The German retreat to Northern Norway

“Die ost wind kommt”….

In early October 1944, some 53,000 men of the German 19th Mountain corps were still some 45 miles (72 km) inside Russia along the Litsa River and the neck of the Rybachy Peninsula. The plan was for them to reach Lakselv in Norway, some 160 miles (260 km) west, by 15 November. By 7 October however, the combined Soviet 14th Army and Northern fleet, consisting of some 133,500 men under Field Marshal Kirill Meretskov, attacked the weakest point of the German line, the junction between the 2nd and 6th Mountain Divisions.

The German 19th Mountain Corps.
The German 19th Mountain Corps.

A Soviet Naval Brigade also made an amphibious landing to the west of Rybachy, thereby outflanking the Germans. Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic, fearing an encirclement of his forces, ordered the 19th Mountain Corps to fall back into Norway. With the Soviets hard on their heels, the Corps reached Kirkenes by 20 October. The German High Command ordered Rendulic to hold the Soviets at bay whilst vital supplies amounting to some 135,000 short tons (122,000 t) could be shipped to safety. Five days later, when the German army prepared to withdraw, only around 45,000 short tons (41,000 t) had been saved.

As a result of the German scorched earth policy, Kirkenes was virtually destroyed by the Germans before pulling out: the town was set on fire, port installations and offices were blown up and only a few small houses were left standing. This scene was to be repeated throughout Finnmark, an area larger than Denmark. The Germans were determined to leave nothing of value to the Soviets, as Hitler had ordered Rendulic to leave the area devoid of people, shelter and supplies. Some 43,000 people complied with the order to evacuate the region immediately; those who refused were forced to leave their homes. Some nonetheless stayed behind to await the departure of the Germans: it was estimated that 23,000-25,000 people remained in East-Finnmark by the end of November, they hid in the wilderness until the Germans had left.

German Mountain Troops in Kirkenes.
German Mountain Troops in Kirkenes.

The Soviets pursued the Germans over the following days, and fighting occurred around the small settlements of Munkelv and Neiden to the west of Kirkenes around 27 October. The German 6th Mountain Division, acting as rear-guard, slowly withdrew up the main road along the coast (known as Riksvei 50, now called the E6) until reaching Tanafjord, some 70 mi (110 km) north-west of Kirkenes, which they reached on 6 November. It was to be their last contact with Soviet troops.

However, the advancement of the Soviet troops stopped and West-Finnmark and North-Troms became a no man’s land between the Soviet army and the German army. Here, several thousand people lived in hiding the whole winter 1944/45. These people were called cave people. They lived in caves, in huts made of driftwood and/or turf, under boats turned upside down etc. The risk of being discovered by patrolling German boats was a constant threat during the months waiting for liberation.

Exiled Norwegian troops liberate Finnmark

On 25 October 1944, the order was given for a Norwegian force in Britain to set sail for Murmansk to join the Soviet forces now entering Northern Norway. The envoy was named Force 138 and the operation was called “Operation Crofter”.

The Norwegian commander, OberstArne D. Dahl, had under his command:

  • A military mission responsible for creating a liaison with the Soviets and setting up a civil administration,
  • Bergkompani 2 under Major S. Rongstad with 233 men,
  • A naval area command with 11 men,
  • “Area command Finnmark” consisting of 12 men.
Norwegian Commandos of Force 138.
Norwegian Commandos of Force 138.

The small force arrived in Murmansk on November 6 and re-embarked on board a Soviet ship to Liinakhamari in North-western Soviet Union (former North-eastern Finland), where they thereafter boarded trucks for the final leg of their journey, arriving back on Norwegian soil having spent over four years in exile on November 10. The Soviet commander, Lieutenant General Sherbakov, made it clear that he wanted the Norwegian Bergkompani to take over the forward positions as soon as possible. Volunteers from the local population were hastily formed into “guard companies” armed with Soviet weapons pending the arrival of more troops from either Sweden or Britain. The first convoy arrived from Britain on 7 December and included two Norwegian corvettes (one of which was later damaged by a mine) and three minesweepers.

Norwegian Bergkompani in East Finnmark, November 1944.
Norwegian Bergkompani in East Finnmark, November 1944.

It soon became obvious that reconnaissance patrols needed to be sent out to discover what the Germans were up to and to find out if the local population to the West had been evacuated or were still there. The reports came back stating that the Germans were in the process of pulling back from Porsanger but were laying mines and booby-traps along the way, a few people were left here and there and many of the buildings were burnt down.

This remained the situation as 1944 slipped into 1945. The New Year would see the Norwegian forces slowly taking back a battered Finnmark, helping the local population in the bitter arctic winter and dealing with occasional German raids from the air, sea and land as well as the ever present danger from mines. Reinforcements arrived from the Norwegian Rikspoliti based in Sweden as well as convoys from Britain. A total of 1,442 people and 1,225 short tons (1,111 t) of material were flown in by Dakota from Kallax in Sweden to Finnmark and by April the Norwegian forces stood at over 3,000 men. On 26 April the Norwegian command sent out a message that Finnmark was free. When the Germans finally capitulated on 8 May 1945, the 1st company of the Varanger battalion was positioned along the FinnmarkTroms border to the west of Alta.

