With the outbreak of war in western Europe in September 1939, the Scandinavian Kingdom of Norway decided to adopt a neutral stance. Nevertheless, the country’s monarch, King Haakon VII, had strong links to the British Royal Family: his late wife (and first cousin) Queen Maud was the youngest daughter of Britain’s King Edward VII; while Haakon and Maud’s son Crown Prince Olav had been born and spent much of his childhood at Appleton House on King Edward’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk.
Despite Norway’s neutrality, both the Allies and the Germans were quick to grasp the strategic importance of King Haakon’s northern kingdom. The port of Narvik, in particular, possessed both useful rail transport links to Sweden and all-year-round access to the sea. Whoever controlled this harbour would be well-placed to control the flow of high-grade iron ore (so necessary to Germany, specifically, for the success of the war effort) from northern Sweden to the western coast of Norway. Furthermore, whichever power controlled the ports of Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger would effectively control access to the North Sea and have a distinct advantage where the vital supply lanes of the Atlantic were concerned.
Germany had long feared that the British would seize the initiative and launch a pre-emptive invasion of Norway. Contemporaneous diplomatic ‘traffic’ as well as the recent boarding by the British, in Norwegian waters, of a German ship, the Altmark (to rescue 299 Allied prisoners-of war), only served to galvanize this view. Thus, on 1 April, Hitler made the decision to invade Norway and, by 3 April an advance group of German supply vessels was heading northwards. This was followed, on 7 April, by a main force which included the heavy cruisers Lützow and Blücher. The latter would reach the Oslofjord on the evening of 8 April.
Britain, meanwhile, was indeed eyeing this Nordic country with interest. Neville Chamberlain’s government had decided to mine several areas of the West coast in advance of landing troops at Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen and Stavanger. However, due to the combination of a disagreement with the French and bad weather, this operation was postponed from 5 April until 8 April. Only Vestfjord, the channel of water that leads to Narvik, was actually mined. By this time, word had already reached the British Admiralty of a concerted movement of German military shipping traffic travelling northwards. Almost immediately, several dozen battleships and a group of destroyers belonging to the British Home Fleet set sail from Scapa Flow and Rosyth towards western Scandanavia.
In Oslo, Crown Prince Olav informed his father, King Haakon, on 8 April, that a transport ship sunk off Lillesand that morning had been transporting German soldiers. In the interim, the German envoy to Norway, Curt Bräuer, now received instructions from Berlin to persuade the Norwegian government of Johann Nygaardsvold to allow German troops into the country, under the pretext of defending Norway from a British invasion. The German request was subsequently rejected on the basis that Norway was a sovereign nation responsible for its own defence.
Nonetheless, during the night of 8-9 April, German troops invaded Norway by air, land and sea, targeting Moss, Oslo, Horten, Arendal, Kristiansand, Egersund, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik. At around 4am at Oscarsborg Fortress, near the coastal town of Drøbak (some twenty-eight miles from Oslo), Colonel Birger Eriksen spotted the German heavy cruiser Blücher entering Drøbak Sound. Despite having received no official instructions from Oslo to engage, Eriksen gave the order to fire, and the fortress’s guns and torpedo battery succeeded in sinking the cruiser.
The King was informed of the impending invasion around 1.30am by his Prime Minister over the telephone. Nygaardsvold advised Haakon and his family to flee Oslo or risk capture. Norway’s Foreign Minister Halvdan Koht, who had first heard of the German military operations around the same time as the King, held a meeting with Curt Braüer at the Foreign Ministry (Victoria Terrasse) but firmly rejected a German ultimatum to surrender and cooperate with the occupation forces. This was hardly surprising since Koht was a firm believer in maintaining Norway’s neutrality.
As soon as Crown Prince Olav received news of the invasion at his official abode at Skaugum, twelve miles south-west of Oslo, he quickly roused his wife and children. After partaking of a makeshift breakfast, Olav drove his family in his American Buick straight to King Haakon’s residence at the Royal Palace. The Crown Prince later recalled, “I had decided to run down anyone who tried to stop or hinder the car”. Nor did he trust anyone else to drive.
Meanwhile, at 7am (just as Luftwaffe planes were landing at Oslo’s main Fornabu Airport), the Royal Family boarded a special train (swiftly organised by the President of the Storting, Carl Hambro) at Østbanen Station and headed eighty miles northwards to Hamar. On board, they were joined by around 100 government officials and members of the Storting (Parliament). However, the royal train had only made it as far as Lillestrøm, just northeast of Oslo, when Luftwaffe aircraft began bombing the local airport at Kjeller. The train was evacuated and everyone on board temporarily sought refuge in a railway tunnel. The official party eventually arrived at Hamar just after 11am. The Prime Minister, who had travelled north by car, was waiting at the station to greet them.
