Operation Battle of Dombås

The 'Battle of Dombås' was fought between German airborne and Norwegian land forces in the area to the south of Trondheim in Norway (14/19 April 1940).

The immediate spur for the battle was the German belief that a countermeasure was required against the reported, but in fact non-existent, Allied landings in the Romsdal area of south-western Norway. The Germans therefore dropped one company of paratroopers near the vital railway junction of Dombås on 14 April 1940, and over the next five days this German force blocked the Dovre Line railway line between Oslo and Trondheim, as well as the main road between the two cities.

Soon after the German 'Weserübung' invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940, the Allies launched their own campaign in Norway to support the Norwegian force and prevent the Germans from seizing control of this strategically important country.

On 13 April, General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of the German Gruppe XXI invasion forces in Norway, was ordered by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in Berlin to seize control of the village of Dombås, some 209 miles (336 km) to the north of Oslo, by paratroop attack. The reason for the Oberkommando des Heeres’s decision was a false report of Allied landings at Åndalsnes, an event that in fact occurred only several days later. The main task at hand for the German troops was the destruction of the railroad, as well as blocking any Allied advance inland, particularly south through the Gudbrandsdal valley.

The German force air-dropped on Dombås was the 1st Kompanie of the 1/1st Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalleutnant Kurt Student’s 7th Fliegerdivision. Based at Heimatstandort Stendal near Magdeburg, the unit was ordered to Norway on 12 April, landing at Fornebu airport near Oslo on the following dayl. Th 1st Kompanie was commanded by Oberleutnant Herbert Schmidt and totalled 185 men armed with light weapons and 22 MG 34 machine guns of which four were tripod-mounted for use in the medium machine gun role. While the battalion’s other four companies had been sent into action on the first day of 'Weserübung', the 1st Kompanie had initially been held in reserve.

The Norwegian force initially based at Dombås was the 2/11th Regiment, and two days after the attack the 1st Company of the 5th Regiment arrived as reinforcements, and then on 17 April the 2/11th Regiment was replaced by its sister unit, the 1.11th Regiment. Reinforcements, in the form of a machine gun platoon and an anti-aircraft gun, also arrived on 17 April. 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 took off 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 planned drop area at Dombås without being able to see anything through the cloud cover. Even though the officers at Fornebu wished to postpone the mission until the weather improved, 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 on which the German paratroopers now embarked was the second opposed paratroop attack in history, the first having occurred five days previously when the Norwegian air base of Sola near Stavanger had been captured during the first day of the German invasion.

When the German aircraft arrived over their target area after a flight of 171 miles (275 km), small breaks in the cloud cover enabled most of the Ju 52/3m aircraft to drop their paratroopers, but the poor weather conditions led to the landings of the Germans being spread 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 valley.

Unfortunately for the paratroopers, their target area was coincidentally also the temporary base and encampment of the 2/11th Regiment. This battalion had been mobilised in Molde a few days earlier and had arrived by train in Dombås during the evening of 13 April. The deployment had been made in preparation for what the Norwegian army high command expected would be a major attempt, in co-operation with Allied forces, to retake Trondheim. Although there were no anti-aircraft guns in the area, the 2/11th Regiment had sited its 7.92-mm (0.312-in) Colt M/29 heavy machine guns on anti-aircraft mounts in order to provide some basic air defence against low-level aircraft.

The arrival of the German aircraft over Dombås came as a surprise to the Norwegian forces, who nonetheless soon opened fire on the Ju 52/3m machines with all available arms. Gunners on the German aircraft returned fire as their machines flew at tree-top height. Soon after this, the first paratroopers were dropped over the area and took heavy fire while descending to the ground. The Norwegian fire took a heavy toll on the German transport aircraft, only five of the original 15 Ju 52/3m machines making it back to Fornebu; another two landed at Værnes air base near Trondheim. All seven surviving aircraft were riddled with bullet holes, while the other eight transports were shot down or had to make forced landings: one made an emergency landing on Vänern lake near Mariestad in neutral Sweden, where it later broke through the ice and sank. The aeroplane was salvaged and returned to the Luftwaffe by the Swedish authorities in January 1941. Many of the paratroopers on the aircraft which were shot down died in the crashes, or if they survived were soon killed or taken prisoner by Norwegian patrols.

Of his 185-man unit, Schmidt managed to gather around him only 63 men, the rest having died or been scattered over a vast area. With this much-reduced force, Schmidt began carrying out the assigned task of blocking the Norwegian rail and road network. The Germans blocked the area’s main road and cut the telephone wire running next to it. After capturing a Norwegian taxicab and putting as many of his men as he could both in and on this vehicle, Schmidt drove to the north in the direction of Dombås, stopping at regular intervals for forward reconnaissance.

