VAAGSO - 27TH DEC 1941
Operation Archery, the raid on Vaagso and Maaloy, broke new ground with the provision of air cover as an integral part of the raid in the initial planning process. The planners had learned from the 2nd Lofoten raid that the lack of air cover could put similar missions in jeopardy.
The Islands of Vaagso and Maaloy lie on the Norwegian coast between Bergen and Trondheim. Until the raids of December 1941 these small islands were little known outside the immediate area. Churchill was keen to mount a major raid, ideally against Trondheim to take pressure off the Russians and to protect allied convoys to Murmansk, but this was not feasible in late 1941. A diversionary raid on the Lofoten Islands 300 miles to the north was mounted to coincide with Vaagso.
Mountbatten was appointed to the post of Combined Operations Adviser in October 1941. He decided that a raid of sufficient size to tie down German troops in Norway, thus denying their use on the Russian front, would best meet Churchill's aspirations. The target was selected because it also offered the chance to damage German military establishments on Vaagso and Maaloy.
This was not the first such planned operation. On December 9th No. 6 and half of No. 9 Commando, under the codename Operation Anklet, set off for the Norwegian town of Floss in the landing ship HMS Prince Charles. An accidental grenade explosion on board caused casualties amongst which were those skilled in navigation. With his navigational accuracy compromised the Senior Naval Officer called the raid off.
Rear Admiral H M Burroughs and Brigadier Charles Haydon were appointed on Dec 6 to be naval and military commanders of Operation Archery. At their disposal were No. 3 Commando, two troops of No. 2, a medical detachment from No. 4, a party of Royal Engineers from No 6 for demolition jobs and a Royal Norwegian Army detachment under the command of Major Linge ... in all around 51 officers and 525 other ranks. Colonel John Durnford-Slater, who had been involved in the detailed planning, was to be in charge of the landing party.
Many had served Haydon on the first Lofoten raid of the previous March but that was an undefended action. Vaagso was an entirely different proposition. There were German troops on both Islands and significant coastal defences to overcome. Intelligence sources indicated that 150 men from the 181st Division, a solitary tank and 100 construction workers were billeted in the town. Four squadrons of fighters and bombers totalling 37 planes were operating in the area from bases at Herdia, Stavanger and Trondheim. No enemy warships were thought to be in the area.
On the small island of Maaloy, less than 500 metres by 200 metres, there was a concentration of coastal defences, ammunition stores, oil tanks and a German barracks. In addition the island was well placed to guard South Vaagso town where there was an oil factory, several fish factories and a power station. Convoys were also known to assemble a few cables further up the fjord offering the possibility of another target.
By the 15th the raiding forces had been assembled and training exercises carried out. The flotilla comprising the Cruiser HMS Kenya fitted with 6-inch guns, four destroyers and two landing craft, HMS Prince Leopold and HMS Prince Charles, left Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands on Christmas eve. They diverted to Sullom Voe in the Shetlands because of atrocious westerly gales severe enough to cause damage. Prince Charles took onboard 145 tons of water which had to be pumped out. Other damage was repaired and the men were given the chance to enjoy there Christmas dinner in relative comfort before they sailed again on the evening of the 26th.
The next morning they rendezvoused at 07.00 hours with the submarine HMS Tuna on station at Vaagsfjord as their navigational check. Landing craft (LSIs) were kept out of view of the main batteries on Malloy. Fire was opened on the coastal defences by the warships at 08.48 hours, initially with a salvo of star shells from the Kenya to light up the island and then with 500 shells fired in 10 minutes from all five war ships. A low flying attack by Hampdens of RAF Bomber Command followed dropping smoke bombs to obscure the path of the advancing troops as they landed on the beaches. All the while air cover to ward of the Luftwaffe was provided by Beaufighters and Blenheims making round trips of 650 kilometres from Wick on the Scottish mainland or 400 kilometres from Shetland.
The Commandos were split into 5 groups. The 1st landed at Hollevik about 2 kilometres south of South Vaagso to knock out a German stronghold there. The 2nd landed just south of the town itself. The 3rd landed on Maaloy Island to mop up after the bombardment. The 4th was held as a floating reserve and the 5th Group was passed Maaloy into Ulvesund on the destroyer HMS Oribi. They landed to the north of South Vaagso to prevent German reinforcements getting through.
The German's were taken by surprise but fought back bravely. Three of the four coastal guns on Maaloy were knocked out. The fighting there was over in 20 minutes due in part to the accuracy and precise duration of the naval action. Kenya's bombardment lifted when the 105 men of group 3 were just 50 metres from the beach. The Germans barely had time to lift their heads before they were overrun. However in the action Linge was killed. The German survivors were rounded up, demolition work completed and the party crossed the short stretch of water to join the free for all going on in South Vaagso. Meantime the force at Hollevik experienced less resistance than expected since 8 defenders were in South Vaagso having breakfast. The Commandos were soon able to reinforce the South Vaagso skirmish. The floating reserve was also committed since German resistance was greater than expected. It later transpired that 50 crack troops were on Christmas leave in the town at the time.
