Operation Archery

27 December 1941

THE ICY ROOFTOPS glistened in the moonlight as the sleepy fishing port of Vaagso slowly stirred into life. It was one of the shortest days of the year and it would be two and a half hours before the sun finally appeared. Fishermen were heading down to the quays to prepare their boats, mothers were busy laying the breakfast table and replenishing the fires and stoves to keep out the perishing cold. Sleeping off the festive celebrations, most of the 250 German troops stationed in and around the little Norwegian town were still in their barracks and billets. There was little reason to rise early. On the fringes of the Arctic Circle, far from the frontline of the European war, once again the biggest challenge of their day would be to beat off the boredom. Fifty of the troops, a crack unit sent to the area to rest up after months of hard fighting, could at least look forward to a day of lazing around and drinking.

Four miles offshore, Rear Admiral Burrough stood on the bridge of the cruiser HMS Kenya and checked the clock on the wall. They were a minute later – not bad considering the earlier weather and the distance the force had covered. At the mouth of the Vaagsfjord, the submarine HMS Tunaquietly rose from the depths of the Norwegian Sea and broke the surface of the ice-cold water. There was relief at both ends when the two vessels made contact. Everything was going to plan. Five hundred and fifty Commandos, the new elite fighting force in the British Army, fingered their weapons, ammo pouches and Mills bombs, fastened their haversacks and helmets and clanked their way up from the lower decks of the two troopships and lined up in silence by the landing craft waiting for the signal to embark. No one spoke. Surprise was essential.

The seven ships of the naval force reduced speed and slowly crept towards the harbour mouth. The coastal gun batteries were not to be roused. A Norwegian pilot on the bridge of the Kenya, familiar with the hidden hazards of the fjord, guided the ships towards land. Navigation in Norwegian waters is a perilous affair at the best of times. The rock formations below the surface are as sheer as those in the landscape that tower over the water like giant walls. One moment, a ship has fifty fathoms below it, the next it might be impaling itself on the peak of an underwater mountain. Only the most astute observer would have noticed the slight increase in surf, from the wake of the vessels, rolling towards the steep, craggy coast. It was probably as well that none of the 2,000 souls ashore had the first inkling of the fate that was about to befall their sleepy, picturesque community of red wooden houses, huts and warehouses stretched out along the waterfront. The clock was running down to the launch of Operation ARCHERY, one of the most audacious and significant raids undertaken in World War Two, with consequences far beyond those intended or imagined by its planners at Combined Operations HQ in Whitehall. By the time the first major raid by British Commandos was over, a subtle shift had taken place in the European conflict – and the very nature of warfare had been changed forever.

Within days of the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940, Churchill had sent a memorandum to his Chiefs of Staff asking how they might bring down a ‘reign of terror’ on German forces in occupied territories. Aware that it would be many years before the UK was ready to launch a full-scale fightback in Nazi-occupied Europe, the Prime Minister was eager to maintain an aggressive strategy. ‘The completely defensive habit of mind which has ruined the French must not be allowed to ruin all our initiative. It is of the highest consequence to keep the largest numbers of German forces all along the coasts of the countries they have conquered, and we should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces on these coasts where the populations are friendly. Such forces might be composed of self-contained, thoroughly equipped units . . . How wonderful it would be if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next instead of forcing us to try to wall in the Island and roof it over!’

Churchill called these proposed elite units ‘striking companies’, and his Chiefs of Staff gave his impassioned suggestion a cautious welcome. Some of them were old enough to recall the Boer War forty years earlier – no doubt with some discomfort – when bands of a few dozen irregulars succeeded in tying down thousands of British troops. Churchill certainly remembered the Boer guerrillas well. As a war correspondent, he was captured by them in an ambush and held as a POW before managing to escape. When the draft proposal from his planners landed on his desk, containing the words ‘Kommando-style’, Churchill had no hesitation in rubber-stamping it. Knowing that Britain was unable to launch an invasion on his Western flank, Hitler concentrated his resources on the eastern and southern fronts of his rapidly expanding empire. The defences along the west coasts of Europe were barely upgraded and it was this weakness that the Commandos looked to exploit.

Work to raise the new Commando units within a ‘Special Service Brigade’ under the command of Combined Operations began almost immediately. The highly regarded Brigadier Joseph Charles Haydon, who a few months earlier had organised a special mission to evacuate the Dutch royal family, was handed the task of overseeing the creation of a new elite force within the British Army. He handpicked eleven commanders and left it to them to choose their junior officers and NCOs so that each unit would have its own distinct identity and stamp of its commander’s personality.

Overeagerness to put Commandos into action at the earliest possible date led to the failure of two pinprick raids on Boulogne and Guernsey. Hastily planned and poorly executed by troops lacking sufficient training and suitable equipment, the Commando initiative hardly got off to a flying start. The general feeling back in Whitehall was that if that was the best our elite forces could manage, then Hitler could laugh himself to sleep at night. The almost comic shortcomings and mishaps of the raids demonstrated the need for much harder training, higher fitness levels, superior weapons and kit and improved means of transporting the units to and from the target site.

In March 1941, Operation CLAYMORE, the first large-scale Commando raid, was launched. The aim of the raid was to destroy the fish oil factories on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. Fish oil was an important commodity for the Germans: it provided Vitamin A which was vital for the health of their U-boat crews who were causing such havoc among Allied shipping out in the Atlantic. The crews went weeks without seeing daylight, and fish oil was the perfect substitute. The oil was also important for the production of nitro-glycerine in the manufacturing of explosives. Much planning went into the assault that involved two full Commandos – roughly 1,000 men – and seven Royal Navy vessels. The Commandos stormed ashore, but to widespread disappointment, they met no resistance. The operation was a success of sorts. They destroyed their targets, suffered no casualties, sunk 18,000 tons of shipping, captured 200 German prisoners and gathered 300 volunteers to join the Free Norwegian Forces. But to sceptics of the Commando enterprise, the returns did not justify the huge logistical effort and the deployment of scarce resources and elite troops. (Operation CLAYMORE proved to be a more important moment in the war than it seemed at the time. A set of rotor wheels for an Enigma cypher machine and its code books were seized from the German armed trawler Krebs, which helped the scientists at Bletchley Park to break German naval codes.)

Unaware of this crucial development, the top brass of the three services looked upon CLAYMORE as a waste of scarce resources. Each service had its own sound reasons for not wanting to commit to the Commando cause: the Army resented the release of some of its best officers and men, the Navy was reluctant to free warships from other more pressing tasks and the RAF was eager to concentrate on hitting targets they considered to be of greater importance. Another problem with the Commando experiment was Admiral Keyes, the director of Combined Operations, an abrasive character who clashed regularly with the Chiefs of Staff. Though a close personal friend, Churchill knew he had to replace him. His choice of successor was a bold gamble. Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the King, was well-regarded within the Royal Navy but he was only a Captain, and would be taking his seat around a table of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals. In the event, it proved to be an inspirational move by Churchill. A character of great charm, energy and daring, Mountbatten’s arrival at Combined Operations HQ led to smoother cooperation between the three services and a significant ramping-up of operational activity.