German capitulation and end of occupation

Towards the end of the war, in March 1945, Norwegian Reichskommissar Josef Terboven had considered plans to make Norway the last bastion of the Third Reich and a last sanctum for German leaders. However, following Adolf Hitler’s suicide on 30 April, Hitler’s successor Admiral Karl Dönitz summoned Terboven and General Franz Böhme, Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Norway, to a meeting in Flensburg, where they were ordered to follow the General headquarters’ instructions. On his return to Norway, General Böhme issued a secret directive to his commanders in which he ordered “unconditional military obedience” and “iron discipline”.

Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.
Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.

On 5 May the day that German forces in Denmark surrendered, General Eisenhower dispatched a telegram to resistance headquarters in Norway, which was passed on to General Böhme; it contained information on how to make contact with Allied General Headquarters.

Dönitz dismissed Terboven from his post as Reichskommissar on 7 May, transferring his powers to General Böhme. At 21:10 on the same day, the German High Command ordered Böhme to follow the capitulation plans, and he made a radio broadcast at 22:00 in which he declared that German forces in Norway would obey orders. This led to an immediate and full mobilisation of the underground resistance movement known as Milorg – more than 40,000 armed Norwegians were summoned to occupy the Royal Palace, Oslo’s main police station, as well as other public buildings. A planned Norwegian administration was set up overnight.

The following afternoon, on 8 May, an Allied military mission arrived in Oslo to deliver the conditions for capitulation to the Germans, and arranged the surrender, which took effect at midnight. The conditions included the German High Command agreeing to arrest and intern all German and Norwegian Nazi party members listed by the Allies, disarm and intern all SS troops, and send all German forces to designated areas. At this time there were no fewer than 400,000 German troops in Norway, which had a population of barely three million.

Germans surrender Akershus Fortress to Terje Rollem on 11 May 1945.
Germans surrender Akershus Fortress to Terje Rollem on 11 May 1945.

Following the surrender, detachments of regular Norwegian and Allied troops were sent to Norway, which included 13,000 Norwegian troops trained in Sweden and 30,000 British and American troops. Official representatives of the Norwegian civil authorities followed soon after these military forces, with Crown Prince Olav arriving in Oslo on a British cruiser on 14 May, with a 21-man delegation of Norwegian government officials headed up by Sverre Støstad and Paul Hartmann, with the remainder of the Norwegian government and the London-based administration following on the troopship Andes. Finally, on 7 June, which also happened to be the 40th anniversary of the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden, King Haakon VII and the remaining members of the royal family arrived in Oslo. General Sir Andrew Thorne, Commander-in-Chief of Allied forces in Norway, transferred power to King Haakon that same day.

Norwegian Royal family waving at the crowds in Oslo upon returning from exile.
Norwegian Royal family waving at the crowds in Oslo upon returning from exile.

Following the liberation, the Norwegian government-in-exile was replaced by a coalition led by Einar Gerhardsen which governed until the autumn of 1945 when the first postwar general election was held, returning Gerhardsen as prime minister, at the head of a Labour Party government.

Norwegian survivors began to emerge from the German concentration camps. By the end of the war 92,000 Norwegians were abroad, 46,000 of whom were in Sweden. In addition to the German occupiers, there were 141,000 foreign nationals in Norway, most of them prisoners of war who had been held by the Germans but who were now liberated. Of these, 84,000 were Russians.

A total of 10,262 Norwegians lost their lives either during the war or while they were imprisoned. Approximately 50,000 Norwegians were arrested by the Germans during the occupation. Of these, 9,000 were consigned to prison camps outside Norway, including Stutthof concentration camp.


Lebensborn and war children

During the five-year occupation, several thousand Norwegian women had children fathered by German soldiers in the Lebensborn program. The mothers were ostracised and humiliated after the war both by Norwegian officialdom and the civilian population, and were called names such as tyskertøser (literally “whores of [the] Germans”). Many of these women were detained at internment camps such as the one on Hovedøya, and some were even deported to Germany. The children of these unions received names like tyskerunger (children of Germans) or worse yet naziyngel (Nazi spawn). The debate on the past treatment of these krigsbarn (war children) started with a television series in 1981, but only recently have the offspring of these unions begun to identify themselves. Fritz Moen, the victim of the only known dual miscarriage of justice in Europe, was the child of a Norwegian woman and a German soldier.


Throughout the war years, a number of Norwegians fled the Nazi regime, mostly across the border to Sweden. These included Norwegian Jews, political activists, and others who had reason to fear for their lives. The Nazis set up border patrols to stop these flights across the very long border, but locals who knew the woods found ways to bypass them. These “border pilots”, and people who hid refugees in their homes, were among those in the resistance movement who took the greatest risks.