When the taxi-borne German force reached the Li farmstead on the road to Dombås, they encountered two truckloads of soldiers of the 11th Regiment’s No. 5 Company. After some initial confusion, the Norwegians opened fire and the Germans charged with sub-machine guns and hand grenades. Following a short firefight, during which Schmidt was severely wounded and the Norwegians were pushed back, the paratroopers abandoned their advance on Dombås, instead pulling back to take positions in a hedgehog defensive fighting position at the Ulekleiv and Hagevolden farms, covering all directions and dominating the surrounding terrain. Although seriously wounded in the hip and stomach, Schmidt did not relinquish command and ordered his men to use sand to write messages in the snow to the Luftwaffe asking for drops of provisions and ammunition. The force was not spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, however, and received no supply drops while at Ulekleiv and Hagevolden.

The attack at Dombås spurred the Norwegian central bank to accelerate its evacuation of the Norwegian gold reserves. The 50 tons of gold had been evacuated from Oslo on 9 April and were being kept in a vault in Lillehammer when the German attack on Dombås began. As soon as news of German airborne landing arrived, the gold was loaded on a train and brought to Åndalsnes, whence it was evacuated by way of British cruisers and Norwegian fishing boats.

King Haakon VII and his son, 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. Both men were then escorted out of the area by members of the Dovreskogen Rifle Club.

On the second day of the battle, on 15 April, the last remaining German stragglers rejoined the paratrooper main force at Dombås, and from this time onward no reinforcements 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, however, quickly repaired by Norwegian railway workers, and trains passed started to through the area on the following day.

Meanwhile Norwegian forces had been assembled and ordered to stop the German advance in the Dombås area. As intelligence on the paratroopers was scarce, the Norwegian commanders had little idea of the size and location of the German force. During the day two heavy machine gun platoons, totalling 41 men under the command of Kaptein Eiliv Austlid and operating under orders from Trygve Lie, the minister of provisioning and reconstruction, launched an assault on the German position to secure the escape route for the Norwegian royal family and the Norwegian cabinet. Comprising Austlid and six or seven volunteers, the assault team stormed across a 220-yard (200-m) field toward the German positions under the covering fire of Austlid’s own heavy machine guns. With only 82 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 between 25 and 33 ft (8 and 10 m) below the first German machine gun nest when he was hit in the chest by a bullet and, now without its leader, the Norwegian counterattack faltered. Of the 41 Norwegians caught in the ambush, 28 were taken prisoner and five escaped.

On 16 April, No. 1 Company of the 5th Regiment, under the command of Kaptein Botheim, reached the scene and attacked the German position from the south while one company of the 2/11th Regiment attacked from the north. The northern attack was supported by two 81-mm (3.19-in) mortars and a number of machine guns. After a short firefight, a white flag appeared over the German position, and one of the Norwegian soldiers captured in the previous day’s ambush was sent to the Norwegian forces. The released prisoner brought with him a demand that the Norwegians surrender and told the Norwegian commander that Schmidt threatened to shoot his prisoners unless the firing ceased. This latter statement was probably based on a misunderstanding between the Norwegian prisoner and Schmidt, the real meaning most likely being that the prisoners were endangered by the mortar fire to which the German position was being subjected. In response, a German non-commissioned officer whom the Norwegians had taken prisoner was despatched to Schmidt calling for a German surrender but, like the Norwegians, the Germans refused to entertain this notion.

While the fruitless negotiations were taking place, the paratroopers were preparing to move away from their position and seek a new base, for the arrival of the two Norwegian mortars had completely changed the tactical situation and the German force’s supply of ammunition was also running dangerously low. It was this which had decided Schmidt that he had to move his men into a new and more defensible position. Negotiations continued to buy time for the paratroopers to slip away into cover of darkness. Schmidt believed that strong German forces were advancing up the Gudbrandsdal valley and that if his small force could hold out for a little time longer the situation might still be salvaged. The reality of the situation, however, was that the German advanced units were stuck just to the north of Minnesund far to the south of both Gudbrandsdal and Dombås. As negotiations collapsed, the Norwegians opened fire once again, but a sudden blizzard blinded the gunners and allowed the Germans to make a counterattack and break out of the encirclement. The attack threw back the Norwegian forces in the north, whose commander ordered a retreat to Dombås. On the night of 16/17 April, Schmidt’s force, having driven back the nearest Norwegian troops, disengaged and began to make its way to the south in the direction of Dovre.

On 16 April the Norwegians continued their mopping-up operation: some 22 Germans were taken prisoner at Kolstad near Lesja, and another 23 at Bottheim train station. The prisoners were initially held in the basement sitting room of Ulekleiv Hotel in Dombås.

