This article provides a very brief overview of British Combined Operations in Norway’s Lofoten Islands, by 3,4 and 12 Commando in March (Operation CLAYMORE) and December (Operation ANKLET) 1941.
Just inside the entrance of the Joker supermarket in the small Lofoten fishing port of Ballstad, three tables have been placed in a corner. Decorated with artificial tea lights and plastic tablecloths, the tables are positioned next to a large window which overlooks one of the many quays that service the fishing industry in this part of Arctic Norway.
On a noticeboard next to the help-yourself coffee machine, an array of posters advertises snorkelling trips, the Nordic Pink Floyd show and an Elton John Tribute act. This compact supermarket, the only shop in the small community, sells EVERYTHING.
Bunches of flowers are stacked next to the post office counter, and a vast array of fishing tackle and practical outdoor clothing lurks next to the lottery tickets and fruit and vegetables. The aroma of freshly-baked delicacies drifts around the aisles, competing with the all-pervasive smell of fish which rushes in each time the doors slide open, announcing the arrival of another new customer.
I sit sipping my latte, observing the comings and goings of the local residents. A large yellow and white trawler slides along the quay just 20 yards away, eventually docking. Within seconds, it begins to disgorge teenage crewmen who look barely old enough to drive, let alone crew a fishing trawler. An older gentleman helps himself to a coffee from the machine in the corner and sits, engrossed in the activity on board the boat. He is soon joined by several friends, for what looks like a daily ritual of coffee and reminiscing. The teenage fishermen stumble through the doorway, tousle-headed, red-cheeked and sleepy, sporting padded jackets and tartan pyjamas. They quickly return to their boat with carrier bags bursting with warm pastries and fizzy drinks.
For a moment, I feel like I’m living in an episode of ‘Deadliest Catch.’
I’d come to the Lofoten Islands in the depths of winter, ostensibly to fulfil a life-long ambition and see the Aurora Borealis (the islands are one of the best locations in the northern hemisphere for aurora hunting). As is usually the case with my travels, my adventure had quickly turned into a deep dive into Norway’s Second Word War history, and in particular the experiences of the Islanders under German occupation.
Invasion, Occupation and Resistance
The Norwegians had been taken almost completely by surprise by the German invasion in April 1940. As far as they had been concerned, since the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the inevitable declaration of war by the Allies which followed, the conflict was ‘someone else’s war’, a struggle between Europe’s Great Powers which had nothing to do with neutral Norway. In April 1940, after months of prevarication and indecision by the principal combatants, the Germans launched Operation Weserubung – the invasion of Denmark and Norway.
Hitler knew that control of Norway would afford his fleet easy access to the Atlantic; the establishment of naval, U-boat and Luftwaffe bases on Norway’s lengthy coastline would threaten British supply routes and protect the crucial mineral imports from Sweden, while forestalling any planned Allied troop landings. Meanwhile the British and their Allies had dithered, making complex plans to land troops at various points on the Norwegian coast, before opting instead for minelaying in Norwegian waters, and then changing their minds again, by which time it was too late.
When intelligence was received that German naval ships were heading towards Norway, confusion, indecision and disbelief reigned once more. At first, the British believed that this was a ‘break out’ attempt by the German fleet to head to Atlantic waters; the troopships laden with men for the proposed Norwegian landings were stood down and all efforts were diverted into trying the block the movement of the Kriegsmarine armada.
The Norwegian government had completely failed to recognise the scale of the threat from Germany in the preceding months, and instead had focused on the Allied threat to Norwegian neutrality, in the fear that this would drag the country into the conflict. There had been plenty of intelligence available to both the Norwegians and the British regarding German intentions; it was either disbelieved or deliberately ignored.
Norwegian historian Geirr Haarr believes that the willingness of the British decision makers to engage in complicated and far-reaching operations with so limited preparations and ‘so little knowledge of things Norwegian’ is startling, as was their lack of realistic analysis of German intentions. This combination of bluff, bluster, bellicosity, hubris, over-confidence and naivety was to have far reaching implications later in the campaign too, especially for the citizens of the Lofoten Islands.
Scandinavia, and Norway in particular, had long held a fascination for those who embraced Nazism. In Nazi ideology, Norwegians were believed to be racially superior (even to the Germans themselves) and their Viking origins were both admired and the subject of envious fascination. German right-wing writers such as Hans Friedrich Karl Gunther had published numerous works in the 1920s, popularising the concept of racial hierarchy with the Norwegians at the pinnacle. Gunther (who had married a Norwegian lady and lived there for a time) argued that they had maintained the genetic superiority and nobility of the Nordic race because of their geographical isolation from the continent and through their rural culture.
