Operation Doomsday

This was the British airborne element of the liberation and policing of Norway after the German surrender within ‘Apostle I’ (9 May/August 1945).

Undertaken largely by 6,000 men of Major General R. E. Urquhart’s 1st Airborne Division, the operation had been planned since mid-1943, and its overall implementation was entrusted to Force 134. The bulk of this formation was contributed by Norwegian troops, plus a British contingent (initially Major General N. M. Ritchie’s [from November 1943 Major General E. Hakewill-Smith’s] 52nd Division, but later replaced by the 1st Airborne Division as this understrength formation recovered after its mauling around Arnhem in ‘Market’) as well as a small number of US troops. The entire operation came under the command of the headquarters of General Sir Andrew Thorne’s Scottish Command.

Two operational situations were considered in the planning of the two variants of ‘Apostle’: ‘Rankin C (Norway)’ was posited on the assumption that all the German forces occupying Norway would surrender as part of a more general unconditional surrender by Germany, while ‘Rankin ‘B’ was posited on there being no German surrender, and that only parts of Norway would be abandoned by the Germans in order to reinforce their troops stationed in North-West Europe against Allied advance there. The second situation therefore suggested that Force 134 would encounter heavy German resistance. Each situation presented major difficulties of implementation, however, as the troops allocated to Force 134 were meagre.

From a time late in 1943 the majority of the Allied military resources in the UK were allocated to the planned North-West European campaign. Moreover, during September 1944 Thorne lost the 52nd Division, which was attached to Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton’s Allied 1st Airborne Army as an air-landing formation. In its place Thorne was later given the 1st Airborne Division, but as a result of the heavy casualties it had suffered during ‘Market’, this formation would not be combat ready until 1 May 1945. In order to bolster Force 134, therefore, Thorne was compelled to rely heavily on Milorg, the Norwegian resistance. By a time early in May 1945, the 1st Airborne Division had been brought up to strength, through mostly by replacements lacking combat experience.

During December 1944, in the aftermath of ‘Market’, Lieutenant Colonel I. A. Murray’s 4th Parachute Brigade had been disbanded and its battalions merged with those of Brigadier G. W. Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade, and the brigade was now replaced by Brigadier General Stanisław Sosabowski’s 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. But on 4 May Urquhart was ordered to despatch the 1st Independent Polish Brigade to Dunkirk, and to detach the 1st Parachute Brigade from his division: one of this brigade’s battalions was to be moved straight to Denmark for occupation duties, and the rest of the brigade was to remain in the UK as a reserve unit. At the same time the rest of the division was warned that it would be soon be transported by air to Norway as part of the occupation force, with Brigadier J. M. Calvert’s Special Air Service Brigade temporarily attached as replacement for the 1st Parachute Brigade.

Urquhart informed Thorne that the division could be ready for deployment in 48 hours, far less time than Thorne and his staff had expected. When it entered Norway, the division would be responsible for maintaining law and order in the areas it occupied, ensuring that German units followed the terms of their surrender, securing and then protecting captured airfields from possible sabotage, and finally preventing the sabotage of essential military and civilian structures.

To achieve this, the division had three brigades: Brigadier R. H. Bower’s 1st Airlanding Brigade, Calvert’s Special Air Service Brigade, and Brigadier R.G. Loder-Symonds’s extemporised Artillery Brigade formed from divisional troops. The 1st Airlanding Brigade was to land near Oslo, and occupy the city alongside other elements of Force 134. Bower was to become Allied commander in the Oslo area for the duration of the division’s time in Norway. Oslo was chosen because it was the Norwegian capital, as well as being the centre of Norwegian and German administration. Similarly, the Artillery Brigade would land at Stavanger and Loder-Symonds would become commander of the Stavanger area. Stavanger was the Norwegian airfield closest to the UK, and would also be useful as a fighter base. Finally, the Special Air Service Brigade would also land in Stavanger, from where it would advance to and occupy, the area around Kristiansand. This was an important port which would be used by the Royal Navy to sweep the surrounding waters for mines.

The division’s operations would be divided into four phases over four consecutive days: in the first, by the evening of 8 May some 15 transport aircraft would carry advance parties to the airfields at Gardermoen near Oslo, and Sola airfield near Stavanger; in the second phase, on 9 May, 70 Handley Page Halifax transport aircraft would move the 1st Airlanding Brigade and elements of the 1st Airborne Division’s headquarters to both airfields, and 76 Douglas Dakota transport aircraft would land the Artillery Brigade at Sola; in the third phase, on 10 May, the Special Air Service Brigade would land at Sola; and in the fourth phase, on 11 May, stores and vehicles would be landed at both airfields.