Encouraged by the qualified success of CLAYMORE, large-scale raids that would cause significant damage to enemy operations became the priority at COHQ. Planners pored over maps of Europe’s Western coastline from Spain to the Arctic, searching for a target that met all the criteria laid down. The target had to be a) vital to the German war effort, b) no more than a mile from the sea, c) offer good coastline for the amphibious landing of troops, d) present good intelligence of enemy numbers and defences and e) located away from areas with heavy concentrations of troops.

One location stood out from the list: Vaagso. At first glance, a small fishing community on an open-ended fjord halfway up the Norwegian coast towards the Arctic Circle might not appear to be the most urgent objective in the middle of a world war, but Vaagso fitted the bill on all counts. As Norway’s main processing centre of fish oil, it was a vital asset. It also had the added attraction of being within reach of RAF bases in Scotland, which could give air cover to the raiding party and the naval force. The main objective of the operation was to destroy the processing factories, but to do that the force would first have to destroy the enemy’s main defences. The most important of these were four coastal gun batteries on the island of Maaloy, 500 yards from the town, guarding the mouth of the fjord. Two other coastal batteries and a torpedo station also required elimination.

The official intention of Operation ARCHERY as stated in the planning documents was ‘to carry out a raid on military and economic objectives in the vicinity of Vaagso island with the object of harassing the coastal defences of S.W. Norway and diverting the attention of the enemy Naval and Air Forces from Operation ANKLET.’ This simultaneous operation was considered to be the more important of the two. Comprising a much larger force of twenty vessels, one Commando plus a contingent of Norwegian troops, its objective was the Lofoten Islands, 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The plan was for it to remain there for several weeks; it was to cut off German sea lanes, sweep the coastline, harassing convoys, and interrupt shipments of iron ore, another natural resource vital to the enemy war effort. A twin operation, it was hoped, would divide enemy resources and give each a greater chance of success. The plans were received enthusiastically at the Admiralty, which wanted to put on a show of strength in Norwegian waters to rattle the German High Command. The jagged coastline of Norway, with its myriad inlets, fjords and islands, allowed German shipping to move around largely unmolested, and provided an ideal base for harassing Allied convoys carrying vital supplies to Russia around the northern Cape through the perilous waters of the Arctic.

On 6 December, Rear Admiral Harold Burrough was appointed to take charge of naval forces responsible for the deployment of ships and bombardment of coastal defences during ARCHERY. Brigadier Haydon, the Military Forces Commander, was to oversee the operation on land. They had just three weeks before the scheduled date for the raid to finalise their plans. For his principal assault force, Haydon chose 3 Commando, led by Lt Colonel John Durnford-Slater, officially the very first Commando. Two troops from 1st Norwegian Independent Company, commanded by Captain Martin Linge, would also be deployed, while two troops from 2 Commando were to be held as a floating reserve. Detachments from the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Medical Corps would team up with the assault troops. In total, the raiding party amounted to 51 officers and 525 other ranks. The naval force comprised seven ships and a submarine. The Colony-class cruiser HMS Kenya was to be the headquarters of the operation as well as the principal bombardment ship. With a main armament of twelve 6-inch guns and a battery of smaller guns, it packed a formidable punch. The rest of the force was made up of four destroyers, HMS Onslow, HMS Oribi, HMS Offa and HMS Chiddingfold, the T-Class submarine HMS Tuna and two ships’ transporters, HMS Prince Leopold and HMS Prince Charles. The destroyers were to engage enemy ships and vessels and positions ashore and provide anti-aircraft fire. Tuna was tasked with guiding the force into the fjord.

With the raid taking place in broad daylight and with little room to manoeuvre in the tight confines of the fjord, the ships were going to be vulnerable to air attack. Anti-aircraft fire alone would not be enough to see off the threat of divebombers. They were as good as sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe pilots. Air cover was essential, the RAF role crucial to the outcome. The two nearest bases in Scotland, Sumburgh on Shetland and Wick on the mainland, were 250 and 400 miles away respectively. Fuel was a major issue and the margins were extremely fine. The plan was to rotate four squadrons of Beaufighter and Blenheim fighters, each arriving to a strict timetable so that the naval force was exposed for the shortest period of time possible. In addition, ten Hampden bombers were assigned to attack enemy gun installations, six Stirling bombers were to hit Luftwaffe airfields at Herdla and Stavanger, and nineteen Blenheim bombers were to attack airfields and coastal shipping to draw off Luftwaffe resources and prevent them from attacking the assault force at Vaagso.

The Commandos were split into five groups with Group 2 handed the toughest task of leading the raid into the town of South Vaagso itself. In the final plans, the objects of ARCHERY are stated as:

1.     To destroy or capture enemy troops and equipment

2.     To destroy enemy industrial plants

3.     To seize documents, codes and instruments

4.     To arrest Quislings (collaborators known as Quislings after Vidkun Quisling, Hitler’s puppet ruler in Norway)

5.     To withdraw Norwegian volunteers for the Free Forces

With only five hours between sunrise and sunset, timing would be critical. The Commandos were to carry ashore all the weapons and ammo they would need for a day’s hard fighting. Most of the men carried the standard infantry Lee Enfield rifle with long bayonet (and 100 rounds), but a handful were issued Thompson ‘Tommy’ machine guns. All men carried Mills bomb hand grenades and the Fairbanks-Sykes Commando dagger. Bren gun crews and mortar detachments provided the heavy firepower on the ground. There was no chance of resupply during the action. All men were to help carry ashore the Bren magazines and mortars during the landings.

III Commando had been in intensive training for months at their camp at Largs on the West Coast of Scotland, concentrating specifically on amphibious landing operations. The men knew a major operation was in the offing but they had no idea where or when it would take place. Rumours swept through the wooden barracks when the daily exercise programme was suddenly intensified in the first half of December. Speculation turned to near-certainty when the 500-strong unit embarked in two troopships on the Clyde and steamed for Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the base of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet during the war. Two full-blown rehearsals involving all three services took place before Brigadier Haydon summoned his officers and NCOs and unveiled details of the operation. After months of hard training and a mounting hunger for action, there was a palpable buzz of excitement below deck when the news reached the men.

The planners at COHQ had built a full-scale, minutely detailed model of South Vaagso based on recce photos and intelligence. Every building, street, alley and natural landmark was featured. While the companies of the seven ships refuelled, loaded the magazines with shells and stored away the final shipments of provisions, each of the five Commando groups took it in turns to pore over the intricate model and run through the tasks they had been assigned. What they saw was a miniature version of a hilly island, eight miles long by four wide, situated on the west coast of Norway and facing onto the North Sea at the mouth of a fjord known as Vaagsfjord. Roughly 250 miles from the capital Oslo and 500 miles from the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland, it is one of thousands of islands along the coast, surrounded by a maze of waterways and inlets. It is separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water known as the Ulvesund that runs for five miles between the north and south exits to the North Sea.

