The Campaign in Norway


By NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, Prime Minister of Great Britain

Delivered in House of Commons, May 4, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 472-474

THE members realize the difficulty of making any statement without disclosing information which would be of value to the enemy. They have refrained from asking those questions to which they and the country are naturally anxious to have an answer.

I am afraid I must ask the members to exercise their patience a little longer before I can give them the full story, for it is impossible to make public as yet plans and movements which are not complete.

I can therefore only make an interim statement today, but I hope the First Lord of the Admiralty and I may be able to say a good deal more early next week when, no doubt, the House will desire to debate the whole subject in the light of information before them.

The House will, of course, remember that some three months ago we made preparations for the dispatch of an Allied force to the assistance of Finland. The possibility of reaching Finland was dependent upon the collaboration of the governments of Norway and Sweden, and realizing that even their acquiescence in the passage of Allied troops might involve them in invasion by Germany, we prepared other forces to go to their assistance in that contingency.

It did not escape our attention that in such case Trondheim and other western ports of Norway, as well as the airdromes at Stavanger, might be the subject of attack by Germany, and accordingly further forces were made ready to occupy these places.

I should make it clear that instructions to commanders of these forces provided that they were only to proceed with occupation on one or two conditions: either that they were invited to do so by the Norwegian Government, or that Norwegian neutrality had already been violated.

The House is aware that permission to send troops to Finland through Norway and Sweden was refused and that, after a certain period, the greatest part of the forces which had been accumulated were dispersed, since both they and the ships allocated for their transport were wanted elsewhere.

About a month ago, however, it was decided that certain small forces should be kept in readiness to occupy Norwegian western ports at short notice in case of an act of aggression by Germany against South Norway. It will be noted again that any action contemplated by us on Norwegian soil was conditional upon prior violation of Norwegian neutrality by Germany.

It has been asked how it was that in spite of these preparations Germany was able to forestall us.

The answer is simple. It was by long-planned and carefully elaborated treachery against an unsuspecting and almost unarmed people. We had been aware for many months that the Germans were accumulating transports and troops at Baltic ports and that these troops were constantly being practised in embarkation and disembarkation.

It was evident that some act of aggression was in contemplation, but these forces were all for attack on Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland or this country, and it was impossible to tell beforehand where it would fall.

If we had known that Denmark and Norway were to be the victims we could not have prevented what happened without the cooperation of those countries.

But in the belief that their neutrality would save them, they took no precautions and they gave us no warning of an attack, which, indeed, they never suspected.

It will be remembered that in the early days of April His Majesty's Government decided they could no longer tolerate continued use of Norwegian territorial waters as a long communication trench by which Germany could obtain constant supplies of iron ore and other contraband and they decided to lay mine fields, which were laid at three points within Norwegian territorial waters which could force this traffic out on the high seas where it could be intercepted.

It is a curious chance that this date, April 8, decided upon by His Majesty's Government for this minor operation, should have coincided almost exactly with that chosen by the German Government for their long-prepared invasion of Norway.

The Norwegian campaign opened Sunday, April 7, when we got information that a large German naval force was moving toward and along the west coast of Norway. That evening the main battle fleet and the second cruiser squadron sailed from Scapa Flow and Rosyth in the hope of engaging the enemy.

On Monday, April 8, the first cruiser squadron sailed to join the operations.

On the morning of April 8 German land forces entered Denmark and, aided by internal treachery prepared long beforehand, naval forces seized and landed troops at Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim.

On the same day H. M. S. Renown, which was accompanying destroyers watching over a mine-field near Narvik, engaged the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst off the northern coast of Norway opposite Narvik in extremely bad weather conditions and low visibility, inflicting considerable damage, although full reports of this were not available until the 11th.

In the meantime, our destroyers had discovered a number of enemy vessels which had entered Narvik Fjord under cover of a snowstorm and on the next day they fought an action in which their gallant commander, Captain Warburton Lee, lost his life, and other losses were sustained, but in which heavy damage was inflicted on German destroyers and merchant vessels in the fjord.

In view of the obscurity of the situation in Central Norway and the importance of securing Narvik, our first military forces which we had promptly assembled sailed direct to the Narvik area, arriving there April 15. In the meantime a very successful naval attack on the 13th of April completely destroyed the enemy's naval forces at that port and made it unnecessary to utilize for the capture of Narvik all the forces originally earmarked for that operation.

In deciding upon our further action, the objectives which we had in view were: Firstly, to give all the support and assistance in our power to the Norwegians; secondly, to resist or delay the German advance from the south, and, thirdly, to facilitate the rescue and protection of the Norwegian King and Government.

It is obvious that these objectives could most speedily be obtained if it were possible to capture Trondheim, and in spite of the hazardous nature of the operation, with the Germans in possession of the place and in occupation of the only really efficient airdrome in Southwest Norway, at Stavanger, we resolved to make the effort.

Since any landing would probably be opposed, it was essential that the first contingents should go as light as possible to secure bases to which heavier equipment could subsequently be transported, and two landing places were selected respectively north and south of Trondheim.

At Namsos in the north naval forces landed on the 14th of April and were followed by British troops on the 16th to 18th. A few days later French Chasseurs Alpines landed, and the arrival of these stanch, experienced troops was welcome support to our men. Part of this force advanced rapidly to the neighborhood of Steinkjer to support the Norwegians, who were known to be holding that place.

South of Trondheim a naval party landed at Andalsnes on April 17, followed by troops on April 18 and 19. These advanced to the important junction of Dombaas and a contingent went on to the south and joined Norwegians who were opposing at Lillehammer the main German advance from the south.