It was believed that the Germans and Norwegians were blood-brothers, the coheirs of the Viking race; among all the conquered peoples that Hitler’s legions would trample underfoot, the Norwegians were to be treated differently – embraced, favoured and ‘persuaded’ along the path of National Socialism, their Nordic genes contributing to the further purification of the Aryan race. Except, nobody had consulted the Norwegians themselves.
A united and glorious future was imagined in the land of fjords and folktales. Academic Despina Stratigakos describes a ‘Nazi Utopia’, envisioned amid the ancient pine forests and ice-frosted mountains. Yet for the inhabitants, and for the tens of thousands prisoners of war and slave labourers forced to transform Nazi plans for Norway into reality, this ‘dark and dangerous fantasy’ would have the most appalling and tragic consequences.
The Lofoten Islands
For over a thousand years, fishing has been the raison d’etre of the small communities strung along the western fringe of the Vestfjord, particularly during cod season, which lasts from January to April as the fish migrate northwards, seeking ever colder waters. Since the completion of the King’s Road (the E10) in the late 20th century which links the islands together through a series of spectacular road bridges, much loved by producers of automotive tv commercials, tourism has become the main income generator.
Real estate on the Lofotens is amongst the most expensive and sought after in Norway. The islands are now the summer playground of Norway’s super-rich, who rub shoulders with backpackers and ordinary visitors to take “instagrammable” photographs of achingly beautiful fishing hamlets like Hamnoy and neighbouring Sakrisoy, which cling to the rocks beneath towering walls of granite, battered by the sea.
Viewed from the balcony of the duplex apartment which was my temporary home in the islands, the jagged, shark-toothed coastline of the islands stretches westwards out into the sunset; to the east lies the busy little fishing port of Ballstad, its quays and inlets stretching out into the Vestfjord, finger-like. Leisure craft of all sizes are safely secured along the jetties, the sea wall affording some protection against the winter storms which seem to be an almost daily occurrence in this remote corner of Norway. Cruisers, yachts and motor launches jostle for position, pennants stiffening in the wind, while brightly-coloured fishing boats and trawlers trudge in and out of the harbour.
On the almost perpendicular hillside directly opposite my apartment are the remnants of a German Wehrmacht Observation post. A brief but very steep climb takes me to a small hollow, where the painted timbers of the wooden hut (which must have provided the occupants scant protection against the arctic weather) lie broken and discarded. The post was occupied from early 1942 right up until the surrender of the German forces in Norway in May 1945. It is likely that this post, along with many other observation posts, gun emplacements, wireless stations and bunkers were erected when reinforcements (of both the concrete and human varieties) were poured into the islands as a direct result of early ‘combined operations’, the British commando raids on the Lofotens in 1941.
Around 6 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday 4th March 1941, 500 British troops assisted by 52 demolition experts from the Royal Engineers carried out a series of audacious hit-and-run raids against four target ports in the Lofoten Islands. They were accompanied by 52 members of the Norwegian armed forces, led by charismatic liaison officer Captain Martin Linge, a film actor-turned-army officer who was adored by his men.
The busy fishing villages of Stamsund and Henningsvaer were attacked by 3 Commando, led by the ebullient Major John Durnford-Slater and Captain Ronald, whilst objectives in the island capital Svolvaer and the tiny fishing harbour at Brettesnes were seized by 4 Commando, under the command of Major Lister, who was accompanied by Peter Young and Lord Lovat, acting as an observer.
Oil storage tanks and industrial targets were destroyed and enemy shipping sunk, with virtually no opposition encountered. Jubilant locals had gleefully welcomed the raiders, offering them gifts of woollen jumpers and knitted socks.
The Lofoten raids, as they came to be known, were part training exercise, part grand gesture, part publicity stunt and part desperately-needed small victory. A camera crew accompanied the raiding party, and John Nixon, a young Reuters news agency journalist ‘embedded’ on one of the troop ships, the Queen Emma, filed a breathless report just hours after the successful completion of the raids:
HOW THE ROYAL NAVY SINGED HITLER’S MOUSTACHE
Here is the first and only eyewitness account of the daring and conspicuously successful raid by British Naval and Military forces on German Objectives on the Norwegian Coast on Tuesday. I am writing it as we steam away from the scene of the operations but as use of our wireless would reveal our position it cannot be transmitted yet.
Great pillars of smoke and flame rising against and dwarfing snow covered mountains which drop sheer into the sea along this part of the fjords leading to Narvik, testament to the destructiveness of the raid. One dense black column reaches a height of 6000 feet billowing out far above the clouds. Another envelopes the mountains for miles in a thick fog-like pall.
