Operation Claymore

This was the British first major special forces raid, directed against targets in the Lofoten islands group off the north-west coast of German-occupied Norway just to the north of the Arctic circle (1/4 March 1941).

The Lofoten islands group was an important centre for the production of fish oil and glycerine, the former important in the food industry and the latter in a number of German war industries. The landings were carried out on 4 March by Nos 3 and 4 Commandos, a Royal Engineers section and 52 men of the Norwegian navy. Supported by the ships of the British 6th Destroyer Flotilla and two British troop transports, the force made an unopposed landing and generally continued to meet no opposition. The original plan had been to avoid any significant contact with German forces and inflict the maximum possible damage to German-controlled industry, and the Allied force achieved its objective of destroying fish oil factories and a large quantity of fish oil and glycerine. Naval gunfire and demolition parties also sank several ships.

Perhaps the most significant result of the raid, however, was the capture of a set of rotor wheels for an Enigma cipher machine and its code books from the German armed trawler Krebs. This enabled German naval codes to be read at Bletchley Park, providing the intelligence needed to allow Allied convoys to be detoured round U-boat concentrations in the Atlantic, at least in the short term. The British only one casualty (an officer who injured himself with his own revolver) and returned with some 228 German prisoners, 314 loyal Norwegian volunteers and a number of collaborators of the Quisling regime in Norway.

Analysis and evaluation of the operation’s outcome differed. The British (and especially Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Special Operations Executive) deemed the operations a major success, largely as they believed that such undertaking played a major part in pinning large German forces on occupation duties in Norway. Basing their thinking on the reports of Martin Linge and other Norwegians who had been involved, the Norwegian government-in-exile was less sure of the value of such raids against German targets along the coast of the Norway. After ‘Claymore’ the Norwegian 1st Independent Company was established for special forces’ operations in Norway.

After the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940, just before the final defeat of France, Churchill had demanded the creation and equipped of a small but high-grade force to inflict casualties on the Germans and bolster British morale. Churchill told the joint Chiefs of Staff to propose measures for an offensive against German-occupied Europe, and stated that ‘they must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.’

A staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley W. Clarke, had already submitted such a proposal to General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Fully aware of Churchill’s thinking, Dill readily approved Clarke’s proposal, and it was this only three weeks later that the first commando raid took place as ‘Collar’. The raiders failed to gather any intelligence or damage any German equipment, and their only success was the killing of two German sentries.

The Commandos came under the operational control of the Combined Operations Headquarters, whose first commander commander was Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign (April 1915/February 1916) and the Zeebrugge Raid (April 1918) in World War I. In 1940 the call was made for volunteers from among serving soldiers within certain formations still in the UK and men of the disbanding divisional independent companies originally raised from Territorial Army divisions who had seen service in Norway. (The 10 independent companies were raised from volunteers in second-line Territorial Army divisions in April 1940 for guerrilla operations in Norway following the German ‘Weserübung’ invasion: each of the companies initially comprised of 21 officers and 268 other ranks.) In November 1940 the new army units were organised into a Special Service Brigade under Brigadier J. C. Haydon, with four Special Service battalions. By the autumn of 1940 more than 2,000 men had volunteered for commando training, and the Special Service Brigade now consisted of 12 units each designation as a Commando.

After the inauspicious start of ‘Collar’, the first large-scale commando raid was to be made against the Lofoten islands group, which lies just off the west coast of Norway inside the Arctic circle and about 900 miles (1450 km) from the northern UK. Once they had reached the islands, the raiders were to be landed at four small ports and destroy the factories which extracted oil from the fish landed in these ports. All this oil was currently being shipped to Germany, where extraction took place of the glycerine, a vital ingredient in the manufacture of high explosives. The commandos were to be transported to the islands by two new medium infantry landing ships (the converted 4,136-ton Diesel-powered cross-channel ferries Prinses Beatrix and Queen Emma), escorted by the destroyers Somali, Bedouin, Tartar, Eskimo and Legion of Captain C. Caslon’s 6th Destroyer Flotilla.

Overall command was entrusted to Rear Admiral L. H. K. Hamilton, whose task was to ensure that the British warships safely escorted the transports carrying the landing force to the islands and back, while in the water of the islands to destroy or capture any German or seized Norwegian shipping, and to provide naval gunfire support for the landing forces.

