Operation Omnibus (ii)

'Omnibus' (ii) was a British series of small craft and land attack attacks on targets along the northern part of the coast of German-occupied Norway (February/March 1943).

Operations such as 'Freshman' and 'Musketoon' had already revealed that there were two main problems with small-scale operations in Norway. Firstly, the harsh winter climate made the use of non-specialist troops hazardous and secondly, while the success of 'Gunnerside' had confirmed both the necessity and possibilities inherent in the use of expert forces in these conditions, that there were very few such men available to the Combined Operation Headquarters. Moreover, it was already well understood that there was no merit in the mounting of raiding operations during the long summer days of the extreme force, when the absence of darkness made it impossible even for high-speed craft to approach and exit the air waters off northern Norway without discovery and therefore interception by German air and naval forces. There was the question of transport, for Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet remained adamantly unwilling to risk its ships off Norway. Vice Admiral Sir Max Horton (from 9 November 1942 Rear Admiral C. B. Barry), the commander of the British submarine arm, was similarly wary about Combined Operations, and the use of aircraft had also proved itself somewhat problematical, if not actually unsuccessful. There had been, however, several developments over the autumn and winter 1942, and these went some way to resolving these difficulties.

The solution to the transport problem came from an organisation outside the purview of the Combined Operations Headquarters. Vice Admiral Sir Lionel Wells, the admiral commanding in the Orkney and Shetland island groups, was shortly to receive some new 100-ton Fairmile Type D motor torpedo boats crewed by Free Norwegians of the 30th (Norwegian) Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla, and Wells planned the 'VP' series of anti-shipping operations in the Norwegian Inner Leads to exploit the capabilities of these craft and the expertise of their crews. It is possible that in October 1942 Wells approached the Combined Operations Headquarters to solicit the use of modest numbers of commandos on these raids, though the evidence of Lieutenant Patrick Dalzel-Job, who liaised between Wells’s command, Combined Operation Headquarters and the 30th (Norwegian) MTB Flotilla, is more compelling in suggesting that Wells was both averse to special forces undertakings and also the presence of army personnel on ships, and that the initiative therefore came from the Combined Operations Headquarters. Certainly the notion had already been raised before Wells and Vice Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten, heading Combined Operations Headquarters, met in London during September 1942 to discuss the matter. The object of the 'VP' raids was to interrupt the Germans' supply operation to northern Norway, sink German shipping in the Inner Leads, attack German patrol vessels, and confuse the Germans' coastal traffic and defences. Brigadier R. E. Laycock’s Special Service Brigade provided troops for boarding actions and to serve as shore guards in the vent that the boats laid up in the Leads. Nonetheless, Combined Operations Headquarters had a slightly larger-scale concept for its new capability.

Captain Ted Fynn of No. 12 Commando was given operational command of the military side of 'VP' with some 60 men of No. 12 Commando and the Norwegian Company of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, which had come into existence in June and July 1942. On 19 April 1943, this 'Fynn' Force became the Combined Operations North Force, and was based in the Shetland islands group with the motor torpedo boat crews. To complement 'Fynn' Force, Mountbatten had already approached the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee with the idea of a specialised Arctic Commando with men trained to operate in Norwegian winter conditions. The proposed Arctic Commando would be divided into two troops, one optimised for mountain warfare and the other for kayak operations with limpet mines.

On 10 November 1942, the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee approved the creation of No. 14 (Arctic) Commando, and recruitment began under the supervision of its designated commander, Lieutenant Colonel E. A. M. Wedderburn: a primary recruitment source was the Canadian army, which included many men with the required canoeing, mountaineering and skiing skills, but other men were drawn from British formations, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and the Special Operations Executive’s No. 1 Norwegian Independent Company.

The ski troop of No. 14 Commando prepared for two important and spectacular operations in the 1942/43 winter raiding season, although in the event neither of these was launched. Both were of considerable strategic importance, which is perhaps more than could be said for some of the raids envisaged in the 'VP' and 'Omnibus' (ii) series. The Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty initiated 'Gunhouse' in response to the losses suffered by the Arctic convoys to the attacks of German torpedo bombers based on airfields in northern Norway, and in this effort an eight-man party was to attack and destroy the torpedo stocks on Banak airfield. The raid was cancelled, however, on the presumption that it had been compromised, after the agent gathering intelligence for the operation committed suicide when the two men he had despatched to Banak failed to return.

The matter of the delivery of iron ore to Germany from the mines of northern Sweden had been one which had taxed British policymakers and strategists since 1939. Inspired by a memorandum from General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 'Pullover' was one of a series of operations schemed or otherwise considered as a way to halt the supply. A ski party was to be dropped by parachute to cut the railway between Sweden and Narvik by destroying the viaduct at Nordals. The total loss of No. 14 Commando’s raiding party appeared likely, however, and Wedderburn said that he would vote against its despatch. More senior officers believed that the undertaking possessed an importance sufficient to warrant its implementation despite its likely cost, despite the fact that this might mean the end of No. 14 Commando and all the UK’s best Arctic warfare specialists. Though very reluctant, the RAF provided the Handley Page Halifax aircraft needed for long-range transport. Once again though, adverse weather conditions intervened to delay matters, and right through the suitable period of the moon the weather did not co-operate.

