165: Operation Weserübung


The Germans would quickly put together a plan to invade Norway after realizing that the British might get there first.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 165 - The Invasion of Norway Pt 3 - Operation Weserübung. This week a big thank you goes out to Charlie for the donation and to Michelle, Charline, William, John, Anton, and Paul for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out more about supporting the show over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. In September 1939 there were no real plans for how the German military would invade Norway, they simply did not exist because there were no intentions to launch such an operation. German leaders just believed that it was better for Norway to remain neutral, the protection provided for German civilian shipping by Norwegian territorial waters was actually quite handy, and made life easier for the Kriegsmarine because they did not have to worry about protecting any of that shipping from the actions of the Royal Navy. This mindset would change during the last months of 1939 and early 1940 as concerns of British and French efforts in Norway rose. As late as January 1940 the German Chief of Staff Halder would write that “It is in our interest that Norway remains neutral. We must be prepared to change our view on this, however, should England threaten Norway’s neutrality. The Führer has instructed Jodl to have a report made on the issue.” The Altmark incident in mid-February just amplified these concerns, and caused much greater urgency among the small group of German planners that were task with developing the plans for the invasion. The resulting plan would be complicated, and a great early example of a truly combined arms operation between land, sea, and air forces. This made the plan more complicated, but was mandated by the geography of Norway, which almost mandated several amphibious operations if the Germans wanted to quickly assert control over the nation.

The push to do something to prevent a British and French violation of Norwegian neutrality came from the Kriegsmarine. This was primarily driven by two different reasons, which were opposite sides of the same coin. First of all they did not want Royal Navy ships to be based out of Norwegian ports, which would enhance Britain’s ability to control access in and out of the North Sea. On the flip side of that concern, would be the ability of the Kriegsmarine to use the ports themselves, forcing the Royal Navy to patrol watch a larger amount of coastline when compared with the relatively small area of Germany that came into contact with the North Sea. While these positive and negatives were well known throughout the naval leadership, there was not consensus on whether or not breaking Norwegian neutrality was a good idea, and there were still many that believed that a neutral Norway was still the preferred option. Either way, the head of the German Navy, Raeder, was very concerned about protecting the import of the Swedish iron ore out of concern that if less iron was available the Navy would be the first armed service to see cuts in its allocation. Due partially to this concern the Operations Division of the Naval Staff would put together a report in October 1939 about what the best course of action would be for the Kriegsmarine. The report largely aligned with prewar ideas, Germany should not do anything to break Norways neutrality, but that such actions should be taken if the alternative was British occupation. When Raeder presented this information to Hitler he took a bit of a different approach through the report, playing up concerns of British action as a way of trying to promote German action.

After the initial report by the Kriegsmarine was presented to Hitler he then asked OKW to put some time into planning for possible action against Norway, this planning effort would be known as Studie Nord and it would present the first real detailed planning effort for a German invasion of Norway. OKW was an interesting place for this planning to happen because it was not the General Staff of the Army, but instead the OKW, which many Army leaders viewed as Hitler’s personal military staff. Although an argument could be made that due to the extreme focus any planning would have on combined armed operations, OKW and its central role was the correct place for any such planning to begin. It would take a little over two months for a joint planning staff to be created in early February 1940. This staff was made up of one officer from each of the three services along with officers from OKW with the effort primarily led by Captain Theodor Krancke, who was at the time the commanding officer of the German Deutschland class cruiser Admiral Scheer. The planning group would meet for the first time on February 5th. It was around this time that the operation would get its final name, and instead of Studie Nord which was felt to be a bit too obvious, it would be called Weserübung which in German means Weser Exercise, with the Weser being a river in Germany. The basic outline of the plan was was created by Krancke and his group would be the same as the final plan, at least in basic structure and outline also some of the details would change. The plan involved the movement of troops to seven different Norwegian ports all at the same time: Oslo, Kristiansand, Arendal, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim, and Narvik. If all of these areas could be captured by infantry troops landed by naval transport groups then the Germans would quickly be in possession of most of Norway’s population centers, industrial capabilities, and port facilities for the Norwegian Navy. While the landings were occurring airborne troops would also begin dropping, with one wave occurring at the same time as the naval movements, while a second wave would land over the following days. After the initial wave of German ground troops were ashore more would arrive on the 5th day, along with resupply operations which would continue running while the ground forces advanced inland and north to force Norwegian leaders to the negotiation table. The German expectation is that these negotiations would start quite quickly due to the inability of the Norwegian armed forces to mount an effective resistance to the German actions. A quick diplomatic agreement was preferred because it was likely that the Swedish iron ore traffic would be disrupted by the invasion, and if fighting continued for a lengthy period of time iron ore traffic would be stopped for the duration, and even longer as it would take time to re-establish the flow of goods. One of the keys to the entire operation, and this would remain consistent throughout the entire planning period, was the fact that it was essential that secrecy maintained as long as possible. Because of the nature of the geographic situation the German naval forces, particularly the transports, would be vulnerable to intervention by the Royal Navy.

