Operation Doomsday

This is a translation of a Norwegian account of Operation Doomsday that my father took part in. It was the liberation of Norway in May 1945. He flew into Stavanger on VE Day. It bears out a story he told me that seemed a bit far fetched. They had to rearm some of the German troops to help keep order because the Russian PoW’s were out of control and there weren’t enough British troops to deal with the problem.

The article follows.

In Norway the peace could have been a bloodbath, much worse than the war. Both General Eisenhower and the leadership of Milorg (the Norwegian Resistance) had nightmares about what the 360,000 German troops in Norway would choose to do: surrender or fight to the last man in Festung Norwegen (Fortress Norway).

At 2:41, in the middle of the night, 7th May the German chief of staff Alfred Jodl signed a document in the French city of Reims. It promised that the Wehrmacht would lay down all weapons and surrender unconditionally. The following day was named VE Day, Victory in Europe, although fighting continued in several places. Much of the continent was on the way from war to chaos.

Norway was not covered by the peace in Reims. It had suddenly become the biggest threat to an orderly surrender. In Norway there were perhaps as many as 360,000 German soldiers, many of them well equipped and in good fighting shape, although there were reports of low morale in some camps.

In Berlin Nazi party secretary Martin Bormann threatened to fight to the last man in what was called Festung Norwegen, and the fanatical Nazi Reichskommisar of Norway Joseph Terboven had similar ideas at Skaugum (the Norwegian royal residence).

 There were now several million Allied soldiers in Europe. But the fighting wasn’t over and the vast numbers of prisoners of war meant that there was hardly a single spare soldier to be sent to Norway, whether to fight or to take charge of an orderly German surrender.

Many messages, telegrams, orders, counter-orders, intelligence reports and minutes of staff meetings at the highest level in the General Eisenhower’s SHAEF (supreme headquarters) and Churchill’s war cabinet, were flying to and fro. Plans were changing, often several times a day.

The Norwegian government in London couldn’t celebrate yet: would they return to a country in ruins with thousands of dead in a militarily senseless, desperate German farewell?

In Scotland there were 7000 Norwegian soldiers, desperate to take part in the liberation of their homeland. A company of mountain troops had been part of the Red Army in Finnmark (the far north of Norway) since the previous autumn, although their contribution was mostly symbolic. But the only Norwegian unit in a condition to take part in the first wave of Allied forces was a parachute company.

The plan was that a Norwegian American battalion would have the honour of being the first victors in the streets of Oslo, but they didn’t come till several days after VE Day.

This was a risky operation: a few thousand airborne troops against a giant, undefeated army. The British were also nervous that the German navy and the Luftwaffe would use Norway as a base for suicide attacks on British targets. Moreover, there was a large submarine fleet in Norway, mainly in Trondheim.

The commander of the Wehrmacht in Norway was not exactly a peacemaker. General Franz Böhme was notorious as the Butcher of Kragujevac, one of the most savage massacres during the bloody war in the Balkans, with 3,000 victims. Now he sat in his bunker under a Lillehammer hotel, under orders from the Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, Germany’s new head of state. He was receiving telegrams and courier reports that a British delegation was ready to fly from England in a white Catalina flying boat in the hope that Böhme would see reason and order his troops to lay down their arms and act responsibly.

But first the Allies had to prepare a military force that would prevent a bloodbath in Norway. This was Operation Doomsday. It was time for doomsday in Norway.

Almost from the very outbreak of the war, the Allied leaders had been planning for how it would end. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in 1943 agreed that they would not accept anything but  an “unconditional surrender” of Germany.

The first plan for the liberation of Norway was given the codename Apostle. But would Germany collapse, like a house of cards? Would Hitler capitulate simultaneously on all fronts, or would the large Wehrmacht force in Norway be excluded from the surrender and therefore pose a threat to both convoys on the Murmansk and assistance to German attempts to break out of the Baltic?

For a while both Churchill and Eisenhower’s SHAEF were so optimistic that they envisaged a German collapse as early as the end of 1944.