In the motor torpedo boat, the navy and Combined Operations Headquarters had finally found what appeared to be the right weapon with which to disrupt German shipping off the Norwegian coast and also of mounting regular, though inevitably small, raids on coastal targets. However, with so many bodies involved, co-ordination was inevitably difficult. The Admiralty allocated to Wells the task of co-ordinating small-scale operations along the Norwegian coast, but this cut across Mountbatten’s preserve as the chief of Combined Operations possessed the authority to mount raids in northern Europe and the Admiralty omitted all reference to Mountbatten’s authority, which angered the Combined Operations Headquarters, always very protective of its rights. Although the Admiralty proved inflexible, Combined Operations Headquarters was able to create a working relationship with Wells whereby the admiral controlled all small seaborne operations and purely naval operations, and Mountbatten remained the normal authority for planning. Wells had no control over airborne operations and Mountbatten ensured that there was no conflict of interest in targets. Though useful, what these accommodations ignored was that it was not only the forces of Combined Operations and the Shetland islands group which were operating in Norwegian coastal waters, for both the Secret Intelligence Service and Special Operations were highly involved in Norway. The Chief-of-staff Committee invited the Admiralty to co-ordinate all minor seaborne operations regardless of their origins. This meant that not only did the proposals of the Combined Operations Headquarters have to go through Wells, but also that the Admiralty had the last word on the implementation or cancellation of any and all combined operations in Norway, and arbitrated in the event of conflicts of interest with other organisations. There was no doubt that the Admiralty would always operate to protect the Secret Intelligence Service’s coast-watching activities, for these provided intelligence about the activities of German warships in Norwegian waters, which was the navy’s primary interest in Norway. To ensure that Wells was left in no doubt about his priorities, the Admiralty gave him a directive about his motor torpedo boats' primary task, which was to be attacks on shipping, without complications and the addition of alternative targets even if the shipping raid is being carried out at the same time.

At the practical level, this gave Dalzel-Job and the 30th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla considerable autonomy when operating against naval targets. In this planning, Dalzel-Job was controlled largely by the weather conditions and the serviceability of the boats. Fynn and his men made their first foray on 22 November 1942, but withdrew in their motor torpedo boat on meeting a German patrol boat. The same undertaking was repeated less than one week later, and on this occasion the motor torpedo boats enjoyed some success, and one party laid up for three days near the Bommelfjord. The attacks on shipping continued without loss throughout December and January, proving that the motor torpedo boat was a viable weapon for operations along the Norwegian coast.

The ambitious series of raids planned for 1943 was codenamed 'Omnibus' (ii), and it object was the destruction of defence positions, which might otherwise hinder the passage of motor torpedo boats, and 'to kill and capture Germans'. The boats would land commandos to attack the land target while the motor torpedo boats undertook normal 'VP' operations. As a result of the small scale of both forces and targets, the objectives were to be selected by the force commanders, specifically Fynn and Lieutenant Rangvald Tamber, the senior officer of 30th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla. The extemporised nature of this arrangement, it is worth noting, was a marked change from the previous raiding policy.

At a time late in January, the possibilities were realised. The Special Operations Executive decided that the pyrites mines at Lillebų on Stord island were a target worthy of attack but were too large for the Special Operations Executive’s capabilities. The existence of the 30th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla and 'Fynn' Force made raid feasible, however,. Wells and Tovey resisted the concept on the grounds that they believed that the limited number of motor torpedo boats currently available should been concentrates against the main objective, namely attacks on shipping in the Leads. Despite this high-level opposition, though, this 'Cartoon' raid proceeded, possibly as a result of the fact that every other organisation with the slightest interest in the project, including the Secret Intelligence Service, approved it. On the night of 23/24 January, therefore, 53 men of Nos 12 Commando and No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, under Fynn’s command, were carried by four motor torpedo boats, escorted by three similar boats, under Tamber’s command, to land on Stord. The landing party overcame limited resistance and briskly effected its demolitions on the mine and workings. The raid was highly successful: rapidly and at little cost, the commandos had caused considerable damage to an important industrial installation. The raid’s casualties were one man killed and two wounded, and 12 Norwegians on MTB-626 were injured to greater or less degree. The motor torpedo boats attacked and sank a 2,000-ton German ship near Lervick, to the south-east of Stord, and also shot down a Junkers Ju 88 medium bomber. Thus 'Cartoon' amply validated the potential of 'Fynn' Force and the motor torpedo boats of the Norwegian-manned flotilla.

