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Norway's liberation

By Tor Dagre


In Norway, the second world war ended in a way which few had expected or even dared to anticipate. The German forces, led by General Franz Böhme, surrendered their weapons on midnight, 8 May 1945 after orders from the German High Command, and afterwards conducted themselves in an exemplary manner. Allied forces, Norwegians among them, took over and within a few weeks all administration was transferred to civilian Norwegian organs.

It was widely feared that the war would end differently. Such apprehensions had a basis in arithmetic - the Germans had a huge concentration of armed forces on Norwegian soil. As many as 400,000 men- members of the German army, navy and air force - were stationed in Norway and when the Third Reich's collapse drew near, there were still 360,000 enemy troops in the country.

Among them were numerous detachments with fresh combat experience on the Northern Front, in Russia and Finland. From the summer of 1944 to the beginning of 1945 they had been led by General Lothar Rendulic. Rendulic, his chief of staff General Böhme, Major-General Hermann Hölter, and the naval chief, Admiral Krancke, were all officers with battle experience and tough reputations.

But the main cause for concern about a violent end to the war in Norway was the ardent Nazi, Josef Terboven. From the summer of 1940 he had been the German commissioner (Reichskommissar) and the country's real ruler. He was known as a hawk and was associated with slogans such as "fight to the last man" and Festung Norwegen (Fortress Norway). One suspected that his certitude about the fate awaiting him after a capitulation also contributed to his uncompromising stance.

Terboven did not have command of the military forces. However, the police were under his leadership. They numbered some 6,000 troops, including 800 in the widely feared security police. There is no reason to doubt that if Terboven had had his way the termination of the war would not have been so peaceful.

The beginning of the end

One can say that the closing of the war in Norway began on 18 October 1944. That was the day when Soviet military units crossed the Norwegian-Soviet border in pursuit of retreating German forces. The Norwegian exile government in London had been forewarned about the Soviet advance, and there was some uncertainty about the Soviet goals. How far would the Russians penetrate into Norway, and how long would they stay?

The Soviet forces were satisfied with occupying Sør-Varanger, the border area of Finnmark county. However, the Germans retreated to the southwest, all the way to Lyngen in northern Troms county. Here they established a new front, where three German Army corps dug in. During the withdrawal, the Norwegian civilians were forced to evacuate to the south, and the Germans razed the territory.

However, even before the retreat, the eastern part of Finnmark was devastated by the war. For instance, the town of Kirkenes had been bombed 328 times. During the retreat, buildings were burned to the ground, the infrastructure blown to bits, and everything of value which the Germans came across was demolished. Nothing was to be left for Germany's enemies - the scorched earth tactic was implemented across an area considerably larger than the whole of Denmark.

But the Soviet forces crossed into Norway before the Germans had completed their plans of evacuation. The people of Sør-Varanger welcomed the Soviet troops enthusiastically. Among the liberated civilians were 3,000 to 4,000 who had hid in a mine shaft at Bjørnevatn. All in all, from 20,000 to 25,000 Norwegians managed to escape German detection during the forced evacuation. For most of them, the period until the German capitulation was harrowing - it was mid-winter and provisions were scarce.

However, the hardships were also considerable for the 40,000 to 45,000 who were forced to flee to the south. They were transported to areas which were far from prepared to receive them. The town of Tromsø, which at the time had a population of about 10,000, doubled in size. Yet primary services functioned relatively well in the north Norwegian towns. However, in the south of the country the evacuees' reception by their countrymen was not always as warm and understanding.

Norwegian troops return

Norwegian troops arrived at Kirkenes three weeks after the Russians. On 11 November 1944, 300 soldiers led by Col. Arne D. Dahl crossed the border in Soviet lorries. They belonged to the 2nd mountain company of the Norwegian brigade in Scotland, and had been sent by ship to Murmansk. The Norwegians who had remained in Finnmark were disappointed that the Norwegian troops came so late and were so few in number. Of course, they couldn't know that the exiled government in London had pressed hard for a bigger effort among the Western Allies. But the British and Americans had other plans - top priority was given to the battles on the Continent in the final phases of the war in Europe.

