. The paratroops had begun their day conducting operations to seize carefully selected objectives in Oslo, about which they have been well briefed and prepared in good German fashion. The next thing they knew they wound up blindly following the tail lights of some crazy Air Attaché on a wild goose chase through the night over many miles of winding road to God only knew where. Without Captain Stiller, who was operating on his own local knowledge, they had only the vaguest knowledge of where the hell they even were, and had no maps of the area.

The Germans disengaged from the action and withdrew; the company commander would let the big brass figure things out in the morning. In one of those strange quirks of battle, a handful of German and Norwegian troops had paused to release the farm animals from the barn, which had caught fire during the fighting. The Fallschirmjaeger took their wounded to the hospital in Hamar. Mortally wounded with a rifle bullet through the center of the chest, Captain Spiller still clung to life when the Paras carried him into the hospital, but died shortly thereafter. In his pocket, the Norwegians found the German list of government leaders they wished to capture, beginning with the King and Prime Minister.

German losses were given as two dead, Captain Spiller and a Fallschirmjaeger corporal, and “several” wounded. The Norwegians claimed nine wounded, many from grenade shrapnel.

It wasn’t much of a battle, but it was a victory at a dark time when Allied victories remained precious few and far between. More than a minor tactical victory, strategically it bought enough time for the Norwegian government to convene in the tiny public schoolhouse in Elverum to decide what to do next.

Some politicians remain politicians the world over. At the last emergency meeting of the Storting in Oslo before their evacuation, with the Germans expected to kick in the doors at any time, some ministers brought up the idea of having the military blow up bridges behind them to delay the German land advance. Deputy Dundby of the Agrarian Party strongly objected as, “this would mean destroying valuable architectural works.”  The Liberal Party’s former Prime Minister Johan Mowinckel backed him up. “…this was no way of reaching an agreement with the Germans…One cannot negotiate and fight at the same time.” Later (my cynical guess would be around the time Allied victory began to look apparent) the latter became known as a staunch anti-Nazi.

At Elverum the government officials had been given a bit of breathing room to steady their nerves. The Germans had already installed their own bogus new puppet government under Vidkun Quisling, proclaiming him the new Prime Minister and his administration the legitimate Norwegian government. Such a direct threat to their own power did more to piss off and unite the politicians behind resistance than anything.

Some men rose magnificently to the occasion and proven themselves to be real leaders, individuals like Storting President Carl Hambro, who on his own had organized the trains that got the treasury and the government out of Oslo. A handful of men went the other way. The Norwegian Army’s Commanding General Kristian Laake was finally present to address the government in this time of crisis. His advice, and I may be paraphrasing here, was basically that Norway should roll over on its back, pee all over itself and beg the Germans for surrender terms.

  King Haakon VII of Norway.
King Haakon VII had little real authority under Norway’s unusual elected monarchy system, but the tall, regal widower was quite popular among the people. He addressed the government assembly first, speaking sincerely, sometimes choked with emotion. The Germans had demanded that the King recognise the new Quisling puppet government to legitimize it. The King forcefully denounced Quisling and Hitler himself; he had read Mein Kampf in its entirety and was firmly of the opinion that nothing Hitler promised could be trusted. He had, he said, deliberated long and hard about the suffering it would cause the people of Norway to fight the Germans, but that he had decided the only proper and honorable course for the nation was that it must resist. If Parliament decided to bow to German demands, he would renounce his throne immediately thereafter.

Then, and in the days to follow, Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold would also rise to the occasion in his country’s greatest hour of need, going back to his roots as a one-time lumberjack. It had not been an easy decision for him to make either, but he agreed that Norway should resist the Germans, “to uphold the honor of the country.” The final war-time meeting of the Storting produced the Elverum Agreement, which unanimously granted Prime Minister Nygaardsvold extraordinary, nearly total, executive power to act solely as Norway’s legitimate government until such time as the Storting could reconvene.

