No, I’m King Haakon, and So’s my Wife!
Yesterday saw an excursion from Lard Island, as Fat Nick and I were off to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford for a day of gaming run by Dr.Paddy Griffith covering Operation Wesserubung, the German and Allied invasion of Norway in 1940. What resulted was quite possibly one of the most interesting, stimulating and enjoyable days gaming that I can recall.
We had just over twenty players split between the three teams, Germans, British and Norwegian. We then had about half a dozen umpires, one for naval activity, one for air activity (being our very own la Skinner), two for ground action (including me as the German liaison umpire), a political umpire and Paddy operating as Chief Umpire.
The game began on the 13th of April with the initial German coup de main having just happened, and now concentrated on German attempts to rapidly seize control of the whole country and secure the iron or resources that came through Narvik.
It really is rather like writing the history of a dance, as the Iron Duke once said, in that everyone present will have had a very different experience, so what follows is my view of things as possibly German-centric.
The Norwegians had only two Brigades in the field around Hamar which were attempting to halt the German advance North. The Germans had secured Oslo, Bergen, had captured Trondheim in the centre of the country and Narvik in the north. Their plan was to use their JU52 transport planes to shift troops rapidly north, utilising frozen lakes to shuttle in battalion or company size lifts that would form a succession of stepping stone that, initially, would pave the way to Trondheim. This would then allow the ground forces to move northwards linking with each of these in turn. Indeed the plan was very similar in that respect to Operation Market Garden in 1944, albeit using air-landing rather than insertion by parachute. Would it be a “Frozen Lake too Far” for Adolf’s finest?
The British and French faced the very historical problem that they, and not the Germans, had missed Mr Chamberlain’s famous bus. When their forces arrived off the Norwegian coast in the area of Narvik it became instantly clear that the harbour where they should be landing was now occupied by a Brigade of General Dietl’s Mountain Division. What was more their Staff, expecting an unopposed landing, had not packed their kit in a manner that allowed for immediate tactical deployment. As such they decided to land at the port of Harstad, spend three days reloading their kit and then consider the amphibious assault. Politically the British commander was under intense pressure from the British government, acutely aware of what disasters the First Sea Lord, Mr Churchill, was capable of organising, not to risk his men in an attack against enemy machine guns such as had happened at Gallipoli. This allowed him two options. He could land elsewhere and then march through the freezing snow and sleet before fighting a battle, or he could play the role of perfidious Albion to the full and send in the French.
Quite happy to fight to the last drop of French blood, he chose the latter, and on the 17th of April the French assaulted with three battalions of Mountain troops directly into Narvik itself and the adjacent villages of Ankanesstrand. Resistance was tough, and Dietl’s mountain troops survived the initial naval bombardment to fight house by house through the town, its wooden buildings being largely consumed by fire before the British Guards Brigade landed unopposed on the next day and assisted in mopping up operations. Dietl was wounded in the action and was carried into neutral Sweden where he and what remained of his men were interned. The Allies now began to concentrate on building up their defences around Narvik and attempting to contact the Norwegian forces in the field.
For General Ruge, the Norwegian commander, and King Haakon the arrival of the British and French was something of a disappointment. It was quite clear that these forces had been ready to invade Norway, a neutral country, so their status was somewhat uncertain. The Norwegians had been keen to avoid war, and were not ready to embrace a second set of invaders with any enthusiasm. That said, their mobilisation system relied on sending letters to their reservists, and the speed of the German coup de main had been such that almost none of her theoretical six Divisions were now assembled. With six battalions to hand the Norwegians knew that in order to regain their land they would need help.
Their first contact with the Allies was to request that they pushed south to Trondheim, or more to the point that they land at Alesun or Kristiansund from where they could move to Trodnheim, then only held by the second Brigade of the German Mountain Division that had held Narvik. With the airfield at Trondheim in their possession the Allies could have brought in aircraft to counter what at this stage was almost complete German air-superiority (the British did have aircraft up near Narvik but poor weather saw these grounded for much of the time).
The British commander was operating under very clear orders; seize Narvik and its railway line. He did have the option of moving south, but there was certainly no clear brief of what to do if he chose to take that option. His rejection of Norwegian suggestions were a bitter blow to Ruge and the King, this being especially the case as thus far they were under very little pressure in the south and centre of the country.
