A key episode in World War II history unfolds in the Norwegian Arctic
The Norwegian American
The Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, just off the coast and inside the Arctic Circle, are well known as a popular tourist destination, and in recent years they have become even trendier. When I visited last summer, I even managed to play golf at the Lofoten Links. In winter, Lofoten is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
But looking back in time, Lofoten played an important part in the history of World War II.
This key episode in the war took place in March 1941 with the first large-scale commando raid launched on four ports in the Lofoten Islands. Codenamed Operation Claymore, it was led by 305 Allied officers and men from the Nos. 3 and 4 commandos of the British battalions. They were supported by a section of Royal Engineers and 52 Norwegians, including Capt. Martin Linge.
In 1941, Lofoten’s fish oil factories were strategic for the German war effort. Glycerin was a vital ingredient in the manufacturing of high explosives, and all the Norwegian fish oil was being shipped to Germany, where the coveted ingredient was extracted from it. This gave Churchill and the Allies reason to destroy the fish oil factories as part of an overall directive to disrupt the German forces in Europe.
Early that morning, in the darkness and intense cold, the Allied commandos were transported aboard infantry landing ships. Four Tribal-class destroyers and one L-class ship of the British 6th Destroyer Flotilla escorted them. They had four separate destinations: Stamsund, Henningsvær, Svolvær, and Brettesnes. Simultaneous landings were planned at 06:30 hours, but to avoid landing in complete darkness, it was postponed by 15 minutes. It was so cold that the sea spray caused ice to form on the commandos’ protective clothing.
The surprise was complete. German soldiers, officials, and collaborators were rounded up, and before long, fish oil factories, buildings used for military purposes, as well as ships in the harbor were systematically blown up. The commandos managed to destroy 11 factories, 800,000 gallons of oil were set on fire, and 10 ships were sunk.
The Norwegians provided hot ersatz coffee for the commandos to keep them going. The landing force gave free passage to 314 volunteers, including eight women, for the Free Norwegian Forces in Britain and took 60 Quislings (collaborators with the Vidkun Quisling’s Nazi puppet regime in Norway) into custody and captured 225 Germans as prisoners.
By 1 p.m. that day, the ships had embarked all the troops and were ready to sail. The only cost to the Allies was an accidental self-inflicted wound to an officer’s thigh.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the raid was the capture of a set of rotor wheels for an Enigma encryption device and its codebooks from the Krebs, an armed German trawler. This enabled British codebreakers to read the German naval code at Bletchley Park (located about 43 miles outside of London) and provide intelligence that allowed Allied convoys to avoid enemy U-boat concentrations.
Afterward, Prime Minister Winston Churchill deemed Operation Claymore a success. He issued a memo, sending “his congratulations on a very satisfactory operation.”
The Germans made reprisals and burned down homes, and about 100 randomly picked Norwegians were sent to Grini, the largest prison camp in Norway (my grandfather was a prisoner of war there).
The raid demonstrated what a relatively small, well-trained unit could achieve with the element of surprise. According to many, they played a significant role in the fight by tying up large numbers of German forces.
But the Germans eventually increased the number of troops. By 1944, the German garrison in Norway was 370,000 men strong. After the operation, the Norwegian Independent Company 1 was established for operations in Norway under Captain Linge. The iconic Linge was later killed in the Måløy Raid.
The Lofoten War Museum in Svolvær, with a permanent exhibit on the raid, is a must-see for any visitors to the islands. While the museum is small, it is packed full of history to deepen your understanding of the fight for Norway during World War II.
Note: Author Rasmus Falck is a captain in the Norwegian Army Reserves, with most of his training in the Arctic. Each year, he and his wife attend the reserves’ annual meeting at the Oslo Military Club, where he was the speaker at the gala dinner.
This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.