The Combined Operations Raid on Vaagso and Maaloy, 27th December 1941
During the Second World War Norway had been considered a zone of destiny by both Churchill and Hitler. Its strategic importance lay in the port of Narvik from where the majority of iron ore from Sweden was exported and Germany was heavily reliant on Swedish iron. The British wanted to use Norwegian ports as bases to blockade Germany. The Fuhrer had rashly gambled that Norway could be taken quickly and he was right, but his gamble had cost the Kreigsmarine dearly in terms of destroyers and light cruisers. Norway was also key for a vital part of the Nazi nuclear programme, the production of deuterium oxide or heavy water, a programme that was closely monitored by the British Tube Alloys team.
With its long and fractured coastline, Norway was an ideal target for the British Commando forces, which had met some successes in raiding the enemy occupied coastlines and some failures. During Operation Claymore, No 3 Commando had raided the Norwegian Lofoten Islands in March 1941. The Lofotens islands are located in the North Sea off the Norwegian coast, due west of Narvik and on these islands, factories produced about 50 percent of Norway’s enormous output of fish oil. This product was used by Germany in vitamin tablets for the Army and to make glycerine, a critical ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. The Commandos fired the oil factories, destroyed 11 ships and some 800,000 gallons of oil, and returned to Britain unchallenged, taking with them more than 300 volunteers for the forces of Free Norway. They also took home more than 200 German prisoners, including the head of the local Gestapo, some 60 Quislings (Nazi collaborators), and a captured trawler. Before they left, the raid’s commander Colonel Durnford-Slater addressed another group of suspected Quislings with some terse and ominous advice for the future:
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to hear any more of this bloody Quisling business. It’s no bloody good, I’m telling you. If I hear there’s been any more of it, I’ll be back again and next time I’ll take the whole bloody lot of you. Now clear off!”
Following the success of Claymore, another much larger raid was planned codenamed Archery. This was to be a larger affair and air support was integrated into the plans from the outset, not bolted on as an afterthought. The targets chosen were the ports of Vaagos and Maaloy, which lie off the Norwegian coast between Bergen and Trondheim. Churchill had wanted to raid Trondheim to destroy dock facilities and protect Allied convoys, but this was unfeasible given the assets of 1941. There was to be a diversionary raid on the Lofoten Islands lying 300 miles north at the same time as Operation Archery.
Mountbatten had been appointed as Combined Operations Adviser in October 1941 and he decided on a sizable raid to draw, tie down and pin large numbers of German troops. Operation Anklet was launched on December 9th but it went tragically wrong. My bête noire has always been the relationship between the media and the military, as some of you may have realised. On board the HMS Prince Charles, Commandos were preparing kit and weapons and priming hand grenades. Several press cameramen were on board to record the raid and were photographing the six men at a table priming the Mills-type 36 grenades. A cameraman trying to get the grenades in focus, pulled them towards him, unseen by the men working round the table. As a result, primed and un-primed grenades were mixed together. The number one man picked up a grenade, removed the pin and striking lever to clean it. There was a small bang denoting that the fuse was burning. He tried to throw the grenade up through the hatch onto the deck above, but it bounced back down and a Norwegian Commando caught it to try again, but it exploded against his chest. Several men were killed and more injured, including key team members and navigators. With his raiding party compromised, the Senior Naval Officer called the raid off.
While the town of Maaloy was the principle target, enemy convoys were known to assemble in Vaagsfjord and was a tempting secondary target. The entrance to the Ulversund was defended by the tiny island of Maaloy, which had a concentration of 4 coastal defence guns, ammunition stores, oil tanks and barracks for the troops. Its position, at the southern mouth of main sea access to the Maaloy and South Vaagso communities, was ideal to protect them, their oil factory, fish factories and a power station, from attack. It was expected that the German garrison would be large and well-equipped.
The raiding parties consisted of men from No 3 Commando reinforced by two troops of No 2 Commando, medics and engineers from Nos 4 and 6 Commando and interpreters and scouts from the Norwegian Commando Forces. They were split into five groups, Group One would capture the tiny port of Hollevik, Group 2 would land south of Maaloy, Group 3 would capture the gun batteries on Maaloy Island while Group 4 would comprise a floating reserve. Group 5 would bypass the towns and capture the north end of Ulversund, to prevent German reinforcements arriving from the north. The force totalled 51 officers and 525 men.