While the plan created for Weserubung now had a basic outline, that was far from a fully detailed military operation plan was ready to be put into action. However, the efforts to fully flesh out the plan and make it ready for implementation were greatly expedited after the Altmark incident. The key reason that it would be expedited was the belief among German leaders, and Hitler, that the British would no longer respect Norwegian neutrality, which was not a bad read of the situation as was discussed last episode. This meant that after February 19th the planning for Weserubung would go into overdrive, and for that to happen a commander for the operation needed to be determined. The man who would be given the task would be General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst. Falkenhorst was not a bad selection, as he was considered a mountain warfare expert, which made him familiar with operations over difficult terrain, which is exactly what would be found by his troops in Norway. Falkenhorst had also taken part in German operations in Finland during the Finnish war for independence in 1918, during which the Germans had supported the Finnish Whites against the Finnish Reds during the fighting that occurred at the time. It was about as close as any German general to the actual fighting conditions in Norway. Hitler would personally interview Falkenhorst before he was given the job, but whatever was said was to Hitler’s liking because he would confirm his appointment the day after the conversation occurred, on February 22nd. Falkenhorst would put together a staff and detailed planning would begin on February 26th. One important wrinkle to Falkenhorst’s appointment was that he did not have direct command of any naval or air forces. He was an army general and he had command of the troops that would go ashore, and he was the highest ranking officer for the operation, but he could only really ask that the Naval and Air Force officers that he was working alongside do what he needed them to do. This would not be a major problem during the Norwegian operation, but it does point to some very clear conflict between the German armed services, conflict that would only grow worse later in the war. When Falkenhorst and his team got to work they immediately ran into some problems. The first problem was simple, Norway had been so far from the concerns of the German military that they had very few decent maps of the country. They had to fall back to things like travel guides and tourist brochures to fill in some of the details, never a great source. When it came to the Norwegian military, there was similarly scant information available. This did not prevent the planning, just introduced a greater margin of error in many areas. While this was a military campaign, the directive given the Falkenhorst was that it should be carried out like a peaceful occupation as much as possible, because the German official position was that it was being done to support, not destroy, Norwegian neutrality. The forces involved were also to completely respect Swedish neutrality. A nation that would not be so lucky was that of Denmark, which Falkenhorst believed must also be invaded and captured if there was any hope of the attack into Norway being successful. To invade and capture Denmark Falkenhorst believed that two divisions were needed, which would be enough to capture the Jutland peninsula and Copenhagen. This was just one of the areas where Falkenhorst increased the forces required for the operation, because the other forces were also increased due to Falkenhorst’s concerns about how isolated many of the units would be after the landings. Falkenhorst was also concerned about Norwegian forces, because even if they were not very numerous or strong, they had the advantage of knowing the terrain and the weather. The final set of forces dedicated to the operation were over 7 divisions of troops, split between Denmark and Norway, including a whole host of special units of various kinds. However, even this number would increase in early March, mostly just to provide for more forces to achieve the goals of the operation faster. Goring and the Luftwaffe would also have to be brought into the planning, and eventually the X Air Corps was provided for the operation. Falkenhorst’s plans were presented to Hitler on February 29th and they were approved.

