9 April 1940 – Reclaiming the initiative

Operation Weserübung, the German surprise assault on Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940, was in many a resounding German success. This is often attributed to the complete strategic surprise achieved, leaving the Norwegian leadership scrambling to get to grips with the rapidly developing situation, something they never quite succeeded with (the strategically insignificant capture of Narvik being one of few successful Allied offensive operations).

But in this chaos, a few memorable exceptions showed that the commander in the field has the ability to react in time to sudden developments, and even to wrestle the initiative from the enemy.

oscarsborg_fortress_under_air_attack2c_9_april2c_1940
Oscarsborg Fortress under air attack by Luftwaffe bombers on 9 April 1940, after the sinking of the Blücher. Source: Norwegian Defence Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The best known example of this is oberst (colonel) Eriksen, who commanded Oscarsborg Fortress, and whose decision to open fire upon the unidentified warships that sailed past the fortress on their way to Oslo in the early hours of the morning halted the German invasion fleet.

Visst fanden skal der skytes med skarpt!

Sure as hell we’ll use live rounds!

Col. Eriksen when asked if they really were to open fire

A less well-known story, especially outside of Norway, is that of sekondløytnant Hannevig, and his Telemark regiment.

At the outbreak of hostilities sekondløytnant (2nd Lt.) Thor Olaf Hannevig’s only military background came from having passed an eight-month course to get his commission as an officer in the reserve in 1915. By 1940 he was a close to 50 year old business man with interests in such diverse fields as ship-owning, banking, farming and distilleries. On the whole, he was described as a colourful adventurer.

Upon mobilization he reported for duty at Telemark infanteriregiment nr. 3 (Telemark Infantry Regiment no. 3) in Heistadmoen west of Oslo. There he was turned away at the gate, as the regimental commander saw continued resistance as a lost cause. Hannevig, however, refused to give up without a fight, and travelled west to set up defences there. By raiding military depots in the area he acquired (without permission) light arms for his unit, while at the same time he sent out a new mobilisation order through the local constabulary. By mid-April he had assembled and trained a 150-300 men strong force of volunteers in the western parts of the Telemark, defiantly labelling his new unit as the Telemark regiment.

norwegian_army_colt_heavy_machine_gun_at_the_narvik_front
The Colt M/27 was a localised version of the Browning M1917 in 7.92 mm. These were together with 81 mm mortars the only heavy weapons available to Hannevig’s regiment. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hannevig’s plan was to fight a delaying action, hoping for reinforcements from the west. The first battle of the “regiment” took place at the bridge of Åmot, where it ambushed a German unit on the 21 April. The Germans halted their offensive until 1 May, while waiting for reinforcements which brought up their strength to two battalions. In a series of skirmishes during the following days, the Norwegians incurred further losses to the Germans, while blowing bridges and destroying the roads to slow the attackers.

On 3 May reports of the surrender of the Norwegian 4th Division in Vestlandet brought an end to the hopes of reinforcements, and Hannevig entered into negotiations with the Germans about surrendering. Due to demands that any surrender be unconditional, he instead “disbanded” the regiment two days later, with most of the 75 soldiers left simply reverting to civilian clothes and going home. After this he waited for the German advance to catch up to his position, and on 8 May he surrendered together with a few of his closest men. By then the 28 German POW’s held outnumbered the Norwegians, which consisted of four soldiers (including Hannevig) and six female auxiliaries.

It can be argued that both Hannevig and Eriksen fought in vain. Neither operation had any lasting effect on the campaign, as German paratroopers captured Oslo without the help of the amphibious force and Hannevig’s operation was way too small to have any impact other than dragging two German battalions into an area of secondary importance. However, what both show is the importance of local leadership at all levels taking charge and leading to the best of their ability, especially if there is a general breakdown in communications. In light of the Crimean invasion and the importance placed upon airborne troops and strategic surprise by the Russian Armed Forces, this is still today a valuable lesson for both active duty and reserve soldiers, NCO’s, and officers.

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