The Naval forces commanded by Rear Admiral Burrough, consisted of the cruiser HMS Kenya, the destroyers HMS Offa, Chiddingfold, Onslow, Oribi and the assault ships HMS Prince Charles and Prince Leopold. The assault ships carried the LCA landing craft in their davits.
The Air Component was comprised of ten Hampden bombers from 50 Squadron tasked with laying smoke to cover the run-in and bomb the coastal defences, twelve Blenheim fighter bombers from 114 Squadron to attack the airfield at Herdla and fourteen Beaufighters from 143 Squadron were to provide continual air cover for the seven hour duration of the raid. All of the RAF’s aircraft were operating at extremely long range from airfields in Shetland and Wick. The round trip for the aircraft was 405 miles from Wick and 250 miles from Shetland.
The bombers would attack the batteries and lay smoke to cover the LCAs. The ground forces would capture Maaloy and South Vaagso, covered by the guns of HMS Kenya. Once the enemy had been eliminated, demolition parties would destroy everything of value to the Germans. As many prisoners and Norwegian volunteers as possible were to be brought back as well as intelligence, code machines and any useful intelligence that could be found.
The task force sailed from Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on Christmas Eve, but were forced to divert to Sullom Voe in the Shetland Isles due to a damaging gale. The Prince Charles took on 145 tons of sea water and this was pumped out and the damage repaired. The men enjoyed Christmas dinner and the force headed north on their 300 mile journey on Boxing Day evening.
The British ships arrived off Vaagsfjord at 07:00 on 27th December and rendezvoused with the British submarine HMS Tuna, which would guide them in. The bombing of the coastal batteries had proved ineffective and the ships commenced a shore bombardment at 08:48 with star shells to illuminate the defences and then followed with a bombardment of 500 shells in ten minutes. The smoke laying by the Hampdens was more effective, and the LCA were released from the assault ships.
The German defences were taken by surprise, but they regrouped and started to fight back with a great deal of tenacity. It transpired that elements of the crack Gebirgsjäger (mountain rangers) unit of experienced troops from the Eastern Front were in the area on Christmas leave. The Germans were experienced at close quarter fighting and bitter skirmishes and sniping began as the Commandos cleared the town house by house. Colonel Durnford-Slater, called on the floating reserve and troops from Vaagso Island. A number of local citizens assisted the commandos by acting as porters for ammunition, grenades and other explosives and in carrying away the wounded.
The Commandos began their withdrawal at 14:00 having captured most of their objectives, including destroying four fish oil processing factories, ammunition and fuel stores, military instillations and the telephone exchange. The Merchant ships, the RE Fritzen and an armed trawler, the Fohn, came into view. Those under power beached themselves when they saw the White Ensign, while the Fohn and the Fritzen were boarded under sniper fire from the shore, where Commandos hoped to find confidential papers or secret code books.
The LCAs drew away from the shore carrying the exhausted, their wounded and dead, prisoners and Norwegian volunteers. Escorted by the destroyers and covered by the guns of HMS Kenya and the last lurking Beaufighters, the assault ships slipped out of Vaagsfjord and into the gathering gunmetal greyness of the northern winter. The Commandos had reason to feel upbeat. They had engaged with a well-trained and resolute enemy on their own ground. All of their primary objectives had been achieved and casualties had been relatively light.
In addition to the street fighting, the destroyers sank nine ships totalling 15,000 tons, the Germans lost 150 killed, 98 Germans and four quislings were captured and four Heinkel 111s were shot down. The airfields of Stavangar and Herdia were bombed, Herdia being put out of action and 71 Norwegian volunteers were taken back to Britain. The Commandos lost two Officers and 15 Other Ranks (OR) killed, five Officers and 48 OR wounded, Norwegians: one Officer killed and two OR wounded, Royal Navy two OR killed and two Officers and four OR wounded and RAF suffered 31 killed (two Hampdens, seven Blenhiems and two Beaufighters were lost).
The Vaagso Raid was a precursor of raids to come. Some successful, some less so and in the case of the Jubilee Raid, a disaster. Important lessons had been identified, such as the importance of having all elements of the joint force represented during the planning. The need for a robust communications net and the ability of troops ashore to speak to the air component. The raid was a valuable morale booster for the British in the grim days of 1941. The Commandos had projected a well-supported force to a hostile shore a long way from home and prevailed. Some have identified the Vaagso Raid as a classic example of successful Combined Operations and a model for future operations.
© Blown Periphery 2018