Thereafter, the elected officials convened at the nearby Festival Hall to discuss what course to take, while the King and his son travelled to a farm at Sælid. Later that day, Nygaardsvold sought an audience with his Sovereign and offered his resignation ‘in order to make way for a government of national unity’. However, during a subsequent meeting of the Council of State, the Prime Minister was persuaded to remain in post as it was felt that to do otherwise might precipitate an unwanted political crisis. Back in Oslo, Curt Braüer held a meeting with the capital’s police chief, Kristian Welhaven, who now agreed to act as an intermediary between the occupying forces, the government and the local authorities. Welhaven would also subsequently help to arrange a meeting-at Bräuer’s request-between the German envoy and King Haakon.
At 7.30pm, the Nazi sympathiser and leader of the right-wing Nasjonal Samling, Vidkun Quisling, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the departure from Oslo of the legitimate government, entered the studio of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and proclaimed himself Prime Minister. He also called upon the Norwegian people to cease all resistance against the occupying forces and accused the British of violating Norwegian neutrality. It was around this time that Bräuer received instructions from Hitler to meet with King Haakon and convince him to recognise the Quisling government.
Meanwhile, enemy forces (including a crack force of German commandos under the command of a Captain Eberhard Spiller) were already closing in on Hamar with the aim of capturing the King and Storting members. When the alarm was raised, the politicians (who were still ‘in session’ at the Festival Hall and had just been updated on the fall of four of Norway’s largest cities) immediately boarded a train to travel eastwards to Elverum. The Royal Family, meantime, were just sitting down to dinner at Sælid, when word was received from the local police chief of the impending arrival of German troops. The little group immediately set out by car towards Elverum, arriving at 10.30pm. It was at this juncture that a decision was made to send Crown Princess Martha and the three royal children over the border to Sweden. This made sense as Martha was Swedish and her parents, Prince Carl and Princess Ingeborg, were more than happy to come to their daughter’s aid. In August, the four Norwegian royals would relocate to Washington at the invitation of President Roosevelt.
Despite Crown Prince Olav’s objections and fears over his father’s safety, King Haakon agreed to a brief meeting with Bräuer at Elverum on 10 April. The German emissary urged Haakon to follow the example of his elder brother, King Christian of Denmark, and call a halt to any further resistance. The King should also recognise the new government headed by Quisling. Haakon relayed the German demands to his ‘legal government’ in an extraordinary meeting of the Council of State at Nybergsund. His Majesty also made it clear that although he would not attempt to influence the Government in this matter, he could never accept Quisling as Prime Minister. Indeed, Haakon indicated that he was prepared to abdicate both for himself and for his family if the Cabinet decided otherwise. Inspired by the King’s strength of feeling, the Cabinet backed their monarch. Bräuer was later informed of their decision over the telephone by Foreign Minister Koht at 8pm. The German representative then asked Koht pointedly if Norwegian resistance would still continue and was told that it would ‘as long as possible’. The German response was quick and deadly: Luftwaffe aircraft dropped lethal incendiary bombs on both Elverum and Nybergsund and, at one stage, the Heinkel bombers dived to a mere 50 feet to strafe the ground with machine-gun fire, thus forcing Haakon, Olav and government officials to take cover in mud-filled ditches. Forty people were killed in the attack on Elverum alone.
In a ‘proclamation’ to his people in mid-April, Haakon would refer to this incident as a deliberate attempt by the Germans to ‘annihilate all of us assembled for deciding the question for the best future of Norway’. The King also railed against his people being ‘subjected to death and inhuman suffering’ by the Nazis and urged Norwegians ‘to save the freedom and independence of the Fatherland.’
Around this time, a Press Alliance reporter, Elinar Hansen, interviewed the King and Crown Prince over coffee as they took shelter in a farmhouse. Haakon-who was dressed in a mud-spattered uniform- admitted to having only slept fitfully for an hour at a time since the invasion. He was keen to emphasise that the German military action had been launched against himself and his people, ‘at places where no sign of military movement [was] to be found.’
After much confusion at the town of Rena (which resulted in the Prime Minister and half of his government ministers taking a separate route from the others) the King and his depleted party reached the border station with Sweden, at Lillebo, on 12 April. Foreign Minister Koht, who remained with the King, was now very keen for Haakon to seek temporary refuge with Norway’s neutral neighbour. However, this idea proved to be impractical as the Swedish authorities indicated that both the King and the Crown Prince-who both held military rank-would be interned should they attempt to cross the border. Haakon and Olav then travelled on to Koppang and Lake Storsjøen, though this time without the remaining retinue of government ministers. Yet, it was pre-arranged that everyone would reunite, a few days later, in the large valley of Gudbrandsdalen, where Norway’s army chief, General Otto Ruge, had lately established his headquarters. Sadly, Ruge’s plan to block a German land advance northwards out of Oslo was already in tatters as columns of enemy motorized infantry, supported by tanks and air cover easily overcame the Norwegian military’s hastily-constructed barriers.