Early in the morning on 17 April, the Germans withdrew from their current position under cover of three heavy machine guns captured from the Norwegians in the ambush on 15 April. The paratroopers formed a fighting column with paratroopers armed with hand grenades at the front followed by the wounded and the prisoners in trucks, with a rearguard at the end. At Landheim road bridge, a 25-strong Norwegian force blocked the way, but was quickly thrown back to Dovre church by a night attack with hand grenades. The German force took up temporary positions at Einbugga road bridge, half-way between the village of Toftemo to the north and Dovre to the south. At the break of day, Schmidt’s men began to search for 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, a farmstead high on a hillside and dominating both the railway line, some 270 yards (250 m) distant, and the main road, 770 yards (700 m) away. North Lindse, with its stone barn, became the strongpoint of the defence, with South Lindse used to accommodate the Norwegian prisoners, now amounting to 15 soldiers 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 Major Alv Kjøs and No. 1 Company ran into German ambushes near Lindse. Kjøs was taken prisoner as was the No. 1 Company’s vanguard. No. 1 Company’s main force 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 paratrooper force had moved to Lindse, and thus spent the day reorganising and receiving reinforcements. The 2/11th Regiment was replaced by its sister battalion, the 1/11th Regiment, and a machine gun platoon from the Norwegian army air service’s Jagevingen fighter unit, which had lost all 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 decamped. During 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.

On 18 April the battle’s decisive moment arrived. The Germans at Lindse were surrounded to the north by the 1/11th Regiment and to the south by No. 1 Company of the 5th Regiment, reinforced by various smaller elements that had arrived on the previous day. The company in the south also had the 40-mm anti-aircraft gun, positioned at Dovre station, as artillery support. Early in the morning Norwegian soldiers made their way into the hills to the south of Lindse farm and opened fire. Although the German positions were well fortified, the defenders were running very low on ammunition and it was soon only a question of time before surrender became the only option left. Help, however, arrived that very morning when a Ju 52/3m dropped ammunition, warm clothes, 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 bombardment of Lindse farm throughout the day, firing 40 to 50 rounds at positions around the farm buildings and in two nearby gulleys. By the evening, the Germans had all sought shelter in the farm houses as these could not be bombarded directly as the Norwegian prisoners were being held in them.

By dawn 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 a rail-mounted howitzer manned by a gun crew of Royal Marines from Åndalsnes. The howitzer had 300 rounds of ammunition, and opened fire at 06.00, firing 10 rounds with good accuracy. Soon after this, another Ju 52/3m arrived carrying supplies but turned back without making its drop after receiving a radio message from Schmidt informing that the paratroopers were going to surrender. Schmidt later sent out his second-in-command, Leutnant Ernst Mössinger, to negotiate a surrender, hoping to reach 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 bombardment of Lindse farm. Nine and a half minutes later, at 11:30, the paratrooper force at Lindse fired three signal flares.

Some 45 paratroopers, of whom six were wounded, surrendered at Lindse farm. After being fed at the municipal building in Dovre, the Germans prisoners were sent by train to Dombås.

The Germans had lost a total of 21 men 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 Ju 52/3m transports had been shot down by ground fire and an eighth Ju 52/3m had landed in neutral Sweden. The Norwegian casualties in the battle totalled 20 men killed and 20 wounded. The Norwegian and German wounded, whose care was entrusted to the Norwegian medical service, were initially treated 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 with the hospital ship Brand IV from Åndalsnes to the hospital in Ålesund. German dead were buried by the Norwegian military in mass graves, eventually being moved after the war’s end to a German war graves commission cemetery in Alfaset, Oslo.

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 of war suffered several wounded, and after this the prisoners were moved by lighters to Averøy near Kristiansund, where they were initially kept in a school until a proper a prisoner of war camp had been established at Bruhagen. Initially, the prisoners had been sent to a transit prisoner camp at Isfjorden near Åndalsnes, but this camp did not have the capacity to house the numbers captured at Dombås.

The Norwegian intention was initially to keep the prisoners for interrogation and then ship them to the UK, but in the chaos of the collapse of the Norwegian resistance in the southern parts of Norway and the Allies' evacuation from Åndalsnes late in April and early in May the German prisoners were left behind to be freed by elements of the Regiment 'General Göring' of the Luftwaffe under the command of Major Walther von Axthelm. Of the captured paratroopers, only three fell into British hands and were brought to the UK when the British evacuated from the southern parts of Norway. One of the three had been able to evade capture after the jump over Dombås until he was caught by retreating British and Norwegian forces in Dombås 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 the target. Three of them were wounded and were sent to Lillehammer hospital. The unwounded men were eventually transferred to Lom prisoner of war camp at Lom in Oppland. The pilot of the downed Ju 52/3m had committed suicide when Norwegian troops approached.

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

After they had been liberated by the German victory in southern Norway, most of the paratroopers volunteered to jump into the isolated Narvik front in northern Norway to help the hard pressed men of Generalleutnabt Eduard Dietl’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision, fighting from 16 May and many dying under the leadership of Leutnant Mössinger.

Schmidt, the paratroopers' leader at Dombås, received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 May 1940. He later recovered from his wounds, and in 1941 wrote a book detailing his experiences. In 1944 he was killed by French resistance fighters.