The British campaign in Norway in 1940 was an ignominious and abject failure. It is perhaps best known as the fiasco which directly led to the fall of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his replacement by Winston Churchill. The book, ‘Anatomy of a Campaign – The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940’ by John Kiszely is out now.
Author, Sir John Kiszely, who served in the British Army for forty years, rising to the rank of lieutenant general, analyzes the reasons for failure and why decision makers, including Churchill, made such poor decisions and exercised such bad judgement. What other factors played a part?
The author draws on his own experience of working at all levels in the military to assess the campaign as a whole, its context and evolution from strategic failures, intelligence blunders and German air superiority to the performance of the troops and the serious errors of judgement by those responsible for the higher direction of the war.
A number of books have been written about the British-led campaign in Norway in spring 1940, but none had carried out such a forensic examination of the reasons for failure. Although it is little known – overshadowed, if not eclipsed, by the German invasion of Belgium and France in May 1940 – the campaign was short, disastrous and full of drama, both military and political.
The Norwegian campaign, though hastily improvised, was meant to play to Britain’s maritime strength. Cutting off the supply of Swedish iron ore shipped through Narvik, which the Ministry of Economic Warfare believed could fatally weaken the German war effort in months — was dubious.
Two of the main reasons for campaign failure were the catastrophic failure of intelligence which allowed the Germans complete strategic surprise, and the dominance of German airpower.
Events in early 1940 developed fast. Aided by the Nazi–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, in November Russia had invaded Finland, Sweden was becoming increasingly accommodating towards Berlin, the Norwegian fjords offered a perfect base for U-boats, while the British and French armies were busy with the Phoney War on the Western Front. To Hitler, Norway looked like low-hanging fruit.
In the book, Kiszely’s forensic examination helps our understanding of institutional and systematic failure mixed unhappily with human error and the frailties of human nature.
But if Kiszely is scathing about the political leadership, he despairs of the military even more. The First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound, was ‘a backward-looking sailor… little aware of the growing influence of air and underwater weapons’. Other military officers, like the Chief of the Air Staff, Cyril Newall and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, ‘Tiny’ Ironside, are more or less being claimed to have emptied the War Office.
At the tactical level, troops were sent to Norway poorly trained, inadequately equipped and without proper support, and in administrative chaos reminiscent of the Crimea. The result helps us to understand not only the outcome of the Norwegian campaign but also why more recent military campaigns have found success so elusive.
Anyone wanting to know about the pitfalls of pol-mil decision-making and campaign-planning, should read Kiszely.
And by the way, the British did help extricate the Norwegian royal family and much of the country’s gold reserves (for which the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square each year is a memorial gift).
About the author:
John Kiszely served in the British Army for forty years, rising to the rank of lieutenant general. His operational service included Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Bosnia and Iraq. He served three tours of duty in the Ministry of Defence, latterly as Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff. On leaving the Army he spent three years as a visiting professor in war studies at King’s College London, and from 2014 to 2017 was a visiting research fellow on the Changing Character of War Programme at Pembroke College, Oxford.
The ‘Forgotten Fiasco’ of Norway, 1940, written by Tor Kjolberg