But they underestimated German resistance. And Eisenhower worried also about whether the Wehrmacht would transfer many of its divisions from Norway to France. Finally just six divisions moved from Norway to reinforce the Atlantic Wall, partly thanks to sabotage by the Milorg against railways and transport.

Photographs from the liberation celebrations, which lasted from 8 May to 7th June, often show the Norwegian resistance heroes, Gunnar Sønsteby, Max Manus and Jens Christian Hauge. The truth is that both Milorg, the Norwegian government and the Norwegian military leadership in London, led by Crown Prince Olav, played a small role in the first stage of liberation.

The Scottish General Andrew Thorne, head of the British Army’s Scottish Command, was effectively dictator of Norway for a few weeks, with both military and civilian power. The Wehrmacht surrendered to him, not local forces.

But as late as May 1st General Thorne was a commander without an army, although on paper he had Task Force 134, with both Norwegian, British, American and Polish soldiers.

Finally, it was agreed to use airborne forces from the 1st Airborne Division. These soldiers were to move in, via Stavanger and Oslo, as soon as General Böhme had signed the declaration that the German soldiers would stand down and await orders from the Allies.

On 8th May an airborne Armada was already crossing the North Sea, carrying the troops taking part in Operation Doomsday. These few thousand soldiers faced a challenge that would make the toughest fighters feel nervous to the pit of their stomachs They were entirely dependent on the Germans army keeping its discipline.

Who was the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, the visible liberator of Norway, who arrived in on 9th Mayl? He was already a famous war hero and he was driven into Oslo in a hijacked German car with only four police officers and two Airborne teams (Norwegian word is “lag” – I don’t know the English language military equivalent) following.

Major General Robert Elliot Urquhart was a 43 year old Scotsman with a long and hard war behind them. He was known by his men as a leader who could not be intimidated by hardship. One of his pilots stated that he was “a hell of a general, who didn’t think he was above doing a sergeant’s job if he had to.”

He would need all his toughness and energy during his real baptism of fire. He led the 1st Airborne Division during one of the biggest Allied failures of the war, Operation Market Garden. This was the Battle of Arnhem, “A Bridge Too Far” in the Netherlands, where the division’s combat strength was virtually wiped out. He led his men for nine days, cut off and outnumbered by the II SS Panzer Corps, in such a daring and efficient way, he was called the hero of Arnhem. Only one quarter of the 1st Airborne Division made it back to the UK.

Now they were 6,000 men up against 360,000. On 9 May they began disarming the huge numbers of conquerors who had suddenly turned into prisoners of war. Practical problems means many Germans were allowed to retain their weapons, to keep order, both in their own ranks and in the large, abused and starving hordes of Soviet, Polish and Serbian prisoners of war.

The airborne troops also immediately started their second big task: to find war criminals among the German masses. It was looking for a needle in a haystack. Many Gestapo officers showed incredible ingenuity in hiding among ordinary soldiers.

But there was help from both Norwegian and German informers so Akershus Fortress and other prisons were soon filled with torturers and executioners. Joseph Terboven escaped arrest. He blew himself up with dynamite at Skaugum.

As if that was not enough for Urquhart’s few men, they also had to be ready to fight if any German units resisted. It turned out that the only place they met resistance, was among the German Marines in Trondheim.

However, they were hit by adversity right from the start after leaving Britain in two waves. The bad weather caused one plane to turn back, and several crash landed. One was lost with everyone killed, including the Task forces RAF commander. Altogether, the division lost 37 men during the crossing. (NB three aircraft crashed on May 10th –  a total of 48 men were killed).

After the war Urquhart admitted that he envisaged a battle against superior forces when he landed. In total the Allied force didn’t amount to more than 30,000 men. There were also 40,000 Milorg People and 13,000 Norwegian police militia crossed the frontier from Sweden. But the main man, who was greeted by the people of Oslo in these first few days was Roy Urquhart, and it was he who accompanied Crown Prince Olav when he came home on 13th May.

In these exciting few weeks, which could have claimed the lives of thousands, General Thorne was dictator in Norway. But it was Urquharts paratroopers who, along with General Böhme, ensured that the feared horror scenario never came true on Norwegian soil.1st Airborne Division left Norway in August and was dissolved in November 1945.