Operation Altenbeken

(German town)

'Altenbeken' was the German attack on and capture of Åndalsnes, in the Romsdalsfjord western coastal area of Norway, by land forces advancing up the Gudbrandsdalen within the context of 'Weserübung' (late April/2 May 1940).

The town fell on 2 May after the previous day’s 'Tunnel' (i) evacuation of Brigadier H. de R. Morgan’s British 148th Brigade, landed in 'Sickle' (i) as the southern component of the planned pincer offensive toward Trondheim, after the brigade’s advance toward the German forces had been thwarted by the drop of German paratroopers to take and hold the vital road and railway chokepoint at Dombås on 14 April.

The Battle of Dombås was fought between Norwegian infantry forces and German Fallschirmjäger paratroopers between 14 and 19 April 1940. As part of their conquest of the part of Norway to the south of Trondheim, and as a countermeasure against reported Allied landings in the Romsdalen area of south-western Norway, the Germans dropped a paratrooper company of Oberstleutnant Bruno Bräuer’s 1st Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalleutnant Kurt Student’s 7th Fliegerdivision near the vital railroad junction of Dombås on 14 April 1940. For the next five days, the German force blocked the line between Oslo and Trondheim, as well as the main road between the two cities.

Soon after the German had launched their 'Weserübung' invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940, the Allies started their own campaign in that nation to support the Norwegian defence forces and prevent the Germans from taking control of the strategically important country.

On 13 April, the commander of the German invasion forces, Generaloberst Nikolaus von Falkenhorst was ordered by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to seize the village of Dombås, some 210 miles (340 km) to the north of Oslo, by paratroop attack. The reason for the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s decision was a false report of Allied landings at Åndalsnes, which in fact took place only a few days later as 'Sickle' (i). The German objectives were firstly the destruction of the railway, and secondly the prevention of any Allied advance inland from Åndalsnes, especially to the south-west through the Gudbrandsdalen.

The German force air dropped on Dombås was the 1st Kompanie of the 1/1st Fallschirmjägerregiment. Based at Heimatstandort Stendal near Magdeburg, the unit was ordered to Norway on 12 April, landing at Fornebu airport outside Oslo on 13 April. The 1st Company was commanded by Oberleutnant Herbert Schmidt and comprised 185 men armed with light weaponry and 22 7.92-mm (0.312-in) MG 34 machine guns, of which four were mounted on tripods for the medium machine gun role. While the other four companies of the battalion had been sent into action on the first day of the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, the 1st Kompanie had at first been retained in reserve.

The Norwegian force initially based at Dombås was the 2/11th Infantry Regiment. Two days after the German attack, No. 1 Company of the 5th Infantry Regiment arrived as reinforcements, and on 17 April 2/11th Infantry Regiment was replaced by a sister unit, the 1/11th Infantry Regiment. Reinforcements in the form of a machine gun platoon and an anti-aircraft gun also arrived on yje same day. On the last day of the battle, the Norwegians were joined by some of the first British forces to see action on land in Norway when a howitzer manned by Royal Marines joined the fighting.

At about 17.00 on 14 April, 15 Junkers Ju 52/3m three-engined transport aircraft lifted from Fornebu airport in conditions of hail and sleet with low cloud cover. One hour earlier, one Ju 52/3m had flown a reconnaissance flight over the drop area at Dombås, but had been unable to see anything through the cloud cover.

Even though the officers on site wished to postpone the mission as a result of the weather conditions, the fact that the mission was based on a direct command from Adolf Hitler meant that it had to be carried out despite the risks involved. The mission of the German paratroopers was was the only second opposed paratroop attack in history, preceded five days earlier when the Norwegian air base of Sola near Stavanger had been taken in such an attack.

When the German aircraft arrived over their target area after a 170-mile (275-km) flight, small breaks in the cloud cover enabled most of the Ju 52/3m transports to drop their paratroopers, but the poor weather conditions meant that many of the German were dispersed over a large area, stretching from Lesja 12.5 miles (20 km) to the west of the target, Vålåsjø 11 miles (18 km) to the north-east of the target and locations 5 miles (8 km) to the south in the Gudbrandsdal.

To the misfortune of the paratroopers, their target area happened to be the temporary base of the 2/11th Infantry Regiment. This battalion had been mobilised in Molde only a few days earlier, and had reached Dombås by train during the evening of 13 April. The deployment had been made in preparation for what the Norwegian army’s high command expected would be a major effort to recapture Trondheim in co-operation with Allied forces. Although there were no anti-aircraft guns in the area, the 2 2/11th Infantry Regiment had positioned their 7.92-mm (0.312-in) Colt M/29 heavy machine guns on anti-aircraft mounts in order to provide some basic low-level air defence capability.