Norwegian refugees passing the open area cut in the woods between Norway and Sweden.
Norwegian refugees passing the open area cut in the woods between Norway and Sweden.

Swedish authorities accepted the refugees and ensured their safety once they had crossed the border, but did little to facilitate their escape. Refugees were often confined to camps where only their basic needs were met. About 50,000 Norwegians fled to Sweden during the war.

In addition to the Jews, members of the resistance movement and other people who had more acute reason to fear for their lives, a great many refugees were men of military age wishing to join the Norwegian armed forces abroad. Before the German invasion of Russia, a number of them managed to make their way out of Sweden and travel over Russian territory to Britain, often via India, South Africa or Canada. After Operation Barbarossa the overland route over Russian soil was closed.

The rest of the refugees were effectively locked up in Sweden for the duration, except for a small number of officers, pilots or other specialists managing to obtain priority on the occasional plane leaving Sweden for Britain.

In the last two years of the war, the Norwegian government in exile in London obtained permission and cooperation from the Swedish authorities to raise military formations on Swedish territory in the form of the so-called “Police troops” recruited from Norwegian refugees. The term “Police” being a cover-up for what in reality was pure military training. These formations, numbering 12,000 men organised into battalions and with their own pioneers, signals and artillery by VE-day, were equipped with Swedish weapons and equipment and trained by Norwegian and Swedish officers.

A number of the “Police troops” were employed in the liberation of Finnmark in the winter of 1944/45 after the area had been evacuated by the Germans. The rest participated in liberation of the rest of Norway after the German surrender in May 1945.

Treason trials

Even before the war ended, there was debate among Norwegians about the fate of traitors and collaborators. A few favored a “night of long knives” with extrajudicial killings of known offenders. However, cooler minds prevailed, and much effort was put into assuring due process trials of accused traitors. In the end, 37 people were executed by Norwegian authorities, 25 Norwegians on the grounds of treason, and 12 Germans on the grounds of crimes against humanity. 28,750 were arrested, though most were released for lack of probable cause. In the end, 20,000 Norwegians and a smaller number of Germans were given prison sentences. 77 Norwegians and 18 Germans received life sentences. A number of people were sentenced to pay heavy fines.

The trials have been subject to some criticism in later years. It has been pointed out that sentences became more lenient with the passage of time, and that many of the charges were based on the unconstitutional and illegal retroactive application of laws.

German prisoners of war

After the war the Norwegian government forced German prisoners of war to clear minefields. When the clearing ended in September 1946, 392 of them had been injured and 275 had been killed, meanwhile only two Norwegians and four British mine-clearers had sustained any injuries. Many of the Germans were killed through their guards’ habit of chasing them criss-cross over a cleared field to ensure that no mines remained. The Norwegians’ claim that the German prisoners were Disarmed Enemy Forces circumvented the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which forbids the use of prisoners of war for harmful or dangerous labour.

German soldiers waiting at a camp in Mandal to be returned home to Germany, August 1945.
German soldiers waiting at a camp in Mandal to be returned home to Germany, August 1945.
A German soldier clearing a mine near Stavanger, August 1945.
A German soldier clearing a mine near Stavanger, August 1945.

Legacy of the occupation

By the end of the war, German occupation had reduced Norway’s GDP by 45% – more than any other occupied country. In addition to this came the physical and patrimonial ravages of the war itself. In Finnmark, these were considerably important, as large areas were destroyed as a result of the scorched earth policy that the Germans had pursued during their retreat. Moreover, many towns and settlements were damaged or destroyed by bombing and fighting.

Social and cultural transformation

The adversity created as a result of the occupation strengthened and further defined the Norwegian national identity. The history of the resistance movement may have been glorified excessively, but it has also provided Norwegian military and political leaders with durable role models. The shared hardship of the war years also set the stage for social welfare policies of the post-war Norwegian Labour Party governments. It also led to the abandonment of Norway’s traditional policy of neutrality, formalized when Norway became a founding member of NATO in 1949. Finally, it led to a broad political and popular commitment to maintain armed forces large enough to realistically defend the country against any likely threat, as well as to keep those armed forces under firm civilian control.

Surviving Luftwaffe aircraft

The primary Luftwaffe day fighter unit dedicated to serve in the area of Norway, Jagdgeschwader 5 (5th Fighter Wing), was the unit that used more of the surviving World War II German fighter aircraft than any other in the forces of the Axis powers during World War II. The complement of surviving German fighter aircraft that once served with JG 5 comprises some twenty examples of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and several examples of the radial-engined versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. A small number of JG 5’s surviving aircraft have been recently restored to flying condition as warbird aircraft with various organizations that fly them in airshow events, and a few others that served with JG 5 are also in the process of being restored to flying condition, early in the 21st century.

The lone surviving original example of the Arado Ar 234 Blitz turbojet-powered Nazi German reconnaissance bomber, restored and on display in the Smithsonian Institution‘s Udvar-Hazy Center, in 1945 was based in Norway with Kampfgeschwader 76 (76th Bomber Wing).


Further reading




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