I cannot today give any details of the fighting which has taken place on both fronts since the landing took place. All that can be said at present is that our troops fought with gallantry and determination and inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy. Nevertheless, the Allied forces in these regions were faced, as we had realized they would be faced, with serious difficulties, and foremost among these was the fact that available aerodromes were already in enemy hands.

The most effective defense against air attack—the use of fighter aircraft—was thus largely denied us, and any members who have suffered the experience of being bombed from the air by low-dying airplanes will know how greatly the supply and movement of troops was hampered.

In the circumstances it became evident to us some days ago that it would be impossible, owing to German local air superiority, to land artillery and tanks which would be necessary in order to enable our troops to withstand the enemy drive from the southward.

It must be remembered that, in spite of magnificent work by British submarines and the French flotilla in the Skagerrak, and unceasing efforts by the Royal Air Force, particularly in bombing airdromes at Aalborg in Denmark, the starting point, and Oslo, the landing place of German troop carriers, it has always been possible for the Germans, with their usual disregard for life, even of their own people, to send reinforcements to Norway at a much greater rate than would be open to us with the inadequate landing places we have to rely on.

Accordingly, we decided last week that we must abandon any idea of taking Trondheim from the south and that we must therefore withdraw our troops from that area and transfer them elsewhere.

The operation of withdrawal in the face of the enemy is one which has always been recognized as among the most delicate and difficult of military operations, and the action of Sir John Moore at Coruna, though accompanied by heavy loss of life, including the commander, has taken its place among the classic examples of British military skill.

In the present instance we have been more fortunate, thanks to the powerful forces the navy was able to bring to bear and the determination and skillful dispositions of General Paget, in command of the British land forces in the area. Backed by the splendid courage and tenacity of the troops, we have now withdrawn the whole of our forces from Andalsnes under the very noses of German airplanes without, as far as I am aware, losing a single man in this operation.

I should like to express by profound admiration for the manner in which all ranks have performed their tasks inthe area south of Trondheim. I cannot yet give the House the particulars of casualties our forces sustained in the various operations, but I hope and I have some reason to believe that they have not been heavy in proportion to the scale of the operations.

I expect that we shall be able to get more detailed reports before long, and I trust that this most distressing but inevitable period of uncertainty may not be prolonged.

Although in the face of overwhelming difficulties in the situation it has not been possible to effect the capture of the town, I am satisfied that the balance of the advantage up to the present lies with the Allied forces.

It may be useful if I examine this point somewhat in greater detail.

I have no doubt that the Germans expected to walk over Norway as in Denmark. That expectation has been frustrated by the courage of the Norwegian people and by the efforts of the Allies.

After three weeks of war in which heavy losses have been sustained on sea, land and in the air by the enemy, Norway is not yet conquered, while considerable supplies of ore which she formerly obtained from Narvik have been indefinitely suspended.

During the period just over three weeks, German naval losses amount to a serious figure.

They include two capital ships damaged certainly, possibly three; four cruisers sunk, eleven destroyers sunk and five U-boats sunk. Thirty transports and store ships have been sunk, or scuttled, or set afire, with the loss of several thousands of lives. In addition, the transport or store ships have been struck by our torpedoes and probably sunk.

Losses sustained by the Royal Navy in the same period are four destroyers, three submarines, one sloop and five trawlers sunk. Five other warships have been damaged by air attack. One storeship has been sunk by a U-boat torpedo.

It will be seen from those figures that whereas the strength and efficiency of the Royal Navy has been little if at all affected, injury to the German Navy has been so substantial as to alter the entire balance of naval power and to permit important distribution of the main Allied fleets.

In this connection, I might mention that it has been thought possible to revert to a more normal distribution of ships in the Mediterranean which has for some time been affected by our requirements in the North Sea.

Joint Fleet on Way A British and French battle fleet with cruisers and anciliary craft is already in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean on its way to Alexandria.

Returning to the Norway campaign, German losses in men, whether from sinking war vessels, from the destruction of transports or in the course of fighting in Norway itself on land and in the air, cannot be estimated with any accuracy, but they must have amounted to many thousands.

At this moment I would say that any who are drawing hasty conclusions from the fact that for the present we have not succeeded in taking Trondheim, it is far too soon to strike a Norwegian balance sheet yet, for the campaign has merely concluded a single phase in which it is safe to say that if we have not achieved our objective, neither have the Germans achieved theirs, while their losses have been far greater than ours.

But I would take this opportunity of addressing a warning to both this House and this country.

We have no intention of allowing Norway to become merely a sideshow, but neither are we going to be trapped into such dispersal of our forces as would leave us dangerously weak at a vital center.

We know our enemy holds the central position. They have immense forces already mounted and ready for attack, and an attack can be launched with lightning rapidity in any one of many fields. We know that they are prepared and would not scruple to invade Holland, Belgium or both.

Or it may be that their savage hordes will be hurled against their innocent neighbors in the southeast of Europe. They might well do more than one of these things in preparation for an attempt at large-scale attack on the Western Front or even a lightning swoop on this country.

It would be foolish to reveal to the enemy our conception of strategy best calculated to secure their defeat. But this can be said—for it is obvious—that we must not so disperse or tie up our forces as to weaken our freedom of action in vital emergencies which may at any moment arise.

We must seize every chance, as we have done and shall continue to do in Norway, to inflict damage upon the enemy, but we must not allow ourselves to forget the long-term strategy which will win the war.

Let me repeat that what I have said is only an interim statement. Certain operations are in progress and we must do nothing to weaken those engaged in them. I would therefore ask the House to defer comment and question until we can have a debate next week, when I anticipate that that particular difficulty will not arise.