Best Defense

Review of ‘The Gathering Storm: The Naval War in Northern Europe’

Historians may debate whether Churchill, and the British, were justified in the operations that brought down Norwegian neutrality and the German invasion in April of 1940. What is indisputable, though, is that great stakes played out the northern seas in the winter of 1939-40.

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By Robert Killebrew
Best Defense office of nautical affairs

Most readers with a smattering of history know the story of the stalemate on the Western Front from September 1939 until the Germany blitz in May of 1940. During this period of “phony war,” the armies of Britain, France, and Germany sat virtually immobile, facing one another on the French frontier. But Germany’s Kreigsmarine and the navies of the allies — principally Britain’s Royal Navy — fought a bloody naval war around Norway during that winter, a war that histories of the period sometimes overlook. Geirr Haarr’s magisterial account of those eight stormy months in the fall, winter and early spring of 1939-40, tells the story admirably, ranging from the beginning of the war until the German invasion of Norway. Few authors have ranged so widely and so successfully, from tactics to strategy, from the heroism of men in the combatant ships and the many merchantmen sunk by torpedo and gunfire to the high politics of Swedish and Norwegian neutrality as the Scandinavians tried to stay out of the war.

First, the navies. Beginning with the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, the Kriegsmarine successfully rebuilt itself during the period of German rearmament. Despite a shortage of long-range submarines, destroyers of uncertain seaworthiness and nonexistent cooperation with Goring’s Luftwaffe, in 1939 the German Navy was a major strategic challenge for an unprepared Royal Navy, and the constant attrition of merchant shipping and even of combatants in the stormy and frigid northern seas — which he describes in great detail from logbooks and personal accounts — is gripping reading. The mining campaigns of both navies, often overlooked but critical in the war in northern waters, is covered extensively. The author has augmented his history with pictures from private collections, some rarely ever shown. The gallant attack of the British destroyer Glowworm on the German cruiser Hipper, for example, is covered in detail and, incredibly, the book contains a photograph of Glowworm at the instant the doomed destroyer rammed its huge adversary. U-boat operations in the early stages of the war, as Donitz refined what later became his “wolfpack” tactics, are covered extensively; Prien’s famous penetration of the Grand Fleet’s anchorage at Scapa Flow is covered with diagrams and first-person accounts. The author, a Norwegian himself who has written extensively about the 1940 invasion of Norway, writes with insight and understanding of the terrible conditions under which ships sailed in the north. One passage gives the flavor aboard a German destroyer:

Pitching and rolling with a tireless malice, the bows dug deep into the seas, throwing tons of water over the low forecastle and open bridge, where everyone was soaked to the bones … In the engine and boiler rooms, water was coming through the ventilator intakes, adding to steam leaking from flanges and water connections … as lighting circuits often tripped out, repairs had to be carried out in semi-darkness or aided by unsteady torches … Heidkamp had one especially heavy sea crash into the No.1 boiler room through the fan intakes, temporarily extinguishing the burners and darkening parts of the ship….

In addition to the war afloat, Haarr successfully weaves into the narrative the background and details of the invasion of Finland and the subsequent precarious political position that Sweden and Norway occupied during this period, when iron-ore shipments down the length of the Norwegian coast and (in ice-free months) down the Gulf of Bothnia were vital to the German war machine and, to a lesser extent, the Allies. In the short winter between the beginning of the war and the German invasion of Norway, the author details the constant probing of Norwegian and Swedish neutrality by the Royal Navy, led by Winston Churchill, an aggressive First Lord. Caught between Germany and Great Britain, Sweden managed to keep its neutrality, but Norway, with its iron ore, was invaded by the Germans in early April, just ahead of a British and French invasion force that was already at sea. Fighting dragged on until the German invasion of France, when the allied forces were withdrawn and Norway was occupied by the Germans.

During the study of these events one is surprised at the British planners and their willingness to engage in complicated and far-reaching operations with so little elementary knowledge. There was not the slightest doubt that the operation from every legal and moral standpoint was a flagrant violation of Norwegian neutrality.

In addition to a gripping naval and political narrative, Haarr has added extensive footnotes, tables and appendices ranging from ships of the Polish navy, minelayers in commission, U-boats sunk, allied naval ships lost during the period, armed merchantmen in commission and dozens of other details dear to the hearts of researchers and interested historians alike. The footnotes alone make fascinating, enlightening reading and show the depth of the author’s research. Even for serious historians already familiar with the naval war up north, this book is an invaluable resource.

Historians may debate whether Churchill, and the British, were justified in the operations that brought down Norwegian neutrality and the German invasion in April of 1940. What is indisputable, though, is that great stakes played out the northern seas in the winter of 1939-40. Geirr Haarr’s Gathering Storm is an excellent history of that winter, and a fitting memorial to the brave men who fought those seas and one another.

Robert Killebrew is a retired Army colonel who for fun sails boats around the North Atlantic.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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