A Commando points to the destruction of a village during a daytime attack on Norway.
After the small scale raids of 1940 the policy of the Combined Operations was to greatly increase the size of the force attacking the enemy coast. This was instigated by the arrival of Combined Operations new commander, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. Keyes had been involved in the failed Dardenelles campaign and in planning of the raid on Zeebrugge towards the end of the First World War. This meant a ramping up in the scale of operations that were to be given to the Commandos, along with an expansion of the Commandos and the acquisition of suitable craft to carry out these tasks.
First target for the Commandos in 1941 was to be the Lofoten Islands off the coast of occupied Norway, just above the Arctic Circle. On these islands were major cod and herring-oil factories, this product being used extensively by the Germans for the production of explosives. The tasks for the Commandos was to destroy the factories, sink any vessels involved in the production, neutralise any German resistance and bring back any Norweigian volunteers.
A Special Service Brigade was created by No. 3 and No. 4 Commandos along with a number of Royal Engineers. Under the command of Brigadier J. C. Haydon, they were to be transported by two infantry landing ships and escorted by five destroyers of the Royal Navy under the command of Captain C. Caslon.
Due to the nature of the approaches to the ports on the islands the destroyers could only give very limited fire-support if required, so two destroyers scouted ahead to check there were no enemy vessels in the vicinity. Enemy resistance was unknown so the Commandos were issued with 48-hour rations and plenty of ammunition.
Surprise was complete as the Commandos approached their embarkation points off the islands. The four ports which were to be targeted; Stamsund, Henningsvaer (No. 3 Commando) and Svolvaer and Brettesnes (No. 4 Commando) were lit up in the early morning of 4 March, making their navigation that much easier. The Commandos were embarked upon their landing craft and got ashore without any enemy opposition being encountered. Instead their arrival was greeted with great enthusiasm by the local Norwegians, even though the destruction of the factories meant many of them losing their only source of income. Volunteers to accompany the Commandos back to the UK was immense, with over 300 opting to return.
The number of prisoners captured during the raid numbered over 200, along with the destruction of eleven factories, oil tanks and the sinking of five ships all for no loss amongst the Commandos.
A similar raid was carried out in June to the Spitzbergan Archipelago. This time the troops involved were from Canadian units that had been schooled at the Combined Operations training centre. They were to destroy the mining facilities on the islands to deprive the Germans of its use now that they had begun their campaign against Soviet Russia and evacuate the population. This was carried out with great success and no loss.
During October of 1941 the head of Combined Operations was changed again. This time Captain the Lord Louis Mountbatten took charge, a position he would hold for the next two years. His first job as Chief was to formulate a plan to raid the Norwegian coast once more with similar objects as the one on Lofoten, this time along the south-west coast on the islands of Maaloy and Vaagso. These tasks included destroying any German installations and shipping, disrupting fish-oil production and killing or capturing the German defenders.
The town of South Vaagso on Vaagso Island was an important harbour for the Norwegian fishing fleets, being a sheltered port the ships would use this as a stopping-off point to await fair weather before venturing northwards. Opposite the town was the small island of Maaloy. This was a natural defensive position, being in the centre of the fjord and the Germans built coastal batteries along the south coast facing Vaags Fjord.
The Commandos trained extensively for the raid and set sail on Christmas Eve 1941. They reached their starting point for the raid by Christmas Day but due to heavy seas the raid was postponed, allowing the men to enjoy their Christmas dinner in the wallowing sea. By the evening of Boxing Day the force of ships, led by the cruiser HMS Kenya, had crept up the fjord.
The following morning was to be the day of the assault.
Just before 09.00 on 27 December the guns of Kenya opened up, firing starshell to light up the dark morning. This lit the target for the destroyers as well as the RAF bombers that had arrived overhead to lay down a smoke screen.
The landing craft then made their way to their targets, the Germans were taken completely by surprise. The men from No. 2 and No. 3 Commando with additional units from No. 4 and No. 6 Commando were split into five groups. Group 1 were to land on the south of Vaagso Island at the village of Hollevik. They were to secure the village then move northward to the outskirts of South Vaagso and remain as reserve. Group 2 was to attack the town of South Vaagso, eliminate resistance and destroy any military or economic targets. Group 3 was to assault the small island of Maaloy capture it and destroy four coastal artillery batteries emplaced there. Group 4 was to be a floating reserve, whilst Group 5 was to be taken by destroyer up Ulvesund and cut communications between South and North Vaagso. The force commander was to be Brigadier J. C. Haydon once again.
Group 1s task was accomplished with great ease as there was little resistance, a stronghold being knocked out. These men then moved around the coast to South Vaagso to reinforce the landing by Group 2.
Group 3 were next to go in with their assault on Maaloy. As the landing craft approached the island the bombardment from the destroyers was lifted and the RAF bombers flew in at low level to lay a smokescreen to cover the last leg of the journey, one aircraft being shot down in the process. The men landed as the Germans were still getting over the concussion of the naval bombardment, the Commandos quickly rounded up the surviving defenders and found that the bombardment had destroyed three of the four coastal batteries, the last one was hastily commandeered by the Commandos and used to engage a flak ship. The island was captured in twenty minutes, and the men were tasked with searching for intelligence. Part of Group 3 was then moved over the water to South Vaagso to reinforce Group 2 which had met substantial resistance.
Group 2 landed just to the south of the town, as they advanced they were met with a hail of accurate fire. By now the German defenders were fully alert and as it transpired later the garrison was reinforced by fifty crack troops being rested from the Eastern Front. House to house fighting then took place with heavy sniper fire from the Germans taking its toll on the Commandos. As this was happening a section of Group 2 was taken further north of the town where they successfully destroyed a herring-oil factory.
Group 5 fared better, landing to the north of the main battle where they blew craters in the road to block any potential reinforcement and destroyed the telephone exchange at Rodberg.
By 10.00 the southern part of South Vaagso had been taken with the help of the floating reserve but with heavy casualties, reinforcements arrived in the shape of Group 3 from Maaloy and Group 1 from Hollevik. This weight of men swung the balance in favour of the Commandos, the Germans eventually capitulating. The Germans suffered 150 killed along with ninety-eight captured. A number of Norwegian Quisling, Nazi sympathiser, were also captured. All demolition tasks were completed with factories and a power station being destroyed as well as the coastal batteries. The Commandos began their withdrawal at 13.45, the losses being nineteen killed (including Royal Navy personnel) and fifty-nine wounded, many of these being officers due to the earlier sniping.
This was to be the first time all three arms had combined in an attack on German occupied Europe, and laid the foundations for future assaults. It also led to Hitler reinforcing his northern flank and therefore spreading his already stretched forces even thinner.