After the plans were drawn up and refined during February, during March they slowly moved closer to implementation not just due to the further work done on the plans themselves, but also due to the growing fear in Germany that Britain was about to do something. This was driven both by the loud public support that the Allies had continued to give Finland during the Wintere War, along with the information gathered by German intelligence. This intelligence mostly involved some information about the British efforts to convince the Norwegians to allow troops to transit their territory on their way to Finland. The entry for March 10th of the Kriegsmarine’s War diary would say ‘… the totality of the reports point in a compelling manner towards the possibility of immediate action by the Allies in Norway.’ There really was some evidence of the developing British and French plans, but there was also some amount of just pre-existing thought confirmation happening during the month of March. Raeder was completely convinced that the British were planning to occupy areas of Norway, and that belief pre-existed any real evidence that it was about to take place. We of course know that Raeder was completely correct, although there would be moments where such an invasion looked less certain that others. The plan that the Germans would have to contend with was the R4 plan that would be put in place by the British and French militaries if a German invasion of Norway began. For the Germans the good news was that the R4 plan had some serious flaws, that in many ways would work perfectly with the strengths of the German plan. The major challenge for R4 is that it was totally reactive, and did not have any provisions for how to change the course of the campaign once the Germans had invaded. It sought to put troops in certain areas and hoped that those troops would be enough to deal with whatever the Germans were planning, instead of really finding a way to disrupt German plans. Also, in comparison to the number of troops that the Germans were committing to the operation, there simply were not enough British and French troops that were going to be committed. They were simply underestimating the troops that would be required to answer the possible German operation, and they would pay for that mistake.

With the evolution of the plan out of the way, it is time to spend some more time digging into the exact details, and those details start with what was called Weserübung Süd which translates into Weser Exercise South, which was really the invasion of Denmark. The primary reason why the Germans needed to capture Denmark was due to airfields, specifically the airfields at Aalborg on the northern end of the Jutland peninsula. These were considered essential to provide the proper level of air support over southern Norway, and so the German army would invade, taking both the airports and the capital of Copenhagen. There were two main areas of attack, the first would be a series of airborne operations to drop paratroopers and then land infantry at the airfields that were the final destination of the attack. These troops would then be relieved by the ground forces that would enter Denmark for the south, with the bulk of the force made up of the 170th and 198th infantry divisions, but the primarily role in the attack played by the 11th Motorized brigade and a collection of Panzer I and II tanks grouped under the 40th Panzer detachment. Some of the motorized and armored troops would push ahead along the west coast of Denmark as quickly as they could. There would also be some tanks that would support the infantry advance further inland, this included 3 Neubaufahrzeug B tanks, this being the only operation that they took part in during the war. The Neubaufahrzeug tanks were heavy tanks, over four times as heavy as the Panzer Is and armed with a 75mm gun and a 37 mm gun, which was a collection of firepower that dwarfed other German armored vehicles at this time. The reason that you may have never heard of this tank is because there would only be, precisely 5 of them ever actually built, and only 3 would see service in Norway where their performance would less than amazing. To meet this attack the Danish government had just two divisions, one to defend Jutland and one for Zealand. They had only started any kind of serious rearmament in 1937, and it would prove to be much too late for the small nation when faced with the resources of its much larger southern neighbor.