 Norwegian Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold

Considering the time and the circumstances, it was not so much an honor as a burden. Nygaardsvold would prove to be a man of integrity who did not abuse or take advantage of the extraordinary power granted him, a far cry from a certain present government that believes, “One should never waste a good crisis.” With an initial bit of hesitation due to the confusion and lack of information in the first couple of days after the invasion, Nygaardsvold soon found his footing and was making the decisions the crisis called for, seeking the best advice but making the tough calls himself, guided by what he believed was the best for his country.

Distraught and defeatist General Laake was sacked and hard-charger Colonel Ruge was made Commanding General. Nygaardsvold remained active as Norway’s legitimate government and in strong opposition to Nazi Germany, even as he had to move repeatedly throughout Norway ahead of each successful new German advance, and later while in exile in London after Norway eventually fell. As such, he served his country and the Allied cause very well, maintaining a solid, steady unity government through the darkest early years of the war. He vowed to resign as soon as the war ended and his enemy-occupied country’s crisis had ended; he promptly did so the day after Germany surrendered. He also later refused to accept the salary offered him by the Storting after the war for his service during his time in exile.

The Germans had expected a quick, relatively easy takeover. Had the entire Norwegian government fallen immediately into their hands as planned, perhaps those who later chose to fight would have been disheartened enough to capitulate. Thanks to a few good Norwegian men at Oscarsburg and Midtskogen that question did not have to be answered during the country’s darkest hour.

Instead of a cakewalk ending on April 10th, the Germans had to fight for Norway until June 10th. British, French and Free Polish troops would come to Norway’s aid. Primarily under British command, the combined defense was severely hampered by lack of communication and cooperation, contradictory orders, poor leadership, poor equipment, bad intelligence, and domination of the air by the Luftwaffe.

In the far north General Carl Gustav Fleischer’s 6th “Polar” Infantry Division had been the only Norwegian Army unit to be fully mobilized and trained up (because of the Soviet Winter War invasion right across the border in Finnmark). Only in the north did the Allied defense gain a hold. The British Royal Navy sank all ten of the Kriegsmarine destroyers that had transported the German invasion force to Narvik. After a couple of costly reverses, the Norwegian Army found its footing, halted the German advance, and began a series of counter-attacks. Narvik itself was actually recaptured by a joint Norwegian-French-Polish ground assault and the German forces were reduced to a shrinking perimeter up against the Swedish border, where they were in very real danger of annihilation or internment. At one time, there were hopes of holding northern Norway.

This lone Allied victory in the far north at the end of May 1940, however, was rendered moot by the accelerating disaster in France, where the Blitzkrieg had flanked the Maginot Line, broken through Allied lines and had panzer spearheads racing for the English Channel. With virtually no notice, all British, French and Polish forces were pulled out of Norway. Stripped of air cover and lacking even anti-aircraft guns, the disheartened Norwegian forces at Narvik were soon on the defensive again as German reinforcements began to arrive by air and land. This last free bastion in Norway eventually had to capitulate as well on 10 June 1940.

Operation Weserubung was still a great German success as the first and one of the boldest combined land, sea and air invasions the world had seen. But instead of being a bloodless overnight coupe-de-main, it had lasted 62 days, longer than either the Polish or the French Campaigns, and had cost them 5,300 dead, 36 surface warships and U-Boats including fully half of their modern destroyer force, 21 merchant ships and over two hundred aircraft. Keeping Norway for the duration of WWII would tie up a quarter million German troops and their accompanying aircraft, ships, and guns, all of which would come to be desperately missed on other fronts.

With no land frontiers to cross, few Norwegian soldiers escaped the country to fight on like the Free French and Polish ground troops, but resistance slowly but steadily grew within the country. Nygaardsvold’s government-in-exile recognized the Milorg resistance movement as an official branch of the Norwegian armed forces; it would number 40,000 within Norway by the end of the war. Norwegian sailors and pilots fought on in Allied-supplied ships and aircraft. Of particular importance to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Norway’s merchant fleet, the fourth largest in the world and including many modern fuel tankers, served the Allied cause for the remainder of the war.

A few precious hours of time initially bought by a handful of good men with ancient cannon and elderly rifles wound up paying large dividends in the long-term fight against Nazi aggression. Who knows what may have happened had they been fully mobilized and better trained and equipped. The success of the Finns next door makes the question intriguing.