The operation took the Germans completely by surprise. For many hours our ships were on Hitler’s back doorstep but no attempt was made to interfere with them. It may be considered as a further sign that on land as well as on sea and in the air Britain has now passed from the defensive to the offensive in Europe.
At least, that was the impression the British government had hoped to give – both to their Allies, and to the Germans. The film of the event includes a pre-planned publicity stunt where an officer sends a telegram from the local post office in Stamsund to Hitler, enquiring as to the whereabouts of his troops.
There was no doubt as to the success of the raid, from the British point of view. In the 6 hours that the British were ashore, 800,000 gallons of oil and petrol were burnt, 11 ships sunk, a trawler seized and sailed back to Britain, and 18 factories destroyed. In the port of Svolvaer, a Norwegian passenger ferry, the Mira, had been sunk in error, with the loss of a number of civilian lives; a hastily-concocted account by the commander of the ship who had fired upon her makes reference to the Mira’s captain being held at gunpoint by the Germans. 214 German prisoners were taken (the majority merchant seamen working on the factory ships), and 60 Quislings arrested.
Of more significance was the seizure of code documents and parts of a German Enigma coding machine from the trawler Krebs. The trawler’s crew had put up some resistance, resulting in the killing of 6 of them, including the captain. Indeed, some historians have argued that the very purpose of the entire operation was a ‘pinch’ to try to seize an Enigma machine, although this theory remains somewhat contentious.
The British suffered no casualties, apart from one chap who somehow managed to shoot himself in the leg through his trouser pocket. Accounts of the return journey suggest an almost celebratory, holiday atmosphere on board.
“Heading away from Norway after a successful operation with the ship throbbing its heart out at 24 knots is a great feeling, especially with a couple of gins and a good lunch inside you.”
Peter Young, part of the Svolvaer raiding party, was more philosophical.
“This raid, coming as it did after a long period of frustration, was a great encouragement for the future. It was indeed unsatisfactory that there had been no fighting, but most of the soldiers were content that our objects had been achieved…a raid with no fighting was better than no raid at all.”
The Balance Sheet
The cost of the raids to the Norwegians was significant. Operation CLAYMORE had utterly devastated the four fishing communities, with businesses and livelihoods burnt to the ground. There was also a human toll – 314 Norwegian volunteers for the Armed forces and merchant navy. These were mostly young men in their late teens and twenties, but some were some older, like 42 year old journalist Jarle Holst Try from Stamsund.
Eight young women from Svolvaer who wished to volunteer for nursing duties also returned to Britain with the raiders. Families were deprived of their breadwinning sons and daughters, and trawler captains of their crews. Whole communities were decimated in the space of a few hours. One can barely imagine having to make such a momentous decision in a matter of moments – to leave, or to stay – and the hasty and heartfelt farewells which must have followed. Many of those who chose the former option would never see their parents, their sweethearts, nor their homeland again.
For those left behind, the heartbreak was compounded the following day, with the arrival of German troops and the Gestapo. Vicious reprisals were carried out against the families of those boys who had fled to Britain, with homes being burnt down and elderly parents beaten and thrown into jail. Sixty- four islanders were arrested and were the first occupants of the infamous Grini prison camp, just outside Oslo.
Operations Anklet and Archery
On a bitterly cold February morning, I travel westwards, towards the settlements of Reine and Moskenes. The sky is clear and dazzlingly blue, but an arctic wind penetrates my bones and almost knocks me off my feet as I alight from the car to take a quick snap of the most photographed village in the Lofotens, if not in the whole of Norway. Hamnoy is certainly spectacular, but there are equally stunning spots off the beaten track.
A quick diversion at a brown signpost which signifies a war memorial takes me to Skjelfjord, where part of the British fleet made a temporary base and carried out urgent repairs during the naval battle for Narvik in April 1940.
On one of the benches on the little wooden jetty where the stone memorial is situated, there’s a plaque from the HMS Eskimo association. Eskimo was almost blown out of the water by a torpedo fired from the George Thiele on April 1940; her bow was blown clean off and 13 of her crew were killed. Miraculously the ship did not sink and was towed to Skjelford. In the relative safety of the fjord, guarded by towering mountains of ice on either side, she was patched up before being sailed back to the Tyne for repairs and a refit. Just 5 months later, Eskimo was back in action, returning to the Lofotens in March 1941 as support for Operation CLAYMORE. After her very narrow escape at Narvik, Eskimo enjoyed an illustrious career and survived the war.
