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The disaster of Norway, 1940: Anatomy of a Campaign reviewed

John Kiszely pulls no punches in this fine account of military failure

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 John Kiszely

Cambridge Military Histories, pp.390, £34.99

Amid the shambles that was the Anglo-French campaign in Norway in April and May 1940, a French officer observed that ‘the British have planned this campaign on the lines of a punitive expedition against the Zulus, but unhappily we and the British are in the position of the Zulus’.

A month later, many British officers would be pronouncing on French generalship equally tartly during the shambles that was the Fall of France. On the whole it doesn’t do to criticise allies, but soldiers have got to be able to grumble about somebody, and it’s best (at the time, at least) to lay the blame elsewhere than one’s own high command. ‘Campaigns that end in ignominious failure and have few redeeming features tend to be forgotten quite quickly’ writes the author of this concise, penetrating study of a supreme example of such a campaign. Certainly Norway was quickly forgotten — not surprisingly, given what followed in the summer of 1940 — but it did have a profound effect on the way we organised ourselves for the rest of the war.

In one respect, Norway stands in that finest, and continuing, tradition of British arms: never getting off to a good start. But untraditionally, we never turned the campaign round, and although there were plans to open a front in Norway during the invasion of occupied Europe in 1944, they were never put into action.

The Norwegian campaign, though hastily improvised, was meant to play to Britain’s maritime strength. In this there were strong echoes of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, not least in that Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty during both. Unlike the Dardanelles, however, the strategic prize — cutting off the supply of Swedish iron ore shipped through Narvik, which the Ministry of Economic Warfare believed could fatally weaken the German war effort in months — was dubious. It might merit the mining of Norwegian coastal waters, but hardly an expensive ‘side show’.


However, events in early 1940 developed fast. Aided by the Nazi–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, in November Russia had invaded Finland, fighting continuing until mid-March. Sweden was becoming increasingly accommodating towards Berlin, the Norwegian fjords offered a perfect base for U-boats, while the British and French armies were busy with the Phoney War on the Western Front. To Hitler, Norway looked like low-hanging fruit.

He invaded via Denmark and Sweden. The Danes resisted, for a short time, but the Swedes, to their eternal shame, simply obliged the German army with railway tickets.

At Churchill’s urging, a hastily assembled force sailed for Norway in an attempt to forestall the seizing of the northerly ports. The force, including French Chasseurs d’Alpin (the elite mountain corps) and Polish infantry, arrived too weak and too late, although they did help extricate the Norwegian royal family and much of the country’s gold reserves (for which the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square each year is a memorial gift).

John Kiszely is a former lieutenant-general who, in his later service, was much involved with the development and teaching of strategy and the political-military machinery to convert policy into campaign planning. He also won one of the best Military Crosses in its 100-year history, leading his company of Scots Guards in the Falklands. Unsurprisingly, his book pulls no punches.

What is perhaps most surprising — and dispiriting because of its contemporary resonance (think Chilcot on the failure of strategic leadership in Iraq) — is the extent to which the lessons of the first world war had not been taken to heart. As war loomed in 1939 there was some attempt at better pol-mil and inter-service coordination, thanks to the long-serving cabinet secretary and former Royal Marine, Maurice Hankey; but it was still too cumbersome for modern war. It allowed, for example, Churchill’s admirably combative instinct too free a rein, failing to subject it to rigorous strategic and operational scrutiny. Worse, it masked Chamberlain’s utter unsuitability as a war leader. Like Asquith in 1914–16, Chamberlain made war as if it were just another aspect of government. In both, too many men died needlessly.

But if Kiszely is scathing about the political leadership, he despairs of the military even more. The First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, was ‘a backward-looking sailor… little aware of the growing influence of air and underwater weapons’. The Chief of the Air Staff, Cyril Newall, by virtue of seniority also chairman of the chiefs-of-staff committee, was ‘too easily dominated’ by his fellow chiefs and by others in the RAF, and ‘insufficiently robust or forceful’ with the War cabinet. The newly appointed CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), ‘Tiny’ Ironside (he was six foot four), had simply been ‘too senior for too long’.

Indeed, the most extraordinary thing about the high command of the army in September 1939 is that they did exactly what the high command did in August 1914: they emptied the War Office. The CIGS, Lord Gort, took the BEF to France, and with him as chief of staff the Director of Military Operations and Plans. Ironside, who had never even served in the War Office, would complain, justifiably, that when he turned to the man who knew all about plans, he wasn’t there. Unlike the first world war, however, eventually, in December 1941, a superb CIGS would be found — Alan Brooke. But the irony of Norway was that Hitler’s brilliant strategic victory would bring to power Churchill — the man who more than any other would ensure his ultimate defeat.

Anyone wanting to know about the pitfalls of pol-mil decision-making and campaign-planning, but who does not have the stomach to read Chilcot, should read Kiszely. However, the author deserved a better indexer; and at £35 bar a penny, so does the reader.


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