Ruge had weakened his force by ordering three battalions to melt into the civilian population around Hamar (not difficult, as they were essentially armed civilians in the first instance) while his other three battalions fought a delaying action northwards. It was their plan to attempt to really halt the Germans around Lillehammer. A brief action was fought on the 14th of April at Hamar when the Norwegians gave the lead elements of 196 I.D. a bloody nose, however the reconnaissance battalion of 181 I.D. looked like outflanking their position on the opposite side of the river and they withdrew to fresh positions in the southern end of Lillehammar. They reached their destination after a march through heavy snow on the night of the 17th of April and were attempting to dig fresh positions in the frozen ground on the morning of the 18th when an air-armada of nearly 100 JU52s were seen passing overhead.
This was the Germans taking advantage of a break in the weather to lift a whole battalion of infantry to land on the frozen lake Mjosa around Faberg. On the ground the lead elements of 181 and 196 Divisions were attempting to push northwards towards Lillehammer, but they were hampered by poor ground conditions. In the event General Ruge, made aware of the German deployment by local civilians, decided on a night attack on the German positions in an attempt to break out northwards. What he did not know was that the Germans had also air-lifted a second battalion in to land on Hjerkinn which was striking out for Dombas.
The Norwegian attack was an overwhelming success, with three battalions utterly routing the German troops north of Lillehammer, what remained of them attempted to fall back on Dombas to link with friendly troops, but the following days of snow and near blizzard conditions saw everyone nearly paralysed. When the weather cleared some days later the Norwegians had decided to strike out for Alesund where the Norwegian Navy would transport them north to join the King who by now had allied himself, albeit in a somewhat frosty marriage of convenience, with the French and British.
In truth, the Germans were now vastly over-extended. Two battalions in the area of Lillehammer were lacking support, and it was just emerging that the Norwegian troops around Hamer had now reformed, putting back on their uniforms, and were blocking the supply route north. At Dombas the remains of the battalion that had been mauled at Lillehammer was now linked with the one that had been air-lifted in to Hjerkinn, and to their north smaller company sized formations were dotted on the road to Trondheim. The three Norwegian battalions alone could have overwhelmed the Germans at Dombas, but without fresh supplies they could not have maintained their effectiveness in the field.
This was the critical point of the campaign (from where I stood). Had the Allies landed and taken Trondheim (something that they were more than capable of doing) then linking with Ruge’s Norwegians, and with air support immediately on hand, they could have presented a very strong face to the Germans who. As it happened the next week was one of consolidation in both the Allied north and the German south and central Norway. The arrival of the 40th Armoured Detachment in Oslo on the 3rd along with a Brigade of fresh troops allowed the Norwegian position at Hamar to be attacked and cleared on the 7th of May. But the morning of the 10th German engineering troops had re-opened the railway line north and the forces pushing up from Lillehammer had not established a clear route all the way to Trondheim. With the weather improving each day, and more reinforcements being shipped in from Kiel, they were now able to entrain their men straight from the boats and move them as far north as the end of the railway line in Grong the ground forces moved continually forward.
The French attempted to stop the German advance at Bodo, but by now the Germans had cracked the crust and were moving inexorably northwards. Narvik was now isolated, with the Germans full reinforced and certain of success. It was here that the game ended as, with the Germans also running riot in France the French troops were about to be withdrawn for the defence of their homeland, leaving the British position untenable.
The game was hugely interesting as it allowed the players to see just how Norway could actually have been saved by decisive action, and that the Allied contingent was hampered by their masters, the politicians, seeking limited objectives rather than looking at the bigger picture and taking bold actions.
The game modelled superbly the frosty relationship between the Norwegians and their invaders (the Allied ones) , it also reflected well the dynamism of the German force which was not hampered by any of the political constraints that dogged the Allies, and were consequently able to focus on the military victory.
I know that the Royal Navy distinguished themselves, apparently every Destroyed in the Kriegsmarine now lay at the bottom of the North Sea, however details of that eluded me due to my own focus on the ground campaign. One amusing interlude was the German attempt to use an actor to impersonate King Haakon in order to broadcast to the nation, prompting a propaganda war with the real King, as each attempted to outdo the other in proving their credentials.
The setting, the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, was a truly superb venue for this event, with four spacious rooms available for the three teams and the umpires. The lecture room where Paddy was able to deliver an illuminating overview of the campaign in Norway and then the final briefing was perfect, and of course the normal museum exhibitions were superb to wander round after the game ended.
My thanks must go the Paddy Griffith for organising and running this game, I can heartily recommend the experience to anyone interested in gaming the bigger picture. Really a first class day out. I know that Paddy will be running an Operation Merkur game, the proposed but never executed Axis invasion of Malta, in October, details of which are on the Duxford site. See this link.