Most of the island’s 2,500-strong population lived in South Vaagso, the main town and home to the fish-processing factories concentrated on quays along the waterfront. The main street, running parallel to the coast for almost a mile, formed the spine of the community with a few smaller streets and lanes branching out towards the steeply rising hills of the interior. A few hundred yards to the east of Vaagso lies the much smaller island of Maaloy, where the Germans had built the gun batteries to guard the southern entrance of the Ulvesund. The area was defended by troops of the German 181st Division, amounting to around 250 men as well as 50 sailors.

On 22 December the large force detailed for Operation ANKLET set sail from Scapa into an ominously gathering sea for the longer passage to the Lofotens. The men of 3 Commando completed their last rehearsal and ran through their final checks for the first-ever large-scale operation involving all three services undertaken by the British armed forces. Operation ARCHERY was also Britain’s first major incursion into Nazi-occupied Europe since Dunkirk eighteen months earlier, the first step in a gruelling fightback against the most powerful military force the world had ever seen. In one respect, ARCHERY was just a sideshow next to the titanic struggles of the Eastern Front, the North Africa campaign and the Atlantic convoys, but a great deal was riding on its outcome: the lives of 2,000 servicemen, the future of Combined Operations, the reputation of the newly formed Commandos and the morale of a battered, despondent British public reeling under the hellish bombardment of the Blitz. Failure was not an option.

It was an inauspicious start to the operation. When the seven ships of the raiding force slipped the sheltered sanctuary of Scapa Flow at 2215 on Christmas Eve, they steamed out into the teeth of a Force 8 gale. Heading for Sullom Voe, an anchorage 150 miles to the northeast in Shetland, the flotilla was battered by crashing waves and roaring winds. It was a particularly difficult passage for the two troopships, Prince Leopold and Prince Charles, which were tossed around in the churning seas like corks. Below deck, Commandos heaved and vomited and clung on as the ships lurched from side to side, up and down. No one slept a wink. There was no let-up in the storm for twelve hours. By the time they reached the calmer waters of Shetland at noon on Christmas Day, both ships had each taken on over 120 tons of water, most of it in the forward compartments where the flooding reached 14 feet. Both former North Sea Ferries had been damaged and needed emergency repairs. Rear Admiral Burrough had no choice but to postpone the operation by twenty-four hours. Christmas dinner was eaten at anchor, not on the open sea as planned.

When all repairs were completed by 1400 the following day, the winds had begun to drop and, to the relief of the commanders, the weather forecast they received was far more promising. Burrough gave the order to move out at 1600. Operation ARCHERY would launch at dawn, 27 December 1941. Before setting out, the assault force received a surprise visitor. Mountbatten was piped aboard Kenya where he delivered a short but inspirational address. Conscious that most of the men before him had never experienced combat, he warned them not to be too soft on their opponents, recalling the day his ship, HMS Kelly, was sunk off Crete, when the Germans machine-gunned his men in the water. ‘There’s absolutely no need to treat them gently on my account,’ he said.

The weather was still fairly lively at the start of their passage across the North Sea, but it improved rapidly and by the time they closed on the Norwegian coast, conditions were excellent. Having made contact with HMS Tuna, Burrough lined up his ships as planned and, still shrouded in darkness, the force edged towards the southern end of Vaagso. But for the odd word on the bridge of the ships and whispered words of encouragement below deck on the troopships, the 2,000 men slid quietly towards their target. The one sound that the commanders wanted to hear was that of approaching RAF aircraft. Sure enough, bang on time, the distinctive hum of Hampden bombers began to fill the still, wintry air. Their target was the giant gun emplacement on the island of Rugsundo, eight miles to the east up Nordfjord, one of Norway’s most beautiful and famous fjords. The AA guns stayed silent. The British presence had so far passed unnoticed.

Or so Burrough thought. In fact, the ships had been spotted by a lookout who immediately telegraphed the harbourmaster at South Vaagso to raise the alarm. The sleepy harbourmaster brushed aside the eager lookout’s anxieties. ‘Relax, it’s nothing,’ he told him, ‘a convoy is expected this morning.’ The idea of a squadron of Royal Navy ships having the audacity to slip into the narrow waterways of the well-defended coastline verged on madness . . . But dim flashes soon lit up the northern horizon and the thud of explosions from the bombing raid at Rugsundo echoed down the water. Ack-ack tracer streaked skywards, criss-crossing the dark sky. In their barracks and billets, the German troops were either asleep or slowly starting to wash and dress. At this time of year, the sun did not rise till ten o’clock. The fleet edged into the fjord, dwarfed by the steepling snow-blanketed cliffs and mountains. Brigadier Haydon said later that he felt as if he could stretch out his arms and touch the walls of the narrow waterway. Others said it was like entering a dark tunnel. Tense with anticipation, the silence was unnerving for the Commandos as they stood on deck by their landing crafts, breathing steam into their cupped hands and moving from foot to foot to counter the bitter cold. They all knew that within minutes the peace was going to be shattered in the most spectacular fashion.

Burrough checked the time again and announced: ‘Hoist the battle Ensign!’ Splitting off from the rest of the force, HMS Chiddingfold escorted the two troopships to the bay south of South Vaagso, out of sight of the main gun emplacement on Maaloy Island, half a mile or so around the corner. Kenya and the other destroyers crept forward to take up position.

The Commandos climbed into the Higgins landing craft suspended over the sides of the Prince Leopold and Prince Charles and the crews quickly loaded on the heavier equipment including ammunition magazines, Bren guns, mortars – and 250 kitbags full of Christmas stockings for the children of Vaagso. Embarkation was completed on time by 0835. For four minutes the men sat silently in the swaying craft, fidgeting with their weapons, focusing on the tasks ahead, praying for a safe return to the ship. At 0839 the landing craft began to descend. Chains clanked and jangled, pulleys whined and screeched, the boats splashed into the icy water as one and the formation moved off into the gently rolling water of the fjord’s mouth. Within five minutes, as planned, No. 1 Group was ashore at Halnoesvik, the southernmost tip of the island, scrambling over the rocks towards the gun battery. Groups 2 and 3, the largest of the assault units, continued towards the main targets of South Vaagso and Maaloy. The gap between the two islands was now clearly visible in the moonlight as they rounded the headland. The gunners aboard Kenya and the destroyers OffaOribi and Onslow braced themselves for the first salvos of the bombardment.

The first dim stirrings of dawn had lightened the sky above the Norwegian mainland only a little when the unflappable Burrough calmly gave the order: ‘Open the line of fire!’ It was 0848. The bridge-talker immediately passed on the command to the fire control department. Seconds later, a barrage of star shells burst over Maaloy, lighting up the snow-covered outcrop like a giant overhead lamp. Battle had commenced. And some battle it was to be.

Moving slowly between the two islands, Kenya immediately opened up with her two forward turrets, firing six-inch shells, before the captain turned her side-on to the island and opened up with a mighty barrage from all four turrets, fore and aft. Almost instantaneously, twelve shells, each weighing roughly half a ton, slammed into the German batteries. A cloud of flame and smoke burst into the sky. Offa and Onslow joined in the bombardment with their own broadsides. There was no return fire. They had caught the Germans by surprise, just as they had hoped. The gun crews were still in barracks when the first wave of the bombardment crashed down on the island. For the next nine minutes, the three warships pounded an area the size of a village green with between 400 and 500 shells. It was saturation shelling, and the mighty concussion of the guns reverberated along the coastline. When his landing craft were within 100 yards of the shoreline, Durnford-Slater took out his Verey pistol and fired 10 red flares in rapid succession, the ‘cease bombardment’ signal. As he and the men of Group 2 prepared to beach at South Vaagso, behind him plumes of smoke hung over Maaloy and the stench of cordite drifted across the short stretch of water.

