Military Monday Episode 1 – April and May 1940
While the coronavirus shutdown measures are in place, our Museums Officer for Military History will be sharing stories from the collection in Military Monday.
By Lynsey Slater, Museums Officer for Military History
In the first few months of the Second World War, an often forgotten campaign was fought in Norway. Swedish iron ore was transported to Germany through the coastal waters of Norway, making gaining control of waters around the country very attractive to German forces. British leaders realised that Norway was vulnerable but the response was disorganised and delayed.
On 7 April 1940, the 1/4th battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were among the British soldiers sent to Norway. Just two days later, German forces invaded the country, while the KOYLI were still en route. The 1/4th battalion were not trained or equipped to be an active fighting unit. When they arrived in Norway, they were immediately pushed back by German forces, and had to retreat through the snowy mountains of Norway. The battalion marched through snow and ice for 37 hours.
During the retreat, the battalion was desperately trying to cross a large gorge. Colonel Hugh Hibbert had visited Norway as a child, and had spent time fishing there with his father. He remembered a small bridge in the area and with help from an interpreter, some locals, and a lot of luck, Colonel Hibbert led his men to the bridge. It still existed, the men escaped to safety, and returned to the UK.
The 1st battalion KOYLI arrived in Norway in late April, and fought its first action in the village of Kvam. Although there were some Allied victories in the weeks that followed, the German forces were better organised and equipped. By the end of May the Allied forces had no alternative but to retreat.
The Norway campaign was engineered by British First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. He was responsible for many of the mistakes during the campaign. Ironically, the failures in the Norwegian campaign resulted in a vote of no confidence in the British Parliament and the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He was succeeded by none other than Winston Churchill…
Failure at Trondheim! Stalemate at Narvik! Such in the first week of May 1940 were the only results we could show to the British nation, to our allies and to the neutral world.. considering the prominent part I played in these events and impossibility of explaining the difficulties with which we had overcome.. It was a miracle that I survived and maintained my position in public esteem and Parliamentary confidence.Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 1948