The arrival of German aircraft over Dombås surprised the Norwegians, who nonetheless soon opened fire on the Ju 52/3m machines with all available weapons. Gunners aboard the Ju 52/3m aircraft returned fire even as the machines flew at tree-top height. Soon after this, the first paratroopers were dropped over the area and came under heavy fire as they descended to the ground. The ground fire exacted a heavy toll of the German transport aircraft: a mere five out of the original 15 Ju 52/3m aircraft returned to Fornebu, while another two landed at Værnes air base near Trondheim, all seven of these aircraft being riddled with bullet holes. The other eight transports were shot down or made forced landings: one Ju 52/3m made an emergency landing on Vänern lake near Mariestad in Sweden, where it later broke through the ice and sank. The aircraft was salvaged and returned to the Germans by the Swedish authorities in January 1941. Many of the paratroopers embarked in aircraft which were shot down died in the crashes, or were otherwise killed or captured by Norwegian patrols soon after this.

Of his originally strength of 185 men, Schmidt managed to gather a mere 63 men, the rest having died or been scattered over a wide area. With this much reduced force, Schmidt began to carry out the assigned task of blocking the Norwegian rail and road networks in the area. The German force blocked the main road and cut the telephone wire running next to it. After capturing a Norwegian taxi and putting as many of his men as he could both into and onto the vehicle, Schmidt drove to the north in the direction of Dombås, stopping at regular intervals to make forward observations.

When the taxi-borne German force reached the Li farmstead on the road to Dombås, it met two truck-loads of soldiers from No. 5 Company of the 11th Infantry Regiment. After a measure of short-term confusion, the Norwegians opened fire and the Germans charged with sub-machine guns and grenades. Following a short firefight, in which Schmidt was severely wounded and the Norwegians driven back, the paratroopers abandoned their advance on Dombås. They pulled back and took up positions in a hedgehog defensive fighting position at the Ulekleiv and Hagevolden farms, covering all directions and dominating the surrounding landscape. Despite severity of the wounds to his stomach and hip, Schmidt kept command and ordered his men to use sand to write messages in the snow to the Luftwaffe requesting the delivery of food and ammunition. The force was not spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, however, and thus received no supply drops while at Ulekleiv and Hagevolden farms.

The attack at Dombås persuaded the Norwegian central bank to accelerate the evacuation of the Norwegian gold reserve: 50 tonnes of gold had been evacuated from Oslo on 9 April and was being kept in a vault in Lillehammer when the German attack on Dombås began. As soon as news of German airborne landing spread, the gold was put on a train and transferred to Åndalsnes, from which it was evacuated by British cruisers and Norwegian fishing boats.

King Haakon VII and Crown Prince Olav were both at Dovre, near the drop zone and only 30 minutes from the nearest groups of paratroopers when the attack began on 14 April. The King and Crown Prince both had to be escorted out of the area by men of the Dovreskogen rifle club.

On 15 April the last remaining stragglers rejoined the German airborne force at Dombås, and no other reinforcement reached the 1st Kompanie. During the morning the paratroopers completed part of their mission when they blew up the railway line in three places. The damage to the line was quickly repaired by Norwegian work crews, however, and trains passed through the next day.

Meanwhile Norwegian forces had been assembled and ordered to halt the German advance in the area of Dombås. As intelligence on the German airborne forces was very scarce, the Norwegian commanders had little idea of the size and location of the Schmidt’s force. During the day two heavy machine gun platoons, with 41 men under the command of Kaptein Eiliv Austlid, were ordered by a government minister, Trygve Lie, to launch an assault without the benefit of any spearhead on Schmidt’s position to secure a route of escape for the Norwegian royal family and the Norwegian cabinet. Comprising Austlid and six or seven volunteers, the small Norwegian force stormed across a 220-yard (200-m) field toward the German positions under cover fire from their own heavy machine guns. With only 80 yards (75 m) between them and the Germans, the eight Norwegians had to make their way up the hillside through deep snow. Austlid was only just below the first German machine gun nest when he was killed by a bullet to the chest and without its leader the counterattack faltered. Of the 41 Norwegians caught in the ambush, 28 were captured and five escaped.

On 16 April, No. 1 Company of the 5th Infantry Regiment under the command of Kaptein Botheim arrived. This company attacked the German strongpoints from the south while the 2/11th Infantry Regiment attacked with one company from the north. The northern onslaught was supported by two 81-mm (3.19-in) mortars and several Colt M/29 machine guns.