The roar of the guns was immediately replaced by the reassuring roar of aircraft overhead. Having attacked the Rugsundo battery to the east, diverting the attention of the AA batteries away from the approaching ships, the Hampdens dropped low and turned back to assist the landing parties on South Vaagso and Maaloy. Unfortunately, the best-fortified of the Rugsundo guns had survived the aerial bombardment and, moments after the last British aircraft had banked away, it opened up on HMS Kenya. The firing was erratic, but it was a nuisance that couldn’t be ignored. A lucky shot could have had catastrophic consequences. Kenya swivelled its guns eastward and opened up. Royal Navy gunnery skills soon persuaded the enemy guns that silence was the more sensible option.

The turnaround in the weather had come as a huge relief to the RAF. Twenty-four hours earlier their airfields had been buried in snow, visibility was poor and winds battered the coastline. Now it was bright, clear, the wind was negligible and they had had time to clear the runways and scrape the snow and ice off the aircraft. Thirty seconds after the naval bombardment, right on schedule, seven Hampden aircraft, ‘showing great skill and dash’, according to the official report of the operation, swooped low over the water and dropped their smoke bombs over Maaloy Island on a 250-yard front at the landing site. Drifting down on their mini-parachutes, the phosphorus bombs fizzed and billowed in the windless atmosphere, creating a thick wall of white smoke.

At the same time, the landing craft of Group 3 advanced into the shallows with the men crouched out of sight. The group, led by Major John ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill, had been given the vital task of seizing the four coastal gun positions. Failure to put the guns out of action would doom the raid and present a grave threat to the warships. Even after the huge naval bombardment, the heavily fortified positions still needed to be silenced by men on the ground. A large garrison was known to be stationed on the island and a fierce engagement was predicted. Churchill (no relation to the PM), an eccentric, fearless character, was the obvious choice to lead the assault. Also known as ‘Fighting Jack’, Churchill liked to go into battle wearing a kilt and brandishing a claymore sword and, sometimes, a longbow. ‘Any officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed,’ he was fond of saying. He had won a Military Cross in France two years earlier and was said to have taken down a German with his bow and arrow.

On this occasion, he was no less flamboyant as his party burst ashore on Maaloy. Standing at the front of the landing craft, he played ‘March of the Cameron Men’ on the bagpipes as the boats ground onto the shingle before streaking into the smoke, waving his sword and bellowing at the top of his voice. In the event, there was little cause for his stirring actions. Resistance was minimal. Those Germans who did put up a fight were quickly cut down. The rest had been so stunned – quite literally – by the naval bombardment that they surrendered without complaint. The sappers set about demolishing the gun batteries, ammo dumps, barracks and the two oil factories. Barely twenty minutes after landing, Maaloy was engulfed in flames, all targets had been destroyed and the enemy had either been eliminated or captured. At 0924 Churchill signalled to the bridge on Kenya that the whole island was under British control. Safe from the Maaloy guns, the destroyers Oribi, carrying Group 5, and Onslow slipped through the thinning smoke into Ulvesund. At the same time, the Rugsundo battery, eight miles to the east, dared once again to try its luck against Kenya, firing blindly into the smokescreen laid down by Chiddingfold. This time it received both barrels from the British cruiser, or at least two turrets’ worth of sustained pounding.

If the assault on Maaloy had been a walkover for Churchill’s group, South Vaagso was a different matter altogether. The problems began as the men prepared to disembark from the landing craft. One of the Hampdens was hit by AA flak or by fire from the German patrol boat Fohn, which had appeared from around the point along the coastline. The pilot had lost control but still tried to get away his smoke bomb before plummeting into the fjord, killing three of the four crew. Unfortunately, the smoke bomb fell right on top of the landing craft carrying a troop section. The commander, Lieutenant Komrower, saw the bomb at the last moment and shouted to his men as he jumped clear, but it was too late. It exploded in their midst and caused injuries, mostly from burns, to all twenty men on board. Two died outright, several others later of their hideous wounds. The craft caught fire, setting off ammo and flares in all directions. Engulfed in flames, it beached itself, crushing Komrower’s legs beneath it. Prompt action from the Norwegian commander Linge saved Komrower from a painful end. Ignoring the flames and exploding ammo, he rocked the boat until Komrower was able to free himself and crawl ashore. The rest of the section scrambled to get clear of the inferno, dragging injured comrades as best they could.

Despite the accident, the smoke bombs enabled the rest of Group 3 troops to get ashore with light casualties from the sporadic fire of automatic weapons that greeted their arrival. Durnford-Slater’s uniform caught light from sparks from another smoke bomb, but he was able to beat out the flames and set about establishing his HQ, close to the landing place, once the area below the southern end of the town had been secured. A temporary ammunition store was established nearby for a small mountain of demolition materials, which included 300 lb of plastic explosives, 150 incendiary bombs, half a ton of gun cotton and 500 yards of fuse. Group 2 headed straight into town, scrambling over the crags, under cover of the smokescreen, onto the road leading north into Vaagso. To the left the hills rose steeply above them, to their right lay the warships and Maaloy, smouldering from its naval shelling. Led by Captain John Giles, 3rd Troop raced to its first target, a German bunker and AA position. A short, brutal engagement ended with the British killing two officers and several others to take the position.

As the Commandos advanced into the town, nervous and bemused locals, appearing at doorways and windows, were ordered to stay indoors and keep their heads down. It wasn’t long before the Germans had overcome the initial shock of the assault and organised their defences. Within minutes a bitter street-fight had erupted among the snow-covered streets, with isolated engagements flaring up across town, each of them fought with incredible ferocity by both sides. The Commandos were forced to work their way up the town, building by building, on two main fronts: up the main street and side roads and along the waterfront. The demolition teams of the Royal Engineers were forced to wait at the rear until the buildings were cleared and the line of confrontation moved northwards. Time and time again, a shot rang out and a Commando fell to the ground. In the frenzied confusion of the scene – clouds of smoke drifting through the gloom, the boom of explosions and crackle of small-arms fire filling the air – it was difficult to tell where the fire was coming from. The hills? Windows? Rooftops?

What was perfectly clear to the raiders – most of them seeing action for the first time – was that a hard day’s fighting lay ahead and that a great number of them were unlikely to be still standing when the guns finally fell silent. Led by the fifty-strong unit of veterans sent to Vaagso for Christmas leave, the Germans put up a formidable defence. The post-operation dispatch to the Admiralty, written by Haydon and Burrough, stated: ‘Group 2, from the start, encountered very stiff opposition, both from Germany Infantry who fought to the last man in the buildings in which they were established, and from snipers, armed often with automatic rifles, who took up positions on the hillside west of the town where they were very difficult to locate owing to the excellent natural cover . . . By 1030 hours house-to-house fighting in the centre and northern end of the town had become bitter, resulting in severe casualties, especially in officers and senior N.C.O.s.’