Eskimo wasn’t the only returnee to the Lofotens. In late 1941 plans were hatched for a series of nuisance raids by Commandos at Vaagsoy and Maloy on the mainland, with a simultaneous raid on Reine and Moskenes, in the far west of the Lofoten Islands.
Moskenes is a tiny fishing settlement, but its larger neighbour Reine is a busy little port town, where the Hurtigruten post boat still stops daily, as it has done for 130 years, It’s a spectacular setting, especially in winter. A curtain of fairy-tale mountains dwarf the town, and are reflected in the battleship grey waters which surround it. The nearby Kirkefjord provided a large natural harbour (now cut off and bridged by the E10 road) and it was this which had caught the attention of British military planners. Various plans were discussed to seize the area, including the complete evacuation of the islanders (patronisingly referred to in intelligence reports as ‘simple fisher folk’) to Scotland, in order that the British could establish a naval base there, on the very fringe of occupied Norway.
The operation which was eventually approved, ANKLET, was as breathtakingly naïve as it was ill-conceived, a venture which would subsequently make MARKET GARDEN look well thought out. On Boxing Day 1941, a force of several hundred men from 12 Commando, again accompanied by Norwegians (including this time some of the CLAYMORE volunteers such as Jarle Holst-Try) landed at various locations on the western most tip of the Lofotens, and quickly seized and destroyed communications targets.
The raiders were afforded a more cautious welcome by the islanders this time, mindful of the fearful reprisals that had followed CLAYMORE earlier in the year. The local mayor was given assurances that this time the British were here to stay, and that the local people need not worry. In less than 48 hours, those promises had been broken and the British troops were on their way back to Scapa Flow, once again leaving chaos and recriminations in their wake. Civilians were given the option of returning to Britain with the Commandos, and many chose to do so, fearing a repeat of the reprisals carried out after CLAYMORE.
The conduct of the British – leaving their Norwegian allies in the lurch, yet again – still rankles among some Norwegians, even today. ‘Lack of air cover’, after a single attack on HMS Arethusa by a German aircraft, was the feeble excuse given for the hasty withdrawal. That the British thought they could establish a naval base in occupied territory without air cover shows unfathomable naivety and hubris. The Norwegian troops who had accompanied the raiders had no hesitation in expressing their disquiet at the perceived staggering incompetence of the British. Yet, even this second foray into the Arctic Circle was dressed up as a success for propaganda purposes. The official report into the fiasco involved a huge amount of back-covering. Admiral Tovey concluded that
‘The reports of enemy movements he received and the fact that the anchorage did not give him the protection he had hoped for, fully justified the decision of Rear-Admiral Commanding Force •J• to withdraw. The object of the operation was not of an importance commensurate with the heavy losses which might well have been suffered had the force been exposed, without fighter support, to heavy air attack.’
Meanwhile 20 British and Norwegian soldiers lost their lives in the simultaneous Commando raids on Maloy and Vaagsoy (codenamed Operation ARCHERY), including the influential Captain Linge, shot while leading a needless attack on an enemy position at the hotel at Maloy. Such was the esteem in which he was held, his unit of commando-trained troops, the Norwegian Independent Company, took his name.
In January 1941, when plans for the Lofoten raids were first put to the Prime Minister, Churchill had sought assurances from the Chiefs of Staff Committee, writing to General Ismay on 24 January:
“I should like to feel sure that the chiefs of staff have carefully considered whether this operation is likely to stir up the Norwegian coast and lead to reinforcements of the German forces in the peninsula. It seems to me but as the attack is on islands and obviously connected with blockade measures this danger is obviated. There would be no need to go on to the mainland as I understand the operation. Pray advise me.”
An urgent note was prepared to the Prime Minister and sent on the 27th of January. The Chiefs of Staff did not consider that the operation was likely to stir up the Norwegian coast or that it would lead to reinforcements of German forces in the peninsula. They sought to reassure the Prime Minister that there was no intention to land anywhere on the mainland.
Hitler’s response to the Lofoten raids (particularly after ANKLET and ARCHERY) was exactly what Churchill had hoped to avoid; fearing a British invasion of the continent through Norway (and worried that the raids may cause disruption to the supplies of mineral froms Sweden), German troops were poured into Norway. Coastal defences including bunkers, artillery emplacements and observation points (like the one in Ballstad) were hastily built. Many of them are still there, if you know where to look. Ultimately the ‘tying up’ of a vast body of German men and equipment in Norway would prove of benefit to the Allied land campaign; even when hostilities were concluded in May 1945, there were still well over 300,000 German troops in Norway.
Better in Norway than in Normandy?
