Over the mountains

This photo presents a puzzle: those are the graves of German Gebirgsjäger (mountain rangers), but the helmets on top of the crosses are the paratrooper model. The photo was taken in 1940 near Narvik, Norway, and that gives us a clue…

The fighting for Narvik proved to be harder than the Germans expected. Getting reinforcements to the area was a challenge, but some Gebirgsjäger units got some parachute training, and where dropped over the area on 23 May 1940. On 28 May, a combined force of two French Foreign Legion battalions and a Norwegian battalion, supported by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, landed near Narvik. The 11. Kompanie, Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment 137, belonging to the 2. Gebirgs-Division and commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Schwaiger, rushed from the area of Bjørnfjell to Forsneset to counter the landing force. Artillery fire from the Royal Navy ships inflicted heavy casualties on the Austrian mountain rangers. Schwaiger was killed together with several of his men, among them Gefreiter (Private) Fritz Wild and Gefreiter Johann Grübler. The Allied force captured Narvik, but due to the German offensive in France, the French and British withdrew ten days later. Narvik and Norway were in German hands on 10 June.

The two soldiers in the graves in the photo (the third one was buried without a name on the cross, perhaps because he couldn’t be identified) were Fritz Wild, born on 7 December 1916 in Kapfenberg, Austria, and Johann Grubler, born on 2 September 1916, presumably in Austria. Neither of them got to see their 24th birthday. Their remains were later moved to the war cemetery in Narvik.

While researching the photo, I had uncovered most of the information, but I googled a bit more and came across this blog post by military historian Lars Gyllenhaal. The photo in that post appears to be from the same roll of film, as save for a few spots and blemishes, it’s identical.

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Pining for the fjords?

On 9 April, 1940, Germany launched a surprise attack on Denmark and Norway. Denmark fell the same day, and was used as a springboard for German air units on their way to Norway. The mountainous Scandinavian country proved to be a tougher nut to crack, as the terrain, few roads, and long coastline combined with determined defenders and a British and French expeditionary force made the German invasion a dicey affair. Still, they pulled it off, not least because the attack on Belgium, the Netherlands, and France a month later made the British and French disengage in Norway in order to deal with the new threat.

The soldiers in the photo wear snowshoes. They don’t appear to be Gebirgsjäger, but seems to be regular infantry. I once met a veteran, Pavel, who had been a soldier on occupation duty in northern Norway. He was Polish by birth (from the Gdansk/Danzig area), but the German occupation authorities had Poles of military age forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht. About half a million Poles ended up serving their occupiers. The veteran served in a battalion of Polish soldiers with German officers, first on occupation duty in France, then Norway. The soldiers weren’t happy with their officers, and one winter night (winter of 1943-44?) when he was patrolling the Norwegian-Swedish border on skis, he was on the top of a slope. Pavel looked at his colleague, then at Sweden, and took a decision. With a push of his ski poles, he went down the slope to Sweden, and crossed the border.

He spotted a Swedish soldier standing guard, and approached him. Pavel was wearing a white snowsuit with the cowl over his helmet, so it was only when he lowered the cowl, revealing his German helmet, that the Swede realized who it was he had before him. He bolted off, returning with an officer. Pavel was taken to a barracks, where he was interrogated. He swapped cigarettes for chocolate, the chocolate bar upsetting his stomach. Then followed internment for the rest of the war, where he worked in forests as a lumberjack. After the war, he knew that the Communist puppet government in Poland took a rather dim view on Poles who had served with the Germans, but his father was missing so he wanted to help his mother and siblings.

Pavel was arrested when he got back, but managed to escape back to Sweden. His father returned, but he tried to go back a few years later. The Polish authorities were looking for him, and feeling the heat, he snuck aboard a steamer bound for Sweden, hiding in the coal bins under a layer of coal, revealing himself only when the ship entered international waters. This time he didn’t chance it, but stayed in Sweden, where he got himself a job and started a family. I think his daughter still lives in the same building as me, and he told me that he had written down his adventures. They haven’t been published, so this is the one place you can read about what happened to a young Pole who was a soldier in the German army.

Norway, May 1945

German soldiers are literally laying down their arms somewhere in Norway on 9 May 1945, as Germany surrendered to the Allies. After five years, the occupation was finally over. By the end of the war, there were 400,000 German troops in Norway, which had a population of barely three million. The threat of an invasion and the potenial loss of important ports like Narvik, Trondheim and Bergen made the Germans keep a large force in Norway, troops which were needed on other fronts.

The surrender was largely uneventful, the majority of those involved relieved that the war was over. The conditions included that the German High Command agreed to arrest and intern all German and Norwegian Nazi party members listed by the Allies, disarm and intern all SS troops, and send all German forces to designated areas. Among those arrested was the Norwegian Nazi leader and collaborator, Vidkun Quisling.

The underground resistance movement known as Milorg, numbering more than 40,000 armed Norwegians, took command, joined later by detachments of regular Norwegian and Allied troops which were sent to Norway, including 13,000 Norwegian troops trained in Sweden and 30,000 British and American troops. Finally, on 7 June, King Haakon VII arrived in Oslo after his exile in London.

Norway, May 1940

German reinforcements arrive by ship to Norway, May 1940. The invasion the previous month had taken the Norwegians by surprise, but the mountainous terrain and the presence of British and French forces made the campaign hard-fought. Operation Weserübung was the German move to secure the port of Narvik in northern Norway, and thus the supplies of much-needed iron ore from the northern Swedish mines. Using Denmark as a springboard, the Germans launched a combined assault by air and sea, the first such operation in history.