The first wave of RAF fighters arrived over Vaagso at 0928 as the fighting began to intensify into a full-scale confrontation on land, sea and in the air. For the rest of the day, protection over the assault force was provided by the Blenheims and Beaufighters of 404, 254, 235, 236 and 248 RAF squadrons. They were by no means the most sophisticated aircraft in operation, and not a patch on the Spitfire or Hurricane, but they were flown by highly skilled, courageous crews and, with resources stretched to breaking point, the sight of any friendly aircraft was welcomed by the forces below. The German air base at Herdla – 100 miles to the south, or 30 minutes’ flight away – was in a state of high operational readiness, but it was first thing in the morning and the nine Me109s based there still needed to be de-iced. It was almost ninety minutes after the raid had begun that the first enemy aircraft appeared at the scene. Two Me109s swept in and homed in on the slower, less manoeuvrable Blenheims. Communications were proving to be a major problem between the many units involved in the operation – as it was for British forces everywhere in the first half of the war – and the men on the ships could only watch as one of the German fighters, attacking from below, took the Blenheim unawares and sent it plunging into the sea.

Two days before the force had set sail, to the exasperation of ARCHERY’s commanders, Bomber Command cancelled its plans for the Stirling bombers to launch an early morning bombing raid on the airfields at Herdla and Stavanger, where a total of eighteen Me109 fighters were based. (There were a further nine at Trondheim to the north but they would all have to use Herdla as an advanced refuelling base.) The Stirlings were reassigned to what was seen as a more urgent priority, and this left the fighters free to operate all morning until a subsequent bombing run by Blenheims scheduled for noon. For two hours, during the critical early phase of the assault, the force was susceptible to attacks from the air. At the very least, the attentions of the Luftwaffe were a distraction the raiders could have done without.

As activity in the air increased and the battle for Vaagso intensified, fighting erupted at sea. Once the smokescreen for the landing parties had cleared, the destroyers passed through the narrows between the two islands and began seeking out enemy shipping. Small-arms fire from the town peppered the hulls of the ships and three minor casualties were sustained aboard Oribi, but the destroyers arrived at a timely moment. Four German vessels – three commandeered steamers and the armed trawler Fohn – had taken one look at the opposition and turned tail for the northern exit of the Ulvesund. They were no match for the Royal Navy destroyers in speed or firepower. But like their compatriots on land, they made it clear from the outset of the engagement that they weren’t going down without a fight. The Fohn immediately opened fire on the Onslow with her Oerlikon AA 20-mm guns and punched a few holes in her armoured side before the destroyer returned fire and killed half the crew. The other half rushed ashore and continued to fight back with small-arms fire, but a shell from Onslow’s main armament quickly put an end to their brave if futile resistance. At the same time, two Me109s attacked the destroyers with cannon fire but failed to hit their targets. In his official report, Captain Armstrong of Onslow quipped: ‘At one moment we were sinking a merchant vessel with the after 4.7, covering the military with the foremost 4.7, engaging aircraft with a 4" and the close-range weapons were covering the landing party against German snipers. Unfortunately, there was no torpedo target.’

Two of the steamers, SS Reimar Edzard Fritzen and SS Normar, followed the Fohn’s example and beached themselves in a small bay to the north of the town. Shots were fired across their bows and their upper decks swept with Oerlikon fire but it failed to deter the crews who leapt overboard and scrambled ashore. The third, SS Eismeer, was left on the open water as its crew abandoned ship. While Onslow dealt with the Fohn, and sent boarding parties aboard the two beached steamers, Oribi steamed up the Ulvesund and landed a party of Commandos, Group 5, just south of the village of North Vaagso. Here the Commandos encountered only light resistance and they quickly rounded up the crews of the beached vessels as well as the town’s chief collaborator. Their detachment of sappers cratered the coast road connecting South Vaagso and wrecked the telephone exchange.

Out on the Ulvesund, Onslow and Oribi had just finished sinking the steamers and the armed trawler when a German merchant ship, the Anita L. M. Russ, accompanied by a tug, appeared from the north. By the time they realised their blunder, the guns of the destroyers were already lined up. Seconds later, both vessels had been holed and were sinking fast. In a matter of minutes, the destroyers had eliminated 15,000 tons of enemy shipping. Their tasks completed, Group 5 withdrew to the landing site to re-embark the Oribi, harassed by a platoon of German infantry all the way to the shoreline. Seeing the threat to the Commandos, the captains of Onslow and Oribi turned all their guns towards land and opened up on the enemy, which allowed the men to clamber aboard without taking casualties.

The Norwegian troops under Captain Linge, back in their homeland, were desperate to get into the fight. In addition to their assault role, they were tasked with rounding up collaborators and seizing documents from the HQ. Working close to 4th Troop, led by Captain Forrester, they made their way along the buildings on the waterfront towards the German HQ in the Ulversund Hotel in the middle of the main street. The HQ had become a strongpoint of German resistance, commanded by the naval harbourmaster who had earlier ignored the lookout who had raised the alarm about the approaching naval force. Speed was of the essence if they were to take the HQ before the Germans had a chance to destroy the paperwork – but progress was hard. Fourth Troop had already lost two officers – Komrower, crushed beneath the flaming landing craft, and another taken out by a sniper bullet to the neck. The fighting was confused and intense. Gunfire crackled across the town, and the air was filled with the shrieks and groans of injured and dying soldiers and petrified civilians against a backdrop of exploding grenades, mortars and naval shells. The Commandos poured fire from their Tommy guns and Bren guns into windows and doorways, shattering glass, splintering wood, and kicking up puffs of ice and snow. The difficulty of the assault was made worse by having to ensure that Norwegian residents cowering in their homes did not end up as collateral casualties. Bursting in and out of houses and rooms, the Commandos had a split second to decide whether to open fire. Before lobbing a hand grenade through a window they had to make sure it was a German and not a local in there.

It was a similar story on the inland side of the main street where 3rd Troop were edging forward through a withering hail of fire coming from all angles. They were led from the front by Captain Giles, an outstanding athlete and the heavyweight boxing champion of Southern Command, worshipped by his men. The defence on this side of town was concentrated in a large stone house, and no amount of fire was able to dislodge the Germans. Eager to maintain some momentum to their advance, Giles decided to go for broke. Followed by his men, he raced across the open ground and crashed through the entrance. Bursting into every door, the Commandos tossed grenades and sprayed the rooms with machine-gun fire. Those who survived the onslaught fled through the back door, chased by Giles. But as the burly young captain emerged in the open, he was shot in the stomach by a wounded German on the ground. He died where he fell. Almost immediately, his second-in-command, Lieutenant Hall, was cut down by a sniper bullet, and the two men who went to his rescue suffered the same fate. Command automatically passed to Giles’s younger brother, Bruce, but he was so shaken by the sight of John’s death that the attack stalled and the troop was left without effective command.

