After the forces of Hitler’s Nazi Germany overran most of Europe in the summer of 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that the military create a force that could carry out raids against Nazi-occupied Europe. “Enterprises must be prepared, with specially-trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the “butcher and bolt” policy…” Thus the Commandos were born.
The Commandos were an all-volunteer outfit that would eventually encompass all services of the British military as well as foreign volunteers from the occupied countries. Their training was hard and nearly always was conducted with live ammunition. Eventually, they would consist of 30 individual units and four assault brigades.
Although they would serve with distinction in every theater it was in Norway where the Commandos would first earn their fame by conducting various raids on German installations and try to get the Germans to divert more troops to defending Norway that may have been used on the Eastern Front.
The raid on the Norwegian islands of Vaagso and Maaloy, codenamed Operation Archery, was conducted to destroy the German fish-oil production facilities there as well as the glycerine production which was used in the manufacture of explosives.
This operation also broke new ground for combined operations. It was the first time air support was integrated into the raiding plans from the outset. So this was a true Special Operations Forces combined organization using air, land, and sea forces.
In overall charge of the operation was Brigadier Charles Haydon, while the raid on the ground was led by John Durnford-Slater and conducted by his troops of No. 3 Commando, two troops of No.2 Commando, a medical detachment of No.4 Commando, a demolition party from 101 Troop (canoe) of No. 6 Commando and a dozen Norwegians from Norwegian Independent Company 1. His raiding force would number 570 officers and men.
The Royal Navy provided offshore gunfire, by the light cruiser HMS Kenya, and the destroyers HMS Onslow, Oribi, Offa, and Chiddingfold. The submarine HMS Tuna was in support as the force navigational check. HMS Prince Charles and Prince Leopold were used to ferry troops into and out of the area. The Royal Air Force (RAF) provided bombers and fighter-bombers for close air support.
Durnford-Slater trained his troops hard. Every morning, they would rehearse 25-30 landings until 30 men could sprint from their landing craft with all of their weapons and equipment, 25 meters to cover and do it within 10 seconds. His second-in-command or 2IC in Brit parlance was Major J.M.T.F. Churchill, MC. Known to his close friends as Jack, Churchill was both a character and a fantastic, fearless leader. He would go into combat with his Scottish Claymore broadsword and play his own bagpipes.
Preparations for the Raid:
At the end of October 1941, Lord Louis Mountbatten took over the British Combined Operations and he alerted Durnford-Slater that they had the most daring plan yet in Norway. Their target was the small port of South Vaagso, about 350 miles north of Norway’s southern coast and about halfway between Bergen and Trondheim. And similarly to earlier raids, the port produced substantial quantities of fish oil that was vital for the German war machine.
Intelligence specialists in London had in a painstakingly detailed effort in building an exact model of the town. Durnford-Slater carried it back to Scotland with him in a suitcase. His officers made briefings to the troops off of this model although only the senior officers knew of the exact location.
They carried out successful rehearsals at the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow. They set sail in heavy seas on Christmas Eve. The men from 12 Commando would make a diversionary raid on the Lofotens (site of an earlier Commando raid) to distract the Germans. 12 Commando during the diversion stayed ashore for two days destroying German installations without suffering a single casualty and returned with 29 prisoners and about 200 new recruits for the forces of Free Norway.
The raiding force arrived perfectly on time and exactly where they were supposed to be. The troops were on the landing craft at precisely 0700, having been fed at 0500 and checked their weapons and equipment for the final time before the raid.
The Germans, unaware of what was close to their shore, were yawning thru lectures on military courtesy, no differently than soldiers of every army do. That was about to change quickly.
One alert German soldier in South Vaagso spotted the British ships sailing into the fjord and called it in. His superiors told him that it was probably German ships. When he persisted, he was told he probably celebrated Christmas a bit too much. He should have been rewarded. The German at the other end of the phone, however, decided to alert the German naval commander and took a rowboat to alert him, neglecting to alert the Army units in town.
The Battle Begins:
It was then, that the German troops first became aware of the Commandos presence was when the HMS Kenya’s dozen 6-inch guns began shelling the nearby German coastal batteries at Maaloy. With the destroyers, Offa and Onslow’s 4-inch guns joining in, the Germans were ducking into defensive positions having 400-450 shells rain down on them in less than 10 minutes. The Commandos, in US-made Higgins assault boats, were racing toward shore.
RAF medium twin-engine Hampden bombers flew over the landing sites and dropped smoke bombs to cover the assault troops. At Maaloy Island, Jack Churchill played his bagpipes as they approached shore and led his 105 men, 5 and 6 Troops, against the German defenders. Their objective was the big herring oil factory, the shore batteries, an antiaircraft position, and any other German troops.