Later in the winter, Norwegian police troops from Sweden also arrived. When the war ended there were 3,000 Norwegian soldiers in the region.

After the Soviet incursion, there was a cessation of battle in Finnmark. One of the reasons was that Stalin also gave priority to the drive in Central Europe. The Russians remained in Norway until 26 September 1945, when they withdrew across the border to their own territory.

The decision to withdraw was subject to internal disputes in leading Soviet circles. Some officers and foreign ministry officials wanted the USSR to stay put in Finnmark. But Stalin and Molotov gave priority to good relations with their Norwegian neighbour, thus avoiding a new dispute with the Western Allies.

Norway in the grip of the Nazis

As the second world war escalated toward its finale in the main theatre of battle, confrontations in Norway also grew more fierce. Although in the last months of the war Norway was held in the iron grip of the occupying power, Germany had allowed a puppet regime to govern from 1 February 1942. The head of this regime was Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the fascist party Nasjonal Samling (NS). As mentioned, the German overseer for the Norwegian administration, and the real ruler, was Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.

Compulsory mobilisation?

Toward the end of the war, Quisling's government had worked for the compulsory mobilisation of Norwegians as cannon fodder for the German side. This never came about, partly because the Germans did not think it feasible, but also because plans and facilities for induction and mobilisation were subjected to acts of sabotage by Norway's legitimate forces. But the Quisling government had been permitted by the Germans to establish an armed alarm unit. In April 1945 it was 2,000 strong and capable of causing harm. Quisling planned to mobilise another 10,000 men, but developments evolved too fast for these to be effected.

But there were Norwegians in German uniforms at the Nazi's disposal around the country. These consisted of SS units which had fought on the northern front and later had been evacuated. In Finnmark, detachments of these Norwegian SS units engaged in battle with small Norwegian partisan groups.

As the war drew to a close, the Norwegian resistance leaders feared that civil war conditions could break out in many areas of the country. Norwegian underground units were being ordered to participate in a rising number of actions against the Nazi transport apparatus and the activities of the Norwegian NS authorities. As a result, the main headquarters of the Norwegian State Railways was blown up.

Antagonisms also mounted within the NS party toward the end of the war. A represent for the more aggressive faction, Henrik Rogstad who led the Trøndelag county branch, was promoted to commander of the State Police in April 1945. Together with the police minister, Jonas Lie, he was dead set on battling to the bitter end.


Tens of thousands of Norwegians were in prisons and prisoner of war camps at home and in Germany at the end of the war. In camps spread around Norway, the Germans had nearly 100,000 allied war prisoners, mainly Russians. Conditions were deplorable and the mortality rate among these prisoners was enormous. There were also some 30,000 to 40,000 alien civilians in Norway. The Germans had imported them as forced labour to build Festung Norwegen.

The Resistance Movement

In secret, a Norwegian military force had been created to fight the huge German power. In part, the underground had been spontaneously organised by individuals who wanted to continue fighting the occupying forces. Other troops had been dropped in by parachute or transported into the country, on small vessels - the so-called "Shetland bus" - aboard submarines, or by the land route across the Swedish border. These clandestine forces included radio operators, sabotage experts and military instructors. In their wake followed weapon and equipment deliveries. In time, a secret army had been organised. When the Germans capitulated, the underground military groups totalled 40,000 soldiers. Their commander was Jens Christian Hauge, who was later appointed minister of defence by Einar Gerhardsen in the Labour Party government which was elected in the autumn of 1945.

The Resistance cooperated closely with the Norwegian government in London, and detailed and closely synchronised preparations had been made. This is certainly part of the reason why the capitulation did not end in massive bloodshed.

Fear of last-ditch battles

Norwegians and the allies feared that the strong German forces in Festung Norwegen might attempt to continue the fight even after the collapse of Berlin. In that case, huge allied forces would have to be sent to Norway, resulting in massive destruction and loss of life. But contingency plans for such a scenario had been made by the Allied staffs.

Of course, the Norwegian government in London was also prepared for such a denouement. It was believed that if this were the outcome, Swedish forces would also be drawn into battle. Without informing the Allied partners, Norwegians raised the matter with the Swedish government. The Swedes were also convinced that Allied battles with the German troops on Norwegian soil would have such an effect, but the Swedish government wished to avoid being drawn into the fight to liberate Norway.

