Operation Archery

This was a British special forces raid by elements of Nos 2, 3, 4 and 6 Commandos (and other forces) against German positions and other installations on the islands of Vågsøy and Måløy off the west coast of German-occupied Norway (27 December 1941/1 January 1942).

The raid was planned by Commodore the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters as one element of a two-part undertaking whose other component was the ‘Anklet’ diversion against targets in the Lofoten islands group farther to the north. The object of the operation was to capitalise on the growing strength, expertise and success of British commando forces during 1941, and at the same time capture Enigma-related ciphering machines and associated papers, and the intention was that ‘Anklet’ (a major repeat of the March 1941 raid on the Lofoten islands in the Vestfjord region) would be mounted with the Vågsøy operation as a subsidiary thrust to draw the Germans’ attentions away to the northern region just before the descent of the main force.

‘Archery’ was the more ambitious of the undertakings, and directed against German positions and other installations on Vågsøy and Måløy off the Norwegian coast just south of the Stadlandet headland. Like ‘Anklet’, ‘Archery’ was delayed by poor weather and started one day later than ‘Anklet’.

The operation was commanded by Rear Admiral H. M. Burrough in the light cruiser Kenya, which with the destroyers Offa, Onslow and Oribi, escort destroyer Chiddingfold and submarine Tuna (the last as the force navigational check) escorted the assault ships Prince Charles and Prince Leopold carrying Brigadier J. Haydon’s landing forces. In conjunction with a UK-launched bombing attack, the warships silenced the coastal batteries on Vågsøy and allowed the troops to get ashore without difficulty for the destruction of German facilities.

The operation was undertaken by No. 3 Commando, two troops of No. 2 Commando, a medical detachment of No. 4 Commando, a demolition party from No. 101 Troop (Canoe) of No. 6 Commando in Cockle Mk I canoes, and a dozen Norwegians from the Norwegian Independent Company under Captain Martin Linge. The 570 commandos were divided into five parties with the objectives of securing the area to the north of the town of Sør Vågsøy (Måløy) and engaging any German reinforcements on the western side of the Ulversund after being landed from Oribi (Group 5); subduing and securing South Vågsøy town (Group 2); eliminating the Germans on Måløy dominating the town of Sør Vågsøy (Group 3); eliminating the German strongpoint at Hollevik (Holvik) south of Sør Vågsøy (Group 1); and providing a floating reserve offshore in Kenya (Group 4). The operation’s primary task was the destruction of fish oil production and stores, which the Germans used in the manufacture of high explosives. Another intention was to cause the Germans to maintain and increase their forces in Norway which might otherwise have been deployed to the Eastern Front.

The landing was made at daybreak, with a naval gunfire bombardment just before this, and the attainment of the objectives went generally to plan except in the town of Sør Vågsøy, where the German opposition, provided by most of the 150-man garrison of Generalleutnant Kurt Woytasch’s 181st Division, was considerably stronger than had been expected as, unknown to the British, some 50 experienced Jäger (light infantry) troops from the Eastern Front were present on leave. Despite being taken by surprise, the Germans rallied quickly and started to fight back.

Even so, three of the four coastal guns on Måløy were knocked out, and on this small island the fighting was over in 20 minutes as a result, in part, of the accuracy and precise timing of the naval support. Kenya’s bombardment lifted when the 105 men of Group 3 were just 50 yards (45 m) from the beach, and the Germans had only just begun to lift their heads before the commandos overran them. However, in this part of the action Linge was killed. The German survivors were rounded up, the demolition work was completed, and the party crossed the short stretch of water to join the fierce house-to-house fighting in Sør Vågsøy.

Meanwhile the force at Hollevik faced a weaker resistance than had been expected as eight men of the defence force were in Sør Vågsøy having breakfast. Thus the commandos of Group 1 were soon able to reinforce those of Group 2 in the Sør Vågsøy engagement. The floating reserve of Group 4 was also committed as the German resistance was greater than expected. Meanwhile the commandos of Group 5 had been transported farther up the fjord past Måløy island into the Ulversund the destroyer Oribi, which was accompanied by Onslow. Oribi landed the commandos of Group 5 without opposition, and these men then cratered the road with explosives to prevent reinforcements from getting through from Nord Vågsøy. They also destroyed the telephone exchange at Rodberg.

It was in the Ulversund that the British spotted a number of merchant ships as well as an armed trawler. Those under power beached themselves, and the armed trawler Föhn (used as a patrol vessel) and 2,935-ton freighter Reimar Edzard Fritzen were boarded despite sniper fire from the shore in the hope of finding confidential papers and secret code books, which were found and recovered from Föhn. It was at about this time that two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and two Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers were active in the area.

The men of Group 5 later joined the fighting in Sør Vågsøy. In the fighting for this last, the British commander on the spot, Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, had already summoned the floating reserve and troops from Måløy island. A number of the town’s inhabitants aided the commandos by bringing up ammunition, grenades and explosives, and moving the wounded back to the landing craft. After destroying four factories, fish-oil stores, ammunition and fuel stores, the telephone exchange and various military installations, the commandos started to pull back at about 14.00, leaving much of the town ablaze.

The naval force had meanwhile sunk eight vessels: in the Måløysund Onslow and Oribi sank the 207-ton patrol vessel Föhn and 2,935-ton freighter Reimar Edzard Fritzen, as already noted, and also the 2,258-ton freighter Norma, 1,003-ton freighter Eismeer and, somewhat later, the beached 1,712-ton freighter Anita L. M. Russ.

Off Vågsøy Offa and Chiddingfold sank the 223-ton patrol boat Donner after boarding her and seizing an Enigma ciphering machine and a mass of Enigma-related papers, the 223-ton Sneland and the 5,870-ton freighter Anhalt; the British forces also sank a tug. It was not all one-way traffic, however, for Kenya took several hits from the coastal battery at Rugsundøy.

At 13.45 Durnford-Slater ordered the withdrawal from Sør Vågsøy. The British force re-embarked at 14.45 as the short Arctic day drew to a close, and the British ships immediately started to move away from the islands. Attacks by German aircraft on 27 and 28 December were unsuccessful. No British ships were lost, but the Royal Navy had four men killed and another four wounded. The commandos suffered 17 killed and 53 wounded, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté’s RAF Coastal Command lost 31 men killed and 11 of the aircraft (two Handley Page Hampden, seven Bristol Blenheim and two Bristol Beaufighter warplanes) it had deployed over the area from bases in northern Scotland.

The commandos killed at least 120 German military personnel, and returned with 98 prisoners as well as a complete copy of a current German naval code book. Four Quislings and 77 Norwegian volunteers were also brought back.

The raid was enough to persuade Hitler to make a rapid diversion of 30,000 troops to Norway, order an improvement in the region’s coastal and inland defences, and send the battleship Tirpitz, battle-cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, pocket battleship Lützow, and heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen to Norway. This constituted a major diversion of effort and forces which could have had significant impact elsewhere, and confirmed that Hitler believed that the British might be planning an invasion of northern Norway as a means of exerting pressure on Sweden and Finland to turn against Germany.