Along with the forces that would be marching into Denmark, 8,850 men would be placed on board ships on their way to their destinations in Norway. Their destinations were the cities of Narvik, Trondheim, Bergin, Kristianland and the wireless stations at Egersund and Arendal. The vast majority of the first wave of troops attacking these objectives were carried aboard warships, generally destroyers and torpedo boats. Follow up and reinforcement troops would be landed via merchant ships and troop transports, but the speed of the warships was essential to ensuring that the first wave arrived at their destinations on time. The German Navy would bring the troops to each destination with 6 separate Task Forces on their way to the 6 different destinations. The first to sail would be the task forces with the further to travel, with Task Forces 1 and 2 leaving together just after midnight on April 6th on their way to Narvik and Trondheim. Task Force 1 would be on its way to Narvik, with 2,000 men of the 139th Mountain Regiment spread around on 10 destroyers. Task Force 2 would move on Trondheim with the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper and four destroyers carrying 1,700 troops of the 138th Mountain Regiment. Task Forces 1 and 2 would also be escorted by the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst on the way to their destination, and then the two German battleships would continue cruising north in an attempt to act as a distraction. Task Force 3 would not leave until a day after Task Forces 1 and 2, and it would be made up of two light cruisers and two torpedo boats, five motor torpedo boats, an artillery training ship, and a support ship, their task was to land the 1,900 men of the 159th Infantry Regiment at bergen. Task Force 4 would be have as its destination Kristiansand and Arendel with a landing force of 1,100 transported by the light cruiser Karlsruhe, three torpedo boats, seven motor torpedo boats, and an artillery training ship. Task Force 5 would be on its way to the Norwegian capital of Oslo with the strongest naval contingent consisting of the heavy cruisers Blucher and Lutzow, the light cruiser Emden, three torpedo boats, 8 minesweepers, and two auxiliary ships. They would land 2,000 men of the 138th Mountain Regiment. Finally, Task Force 6 was the smallest, consisting of just 150 soldiers that would be transported on four minesweepers on their way to the the wireless station at Egersund where the Norwegian terminus of the underwater cable to Britain was also found. Along with these naval Task Forces, Air Corps X would be used to assist in the attacks on several of the landing sites, particularly Oslo, Kristiansand, and Stavanger. 500 transport would bring parachute infantry, and the would later just land additional infantry on captured airfields with the goal of causing confusion and protecting the landing sites of the seaborne landings. These 6 task forces were the first wave, but they would be only the first, and to support further transport there were several transport groups organized. Most of the follow-on transport was provided by merchant ships which presented an interesting challenge due to their slow speed. It would simply take them more time to arrive as some of the more distant destinations like Narvik and so they had to leave Germany before the military Task Forces departed. Seven merchant ships would make their way to Narvik, Trondheim, and Stavanger, although they would claim to be merchant ships on their way to Murmansk if anybody wanted to know. These seven ships carried primarily heavy weapons, supplies, and equipment that the landing forces could then utilize after they arrived. The major follow on transport was done by three Sea Transport Echelons, the 1st Sea Transport Echelon, which was made up of 15 merchant ships, would bring over 3,700 troops and large amount of supplies to Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger, and Bergen. The 2nd Sea Transport Echelon and its 11 merchant ships would transport almost 8,500 men of the 196th Infantry division to Oslo with the goal of reaching Oslo two days after the landings were complete. The 3rd Sea Transport Echelon would bring its 12 merchant ships and over 6,000 troops into Oslo six days after the first troops arrived. Altogether the naval contingent of the operation represented almost the entire operation strength of the Kriegsmarine, and a serious commitment of merchant vessels.

Given its overall complexity, the fact that Weserübung would go off without a major problem is pretty impressive. It was a very complicated plan that involved coordination between forces on land, sea, and in the air but the detail and thoroughness of the planning was top notch. It would then be carried off with bold execution and sense of purpose. With a few bits of good luck thrown in for good measure, something that most large successful plans have to have to be truly successful. There were some problems with the plan though, and the inability of Germany’s enemies to capitalize on these weaknesses was the story of the early war years. The three main problems in no particular order were that it did not plan for the future occupation, there was a lack of unified command of the operation, and it depended completely on surprise to be successful. All three of these could have caused problems, but they were only problems if the enemy made them problems. The occupation was only at risk if the Norwegians, British, and French could stage a successful defensive campaign. The unity of command could only be pressured if the enemy forced the German leaders around Norway to start making hasty and stressful decisions. And the dependence on surprise was only a problem if intelligence efforts on the other side managed to succeed in determining that an attack was about to happen early enough to react. There would be instances in which some of these things happened, and the brittleness of the German plan would be exposed, particularly at Narvik where resistance would be greater than expected and then there would be a strong response. But in general none of these possible problems would be pressed by the enemy, and so they did not become problems.

The plans for the operation were approved on the afternoon of April 1, all of the senior officers involved with the operation were present in the meeting with Hitler where the approval was obtained. Falkenhorst would write of this meeting that “He cross-examined every man, who had to explain very precisely the nature of his task. He even discussed with the ship commanders whether they would land their men on the right or on the left side of a given objective. He left nothing to chance; it was his idea, it was his plan, it was his war.” The plan was for the landings to take place in the early morning of April 9th which was during a week of favorable conditions, with April 15th being seen as the last viable day due to the shortness of the northern lights which were a major part of enabling some of the night time operations. On April 2nd, after the final approval for the operation had bene received the official war diary of the German Naval Staff would read: “With the order from the Führer …, Weserübung has been initiated, commencing one of the boldest operations in the history of modern warfare. Its implementation has become necessary in order to defend vital German interests and supply of raw materials, which the enemy is attempting to sever … The outcome of the venture will to a large degree depend on the quality and the readiness of the naval forces as well as the determination of the individual officers in command. The landing operation will predominantly take place in an area where England rather than Germany has naval supremacy. Surprising the enemy … is important for success, and will depend on the extent to which, in the coming days, secrecy can be maintained.” Weserübung was on its way to happening, but before any German troops landed on Norwegian soil there would be a naval confrontation in the North Sea, which will be covered next episode.