In the meantime No 5 group were taken farther up the fjord past Malloy by the destroyer HMS Oribis accompanied by HMS Onslow. The men were landed without opposition and blew craters in the road to block reinforcements from getting through from North Vaagso. They also destroyed the telephone exchange at Rodberg. A number of merchant ships came into view as well as an armed trawler the Fohn and R.E. Fritzen. Those under power beached themselves when they saw the White Ensign flying. The Fohn and the Fritzen were boarded under sniper fire from the shore in the hope of finding confidential papers or secret code books. Around this time two ME 109s and two JU 88s were active in the area. No 5 group later joined the fighting in South Vaagso.
Resistance was not completely overcome in the street fighting but all the major demolition jobs were accomplished including the power station, coastal defences, the wireless station, factories and lighthouse. 150 Germans were killed, 98 Germans and 4 Quislings made prisoner and 71 Norwegians took passage back to England. Farther up the fjord the destroyers sank 9 ships totalling 15,000 tons and in the air four Heinkels were shot down. Both Herdia and Stavanger airports were bombed, the wooden runway of the former suffering sufficient damage to limit activity.
There were many instances of bravery on both sides in the taking and defending of entrenched positions. At 13.45 hours Colonel Durnford-Slater ordered the withdrawal from South Vaagso to begin. It was led by No.2 troop, followed by No. 6 with No 1 in rearguard. The force re-embarked at 14.45 hours as the short arctic day drew to a close. Allied losses were 70 Commando casualties including 17 killed and 8 Navy casualties including two killed. In addition two Beaufighters and a Blenheim (Hampden?) were lost. [Photo; IWM. It shows Captain O'Flaherty being helped to a dressing station with an injury that resulted in the loss of an eye. He remained in the army and eventually became a Brigadier. The soldier on the right is Derek Gordon Page - a commando. He subsequently left the commandos and served with the Gurkas in India, fighting in Burma and eventually ending the war in Indonesia.]
Each Commando unit had a Medical Officer and a number of medical orderlies attached to it as first line support. On the Vaagso raid they all carried a haversack containing basic medical supplies such as shell dressings, bandages, morphia and water. They were relatively lucky compared to the airborne forces in that reasonable medical facilities were available on the ships that transported them to and from their objectives.
This was the first time all three services combined their resources to mount an amphibious raid against a defended coast. As Mountbatten said at the outset "... nobody knows quite what is going to happen and you are the ones who are going to find out." The RAF provided air cover for over 7 hours and undertook diversionary raids elsewhere. None of the British ships was hit by enemy bombs but a phosphorous bomb from a disabled British plane hit one of the landing craft resulting in some casualties.
Much had been learned by both sides. Later the Germans over-stretched their Atlantic wall with the deployment of 30,000 extra troops to reinforce the Norwegian sector. Clearly Hitler had taken the bait that Norway might well be "the zone of destiny in this war." The Press Unit had been very active during the raid and some of the most graphic and dramatic photographs in WW2 were taken. These and eye witness reports were later used for morale boosting purposes at a time in the war when there was little good news to cheer about.
The future pattern of sizeable raids and landings had been set.
Allied Forces: Air- Bomber Command and Coastal Command; Sea - Cruiser H.M.S. Kenya, Landing Ships H.M.S. Leopold and Prince Charles, Submarine H.M.S. Tuna plus four destroyers; Land - No 3 Commando, two troops of No 2 Commando, a medical detachment from No. 4 Commando and demolition experts from No. 6 Commando, a Royal Norwegian Army Detachment.
Axis Forces: Air - Luftwaffe Heinkels, ME 109s and JU 88s. Land - 150 men from 181 Division, 50 troops on leave in the area.
Outcome (positive) - successful destruction of coastal defences, oil and fish factories, radio transmitters, stores, a lighthouse, a power station, 9 merchant ships totalling 15,000 tons and four Heinkels. 30,000 additional German troops deployed to the Norwegian sector taken from other fronts but notably the Atlantic Wall. 150 Germans killed, 98 captured and 71 Norwegians took passage to the UK.
Outcome (negative) - Commandos: 2 Officers and 15 OR killed, 5 Officers and 48 OR wounded, Norwegians: 1 Officer killed and 2 OR wounded, Royal Navy 2 OR killed and 2 Officers and 4 OR wounded and RAF 31 killed (2 Hampden's, 7 Blenhiem's and 2 Beaufighters were lost).
The Army, Norwegian and Naval casualties come from PRO document DEFE 2/83. The RAF casualties come from DEFE 2/83 (for the Coastal Command losses) and Bomber Command losses 1941, W.R. Chorley, Midland Publishing (for the Bomber Command losses).
List of Commando operations in Norway
The Vaagso Raid by Joseph Devins Jr. Published by Robert Hale 1967.
Storm from the Sea by Lt Col Peter Young. Published by William Kimber 1958.
In Harms Way by Brian Crabb. Published 1998. The story of HMS Kenya from her build to break up including a chapter on the Vaagso raid. Hardback with a full-colour cover, 250 pages. ISBN 1 900289 02 4
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Published in 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. ISBN 0 356 08432 9
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Published by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
Commando by John Dunford-Slater. Published by Kimber 1953 - from the pen of one of the major players.
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.
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