One potential weakness in Germany’s ability to fight a long war in 1939-40 was the perceived vulnerability of her supplies of iron ore. A large proportion of that iron ore came from mines in the north of Sweden. There were two main delivery routes for that ore. Just over half of it was sent to the Norwegian port of Narvik, which was ice-free all year round, and then shipped on to Germany down the west coast of Norway. The remaining ore was shipped from Swedish ports in the northern Baltic, but these ports were only ice free for eight months of the year. Both in Britain and Germany it was realised that the Narvik iron ore trade was essential for the German war effort.
The problem for the British was that the route south from Narvik led through Norwegian territorial waters, in an area known as the Indreled, or Inner Leads. While Norway remained neutral, there was very little the British could do to stop this trade without violating that neutrality. The first person to speak out in favour of doing just that was Winston Churchill. He first examined the idea of laying a minefield in the Leads in September 1939. In November he initiated a study of the project, and in December circulated a memorandum on the idea to the cabinet. The minefield was designed to force cargo ships out of Norwegian territorial waters and into international waters, where the Royal Navy could seize ships heading to Germany.
Despite the problems posed by the violation of Norwegian neutrality, the operation was nearly put into action in January 1940. On 6 January Lord Halifax, then the British Foreign Secretary, warned the Norwegian Minister in London that the minefield was about to be laid. Unsurprisingly both Norway and Sweden protested strongly, and the plan was suspended. The plan to mine Norwegian waters then became tied up with the Winter War between Finland and Russia. Both Britain and France wanted to help the Finns in their fight with Hitler’s new ally, but ideally with the support, or at least the permission of Sweden and Norway.
The mining of the leads then became part of a wider plan to land an army at Narvik. This force would have to occupy the railway used for the iron ore, as that was the only communication link to Finland. This would automatically mean the occupation of the Swedish iron ore fields. For ten days in late February the Admiralty had permission to prepare for the operation, but as it became clear that Finnish resistance was about to end the plan was once again cancelled.
Operation Wilfred then became tangled in the fate of Operation Royal Marine, another of Churchill’s ideas. This one involved feeding floating mines into the Rhine on the Franco-German border. It was opposed by the French, who at this point did not want to provoke the Germans. For a short time the British linked the mining of the leads to the start of Operation Royal Marine. At first the French agreed to this, and both operations were authorised on 28 March, but the French then changed their minds and both operations were in jeopardy. Eventually that link was dropped on Churchill’s advice, and on 3 April the War Cabinet gave permission for the navy to lay minefields inside Norwegian waters.
The plan for Operation Wilfred called for three groups of ships. Force WS was the most southerly. It was to consist of the Teviot Bank and four destroyers and would lay mines off Stadtlandet, the most westerly area of the Norwegian mainland. Close to the north would be Force WB, consisting of two destroyers. This force would pretend to lay a minefield off Bud. Finally, Force WV, consisting of four mine laying destroyers and four destroyer escorts would lay mines in Vestfjord, the channel of water that leads to Narvik.
These forces were then reinforced with the battlecruiser HMS Renown under Vice-Admiral W. J. Whitworth, to protect the minelayers against Norway’s four coast defence ships, which were believed to be at Narvik. Finally, troops were embarked on cruisers at Rosyth and transport ships were prepared in the Clyde just in case the Germans responded to the British mine laying by attempting to occupy Norwegian ports (this was known as Plan R4).
The actual operation was carried out successfully. The Teviot Bank sailed on 5 April, as did the Renown and her destroyers. On the following day they were joined by Force WV, but the destroyer HMS Glowworm was detached to search for a man who had fallen overboard. Late on 7 April the British naval force approached the Vestfjord, and in the early morning of 8 April the mines were laid.
At that point Operation Wilfred ended, but the British ships at sea were about to become entangled in the German invasion of Norway, which had been set in motion just before the British expedition. HMS Glowworm would be the first British victim of that campaign, clashing fatally with the German cruiser Hipper on 8 April. After all of the dithering about the decision to lay a minefield in Norwegian waters, within two months it would be irrelevant. The German invasion of Norway ended in success after a sometimes chaotic Allied intervention. Once Norway was occupied by the Germans, ships in her coastal waters were no longer protected by her neutrality, and would eventually become the target of a long running campaign of attacks by Coastal Command.
It is sometimes suggested that the German invasion of Norway was launched in response to Operation Wilfred. Although the two operations were indeed first mentioned at about the same time, the German invasion plans were in place well before the British made their move. Detailing planning work had begun in January 1940, the directive authorising the attack had been signed on 7 March, and the invasion date had been set on 2 April. The first German ships left port on 3 April, two days before the Teviot Bank put to sea.
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