After a short fight, a white flag appeared at the German positions, and one of the Norwegian soldiers captured in the previous day’s ambush was sent to the Norwegian forces carrying a demand that the Norwegians surrender. The released soldier told the Norwegian commander that Schmidt threatened to shoot his prisoners unless the fighting ceased: this latter was probably the result of a misunderstanding between the Norwegian and Schmidt, and the real meaning was more probably that the prisoners being held by the Germans were endangered by the mortar fire to which the German positions were being subjected. In response to the surrender demand a German non-commissioned officer whom the Norwegians had captured was despatched back to Schmidt calling for his surrender. The Germans likewise refused to yield.

While the fruitless negotiations were taking place, the German paratroopers were reading themselves to move from their current strongpoint and to locate a new place from which to continue the fight: the arrival of the two Norwegian mortars had completely changed the tactical situation, and the Germans' ammunition supply was also running dangerously low. Schmidt decided that he had to move his troops into a new and more defensible position. Negotiations were kept up to buy time so that the paratroopers could slip away into cover of darkness. Schmidt believed that strong German forces were advancing up the Gudbrandsdalen and that if he could hold out for a little while longer the situation might still be salvaged. However, the reality of the situation was that the German advanced ground units were stuck just to the north of Minnesund, far to the south of both the Gudbrandsdalen and Dombås.

As negotiations collapsed, the Norwegians opened fire once more, but a sudden blizzard blinded the gunners and allowed the Germans to make a counterattack and break out of their encirclement. The attack threw back the Norwegian northern force, whose commander ordered a general retreat to Dombås. On the night of 16/17 April, the paratroops, after driving back the nearest Norwegian forces, disengaged and began to make their way to the south in the direction of Dovre.

On 16 April Norwegian units continued to mop up: 22 Germans were taken at Kolstad near Lesja and another 23 at Bottheim train station. These new prisoners were initially held in the basement sitting room of the Ulekleiv Hotel in Dombås.

Early in the morning on 17 April, the Germans withdrew from their positions, covered by three heavy machine guns captured from the Norwegians in the ambush on 15 April. The paratroopers formed a fighting column with grenade-armed men in the van, followed by the wounded and the Norwegian prisoners in trucks, and a rearguard. At the Landheim road bridge, a 25-man Norwegian force blocked the way, but was quickly thrown back to the church in Dovre by a night attack with grenades. The German force took up temporary positions at Einbugga road bridge, mid-way between the village of Toftemo to the north and Dovre to the south.

With the arrival of dawn, Schmidt’s men began to search out a new position providing good cover without the risk of being attacked from the rear. This they found at the North and South Lindse farm, high on a hillside and dominating both the railway line 270 yards (250 m) away, and the main road 770 yards (700 m) distant. The stone barn at North Lindse became the strongpoint of the defence, and South Lindse was used to hold the Norwegian prisoners; 15 military personnel and 40 civilians. The farm buildings were quickly fortified with sandbags and planking. Schmidt was carried to Lindse on a door by Norwegian prisoners.

On the morning of 17 April, fighting was renewed when a Norwegian officer, Major Alv Kjøs, and then No. 1 Company ran into German ambushes near Lindse. Kjøs was captured, as was the vanguard of No. 1 Company. The main force of No. 1 Company fought its way out, pulling back to Dovre church at 10.00.

After this first encounter of the day, the main Norwegian force failed to realise that the whole airborne force had moved to Lindse and spent the day reorganising. It was at this time that the 2/11th Infantry Regiment was replaced by regiment second battalion, and a machine gun platoon from the Norwegian army air service’s Jagevingen fighter unit, which had lost all of its aircraft around Oslo on 9 April, arrived to reinforce the attacks on Schmidt’s paratroopers. For most of the day the abandoned German positions at Ulekleiv was bombarded by Norwegian mortars. Only in evening did the Norwegian commanders discover where the Germans had relocated. On the night of 17/18 April, 2nd Lieutenant L. K. Løkken of the Raufoss Anti-Aircraft Command arrived with a 40-mm anti-aircraft gun.

The decisive day of the battle was 18 April. The Germans at Lindse were surrounded to the north by the 1/Infantry Regiment 11 and to the south by No. 1 Company of the 5th Infantry Regiment, reinforced by various smaller forces that had arrived the previous day. The company in the south also had the 40-mm gun, positioned at Dovre station, as artillery support. Early in the morning Norwegian soldiers made their way into the hills south of Lindse farm and opened fire. Although the German occupied well-fortified positions, they were very short of ammunition and it was soon only a question of time before surrender became their only viable option. Help arrived that very morning, however, when a Ju 52/3m air dropped ammunition, warm clothing, provisions, medical supplies and the radio frequency for communicating with headquarters.