Right toward the end of the war, the issue of Sweden's ability to help reach a solution in Norway was raised by a Swedish count, Folke Bernadotte, at a meeting with SS Commander Heinrich Himmler's representative, Walther Schnellenberg. Would it be easier for the German forces to capitulate to the neutral Sweden, and in return receive immediate transportation back to Germany? Himmler agreed that it would.

The Swedish government pursued the matter. It continued its dialogue with German officers until the idea was totally rejected by General Böhme and the chief of general staff in Norway, General Hölter.

The final days

Hitler's suicide on 30 April 1945 in his bomb shelter in Berlin was the supreme sign that peace was close at hand. The Allied forces had a choke hold on the Germans in Central Europe. The Germans were still in control in only two countries - Denmark and Norway. But it was only in Norway that fanatical Nazis had an opportunity to prolong the war.

In these final days, the spotlight was on the German headquarters in Lillehammer. Norwegians - and thus the Allies as well - knew what was going on with the aid of intelligence sources within the German headquarters. It was known that Terboven, in March 1945, was considering plans to make Norway the last bastion of the Third Reich - a last-ditch sanction for German leaders.

But after Hitler died, the German situation was obviously hopeless. On 1 May, Hitler's successor Admiral Dönitz summoned General Böhme and Reichskommissar Terboven to a meeting in Flensburg where they were ordered to follow the instructions of the General Headquarters. Upon his return to Norway, it was clear that Terboven also recognised defeat. In a secret directive to the military commanders, General Böhme ordered "unconditional military obedience" and "iron discipline".

The first contact

Naturally, the likelihood of a peaceful solution in Norway increased when the German occupiers capitulated in Denmark on 5 May. On the same evening, General Eisenhower sent a telegram to the resistance headquarters in Norway. It was passed on to General Böhme and contained practical information about how to make contact with the Allied General Headquarters.

On 7 May, at 02:41, the German high command signed capitulation documents in the Western Allies' headquarters in Reims, France. The ceremony was repeated on the following day at the Red Army's headquarters in Berlin. The armistice was to be implemented at midnight between 8 and 9 May.

In Norway, the news spread like wildfire on 7 May. Flags were flown for the first time in years and the population was infected with expectations. But do to doubts regarding how the occupiers and their helpers would respond, the mounting Norwegian joy was tinged with reservation.

Admiral Dönitz dismissed Terboven as Reichskommissar on 7 May, and his power was transferred to General Böhme. Then, at 9:10 P.M, General Böhme was ordered by the German high command to follow the capitulation plans. At 10 P.M. he went on radio and declared that the German troops in Norway would obey orders.

This lead immediately to full mobilisation of the resistance military organisiation, Milorg. The underground forces took up their positions on the same evening. Soon, 40,000 armed Norwegians turned up, more or less right in front of the German rifles. They occupied the Royal Palace, the central police station in Oslo, as well as a number of other public buildings and strategic places. As early as 10 May, the Resistance had even posted guards in Lillehammer, where the Germans had their headquarters. Over night, a pre-planned Norwegian administration was on the spot, prepared also to administer counties as well as municipalities.

On the afternoon of 8 May, the Allied military mission arrived in Oslo. It delivered its conditions for capitulation to the Germans, and the surrender was arranged in the course of the night.

The demands were actually quite astounding. The German high command agreed to arrest and intern all German and Norwegian Nazis who were listed by the Allies. The Germans were to disarm and intern all their SS troops and the armed Norwegian Nazis. They were forced to send all German units to areas designated by the Allies. They was also ordered to respect Norwegian authorities and the Norwegian resistance. In retrospect, we can conclude that events turned out most satisfactorily.

The defeat

For the German power elite in Norway, the defeat was indisputable when Reichskommissär Terboven and his police general, Wilhelm Rediess, committed suicide. Their Norwegian proteges, Minister of Justice Jonas Lie and the chief of the State Police, Henrik Rogstad, also took their own lives. The minister president, Vidkun Quisling, was arrested and later sentenced to death by a Norwegian court.

