Back in the late 1960s, when I was about seven or eight, my father had business in Norway and took us along with him. I think it must have been early spring as there was still deep drifts of snow when we were up in the mountains. We visited Stavanger, Oslo and other places, saw the Viking ships and the Kon-Tiki, were exposed to a cuisine more dominated by fish and cheese than we were accustomed to.
I recall with some clarity, being shown around Oslo harbor. I don't know who the Norwegian friend of my father's was, but he was recounting Norway's experience during World War II as a proud, independent nation far outgunned by the invading Germans. He drew our attention to a stone fort on a small island in the harbor and related the following story as best I recollect.
The Germans invaded several places along Norway's long coast, not just here in Oslo, but this was the main invasion point. Their fleet was led by a battleship and dozens of other ships. We didn't have a chance. Our air force was out of commission and there were hardly any Norwegian troops. We did have that old fort in the harbor from the turn of century (circa 1900). The guns were ancient and the fort was more for show than a real military installation. The artillery had been plugged with cement long ago.That's the story I remember from nearly fifty years ago, on a cool but sunny spring day in Oslo Fjord. I was struck by it then and it has remained with me since. The tragedy of Norway, the patriotism, the miracle. It was a variant of the King Bruce and the Spider story - keep trying and no matter how long the odds, you may still succeed.
The night before the German fleet arrived, a small group of Norwegian patriots rowed out to the fort. They unplugged the cannon and searched around and found some old shells. They knew they would likely only be able to get off one shot, that their aim was likely to be poor, and the shells likely to be duds. But they were patriots and even if there was not much they could do, they wanted to do the little they could.
The morning of the invasion, as the German fleet sailed in, the Norwegian patriots sighted the cannon on the German battleship. Fully expecting to die for their efforts, they fired the cannon. Imagine their astonishment! Not only did the shell hit the battleship, not only was the shell not a dud, but the shell hit the German magazine. The explosion was massive, the battleship capsized and sank within a few minutes, taking more than a thousand German occupation troops and much of the leadership to the bottom of the harbor.
I have read much World War II history over the years, lived in Sweden for a number of years and know much of their history. I have seen reference to the sinking of the German flagship at the beginning of the invasion of Norway. For all that, I never got around, till recently, to reading a detailed account of WWII in Scandinavia. I am currently reading Battles for Scandinavia by John R. Elting.
So how does that long ago story stack up with the facts? Here is Elting's account.
Admiral Kummetz, leading the Naval units bound for Oslo, was still eyeing the Oscarsborg Fortress in Oslo Fjord at 4:21 on the morning of April 9 when suddenly a lone searchlight blazed out from the mainland on the opposite shore, bathing the flagship in ghostly white. At point-blank range the huge guns of the fortress opened up; 700-pound shells crashed into the Blücher's port side and then into the Lützow just behind her. Simultaneously came another blast from the mainland battery at Drobak, damaging both ships on their starboard sides. The Blücher's steering gear and aircraft hangar were wrecked by the first shots, and she blundered forward erratically while flames fed by aviation fuel raged aft. They burned away the fog, revealing a torpedo battery built into Oscarsborg Fortress. It had been there for fifty years without showing up on the German charts.My unknown father's friend's story, or my recollection of it, holds up pretty well all these years later. The Norwegian defense involved more men than I was aware and the fort, while old, had more armament than just a few plugged cannon. The Norwegian attack was more than a single lucky shot. The Blücher was a heavy cruiser, not a battleship.
In discounting Oscarsborg as a threat, Admiral Kummetz had not reckoned with the character of Colonel Birger Eriksen, its commander. Eriksen gave his gunners one simple order: Fire. Two of the ancient torpedoes ran straight to their mark and exploded on contact, reducing the brand-new Blücher to a floating inferno.
Captain Kurt Zoepffel, who was conning the Blücher at that moment, recorded: "Suddenly, an earsplitting roar of thunder rends the air. The glare of guns pierces the darkness. I can see three flashes simultaneously. We are under fire from two sides; the guns seem only 500 yards away. Soon bright flames are leaping from the ship." In a moment the Blücher's store of bombs and ammunition began to explode, the engines stopped and the ship heeled over. When at last the order was given to abandon, wounded and dead men were already rolling into the water, and many of the landing troops were trapped below deck. Admiral Kummetz and some 1,300 survivors were rescued by the Norwegians, taken ashore and imprisoned. But more than 1,000 Germans died in the explosions and the flaming oil. For days after the incident, their blackened bodies could be seen floating in the fjord.
Just behind the Blücher, Captain August Thiele of the cruiser Lützow, having no idea that the museum-like fortress and its torpedoes could have been the source of the Blücher's explosive demise, concluded that the flagship had hit a minefield. For the safety of his and the remaining ships, Thiele ordered all engines reversed. Under his command, the Lützow and the remaining consorts retired 12 miles south to an alternate landing site at Sonsbukten, on the eastern shore of the fjord. The bid to take Oslo from the sea was lost.
But other than those details, the substance of the story remains the same. Patriots against long odds. Armaments that are ancient but effective. A forlorn hope attack. Unexpected success. Heavy German losses.
I don't think the differences between my father's friend's account and the historian's account are all that material. And the differences may not be because of my father's friend's recounting. I may not have understood it completely at the time, I may have consolidated the account into a more manageable form for a seven-eight year old's memory, details may have slipped my mind over the decades.
There's no great insight here, just my surprise that a long ago story should hold up so well. It seems to me an endorsement of that Garrison Keillor quote "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." Particularly, when it comes to storytelling. So whoever you were, Norwegian friend of my father's, Thank you.