Two hundred yards away, 4th Troop had fought their way up to the Ulversund Hotel. Unaware that the hotel was bristling with enemy, Captain Algy Forrester led a frontal assault on the building, his NCOs firing Tommy guns from the hip as they charged. Sprinting towards the main entrance, Forrester was a few yards short when he pulled the pin on his grenade and was shaping to hurl it when he was cut down by enemy fire and slumped on top of his grenade which, to the horror of his men, exploded beneath him. Two others were hit and the troop withdrew to consider their options. At that moment, Linge and his Norwegians arrived on the scene and immediately took command of the leaderless troop. Ever eager to take the fight to the enemy, Linge ordered another direct assault, in spite of the misgivings of some of the troops. Having gathered his men behind an adjacent building, leading from the front he gave the order to charge, but he had barely appeared in the open when an enemy bullet thumped into his chest. He dropped like a stone. His sergeant tried to pull him clear but another bullet smacked into Linge’s body and the men were again forced to withdraw. Two assaults, two commanders dead. (Linge is still honoured in the Norwegian Army, which named a Commando Company after him. A large statue stands where he fell.)

From intelligence sources, the assault group knew there was a tank inside the garage next to the hotel. It was an outdated model, captured during the Fall of France, but in close-quarters fighting against lightly armed troops it had the capacity to cause havoc if its crew managed to bring it onto the streets. As planned, after Forrester’s 4th Troop had cleared the area around it, two sappers, Sergeant Cork and Trooper Dowling, dashed into the building and laid a string of charges around the armoured vehicle. Dowling had just crawled out of the door when Cork lit the fuses. Usually, the fuses are cut to a length to burn just long enough for the demolition team to scramble to safety but, inexplicably, on this occasion the explosion was instantaneous. Cork never stood a chance and, such was the force of the blast, men over 200 yards away were hit by flying shrapnel. Incredibly, Dowling escaped without a scratch.

With all British officers and senior NCOs in 4th Troop and the Norwegian contingent either dead or injured, command fell to Corporal White. Distraught at the death of their leaders, whose bloodstained bodies lay scattered in the snow all about them, the men of both units were baying to storm the hotel and exact revenge. Aware that a change of tactics and more firepower were required to crack the German stronghold, White beckoned over a mortar unit crouched in the shadows of a neighbouring building. Minutes later, ten 3-inch bombs, fired by a Sergeant Ramsey, rained down on the hotel. As the upper floor burst into flames, White gave the order to charge. Several dozen men rushed along the street, guns blazing, before hurling themselves at the foot of the front wall. Each man reached for his Mills bombs, the distinctive iron-cast ‘pineapples’ that the British Army had been using as hand grenades since the First World War. Pulling the pins, they counted ‘One, two . . .’ then stood up and hurled them through the windows and into the entrance. ‘. . . Three, four!’ A succession of explosions rocked the building. Glass shattered and clouds of dust, plaster and smoke filled the interior as White and his men, hollering, burst inside. Within minutes the hotel, the largest public building in town and the fulcrum of the German resistance, was cleared, and White’s casualty-ravaged unit reassembled to the rear of the hotel.

Casualties were mounting so fast that Durnford-Slater called for all spare troops to be brought forward. The clock was ticking, and if the demolition teams were to complete all their scheduled tasks, the Commandos had to secure the northern end of the town first. As it was, the assault party was still pinned down at the southern end and had advanced only a few hundred yards from the landing site. Churchill, who had completed his work on Maaloy, sent over half of No. 6 Troop, commanded by Captain Peter Young, a highly talented young officer destined for high rank. The floating reserve was brought ashore and the reserve unit at Durnford-Slater’s HQ was also sent into action. This was the critical juncture of the action and every available body was committed to the fight.

As Durnford-Slater reinforced and reorganised his men, thirteen Blenheims from 114 Squadron, each carrying four 250-lb bombs and a batch of incendiaries, arrived over the Norwegian coast 100 miles to the south shortly before midday. Dropping to a height of 250 feet, the squadron lined up and swept towards the Luftwaffe aerodrome at Herdla, the wooden collection of huts and timber runways clearly visible in the snow-bound landscape. Air-raid sirens wailed and puffs of flak filled the air as one after another the Blenheims went in and dropped their devastating payload. Explosions tore up the earth, splintered the runways into kindling, and one Me109, which had been taxiing into position, flipped onto its back under the force of an explosion. Flames and smoke poured from the buildings. Hit by flak, one Blenheim lost control and veered violently off course, straight into the path of another as it pulled up and turned for home. The aircraft were so low the crews had no chance to bale out, and both plunged into the water. The raid was all over in seconds and by the time the last aircraft pulled up steeply and banked away, the runway had been turned into a mess of mud and scattered wood. Images from the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit taken immediately after the attack revealed over twenty craters. Operation ARCHERY could now proceed without significant interference from the air. Only aircraft making the long trip from Trondheim, and the last detail to have left for Vaagso, could trouble them now.

The action was intensifying on land, sea and in the air. Back at Vaagso, HMS Offa, protecting the naval force from the west, reported a merchant ship, the SS Anhalt, and an armed trawler escort named Donner, proceeding to Vaagsfjord from the north. It was just after noon and the last of the RAF bombs were falling on Herdla, 100 miles along the coast. Unable to hear or see the fighting on the other side of the mountain, the two vessels realised their error as soon as they rounded the point and saw the Royal Navy warships strung out before them. Ordered to capture the vessels, Offachased the Donner as it made a dash for the open sea. It was a race the converted fishing boat was never going to win. Offa could make thirty knots to her ten and she quickly closed on her prey with her guns at the ready. Offa fired a warning shot, but still the trawler refused to stop. Offa fired again, this time with deadly intent, and after securing a number of hits, the crew abandoned ship. Offa went alongside the trawler and picked up the survivors. Unfortunately, the Donner had insufficient fuel for the return passage to Scotland under a prize crew, and was promptly sunk.

While Offa dealt with the trawler, Chiddingfold went after the Anhalt, which had turned hard and was steaming as fast as it could for the shore. She succeeded in beaching herself in shallow water and the crew were clambering into their rowing boats when the captain of the Chiddingfold, using the loud hailer, ordered the oarsmen, in German, to bring their boats alongside, warning that they would be fired upon if they disobeyed. The oarsmen kept pulling, Chiddingfold opened fire, sinking one boat and damaging the other. At that moment, enemy aircraft appeared overhead and, as the Chiddingfold’s guns were elevated to deal with the threat, the survivors of the second boat were able to scramble to safety – for the time being at least.

On his arrival at Durnford-Slater’s command post, a few hundred yards away from the naval engagements taking place, Young was informed that only one officer was left amongst the original force troops fighting their way through the town. Up the road lay a scene of hellish devastation. Much of the waterfront was ablaze, and clouds of smoke rose into the bright morning sky; casualties were being carried or helped back to the shoreline for treatment. Men crouched behind walls and the corner of buildings. The attack had ground to a halt. The new plan was for Young’s men to sweep along the waterfront, clearing the enemy from the wharfs and warehouses while the men of the floating reserve were to advance down the main street. From the outset, both parties were met by very stiff resistance, but sheer weight of numbers and firepower helped the British raiders regain the initiative and build some momentum. Houses and buildings were flushed of the enemy or set ablaze as the forces nosed northwards. Snipers once again were the greatest threat to progress. When three of Young’s men dropped in rapid succession, hit by a sniper in the upper window of a building to their rear, the rest scrambled into a small woodshed close to the water. As more enemy guns opened up, thirty men, including Young and Durnford-Slater, crowded inside the small structure, attracting increasingly heavy fire. Bullets tore splinters from the piles of logs and timber and the men crouched behind any cover they could find. It was obvious to all that they could not survive there for much longer, but it was the same problem that had dogged the force all morning – they had no idea where the fire was coming from.