The actions leading up to the invasion was like a game of chess, where the players couldn’t see the pieces of their opponent. Since the invasion of Poland, Britain and France had engaged Germany in limited operations. The Germans needed the iron ore from Sweden, which couldn’t be transported while the Baltic Sea was frozen over, as well as securing the passage to the Atlantic Ocean. The British wanted to deny the Germans the ore, and had plans to get neutral Norway to side with Britain and France. There was also a plan to send military help to Finland in the fight against the Soviet Union, using Narvik as the landing port and occupying the Swedish iron mines in the process. Two invading forces were heading towards Norway in early April…

The Allied force was delayed by rough weather, and Germans beat the Allies to it. Norway surrendered after two months of hard fighting, while the Allies evacuated as Germany had launched the attack on France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

I once talked to a man who had been an officer at a regiment outside Gothenburg, Sweden. He was about to train some soldiers on 9 April, when he was summoned to his commanding officer. “The Germans have attacked Denmark and Norway. Take a truck and buy every spade, saw, axe, and iron spit you can lay your hands on.” The Swedish Army was in such a bad state after years of cutbacks, that the gear needed in the field had been passed over in favor of ammunition, as funds were very limited. The Army, just about to demobilize after the raised state of preparedness following the German-Soviet attack on Poland and the Soviet attack on Finland, moved infantry units to the Swedish-Norwegian border. Lacking sufficient numbers of tanks, combat aircraft, and artillery, as well as training, Sweden was in no state to assist Norway.

Show of defiance

This photo looks unremarkable at first glance, and when I first saw it, I almost dismissed it. A small and blurry photo of a rider in a city? It almost ended up in my “sell” pile. Then I took a magnifying glass and looked closer at it. One of the signs in the background says “Frisør“, which indicates a Danish or Norwegian setting. Looking at the horseman, I thought I recognized something. Checking a couple of references, I could confirm that my hunch was correct: the rider was King Christian X of Denmark!

Christian X (1870 – 1947) was King of Denmark from 1912 to 1947. His father and his grandfather were born as princes of a German ducal family, but his ancestry wasn’t to influence his attitude during the war. His brother King Haakon VII of Norway became ruler in exile after the German occupation of Norway. When Denmark and Norway were invaded on 9 April, 1940, Denmark with its small army had no prospect of being able to hold out for any length of time. Faced with the explicit threat of the Luftwaffe bombing Copenhagen, Christian X and the entire Danish government capitulated at about 6 AM, in exchange for retaining political independence in domestic matters, beginning the occupation of Denmark, which lasted until 5 May 1945.

Before the war, the King wasn’t that popular, being described as authoritarian and strongly stressing the importance of royal dignity and power. His reluctance to embrace democracy resulted in the Easter Crisis of 1920. During the German occupation of Denmark he nonetheless become a popular symbol of resistance to the occupation, particularly because of the symbolic value of his daily ride through the streets of Copenhagen, unaccompanied by guards. This was to show that he still considered Denmark its own country. After a fall with his horse on 19 October 1942, he was more or less an invalid for the rest of his reign, and couldn’t take his rides anymore . When he passed away in 1947, Denmark mourned its defiant King.

The snapshot of the rider, taken by some German soldier who was a member of the army occupying Denmark, thus became a little piece of history. This is one of the things that makes collecting these photos so interesting.

North by Northeast

Gebirgsjäger (mountain ranger) posing together with a couple of young Sami women (in traditional clothing), Finnish Lapland, probably the winter of 1941-42. The truck to the left and the trailer carry the Edelweiss flower emblem of the 6. Gebirgs-Division. The other truck has the tactical sign of a mountain ranger motorized signals company vehicle. The firewood on the trailer and in the sack will be welcome in the sub-Arctic cold.

It might appear strange that at least four mountain ranger divisions were sent to the Finnish Lapland front, as the tallest mountain in that part of Finland is Korvatunturi (486 meters/1594 feet over the sea), which to people raised in the Alps is nothing more than a speed bump. The reason was that they were considered experts in winter warfare, but as their Finnish brothers-in-arms were under diplomatic pressure to not launch any major offensive on the port city of Murmansk or the railroad carrying supplies to the south, the front was relatively quiet for long periods of time.

A little-known fact is that Sweden allowed the Germans to use a couple of large warehouses outside the port of Luleå for storing supplies (mostly foodstuff) for the troops in Norway and Finland. They were destroyed in a fire in 2016.

Top of the world

German troops enjoying a photo opportunity in Finnish Lapland, probably in 1941. Apart for fighting the persistent mosquitos and getting a tan in the midnight sun, that’s about all the fun that could be had there.

Much of the war on the extreme north end of the Eastern Front was low intensity, with patrols and raids, but no major offensives. The Finnish government had to balance between their co-belligerent, Germany, and the Western Allies. Any attempts to cut the railroad from Murmansk to the south, thereby stopping the transport of supplies brought in by the Atlantic convoys, were called off. The Germans relied on the Finns in the north, and couldn’t do much about it. Then, in the summer of 1944, the Soviets launched an offensive against Finland, and forced them to accept a ceasefire under the condition that the German troops vacated Finland within two weeks. That it was impossible to do that on such short notice was something all factions knew, but the Finns had to swallow that bitter pill.

This was the cause of the Lapland War, where the erstwhile comrades-in-arms had to fight each other. The Germans fought a fighting withdrawal, using the scorched earth tactic, which in turn forced Finnish civilians to flee, many of them across the Torne River to safety in Sweden. The Lapland War wound down in early November, and a relative, uneasy peace returned to Finnish Lapland.