Nonetheless, 'Cartoon' was an undertaking of greater and more complex scale than the standard raid. The motor torpedo boats generally carried only six to eight commandos, whose role was primarily of a defensive nature. However, it was envisaged that even such small numbers should occasionally undertake more aggressive operations in support of the motor torpedo boats, and 'Roundabout' was typical of this approach. The anchorage at Rovdefjord near Landet seemed to be a tempting target, even though in their withdrawal the motor torpedo boats would have to pass through a narrow passage crossed by a swing bridge at Dragsund, and a small party would therefore be landed to ensure that the bridge was opened. 'Roundabout' was mounted on 23 March, and six commandos (including a US Ranger officer) and one Norwegian sailor were landed. Three of them investigated the bridge, deciding that the bridge was not guarded. But the men then stumbled across a German sentry, and the resulting exchange of fire raised the alarm. The landed party quickly came under heavy automatic fire, and the motor torpedo boat signalled the party to withdraw as the mission was clearly compromised.

'Roundabout' was therefore unsuccessful and Colonel Robert Henriques, the Combined Operations Headquarters' assistant chief planner, noted that there was 'little excuse for assuming that no enemy will be found on any portion of enemy territory, whatever may be stated in the intelligence'.

The plans for the North Force also included a third type of operation known at first as 'Cobblestone'. This was based on the notion of establishing small groups of men from No. 14 Commando on Norwegian islands to undertake kayak and limpet mine attacks on German shipping. There was great opposition from the Secret Intelligence Service and the Norwegian government-in-exile, the former believed that it would disrupt the existing coast-watching organisation, and the latter that operations of this type would result in major German reprisals against the Norwegian population, and thus a diminution of morale in occupied Norway, although it did believe that they was scope for such operations in the course of a liberation.

However, the many occasions in which motor torpedo boats had laid up safely within the Leads, often for days at a time, convinced the planners in Shetland and at Combined Operations Headquarters that 'Cobblestone' raids were practical. Sub-Lieutenant Joe Godwin, of No. 14 Commando, believed as a result of personal experience that a small party with a boat could easily evade the Germans for a lengthy period, and was given command of the first such raid, codenamed 'Checkmate'. In this, Godwin proposed an attack on shipping in anchorages at Haugesund in southern Norway by a small party operating from canoes and armed with limpet mines. The Combined Operations Headquarters expressed some concern, but Captain D. H. Magnay, its chief naval planner, gave guarded approval if Godwin possessed skill and cunning. MTB-626 delivered Godwin’s seven-man party on the morning of 30 April 1943. Although the 30th Motor Boat Flotilla missed the first rendezvous as a result of adverse weather, three boats sailed as soon as the weather cleared on 17 May. Norwegian motor torpedo boats made five fruitless efforts to locate and extract Godwin’s party, and the Combined Operations Headquarters later came to believe, on the basis of Special Operations Executive reports, that the 'Checkmate' party probably sank one ship but was then captured on the island from which it was to have been evacuated.

The fate of the 'Checkmate' party over the next two years was later established by the Combined Operations Headquarters. The men of the party were initially incarcerated in the Grini concentration camp, near the Norwegian capital of Oslo, but late in the spring or early in the summer of 1943 were shifted to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. According to a Norwegian held with them, the men were treated very badly but maintained high morale. This continued until 2 February 1945, when the Germans decided the Commando Order should finally be applied to them. Godwin managed to remove the pistol from a German non-commissioned officer during a scuffle, however, and shot him before the men were shot down.

'Checkmate' was the last commando attack on Norway in the winter/spring raiding 'season' of 1942/43, for though many other operations were planned, none was carried out. 'Checkmate' was also the first and last of the 'Cobblestone' series. Fynn suggested a large operation on the scale of 'Cartoon' to capture the coast-defence battery on Rugsundo in conjunction with a 'VP' raid, and while North Force made extensive preparations, the discovery of a new German watch post made the naval plan impractical and caused its abandonment. The motor torpedo boats made some very successful penetration attacks into the Leads, but to these their commando guards were largely irrelevant.

All in all, it had been a somewhat disappointing raiding season. The Secret Intelligence Service’s opposition and the Admiralty directive in favour of Wells’s anti-shipping operations ensured that the needs of the Combined Operations Headquarters gained little priority. Nonetheless, there was cause for optimism despite the tragic outcome of 'Checkmate'. The motor torpedo boat had become established as the optimum means to cross the North Sea and operate in Norwegian coastal waters. Dalzel-Job had become an energetic and enthusiastic planner, and the Norwegian sailors were courageous, resourceful and operated comfortably off their own coast. Fynn remained keen, and turned down the position of second in command of No. 12 Commando in order to remain in Scotland. North Force, comprising elements of No. 14 (Arctic), No. 10 (Inter-Allied) and No. 12 Commandos, had gained valuable experience, and there was now a well-trained core group of Arctic-trained troops. There was every reason to believe that these would all build on the lessons learnt in 1942/43 and operate extensively and effectively on the Norwegian coast in the autumn, winter and spring period of 1943/44.