By Dennis Showalter
April 1940 witnessed the first, arguably the most economical, and one of the broadest-gauged combined-arms operations in modern military history. The Norwegian campaign is usually considered in the contexts of its end-game and its set-pieces: the drawn-out fighting around Narvik, the Royal Navy’s annihilation of a German task force. Neglected in that context is an initial German invasion plan that was daring in its conception, economical in its use of force, and almost successful in paralyzing an entire country in a matter of a few days.
Norway had deliberately neglected its armed forces in favor of social welfare problems at home and “soft power” internationally. Nevertheless, Nazi Germany was willing enough to leave Norway alone. As a neutral state, Norway transshipped Swedish iron ore vital to the German war effort through the northern port of Narvik. But by the spring of 1940, British pressure on these shipments had reached a point where a preemptive strike by Germany seemed a reasonable strategic move.
The navy took the lead in planning. It was the weakest of Germany’s armed forces — certainly no match in numbers for the Royal Navy. The army and the air force were primarily concerned with planning for the “real war:” the attack on the Western front projected for the coming summer. Few Luftwaffe Stukas, fewer army panzers, could be spared for a secondary campaign. Finesse must compensate for mass. An invasion mounted on a shoestring could not afford what Clausewitz calls fog and friction. Tactically, success depended on surprise. Surprise depended on timing and coordination, and those in turn required expanding the invasion’s scope exponentially.
Instead of a single landing site — standard practice in amphibious warfare since the days of the Peloponnesian War — the Germans struck in a half-dozen places at once: key port facilities and population centers across the entire country. Instead of relying on naval gunfire to prepare the way, the Germans used air power as a force multiplier, keeping the British fleet at bay, supporting the landings directly, and sending parachute and air-landing troops against Norwegian airfields. Instead of depending on merchant vessels, the Germans crowded their initial landing forces onto warships.
The Wehrmacht had one of history’s worst records of toxic interservice rivalry. Competition for scarce resources, and for Hitler’s fickle attention, had poisoned interservice relations since the creation of the Third Reich. In preparing the Norwegian invasion, Germany’s armed forces were able, however briefly, to work together closely, if not always harmoniously, in planning the initial strike. The command structure reverted to type, with air and naval forces under their own high commands and ground forces reporting directly to Hitler. The near-perfect coordination achieved in the invasion was due to the efforts of subordinates able and willing to cooperate directly in a high-risk joint operation.
The invasion’s immediate effects were spectacular, despite the loss of the navy’s newest heavy cruiser in the Oslo fjord. Ports and airfields fell into German hands with no more than episodic resistance. However, the problems arose after the first forty-eight hours. The invasion forces shocked Norway powerfully enough, but the effect was galvanic rather than awe-inspiring. The government escaped into exile. The merchant fleet, one of the world’s largest, made for Allied ports. And the victors found themselves spread too thin either to control the Norwegian population or to prevent the landing of Allied forces in the country’s north.
Tactical proficiency, multiplied by the effect of even limited air power, eventually compelled Allied withdrawal. However, for Germany, the costs of holding Norway proved far greater than those of acquiring it. Germany’s surface fleet suffered losses, removing it as a factor in the invasion of Britain that was planned — and then abandoned — in the second half of 1940. Norway absorbed men and material while returning limited value in air and naval bases. Swedish iron ore was increasingly shipped directly across the Baltic. The German invasion did establish a pattern for joint air-land-sea offensives. It was the Allies, however, who learned its lessons of combined-arms invasion, and applied them from Torch to Overlord. Clio, the muse of history, has an ironic sense of humor.
Dennis Showalter is Professor of History at Colorado College, Past President of the Society for Military History, and the Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History. Joint Editor of War in History, he specializes in comparative military history and the military history of modern Germany. His recent monographs include The Wars of German Unification, Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century, and Hitler’s Panzers.