The 'Battle of Gratangen' was an action between Norwegian and German troops during the first Norwegian counterattack in the campaign for Narvik in the north of the country (23/25 April 1940).
Generalmajor Carl Gustav Fleischer’s Norwegian 6th Division gathered forces to push the German forces, which were part of Generalleutnant Eduard Dietl’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision that had landed in the 'Naumburg' component of 'Weserübung', out of the Gratangen area and back toward Narvik. The first Norwegian attack failed disastrously when the Germans counterattacked unwary Norwegian forces, routing one battalion and blunting the first Norwegian advance.
Gratangen was the site of some of the first battles between the 3rd Gebirgsdivision and the Fleischer’s 6th Division after the German invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940. Following initial German success in surprising and routing a battalion from Trøndelag, the tide turned and the German were pushed to the south in the direction of Narvik.
Transported as the Gruppe I by 10 destroyers, the German task force had occupied Narvik and the important military depots at Elvegårdsmoen in the early hours of 9 April after the destroyers had sunk the obsolete Norwegian coast-defence ships Norge and Eidsvold with great loss of life and bluffing the Norwegian land forces into surrender.
The Allies counterattacked by sea and, in the two naval battles of Narvik, the Royal Navy sank all 10 of the German destroyers. Now beached, the 2,100 or so surviving German sailors equipped themselves with captured Norwegian equipment from Elvegårdsmoen for land service in support of Dietl’s Gebirgsjäger troops.
In the meantime, the Norwegians mobilised their forces under Fleischer’s leadership. The Norwegian plan for a counterattack on the German beach-head around Narvik was based on a push toward Elvegårdsmoen and Bjerkvik through Salangsdalen over the Lapphaugen hill with the II/IR15 (2/15th Infantry Regiment) in a frontal attack with artillery support on the German forward positions on Lapphaugen, which was believed to be held in company strength. The I/IR12 was to advance on the German main positions in Gratangsbotn in a forced march over difficult terrain across Fjordbotneidet. The Alta Bataljon, which was an independent infantry battalion, was in divisional reserve but positioned to support the I/IR12.
On 24 April, the II/IR15 started its attack on Lapphaugen, but as a result of extreme weather conditions and German resistance the attack was beaten off. The Germans then decided to abandon their positions on Lapphaugen and Gratangsbotn. undertaken in appalling weather, this went unnoticed by the II/IR15, and as a result the battalion did not push the advance.
In conditions of wind and heavy falls of snow, the I/IR12 crossed the Fjordbotneidet and arrived at Gratangsbotn to find the area empty of Germans. The Norwegian soldiers were exhausted after their forced march and went to rest in Gratangsbotn’s farmhouses and barns. For reasons never explained but probably a misunderstanding by Oberstløitnant Nils Christoffer Bøckman, the battalion’s commanding officer, the battalion posted only an inadequate perimeter security element, and this was critical as in geographical terms Gratangsbotn is located at the bottom of a depression with dominating high ground all round it.
The tactically astute Germans did not miss this opportunity and launched an immediate counterattack with a force of 165 men and using Norwegian civilians as a 'human shields'. Though numerically inferior, the German attackers suppressed the surprised Norwegians with superior mortar and machine gun firepower. Some 34 Norwegian soldiers were killed, another 64 wounded and 130 taken prisoners. Officer losses were heavy as three of the five company commanders were killed, one was wounded the fifth was ill with snow-blindness and did not take active part in the battle. The Germans suffered only six soldiers killed, 16 wounded and three missing.
The surviving Norwegians retreated from Gratangsbotn, and the depleted battalion was later reorganised as a reduced battalion with two infantry companies and one support company, and participated actively in the rest of the campaign.
Despite soundly defeating the I/IR12, the Germans understood that their position in Gratangsbotn was untenable. The fresh Alta Batajlon under Oberstløitnant Arne Dagfin Dahl pressed forward from the north and II/IR15 resumed its advance over Lapphaugen, and the Germans therefore abandoned Gratangen soon after the battle.
For the Norwegians on the Narvik front, the 'Battle of Gratangen' was their first serious lesson in the art of war. Before the battle, the inexperienced Norwegian soldiers had often hesitated to fire on the Germans. After the battle, the bitterness engendered by the German ruthlessness, especially their use of civilians as 'human shields', ensured that any such reservations were forgotten.