Later in the day a Norwegian officer approached Schmidt asking for his surrender, but was rejected. The Norwegian 40-mm gun kept up a sporadic bombardment of the Lindse farms throughout the day, firing 40 to 50 rounds at positions around the farm buildings and in two nearby ravines. By evening the Germans had all sought shelter in the farm houses as these could not be bombarded directly as they were also being used to accommodate the Germans' Norwegian prisoners.

By daybreak on 19 April, the Germans were completely surrounded by better-armed Norwegian troops. During the night, a final reinforcement had reached the Norwegians in the form of rail-mounted howitzer manned by a gun crew of Royal Marines that had arrived from Åndalsnes. The howitzer had 300 rounds available and opened fire at 06.00, firing 10 rounds with good accuracy. Soon after this another Ju 52/3m transport arrived with supplies for the beleaguered Germans, but turned back without making its drop after receiving a radio message from Schmidt informing that the paratroopers were about to surrender.

Schmidt later sent his second in command, Leutnant Ernst Mössinger, to negotiate a surrender, hoping to gain favourable terms. Major Arne Sunde, the Norwegian commander, refused to accept anything but an unconditional surrender. Sunde told Mössinger that unless the Germans announced their surrender within 10 minutes by launching three flares the British and Norwegian artillery would resume their shelling of the Lindse farm. Some 30 seconds before the expiry of this ultimatum, at 11.30 the Germans fired the specified signal of three signal flares.[2]

A total of German paratroopers surrendered, of whom six were wounded.After receiving food at the municipal building in Dovre, the captured Germans were sent by train to Dombås.

The Germans lost 21 killed during the battle, as well as 40 wounded or injured. Of these, 15 of the fatalities occurred during the initial phase of the attack, as well as 20 wounded and 14 personnel suffering injuries. Six more were killed and another six wounded during the fighting that led to the German surrender on 19 April. About 150 Germans were taken prisoner. Seven Junkers Ju 52/3m transports were shot by ground-fire and an eighth Ju 52/3m landed in neutral Sweden. Norwegian casualties in the battle totalled 20 dead and 20 wounded. The Norwegian and German wounded treated by the Norwegian medical service were first helped at a field hospital in Dombås, before being moved to a regular hospital. The first train loads of wounded, leaving Dombås on 16 April, were destined for the hospital in Molde, with later transports sent by the hospital ship Brand IV from Åndalsnes to the hospital in Ålesund. The German dead were buried by the Norwegian military in mass graves.

The German prisoners were sent to rear areas in the Romsdal region, the severely wounded to the hospital in Ålesund and the remaining 135 to a school in Kristiansund. During German bombing raids on Kristiansund on 28/29 April, the prisoners suffered several wounded. After the bombing of Kristiansund, the prisoners were moved by lighter to Averøy near Kristiansund, where they were initially kept in a school until a proper a prisoner-of-war camp had been built at Bruhagen. Initially the prisoners had been sent to a transit prisoner-of-war-camp at Isfjorden near Åndalsnes, but this camp did not have the capacity to house the numbers captured at Dombås.

The intention of Norwegian authorities was to first keep the prisoners for interrogation and then ship them to the UK, but in the chaos of the collapse of resistance in the southern parts of Norway and the Allied 'Brick', 'Tunnel' and 'Utopia' evacuation from Åndalsnes late in April and early in May the German prisoners were left behind to be freed by the advancing elements of the Luftwaffe’s Regiment 'General Göring'. Only three of the German prisoners only three fell into British hands and were brought to the UK: of these, one had been able to evade capture after the jump over Dombås until he was caught by retreating British and Norwegian forces in Dombås proper on 29 April.

Some 13 paratroopers had been taken prisoner near Lillehammer on 14 April after their Ju 52/3m had been shot down en route to its target. Three of the Germans on board were wounded and were sent to the hospital in Lillehammer, and the unwounded prisoners were eventually transferred to Lom camp in Oppland. The pilot of the downed Ju 52/3m had committed suicide when approached by Norwegian troops.

In the aftermath of the German attack on Dombås, the Norwegians attempted to prevent further paratroop landings by organising volunteers into anti-paratroop ski patrols. By 23 April some 415 volunteers from 13 local rifle clubs were carrying out regular patrols in the mountains of the Østerdalen. Of the volunteers, 100 had military uniforms, the rest only armbands. Second-line regular troops were also employed to guard against new German paratroop attacks. The weapons captured from the Germans at Dombås were not distributed to Norwegian troops, but stored in the village of Tretten, where they were recaptured by the Germans on 23 April.

Most of the freed paratroopers soon volunteered to jump into the isolated Narvik front in northern Norway in 'Büffel' to help the hard-pressed mountain troops of Generalleutnant Eduard Dietl’s 3rd Gebirgsjägerdivision from 16 May in the area of Narvik, and here many of them were killed while fighting under Mössinger’s command.