R. Clement’s Group 1 had the mission to clear the village of Hollevik, then reform and become the onshore reserve. Durnford-Slater would lead Group 2’s, 200 men of 1, 2, 3, and 4 Troops, into Vaagso, while CPT. D. Birney’s 30 men of Group 5 would deploy into blocking positions on the road south into Vaagso from Rodberg. Group 4, CPT. R.H. Hooper’s 65 troops, would remain as a floating reserve on HMS Kenya.
Tragedy and Disaster:
One of the Hampden bombers was flying toward the shore when it was hit by German flak guns onboard the armed trawler Foehn. The bomber was hit and reeling when one of its phosphorous bombs inadvertently hit one of the landing craft. Nearly half of the troop were either killed or badly burned by the unfortunate accident. After offloading whatever ammunition and equipment that they could salvage, the surviving Commandos pushed the craft out into the water to sink.
But the rest of Durnford-Slater’s men surged ashore and immediately set about clearing the town which was long and narrow. The fighting was vicious and house-to-house. The Germans were reinforced by 50 men of a Gebirgsjäger (Alpine, mountain) troops on leave from the Russian front. They barricaded themselves in one large building to use as a strongpoint. The Commandos had to clear each room with hand grenades. CPT Johnny Giles was shot down at the door of the strongpoint but his men took it and his younger brother, Lt. Bruce Giles assumed command.
The Germans had also barricaded themselves in the Ulvesund hotel and they flung back the first two attempts to take it. CPT Algy Forester was killed and then so was Norwegian CPT Martin Linge was also killed trying to assault the front door.
As the Brits were readying for a third assault under the command now of a CPL ‘Knocker’ White, another Captain appeared with a 3-inch mortar, which was unauthorized by had been appropriated. They expertly dropped the first shells straight down the chimney of the hotel, setting fire to it and causing a large number of German casualties. The third assault carried the hotel. White would earn a Distinguished Service Medal for his actions later.
There was chaos in the narrow streets. The Germans used to the no-quarter-given in Russia refused to move out of the buildings they were defending and had to be burned out using hand grenades. Norwegian civilians were streaming down the street heading for the landing craft, anxious to get away from their occupiers.
The British committed their floating reserves and then Durnford-Slater was also reinforced by Churchill’s men who had quickly overrun the guns on Maaloy Island and captured several prisoners, including two “comfort” women who the Germans held there for their troops. Churchill, broadsword in hand, led his men ashore.
As they cleared the town house-by-house, the Commandos encountered several snipers. So they’d just burn them out one-by-one. Durnford-Slater observed two such Commandos who set about their task with a vengeance. He wrote that the men “appeared to be enjoying themselves.” One sniper wounded CPT O’Flaherty thru the eye. He would eventually return to duty with a black eye patch and finish the war as a Brigadier.
After the British battered the armed trawler Foehn, the ship ran aground and the crew deserted it. An armed British party found the captain’s codebooks when it was discovered he’d been killed by shellfire. The codebooks contained a wealth of signs, countersigns, and code words, and the radio call-signs of every German vessel in northern Europe. It was a huge intelligence boon for the raiding party.
By noon the town had been secured, the troops, however, continued in town until 1400 when Durnford-Slater ordered his men back to the boats. By 1500 all of the Commandos had been safely transported back to the ships.
The result of the raid was a tremendous success for the Commandos. They sank 10 vessels, 18,000 tons of shipping, and the Commandos had burned or blown up four oil factories and a number of warehouses, fuel tanks, vehicles, the Seternes lighthouse, the telephone exchanges, the steamship wharf, and the German barracks inside of town.
The Maaloy coastal artillery batteries were destroyed along with a tank, while much of the garrison had been killed, wounded, or captured. About 130 Germans were killed, without counting the crews of the eight ships destroyed. Another 98 were captured. The two “comfort” women were guarded by two sailors on board ship. But later reports read that on checking later, one British officer found the hallway empty and “the rifles leaning on the wall outside the doors.” Of the Norwegian population, one was killed and five wounded; 70 more returned to England with the Commandos to volunteer for the forces of Free Norway.
British casualties among the Commandos were 20 dead (which included three Norwegians) and 53 wounded. The RAF lost eight aircraft along with their crews.
The Germans assumed the British would make a major push to retake Norway and thus threaten the German hold on Finland and Sweden. They moved their battleships into Norwegian waters and put additional troops there while beefing up their coastal defenses. By the time of D-Day, there were 400,000 German troops in Norway that weren’t fighting in either Normandy or Russia.
Photos: Imperial War Museum