After another few days trying to keep ahead of the occupying forces, the King and Crown Prince Olav were forced to abandon their cars at Hjerkinn (where the road became impassable due to the wintry weather) and ride in a freight train southward to the town of Otta. The duo then travelled to nearby Heggelund where they spent the night of 14 April at a local inn. This was the first occasion, since leaving Oslo, that the King and Crown Prince were actually able to undress and obtain a decent night’s sleep in a bed. During this stay, the King had an unscheduled visit from his Prime Minister (now taking refuge at Lesjaverk).
However, German troops remained in hot pursuit and General Ruge sent a message to the royal party to seek sanctuary at an isolated mountain farm, Sandbu, near Vågåmo, which belonged to a shipowner, Thomas Olsen. The royals, by now reunited with the party of government ministers, remained there for a period of four days from 17 to 21 April. On 19 April, the Crown Prince briefly journeyed southwards to Øyer to receive a military briefing from General Ruge, for by this time British forces had landed in Harstad and Namsos with the idea of recapturing Narvik and Trondheim from the Germans. From Sandbu the royal party then travelled on to another inn at Stuguflåten, during which the government held several meetings and agreed to the nationalisation of Norway’s merchant fleet. However, with little food available locally, the party was forced to motor on to the town of Molde on the Romsdal Peninsula, which they reach in the early hours of 23 April. This coastal location proved to be far from secure, as Luftwaffe planes were continually bombing the town in anticipation of landings by British forces. Indeed, the King and Crown Prince were forced to abandon their accommodation at dawn each morning and spend much of the day hiding out in the surrounding birch woods.
Towards the end of April, with German forces on the ascendency, the British Minister, Sir Cecil Dormer, invited the King, Crown Prince and government to join a group of British troops who were retreating to Tromsø from their current positions in southern and central Norway aboard the British light cruiser HMS Glasgow. This offer was accepted and, on the evening of 29 April, the Norwegian VIP party gathered at Molde’s key side to embark the ship for the 800-mile journey northwards. Tromsø would now become the seat of the provisional government. An article in the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen states that if King Haakon had not accepted the British invitation, he would most likely have been captured and taken to England. However, His Majesty certainly remained full of spirit and pithily declared that the occupiers, ‘are not practising war but murder and arson.’
Thereafter, the appointment of Winston Churchill as Britain’s new Prime Minister, on 10 May, combined with the simultaneous German invasion of the Low Countries, would lead to a change of strategy on the part of the Allies. Subsequent to this, British forces suffered heavy casualties when several British Royal Navy ships were sunk off Norway by the Luftwaffe. Then, on 25 May, (ironically three days before the recapture of Narvik by Norwegian and French forces), Allied commanders received orders to commence a comprehensive evacuation from Norway. This left the King with a difficult decision. Should he remain in Norway (which would mean capture by the Germans) or leave with the Allies? On balance, he decided it would be best to depart Norway and continue the fight for his country’s liberation from Britain.
On 7 June 1940, the Norwegian government held its last meeting on Norwegian soil at Tromsø. A few hours later the King, Crown Prince, members of the government, and the diplomatic corps—a total of 400 passengers—boarded the British heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire for England. Haakon and Olav arrived in London on 10 June and were greeted at Euston Station by King George VI. That same day, German and Norwegian forces signed a ceasefire. However, it is important to emphasise that this ceasefire did not prevent Norway’s legitimate government—now operating out of London—from continuing the struggle against the German invaders.
Subsequently, in Oslo, the German Reich Commissioner Josef Terboven, attempted to establish a ‘legal’, compliant occupation government. However, this would require the King’s abdication. In a speech, delivered over the airways from London on 8 July, King Haakon refused this request and stated that, ‘such action would prevent Norway regaining her freedom and independence.’ The Norwegian monarch also later put up a spirited riposte to those who had criticised his departure from his Nordic Kingdom: ‘If we had stayed in Norway the present rulers of the country would have been able to force us to accept what they wished. It was in order to avoid this that we left the country. From the place where we are now, we can still represent a free Norway.’ Indeed, King Haakon would now become the living symbol of Norwegian patriotism and freedom through his regular broadcasts from London which provided untold comfort to his fellow countrymen.
Certainly, the majority of Norwegians remained loyal to the Crown and did not hesitate to mock Vidkun Quisling and his collaborationist government. Furthermore, the Milorg group (formed in May 1941) which began life as a small sabotage unit, would gradually grow into Norway’s main resistance movement with 40,000 active members. The organisation would go on to play a crucial role in bringing about a German surrender in Norway in May 1945.
The author of this blog takes a keen interest in the fate of royalty during World War II. He examines the wartime adventures of Princess Olga (the sometime Consort of the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia) in Africa (and much else besides) in the new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or e-book.