Book Review – British Policy and Strategy towards Norway, 1941-45

Christopher Mann, British Policy and Strategy towards Norway, 1941-45. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 320 pp.

Reviewed by Phil McCarty, PhD Candidate, University of Wolverhampton


Occasionally a work emerges which so defines the debate in a subject it defies a normal critique. Chris Mann’s work on Britain and Norway in the period 1941-45 is one of these works, as there are very few indeed, which cover this area as comprehensively as this. Mann is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and this book is a modified form of his 1999 PhD thesis. During the Second World War Norway exercised an inordinate amount of British strategic concern across the war, perhaps surprisingly so to those less familiar with the subject. Some dismiss this as another example of the Winston Churchill’s propensity to have ‘pet’ schemes with their echoes back to Gallipoli in World War One. Of course, Churchill himself, as First Lord of the Admiralty, pushed for the Anglo-French expedition to Norway in the spring of 1940 in an attempt to deny German access to iron ore deposits, casually overlooking the shameless violation of Norwegian neutrality this would have involved. As the Norwegian operation was falling into the undeniable shambles, it became, Germany launched its assault in the West while Churchill was becoming Prime Minister because of Norway. As the title suggests, beyond a scene setting discussion, this work does not dwell lengthily on the 1940 campaign but examines the continued commitment of resources and energy to the country almost until the end.

This subject has not attracted an encompassing strategic narrative before this current work. Writing on Norway has tended to be stove piped into 1940 (especially in English and to some degree in French), the Tirpitz and raiding operations, with special reference to the Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) attack on the heavy water plant at Vermork as rendered, rather imperfectly, in the film ‘The Heroes of Telemark’. There are good individual histories of British involvement in Norway with the British official history being one of the better volumes in the series. There is also plenty of coverage of distinct areas, such as the German invasion, naval operations and the attacks on Tirpitz and the SOE efforts in country.[1]

The structure of the book is essentially in two interleaving halves. The ten chapters cover the issue of German naval power in Norway (two chapters, covering 1941-43 and 1943-45); there are two chapters on the development of raiding, commando and SOE operations in country; preparations to assault Norway; strategic deception; planning for liberation and actual liberation operations in 1945. Mann clearly highlights the dynamic tensions between the services to maintain and sustain operations against Norway, especially in the Royal Navy where resources were stretched between protection of the politically vital Russian convoys, attacking coastal shipping, and supporting raiding activity, which made significant use of fast Motor Torpedo Boats, and, again, the efforts to neutralise Tirpitz.

Mann argues that both Churchill and Hitler regarded Norway to be of critical strategic importance, the former holding an insistence to ‘roll up the map’ of German occupation of Europe via an invasion of northern Norway and movement south. Three separate plans for full-scale invasion had been drawn up during the first half of the war, the last of which, Operation JUPITER, drawn up by the Canadian Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton, would hold Churchill’s attention the longest despite the lack of any real prospect of its being launched. Eventually, however, Churchill would heed his advisers and drop his advocacy for a landing. Admiral Raeder’s strategy of transferring his capital ships to Norway after the loss of Bismarck would focus the attention of the Home Fleet, particularly after the beginning of the Arctic Convoys to Murmansk, but following the sinking of Scharnhorst in 1942 and Tirpitz’s damage by X-Craft, a major fleet engagement was not a real prospect. However, Tirpitz’s continued presence exercised British planners to committing attacks in highly perilous circumstances.  By the time of its eventual destruction by aerial bombing such actions were, as Mann quotes Hastings, ‘marvellous circus tricks’ (p. 168). The greater success, Mann maintains, was drawing the U-Boat fleet into the Atlantic to engage in a battle it had to fight but after 1943 could not win. The Arctic Convoys themselves were not critical to British survival, and were often suspended in times of greater need, to the chagrin of the Soviets, even if they were not the much-demanded ‘second front’.

Raiding operations would evolve over the course of the war, with a move away from large-scale operations in force, such as the most well-known attack on the Lofoten Islands, to smaller scale raids. Mann suggests that the earlier operations, initially popular with the Norwegians, became less so due to a combination of German reprisals on the civil population; damage to the local livelihood unlikely to have any great impact on the German war effort and the antipathy of the Norwegian government in exile. Mann contends, rightly so, that any argument that the continuation of raiding into Norway after 1941 was a form of upholding a second front is ‘specious’; however Mann agrees that it was proof that land operations could be carried into mainland Europe (p. 65). These operations fed into German strategic concerns that Norway would remain an objective for an Allied assault right to the end of the war. Realistically, however, once the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, any prospect of an offensive landing in Norway passed.

That Germany would remain nervous of an assault through Norway would serve a wider aim: Norway was a fertile training ground or ‘a favourite playground’ (p. 147) as Masterman described it, for deception operations.[2]  Although FORTITUDE NORTH was integrated with the overall deception planning for Operation OVERLORD, and would ensure 300,000 German troops remained in Norway through 1944-45, Mann indicates how the deception infrastructure re-learnt forgotten lessons by using Norway as a focus, using Hitler’s minor obsession with the country. It would also lead to Norway receiving an inordinate amount of materiel for the Atlantic Wall; Mann cites fifty-five artillery pieces of 75mm-155mm calibre in a sixty-mile stretch and notes that at a time when Rommel was bemoaning the inadequacy of his sector in France, they might have been better-used (p. 148).

The reader should not be concerned, however, that this book is one of special pleading for Norway’s strategic position. Mann fully recognises that although in some cases, such as deception, raiding and special forces operations, that their very execution was of use to those carrying them out but the transferability of lessons learned to other theatres particularly for OVERLORD and North West Europe were often limited at best or not applicable at all.  Poor internal communications and a difficult operating environment would also have stunted the usefulness of a land invasion. However, Mann commends Anglo-Norwegian planning for ensuring that Norway was liberated quickly and bloodlessly despite a shortage of resources and only possible through real co-operation. Had the Germans not surrendered Scandinavia without a fight, it would have fallen to 21st Army Group to progress from the German border through Denmark and Sweden, reinforced by the US 9th Army.

If there is one small example of the utility of Norway in furthering strategic aims, it is that of the 52nd (Lowland) Division. Despite its slightly misleading name, this was the sole specialist mountain warfare formation in the British Army. Its first use in deception operations was as cover for Operation TORCH in November 1942; mountain training was increased, Arctic stores were issued and lectures given on frostbite and cold injuries. This even convinced troops in the division that they were bound for Norway. The division was part of the wireless traffic deception effort as part of FORTITUDE NORTH and was initially earmarked to lead the Norwegian liberation force. However, this was not to be

As for the long-suffering 52nd Division, Britain’s only mountain warfare formation, they eventually fought in Holland. (p. 148)

This is a benchmark work, combining thorough research and a highly accessible reading style. Mann’s particular skill has been the extensive use of Norwegian source material not usually exploited. It is difficult to envisage its being overtaken in the immediate future. A cheaper paperback edition would be very welcome.

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] T.K. Derry, The Campaign in Norway (London: HMSO, 1952); Geir Harr, The German Invasion of Norway (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2009); Jack Greene and Allesandro Massignani, Hitler Strikes North (Barnsley: Frontline, 2013); John Sweetman, Tirpitz: Hunting the Beast (Stroud: History Press, 2004).

[2] J.C. Mastermann, The Double Cross System in World War Two (London: Pimlico, 1972), p. 85.


One response to “Book Review – British Policy and Strategy towards Norway, 1941-45

  1. Pingback: 49th Parallel – (1941) – [Public Domain Movies] | mostly music·

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