After the war, legal proceedings were initiated against those who had aided the Germans. Charges were filed against 90,000 persons, and 46,000 were sentenced for treason. Among these, 18,000 were sentenced to prison terms, 28,000 were fined and deprived of their rights as citizens.

A total of 30 Norwegians received death sentences, as were 15 German war criminals. Thirty-seven of the executions were carried out - 25 Norwegians and 12 Germans. Among the Norwegians was also Quisling's minister of the interior, Albert V. Hagelin. Among the Germans executed were the police chiefs in Oslo, Trondheim and Kristiansand. Another 60 Germans were sentenced to prison terms, most of them members of the security police.

The law takes over

Following the German capitulation, regular Norwegian and Allied detachments were sent to Norway. Among these were Norwegian forces trained in Sweden. Upon their return home on 10 May, there were 13,000 of these troops, comprising 8 battalions of police reserves, 8 state police companies, as well as staff and support units. At their peak, the British and American detachments totalled 30,000 soldiers.

Representatives for the civilian Norwegian authorities followed on the heals of the military troops. Crown Prince Olav arrived in Oslo aboard a British cruiser on 14 May. Accompanying him was a 21-man Norwegian government delegation led by ministers Sverre Støstad and Paul Hartmann. The rest of the Norwegian government and much of the London administration followed on the troop transport ship Andes. Finally, on 7 June - the 40th anniversary of Norway's dissolution of its union with Sweden in 1905 - King Haakon VII and the rest of the royal family set foot on Norwegian soil.

The first tasks

The first job for the allied authorities and the Norwegian administration was to send the German forces home and repatriate the enormous number of mistreated prisoners of war whom the Germans had interned in Norway. Little progress was made with the return of German soldiers until the late summer, and the last ones did not leave Norway until the summer of 1946.

In Norway there were 83,000 Soviet P.O.W.s, several thousand Poles, 2,500 Yugoslavs as well as a few prisoners from other former occupied countries. Most of them were in miserable condition. About 17,000 prisoners had already succumbed from mistreatment or had been executed. Some wished to get back to their home countries as soon as possible; others hoped to stay in Norway. But the fate of the prisoners of war was in the hands of the major powers - they were to be sent home.

Later, we have learned that an awful fate awaited many of the Soviet war prisoners. Some were shot when they crossed the border, and most wound up in concentration camps.

The legitmate administration

The Commander in Chief for the Allied forces in Norway, the British General Sir Andrew Thorne, transferred power to Norway's constitutional monarch, King Haakon, on the day of the king's return, 7 June. Cooperation between Norwegian and Allied authorities was congenial and generally problem-free. The biggest point of contention involved the matter of the German weapons and equipment in Norway. The Norwegians wished to keep it for the development of the nation's own armed forces. But most of it was destroyed, apparently to facilitate future British weapons exports to Norway.

After the liberation, the Norwegian exile government from London was replaced by a coalition government led by Einar Gerhardsen. It governed until a general election was held in the autumn of 1945. Gerhardsen was elected to continue as prime minister, but this time as head of a Labour Party government. Everyday life had returned to Norway.

The costs of war

Before reconstruction commenced, the war's cost to Norway was calculated. A total of 10,262 Norwegian lives had been lost. Significant areas of the country were in shambles. Bombs and battles had devastated towns. Rural areas were also marked by the destruction and terror of war. Enormous reconstruction tasks lay ahead after the scorched earth policy practiced in northern Troms and Finnmark counties - and hardships awaited the northerners who set off for their former homes after the liberation . An estimated 16 per cent of the country's national wealth had been lost.

Much of the country's means of production had been destroyed, and even more was worn out. The occupying power had confiscated 40 per cent of the nation's production. The monetary system was in ruins because the Germans had used the printing presses indiscriminately to cover their needs. Thus, one of the first things the authorities initiated was a monetary reform, and paper currency was recalled and replaced with new issue. Confidence was created in the new Norwegian krone (NOK).

The Norwegian economy recuperated at an astonishing rate. By 1946, industrial production and the gross domestic product had returned to its level from before 9 April 1940. Three years later, the national wealth had regained its pre-war strength.

The author of the article, Tor Dagre, is the former editor of Nytt fra Norge.

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