While Durnford-Slater and Young pondered their next move, the wider battle raged outside. Several formations of Heinkel 111 bombers, working in details of two or three, appeared overhead and tried their luck against the naval force. One was shot down and the rest were driven off by ferocious AA fire having dropped their bombs wide. Shortly afterwards, the Ragsundo gun battery, which had remained silent for three and a half hours and was thought to have been knocked out, suddenly returned to life and caught the Kenya off guard. All morning the largest warship in the force and the communications hub of the operation had fired the odd salvo at the battery, partly to check its guns’ range but also to warn off the emplacement from attempting another attack on the force. It came as a shock when, just after one o’clock, a perfect shot from eight miles away punched a large hole in the side of the cruiser about ten feet above the waterline. Another round struck the armour belt and a near miss close to the port torpedo tubes slightly wounded one rating. Kenya immediately responded with a furious, sustained barrage that silenced the emplacement once and for all. At exactly the same time, more German aircraft had appeared overhead and the air was filled with puffs of smoke from the AA guns of Kenya and the four destroyers. The squadron of Beaufighters, circling the scene, helped to chase them away. On the ground, the demolition teams added to the din as one building after another along the waterfront was blown to pieces. Six Blenheims from 110 Squadron, based at Lossiemouth, had meanwhile arrived over the Norwegian coast to the south, with the aim of attacking enemy shipping and drawing Luftwaffe fighters away from Vaagso. Spotting a convoy, four of them dived to attack, but were immediately set upon by Me109s. None of them returned to Scotland.

Meanwhile, the sniper hampering the progress of Young’s men was spotted in the top window of an adjacent building. On the signal, a dozen British guns opened up as one and the enemy marksman slumped forward over the windowsill. The Commandos were able to move on . . . or so they thought. The struggle for control of the town was by no means over. No sooner had they eliminated one source of heavy fire, when another started up, this time from a red wooden warehouse fifty yards ahead of them. One end of the building was a stable and the men could hear the horses stamping their hooves and whinnying with fear. Wide, open space lay between raider and defender. There was not so much as a solitary lamppost for cover to protect their advance. If the assault was not to peter out, the Commandos had no option but to run the gauntlet against accurate and heavy German fire.

The problem was solved by Lieutenant Denis O’Flaherty and the men of Group 1’s 2nd Troop. They had been the very first troops ashore and silenced the gun battery at Halnoesvik on the southern tip of the island in a series of sharp skirmishes. Carrying two injuries and almost demented with fury, O’Flaherty had had enough of German stubbornness for one day. The young firebrand burst forward and dashed through the main entrance followed by a trooper. Instinctively, Captain Young followed them into the gloomy interior. They were met by a wall of fire and the first two men were cut down instantly. A bullet shattered O’Flaherty’s jaw, holing the plate of his mouth and taking out an eye. Young fired into the darkness and withdrew. Perhaps sympathetic to the badly wounded officer, or too busy concentrating on the threat outside, the two Germans inside made no attempt to stop the wounded Britons as they dragged themselves out into the open. As the casualties were led away to the aid post close to the landing site, Young and his men set about devising a plan to flush out the Germans hindering their progress. Storming the building with a frontal assault was not an experience Young thought wise to repeat. He had a better idea: they would firebomb the building.

He ordered a contingent of men to work their way around to the stable end of the warehouse and lead out the horses. As the last of the animals cantered away, no doubt to find a quieter corner of town, the troop sergeant threw a bucket of petrol through a window and followed it with a grenade. A dull thud shook the wooden frame and moments later the building was engulfed by an inferno. The fleeing Germans were scythed down in a burst of Bren gunfire. With progress being made elsewhere in the town, the enemy gun boats and batteries silenced, the balance of the battle had tipped decisively in the raiders’ favour.

Young’s men pressed on to the northern end of the town, clearing out the pockets of resistance in small groups rushing from one building to the next. Durnford-Slater gave orders to seal off the town against enemy reinforcements arriving from the north so that the demolition teams were able to finish off the last of the factories and wharfs. The sun had long since begun its descent behind the mountainous interior of the island. Time was running out to complete all the tasks. Armed only with a pistol, the commanding officer had been a highly visible presence throughout the day’s action, directing operations across town and providing a boost to morale for his embattled men. He was lucky not to have joined the mounting casualty list. The last of several close shaves occurred as the final explosives were being laid and he was making his way up to the front line to oversee the final stages. As he walked past a doorway, accompanied by a handful of minders and messengers, a stick grenade was lobbed at their feet. The grenade exploded almost immediately, severely wounding two of his men, but the Lieutenant-Colonel was able to get to his feet with nothing worse than a few abrasions and some ringing in his ears.

Unwelcome though it was, the quality and courage of the German resistance, which continued until the last man had re-embarked, impressed the raiding force. No doubt Durnford-Slater’s thoughts were sought by Admiral Burrough and Brigadier Haydon for their official report of the raid which summed up the action in the town. ‘It must be emphasised that the opposition in South Vaagso was severe in degree and skilful in quality,’ the report reads. ‘It appears from the interrogation of prisoners that the garrison had been fortuitously augmented by a detachment who had been moved into the town for Christmas but, however that may be, there is no doubt that the fighting spirit, marksmanship and efficiency of the enemy in this area was of a high order.’

At 1230 Durnford-Slater contacted the Force HQ on the bridge of HMS Kenya to inform them that resistance was nearly overcome and that final demolitions were in progress. The landing craft were making their way to and from the stony shore at the southern end of the town, ferrying dozens of wounded men and German and Quisling prisoners as well as a large contingent of locals. Among them were elderly men and women and mothers with babies and small children, but mainly they were young volunteers, who had been gathering all day by the landing site, eager to join the Norwegian Free Forces based in the UK. At 1250 hours, the commanders ordered full re-embarkation and the last of the Commandos, covering their withdrawal, started making their way back to the landing site. Young’s men held the area but there was no opposition on the ground now.

The Heinkel bombers that had recently appeared overhead the fjord tried their luck against the ships, but were beaten off each time by RAF fighters and some fierce fire from the Navy gunners. Against a backdrop of raging fires and billowing clouds of smoke, faces bloodied and blackened, uniforms torn, the men filed through the devastated town, with the evidence of a bloody day’s work all about them. Dead Germans littered the ground, ruined buildings smoked and steamed, charred timber and debris choked the shoreline. Some of the buildings were still burning so hot that the men had to divert from the main street and walk along the foot of the hill. In his war memoir, Young recalled the grisly scenes of their withdrawal to the landing craft: ‘As I went I counted the enemy dead. I saw about 15 lying in the open, but of course most of their casualties had been inside buildings . . . As we passed the German headquarters, the Ulvesund Hotel, I took an epaulette with yellow piping from one of the casualties. Here the dead lay thicker, some of them horribly burned.’

