Key point: London's raids aimed to blow up the resources that helped Berlin build bombs. It turns out that fish oil was a vital component in explosives.
Two days after Christmas on the morning of December 27, 1941 the icy Arctic calm of the Norwegian islands of Vågsøy and Måløy was shattered 8:48 AM as four Royal Navy destroyers and the light cruiser HMS Kenya opened fire on the German garrison stationed there—kicking off with a star shell.
As RAF Hampden bombers swarm overhead to attack, 570 elite British soldiers and Norweigian resistance fighters descended on the islands in assault landing craft, sub-machineguns and demolition charges ready at hand.
Eighteen months earlier, Nazi Germany had completed its conquest of Norway after a hard-fought campaign in which half of the destroyers of the Kriegsmarine were sunk. The Norwegian King and a gallant band of Norwegian resistance fighters managed to escape to the UK with assistance from the Royal Navy, while a fascist puppet government was installed under Vidkun Quisling, whose name has since become a byword for treasonous collaborationism.
Hitler was determined to maintain his grip on the sprawling but lightly populated Scandinavian nation and its valuable natural resources.
Furthermore, when Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Norway served as a convenient base for submarines, bombers and even battleships to interdict British convoys delivering military aid to relieve the beleaguered Soviets.
By 1941, Churchill was hard-pressed to find ways to relieve the pressure on the Red Army as German tanks advanced within a few dozen miles of Moscow, and Japan opened a devastating second front against the British Empire in the Pacific Theater. But one instrument at his disposal was his Commando units trained for lightning raids behind enemy lines, whose employment Churchill championed despite opposition from old-school military leaders.
The raid at Vågsøy was planned with an unusual target in mind: fish oil factories. The Nazis were interested less in the dietary benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids, so much as the oil’s ability to be distilled into glycerin to produce the nitroglycerine used in most high-explosive bombs and shells. And the Wehrmacht was running through a lot of bombs and shells in its war against the numerically superior Red Army.
Earlier in March 141, commandoes and Norwegian soldiers had raided the largely undefended Lofoten islands in Operation Claymore, destroying fish oil facilities, sinking ships and capturing over two hundred prisoners and valuable naval codes.
Vågsøy amounted to a tougher target with a garrison of 150 soldiers of the 181st Garrison Division supported by a coastal defense battery of four 130 millimeter guns, 4-5 light anti-aircraft guns and one tank.
While the primary target was Vågsøy, a separate force was dedicated to eliminating the battery on tiny Måløy island, and third force assigned to neutralize an eight-man outpost at Holveik. A pool of troops was to be kept afloat in reserve in case heavy resistance was encountered. You can see the landing zone in this map on a detailed article at the website Combined Ops.
The British were confident its elite Nos. 2 and 3 Commando battalion, could overwhelm these defenses. The 576-man assault force, mounted two ferries, also include medical and elements of No.3 and No.6 Commando, and Independent Company 1 of Norweigian loyalist soldiers, led by the government in exile’s military leader Captain. Martine Linge. The raid, under command of Col. Dunford-Slater, was codenamed Operation Archery.
The commando force embarked at Scapa Flow on December 15 and began rehearsing for the raid due for Christmas Eve on December 24. Weather-related damage, however, delayed departure until December 26, escorted by the light cruiser Kenya and the destroyers Onslow.
Meanwhile, a second raid on Lofoten island took place at the same time with troops from No. 12 commando and seven warships—intended to divert from the main effort at Vagsoy.
At 7:39 AM on December 27, the Royal Navy force rendezvoused with submarine HMS Tuna, positioned to assist with navigation and entered the half-mile-wide Vaagsfjord.
When the bombardment began at 8:48 the German coastal guns were swiftly put out of action with bombs and naval gunfire, but the fourth scored a direct hit on the Kenya, killing four crew. In just fifteen minutes a hundred commandos swarmed over the island and captured—but Capt. Linge himself was killed in the action. The 1st was subsequently renamed Linge’s Company in his honor.
The seizure of Holveik went more smoothly, as the defenders surprised while eating breakfast. To the north, the destroyer Orbis even cratered a road with shellfire to prevent motorized reinforcements from intervening.
Commandos landing at South Vagsoy discovered that in an unlikely twist, British intelligence had missed that 50 elite German mountain infantry were on the island after intense combat on the Eastern Front—leading to bloody house-to-house fighting with the commandoes. The reserve Commandos were rushed to the scene, and Norwegian civilians soon began helping the Allied troops by running supplies to them and evacuating wounded soldiers.
A Reuters correspondent described the brutal house-to-house combat:
One officer had slipped on getting out of the boat and jammed his leg between it and the rocks, but he struggled on, limping badly. Another encountered immediate machine-gun fire, and with his men engaged and killed five of the enemy before setting fire to an ammunition dump. Later, he was killed trying with a corporal to storm a hotel from which a number of German officers were firing. A third officer was sniped in the back soon afterwards. At one time the entire troop was without an officer in command.
One man I saw fought brilliantly. He was the corporal who went with his captain to storm the hotel. After the officer had been shot he managed to chuck a grenade into the building, which then caught fire.
Many Germans were roasted to death in houses they made into strong points, and from which they doggedly refused to emerge, even when grenades or a fusillade of shots had set the rooms about them on fire. Resistance was particularly stubborn in the centre of town which, as the morning grew older, began to blaze as more and more houses holding snipers and small parties of the enemy came under heavy fire, including 2-inch and 3-inch mortar shells.
A famous photo shows one Lt. Denis O’Flaherty—having been shot in the eye, mouth and shoulder, being assisted back to shore by fellow soldiers. Remarkably he would see action again with the Commandoes sporting a piratical eye patch during the D-Day landing in 1944.
Despite ongoing resistance, British pioneers and naval gunners swiftly went about demolishing everything of possible military or economic value, sinking 10 ships in port (including two armed trawlers) totaling 15,000 tons, dynamiting a power and wireless stations, and blowing up the lone German light tank in its garage. For a good measure, they took around a hundred prisoners and even found seventy recruits to join the Norwegian loyalist army.
By noon, however, the German Bf. 109 fighters and Ju-88 fast-attack bombers were swooping in to join the battle, tangling with Blenheim and Beaufighter light bombers assigned to provide air cover. Blenheim bombers later blasted the German airfield at Stavanger at Herdla with 250-pound bombs.
At 1:45 PM, Col. Slater decided it was time to withdraw. His forces were all embarked within an hour later as the raiding force made its escape. By 4 PM, the last aerial skirmishes sputtered to a halt as the raiding force cruised back to Great Britain.
120 German troops and one civilian were killed or wounded in the raid for the loss of seventeen British and Norweigian dead and eight RAF bombers. Of course, there was also the destroyed fish oil facilities to account for.
But the raid may have had an outsized impact, as Hitler decided to divert two divisions totaling 30,000 troops to reinforce Norwegian defense—fearing the attacks heralded a large-scale invasion. Those troops would likely have inflicted greater damage holding the line in the Eastern Front had they not been sitting on their haunches in Norway, awaiting an Allied invasion that never came.
Even on the eve of the D-Day landing, German intelligence remained convinced that an Allied landing was just around the corner, and continued to dispatch reinforcements there. Thus the small-scale actions of bold commandoes like O’Flaherty and Captain Linge made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in World War II.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. This article first appeared in 2019. Image: Reuters
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. This article first appeared in 2019.