Before the elements of the 1st Airborne Division began to land in Norway, specially selected Allied representatives known as ‘heralds’ would accompany German diplomatic delegates to Norway, and it was only after these officers had signalled that the airfields were available for use that the first transport aircraft would lift off from British airfields.

In the early hours of 7 May, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, president of Germany after the death of Adolf Hitler, gave the order that all German military forces were to surrender unconditionally, and on 8 May the German instrument of surrender was delivered to General Franz Böhme, the commander of all German forces in Norway. The Germans were to withdraw from all Norwegian towns and away from the Swedish border, and gradually redeploy to areas predesignated for disarmament. At the same time all senior Nazi party officials and security personnel were to be arrested. Force 134 would be greatly outnumbered during its task: the 30,000 Allied troops would have to supervise the disarmament of more than 350,000 German troops.

There were also fears that the German forces might refuse to surrender and resist the Allied occupation forces instead, as some pockets of resistance had done in the rest of Europe. There were particular concerns about what the large detachment of Kriegsmarine personnel at the port of Trondheim might do.

Although the first phase of the operation had been scheduled for 8 May, no word was received from the ‘heralds’ and ‘Doomsday’ was therefore postponed by 24 hours. Contact was successfully established on 9 May and the first Force 134 units reached Norway on the same day to begin the occupation. These units included the leading elements of the 1st Airborne Division, all but one of whose transport aircraft landed in Norway without incident. The second phase was accelerated to compensate for the delay, with aircraft scheduled to leave British airfields between 02.00 and 13.30. But from about 07.00 there was adverse weather near Oslo, and many of transport aircraft turned back to the UK, though all of those destined for Stavanger landed successfully. Several crash-landed, and one was reported missing.

The remaining aircraft took off again on 11 May, with one crashing on take-off and another going missing: of the two missing aircraft, one landed at another airfield in Norway, but the other crashed killing all its occupants, including Air Vice Marshal J. R. Scarlett-Streatfield, who had been entrusted with the task of accepting the German surrender in Norway. The aircraft of the next two phases suffered no more casualties, although a number of them were again delayed by inclement weather over the Norwegian airfields. The 1st Airborne Division suffered one officer and 33 other ranks killed, and one other rank wounded, and the RAF six killed and seven injured. All of these losses had occurred after the general surrender had been declared.

With the exception of the captains of several U-boats berthed at Trondheim, the 1st Airborne Division encountered no resistance from the German forces in Norway, who co-operated fully with the airborne troops. The Germans were disarmed without difficulty, allowed themselves to be transferred to collection camps, and also assisted in the clearing of many of the minefields they had sown during their occupation, suffering several casualties in the process.

Until the arrival of other Force 134 units, as well as the Headquarters of Allied Forces, Norway, Urquhart and his headquarters staff had complete control over all Norwegian activities. Among the division’s task was the arrest of war criminals, ensuring that German troops were confined to their camps and reservations and, with Royal Engineer assistance, clearing buildings of mines and other booby traps. The division also had the responsibility of assisting Allied personnel who had been prisoners of war in Norway: these included more than 80,000 Soviet soldiers, many of whom needed medical treatment because of the inhumane conditions in the camps in which they had been imprisoned.

The men and women of the Norwegian resistance movement co-operated fully with the 1st Airborne Division, often providing liaison personnel and performing guard duties, and the Norwegian population as a whole gave a warm welcome to the airborne troops. The Norwegian resistance also helped the division discover the fate of the airborne troops assigned to ‘Freshman’.

The remaining units of Force 134 reached Norway throughout the rest of May, gradually reinforcing the airborne troops. On 10 May elements of a 13,000-strong Norwegian policing force began to enter the country from neutral Sweden, these being young Norwegians who had fled to Sweden after Norway’s occupation in 1940 and been trained as infantry in that country. Thorne arrived with the rest of his headquarters on 13 May, and took up his position as Commander-in-Chief Allied Liberation Forces. In the next two weeks further elements of Force 134 arrived, these including a composite US regiment, a Norwegian brigade, and two British infantry brigades, composed of re-trained anti-aircraft gunners, which replaced the Special Air Service Brigade.

Three weeks after the ‘Doomsday’ delivery of the first Allied army units, the rest of the Allied forces, totalling some 10,000 men, arrived. This total included the rest of the Norwegian Brigade, whose units were stationed at Bardufoss, Bodø, Drag, Fauske, Lødingen, Mosjøen, Skibotn, Svolvær and Tromsø. Their task was primarily the disarmament and control of the surrendered German troops, care and control of a large number German prisoners of war, maintenance of order, clearance of minefields, repair of roads, and the establishment of civilian transport.

The 1st Airborne Division was stationed in Norway until the end of the summer of 1945, and then returned to the UK at the end of August, its personnel being sent on leave.