The landing force was provided by Haydon’s Special Service Brigade, which provided 250 men of No. 3 Commando under the command of Major J. F. Durnford-Slater, and 250 men of No. 4 Commando under the command of Lieutenant Colonel D. S. Lister. These commandos were supported by a section of the Royal Engineers’ No. 55 Field Company under command of 2nd Lieutenant H. M. Turner, and four officers and 48 other ranks of the Norwegian navy under the command of Captain Martin Linge. The landing force was to destroy the oil-production facilities in the ports of Stamsund on Vest Vågsøy and Henningvaer off Ost Vågsøy, and of Stolvaer and Brettesnes on Ost Vågsøy, to engage the men of the local German garrison, and to attempt to take prisoners of war and seize personnel found in the area. The landing force was also to detain any supporters of the Norwegian Quisling party, and to persuade the local population to leave with it and join the Free Norwegian forces.

The elements of the force began to gather on 21 February 1941 at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group, where they remained for almost a week before leaving for Norway just after midnight on 1 March. The landing force’s men were distributed among the ships, while the headquarters of the Special Service Brigade was transported on Somali, which was also Hamilton’s flagship. No. 4 Commando, which was to land at Svolvær and Brettesnes, was on board Queen Emma, while No. 3 Commando, which was to land at Stamsund and Henningsvær, was on board Prinses Beatrix. The Royal Engineers and Norwegians were divided between both the landing ships.

The time the landing force had spent at Scapa Flow had been used in getting the men acquainted with the transport ships and the assault landing craft (six on each ship) which would carry them to and from their landing areas. The problems the navy perceived in the provision of gunfire support, as the destroyers would not be able to approach closer than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the shore as a result of the depth of the water, were also discussed. Because of this the commandos were trained to rely on their own weapons to provide covering fire and support each other from their landing craft. Plans were also made for the commandos to fend for themselves in the event that the destroyers were called away to deal with any developing naval threat. For this reason each man had rations for two days.

Distant support was provided by elements of Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet, which was to stand off some 230 miles (370 km) but was to detach the light cruisers Edinburgh and Nigeria to provide gunfire support if necessary.

The naval task force departed Scapa Flow and headed towards the Færoe islands group, where its ships berthed in the Skálafjørður at 19.00 on 1 March to take on fuel, a process which took five hours. The ships then set out once more and shaped course to the north toward the Arctic to avoid detection by German air and sea patrols. The ships only later turned east and headed toward Norway, to reach the Lofoten islands group just before 04.00 on 4 March. Entering the Vestfjorden, the British were surprised to see all the harbour navigational lights illuminated, which they believed to be a sign that they had achieved total tactical surprise.

During the operation’s development, plans had been created for simultaneous landings at all target areas at 06.30, but on arrival the British decided to postpone the landings by 15 minutes so that they would not be coming ashore in total darkness. The whose of the landing force was ashore by 06.50.

The landed troops immediately set about achieving their designated tasks. Limited opposition was encountered only after the landings had been completed, but the raid was a complete success. The only shots fired were by the armed trawler Krebs, which managed to get off four rounds at Somali before being sunk. Other ships sunk by the landing forces were the 5,470-ton factory ship Hamburg and 10 smaller vessels including the 2,468-ton Felix Heumann, 1,996-ton Pasajes, 1,404-ton Eilenau, 1,058-ton Bernhard Schulte, 1,381-ton Gumbinnen, 1,152-ton Mira and smaller Rissen, Ando and Grotto), totalling some 18,000 tons in all.

The party which landed at Stamsund destroyed the Lofotens Cod Boiling Plant. Two factories were destroyed at Henningsvær and 13 at Svolvær. In total about 800,000 Imp gal (3.637 million litres) of fish oil, kerosene and paraffin were set on fire. The landing parties also took 228 prisoners (seven from the navy, three from the army, 15 from the air force, two from the SS, 147 from the merchant navy, and 14 civilians.)

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the raid, however, was the capture of a set of rotor wheels for an Enigma cipher machine, and also the relevant code books. Recovered from the sinking Krebs, these allowed Bletchley Park to read all the German naval codes for some time.

By 13.00 Prinses Beatrix and Queen Emma had re-embarked their troops and were ready to sail. With them came 314 volunteers for the Free Norwegian forces in the UK and 60 captured Quisling collaborators. The 321-ton Norwegian trawler Myrland also escaped with the British.

In overall terms, the raid validated the concept of commando raids against targets on the long coast of German-occupied Europe, and did much to improve British morale at a time of considerable military gloom. It also persuaded Adolf Hitler to increase the strength of the German forces in Norway for much of the rest of the war.

‘Claymore’ was the first of 12 commando raids on Norway during World War II, and this process persuaded the Germans eventually to increase the number of troops they stationed in what Adolf Hitler was sure was a ‘zone of destiny’. By 1944 the German garrison in Norway had risen to 370,000 men which, in British terms, was the equivalent of 20 infantry divisions.