As I sit at my table in the corner of the Joker supermarket, watching the comings and goings of the trawler boys, I pause a moment to reflect on the fate of the hundreds of young Lofoten islanders just like them who boarded the landing craft with the British commandos on that bitter March morning in 1941. Many joined the exiled Norwegian merchant navy, only to be lost during the Battle of the Atlantic and on the Arctic Convoys. Others would serve their country and its Allies with distinction in 10 Commando and Kompani Linge, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, like Stamsund boy Leif Larsen of 5 Troop, 10 Commando, who fell at Walcheren in November 1944.
In the excellent Norwegian Resistance Museum in Olso, at the Akershus Fortress which looms over the harbour, there is a sign which reads (in translation):
‘In the skies above London, in the African desert, in the ruins of Stalingrad, and on the Normandy beaches, Norway was given back to us’.
In the busy harbour of Stamsund, on the jetties of Henningsvaer, on the bustling quays at Svolvaer, and in the small fishing village of Brettesnes, a generation of excited, ruddy-cheeked young men with hastily packed suitcases and haversacks, had stood ready to play their part.
You can watch the official film footage of Operation Claymore from the IWM site here
This article barely scratches the surface of complex and largely overlooked events. You’ll be able to read more about the Lofoten Raids, the naval forces and the Commandos who took part, the subsequent lives of the Norwegian volunteers like Jarle Holst-Try and Leif Larsen, of their families under occupation, and the exploits of Kompani Linge, in my forthcoming book. Provisionally titled Singeing Hitler’s Moustache – The Lofoten Commando Raids, the estimated publication date is summer 2025.
You can find links to my other books here: Above Us The Stars : 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story The Horsekeeper’s Daughter
Accommodation in Ballstad – Lofoten Seaside, Ballstad – Updated 2023 Prices (booking.com)
Svolvaer War Museum Lofoten War Memorial Museum – Museum Nord
Norwegian Resistance Museum – Norway’s Resistance Museum | Museums & Galleries | Oslo | Norway (visitnorway.com)
Joker Ballstad (should you wish to replicate the experience!) – Joker Ballstad | Joker
John Durnford-Slater, Commando, (William Kimber & Co, London), 1953.
Peter Young, Storm From the Sea, (William Kimber & Co, London),1958.
Geirr Haarr, The German Invasion of Norway, April 1940
John Kiszely, Anatomy of a Campaign – the British Fiasco in Norway 1940 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge) 2017.
Ole Kristian Grimnes (translated by Frank Stewart), Norway in the Second World War – Politics, Society, and Conflict, (Bloomsbury Academic, London), 2022.
Kompani Linge ( 2 volumes, in the original Norwegian only), 1948.
Olav Riste & Berit Nokleby, Norway 1940-1945 – The Resistance Movement, (Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, Oslo), 1970.
Francois Kersaudy, Norway 1940, (William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, London), 1990.
Patrick Salmon (Ed), Britain and Norway in the Second World War, (HMSO, London), 1995.
Despina Stratigakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia, (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2020.
 Ole Kristian Grimnes, (translated by Frank Stewart), Norway in the Second World War – Politics, Society, and Conflict, (Bloomsbury Academic, London), 2022, p.22.
 Geirr H Haarr, The German Invasion of Norway, April 1940, Kindle edition p.58, location 1063.
 Stratigakos, Despina, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2020, p.14.
 Stratigakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia, p.9.
 John Nixon, Reuters Official Press Release, 4.3.1941.
 Figures for prisoners, Quislings and volunteers do vary, according to which report one reads.
 See for example David O’Keefe, One Day in August: Ian Fleming, Enigma, and the Deadly Raid on Dieppe (Icon Books), 2020, and the chapter by Edward Thomas, ‘Norway’s role in British Wartime Intelligence’, in Patrick Salmon (Ed), Britain and Norway in the Second World War, (HMSO, London), 1995.
 Peter Young, Storm from the Sea, (William Kimber & Co, London), 1958, p.29.
 John Durnford-Slater, Commando, (William Kimber, London), 1953, p.41.
 Young, Storm from the Sea, p.31.
 G Mikes, The Epic of Lofoten, (Hutchinson, London), 1941.
 See Harry Westrheim, Torden i Mars – Lofotraidet (in Norwegian only), 1991,
 TAN WO 107 98, Operation ANKLET Plan.
 TAN DEFE 2 73 Operation Anklet Full Report, note by Admiral Tovey, 8.1.1942.
 ARCHERY is a huge topic for discussion, and will be dealt with at length in a future article.
 Kompani Linge
 TAN CAB 121 /447, note WS Churchill to General Ismay, 24.1.1941.
 TAN CAB 121/447, note COSC to the Prime Minister, 27.1.1941.