Remembering D-Day

Norway was there to help turn the tide of World War II

D-Day Commemoration

Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB
A Norwegian delegation took part during the D-Day commemorative celebration in Normandy on June 6, 2024.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Among the 156,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen who beat back the Germans on D-Day in World War II, were some 3,000 Norwegians.

One of the first of the “Nordmenn” to arrive on that important day in history was Lieut. Col. Gerhard L. Bolland, a Norwegian-American from Madison, Minn.  Bolland was with the 82nd Airborne, and he was in one of the first planes to cross the beaches of Normandy and head for the interior of France on the night before D-Day.

His job and that of his fellow paratroopers was to land behind enemy lines and soften up the German defenses before the main body of troops hit Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches in the morning.

Omaha Beach

Photo: NTB
In early June 1944, the U.S. military planned their assault of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. On June 6, U.S. troops stormed the beach during the D-Day landings.

Though he would be among the first Norwegians to reach Normandy that day, he would not be the first of his kind to arrive in Normandy. Over a thousand years before D-Day, his Viking ancestors had taken Normandy by both force and guile and made it their permanent home.

Now, Bolland and his compatriots were there to aid in taking it again, not on behalf of Norway, but on behalf of France, the United States, and all the other Allies.

Once he jumped from the aircraft, Bolland recalled that “the red, green, and white pencil lines of tracer bullets were visible everywhere. The Germans were throwing everything at us. Search [light] beams crisscrossed the sky looking for flak targets. Burning planes lit the countryside.  The Germans were trying to kill us as we floated to the ground.”

Yet he survived all attempts to kill him and fought valiantly with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the Battle for Normandy for the following 33 days.

The next Norwegians to arrive at the Normandy beaches were 24 Spitfire pilots organized into two squadrons, No. 331 and No. 332, both attached to the British Royal Airforce (RAF).

Norwegian Spitfire Squadrons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Norwegian Spitfire Squadron No. 331 assembled before a mission. Along with its sister Squadron No. 332, this squadron patrolled the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

These two squadrons of Spitfires were the first to arrive on D-Day, and their job, along with other squadrons of fighter-bombers, was to provide air cover for the many thousands of soldiers and sailors who would shortly arrive on the beaches below.

They flew back and forth from England to Normandy a total of four times on D-Day to rearm and keep the troops safe from aerial attack. Luckily, the German Luftwaffe was caught off guard on D-Day and never reached the beaches on that first day of the Allied Invasion.

In the days following D-Day, the 331st and 332nd squadrons engaged in multiple straffing and bombing runs on German trucks, trains, and barges in Normandy.

One of the Spitfire pilots of the 332nd squadron had his wings hit by German ground fire on June 11, 1944, and managed to land on a provisional airfield near the village of Villons-les-Buissons. His name was Lieut. Johannes Helland, from Bergen, Norway, and he has the great distinction of being the first Norwegian pilot to successfully land on French soil in World War II.

The two squadrons of Norwegian pilots and their planes were based near the village of Villons-les-Buissons during the Battle of Normandy and managed to make great friends among the French villagers.

Many of the Norwegian pilots were shot down during the Battle of Normandy and Lieut. Helland parachuted from his stricken plane on the Fourth of July in the Arras Region of Northern France and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.

D-Day warshjps

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Norwegian motor launches (mine sweepers/torpedo boats) on maneuver off Dover, England. These vessels patrolled offshore on D-Day. 

Following the arrival of the Norwegian-piloted Spitfires, came the Norwegian warships staffed by 1,002 sailors. These included two S-class destroyers, the HNoMS (His Norwegian Majesty’s Ship) Svenner and the HNoMS Stord, the Hunt-class destroyer HNoMS Glaisdale; three Flower-class corvettes (small warships), the HNoMS Andenes, the HNoMS Eglantine, the HNoMS Rose; the fishery protection vessel, the HNoMS Nordkapp; and three small motor launches (mine sweepers/torpedo boats), Nos. 125, 213, and 573.

All 10 had served as escorts to either merchantmen or larger warships during the crossing of the English Channel, and once off the coast of Normandy, they were assigned to protect the British and Canadian landings on Juno and Sword beaches.

The destroyers’ mission was to bombard German positions behind the beaches and the smaller vessels were to engage in continual patrol against German naval attack.

Unfortunately, two German torpedo launches made their way to Sword Beach and managed to fire several torpedoes; two of which hit the Norwegian destroyer HNoMS Svenner amidships. It quickly broke in two from the impact of the explosions and went down with 33 crew members.

Luckily, a neighboring British destroyer came to its aid and rescued 15 wounded and 170 unharmed sailors. The HNoMS Svenner had the unhappy distinction of being the first and only Allied vessel to be sunk by the German navy on D-Day.

Protected by the warships were a total of 864 Allied merchant vessels carrying troops, supplies, equipment, and vehicles. Of these, 43 flew Norwegian flags and were staffed by hundreds of brave Norwegian merchant marine sailors in exile from their homeland.

Normandy momument

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The memorial to the “Combattants Norvégiens” is found near the village of Villons-les-Boissons, Normandy, France.

Though there were probably many Norwegian-American soldiers scattered among the American divisions and battalions that made landfall on D-Day, the only strictly Norwegian-American unit to hit the beaches at Normandy was the 99th Battalion, known by the nickname “Viking Battalion.” However, it arrived at Omaha Beach on June 22, long after D-Day proper.

Nonetheless, this battalion, originally formed in Minnesota, distinguished itself in the hard-fought Battle of Normandy and in the later Battle of the Bulge.

Norwegians back in the home country were elated when they heard of the D-Day landings. My brother Audun Birkedal, who was only 10 at the time, read about the Allied landings in a flimsy, war-time issue of the Stavanger Aftenblad.

He and his friends then pasted the paper up on a steel transformer structure at the intersection of Nedre and Øvre Stokkaveien in Stavanger and cavorted in front of the newspaper and happily shouted “Look what has happened!” as two German soldiers walked past. Luckily, the soldiers remained stone faced and ignored the brash Norwegian “gutter.”

Over the years both King Olaf and King Harald have dedicated memorials in Normandy, in cooperation with the French, to the 51 Norwegian nationals who died on D-Day, as well as the many Norwegian sailors and airmen who participated and survived the day.

The most prominent memorial is known in English as the “Royal Norwegian Navy Memorial” or as “Le Matelot” (The Sailor) in French. This memorial is located just behind the beach at Hermanville-Sur-Mer and boasts a bronze statue of a Norwegian sailor loading a canon and an actual anchor from the sunken HNoMS Svenner.

Normandy memorial

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The “Royal Norwegian Navy Memorial” (Le Matelot [The Sailor]) stands in proud rememberance at Hermanville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France.

Another memorial, a tall stone pillar with a bronze plaque dedicated to the “Combattants Norvégiens” (Norwegian Fighters), can be found at the village of Villons-les-Buissons.  Also, in the same village, is a memorial dedicated to Helland at Place Helland, a square in the midst of three specially dedicated streets; Rue Norvège, Rue d’ Oslo, and Rue Narvik.

D-Day has not been forgotten in Norway. On the 80th anniversary of the invasion on June 6, 2024, a Norwegian delegation headed by Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, Crown Prince Haakon, and Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram took part in commemorative ceremonies on the beaches of Normandy.

“Those who fought here 80 years ago fought for the same values that we believe in today, “ said Støre. “They fought for freedom and democratic values.”

Visit the official website for the National D-Day Memorial Foundation for more information and coverage of the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.