Young and his men were gathering up stocks of mortar bombs they had left earlier when a breathless messenger appeared to inform them that the last demolition was about to take place – the largest of a day that had already seen some massive explosions. They had three minutes to find cover from the moment that the sapper laying the fuses emerged from the ‘Firda’ factory and blew his whistle. The men were lying down close to the shore when a deafening blast filled the air and shook the ground. A mountain of black smoke rose quickly into the darkening sky and debris crashed over the town, splashing into the water before what was left of the structure collapsed in on itself.

With all his troops safely re-embarked, Durnford-Slater strode aboard the last landing craft at 1408, just as the sun began slipping over the horizon of the North Sea. Twenty-five minutes later all the craft had been hoisted and the force began its withdrawal. Behind them, plumes of dark smoke climbed as high as the snow-peaked hills above the once sleepy fishing community and pockets of orange flame burnt bright against the snow-covered slopes. The destroyers formed a protective screen for the assault craft, and Kenya, the last to leave the fjord, stopped briefly to fire fifteen rounds of 6-inch shells, at point-blank range, into the beached Anhalt, leaving her burning severely. It was almost completely dark by the time the naval force were clear of the fjord, out in the open sea, and the landing craft were raised out of the water and the men climbed wearily out onto the decks. As they did so, a formation of Heinkel bombers swept out of the gloom, but the gunners of all five warships were on high alert and beat them off with an intense barrage of flak. Streaks of tracer and bright bursts of explosive lit up the dark winter sky. The bombs came up short, the formation split and the Heinkels disappeared over the mountains. Their crews were wise enough not to return for a second attempt.

As the force made smoke for Scapa, aboard the two troopships surgeons and orderlies (assisted by the ships’ cooks, still at their action stations) tended to the seventy-one wounded men, including a number of Germans. Intelligence officers went straight to work interrogating the prisoners, most of whom had been locked in the toilets of the two ships. News of the raid’s outcome was signalled to the respective High Commands of Germany and Britain, prompting very different reactions. In London, there was jubilation; in Berlin fury and incredulity. Details of the raid were made public and were headline news in papers throughout Britain and the Commonwealth. After two and a half years of almost unrelenting setbacks, here finally was some good news. The message was clear: Britain’s fightback against Nazi Germany had begun in earnest.

As the exhausted Commandos sat in the lower decks smoking their cigarettes and reflecting on the day’s furious events and the loss of their comrades, little could they have known that they were now the trailblazers of a new and very potent form of warfare – one that in a few years’ time, on a much larger scale, would eventually decide the outcome of Europe’s most savage conflict on the beaches of northern France. Nor could they have known that the first raid of its kind would go down as one of the great coup de main operations of that war.

The force entered Scapa Flow almost exactly twenty-four hours after they had cleared Vaagsfjord and, as a hospital ship came alongside and took on the seriously wounded, Durnford-Slater went below to address his men. After congratulating them, he issued a warning: maintain the highest standards of discipline and fitness on leave or go back to your regular units. ‘Have all the fun that’s going – drinking, gambling, chasing the girls and so on – if it appeals to you,’ he said. ‘But if these things interfere with your work they must be put aside . . . You must always behave and look like super soldiers. If you cannot then there is no place for you in Number 3 Commando.’

One hundred and two prisoners were captured in the raid, comprising seven officers, ninety-one ratings and other ranks (forty Army, fifteen Navy and thirty-six merchant seamen) and four Norwegian Quislings. In addition seventy-seven Norwegian volunteers were embarked. It is estimated that at least 150 Germans were killed in South Vaagso and Maaloy in the course of the operation. The cost for 3 Commando was seventeen officers and men killed or died of wounds, and fifty-four wounded. Navy casualties included two fatalities and six wounded. The Norwegians lost one man, Linge, plus two wounded. The RAF suffered the heaviest casualties, losing thirty-one men and eleven aircraft: two Hampdens, two Beaufighters and seven Blenheims.

All planned tasks were completed. On Maaloy, four coastal gun emplacements, one anti-aircraft battery, searchlight and generator were blown up, fuel and ammunition dumps set ablaze, the German barracks and HQ were demolished in the naval bombardment. On Vaagso, every single fish-processing factory was destroyed by fire or explosives, and every German office, billet, barracks or hut was burnt out or demolished. Other targets destroyed included the W/T Station and mast, the transport depot, a beach mine store, a telephone cable hut, the Ulvesund Hotel (the German strongpoint) and the operating mechanism of the main lighthouse. The road was cratered between North and South Vaagso and the apparatus in the telephone exchange at a neighbouring hamlet was smashed beyond repair.

The raid gave hundreds of elite troops vital combat experience and the experience gained there was absorbed into future Commando training instruction. The success also provided a welcome boost to the morale of the army as a whole as it rebuilt itself after Dunkirk. The Navy had carried out its tasks with barely an error, safely transporting men to and from the objective and protecting the area during the assault. The RAF were equally impressive, arriving bang on time and maintaining constant air cover throughout, seeing off the enemy, laying smokescreens, drawing off the Luftwaffe and bombing Herdla airfield into disuse. Above all, the three services had proved they could work together to pull off an audacious and highly effective assault on enemy territory. In short, the raiders had carried out exactly what the planners had tasked them to do and hoped to achieve. It was a major coup for Mountbatten and Combined Operations, proving that a complex but clear plan could be carried out to near-perfection if freedom and flexibility was granted to the men on the ground.

Ten days after the force returned to Scapa, the following dispatch, introducing the official summary of the operation, was submitted to the Admiralty by Sir John Tovey (aka ‘Splashguts’), Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet. ‘The operation was well conceived, planned and rehearsed with skill and thoroughness, and executed with great efficiency, precision and boldness. Though a minor operation, it affords a fine example of smooth and effective cooperation between the three Services and reflects great credit on Rear-Admiral H. M. Burrough, C.B., Brigadier J. C. Haydon, D.S.O., O.B.E., and all officers, ratings and ranks taking part. The cooperation of the aircraft of Coastal and Bomber Commands was most effective. The operation could not have proceeded without it.’

Impressive enough though they are, the statistics, bare facts and official reports that you can read in the National Archives at Kew do not reveal the true significance of the intense, six-hour running battle in a remote corner of the Norwegian coast. In the wider context of the world war, Vaagso was a minor operation, a mere butcher-and-bolt skirmish on the northern fringes of a massive conflict. It would be months before the raid’s greater significance began to emerge and years before its impact was fully understood and appreciated. Ultimately, its consequences were wildly disproportionate to the original aims.

The short-term strategic gains were impressive enough. News of the raid set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of German High Command. Intercepted intelligence reports revealed bitter recriminations between Berlin and the German HQ in Oslo. The British had intended the raid to be no more than a harassing operation to divert German resources from ANKLET, the larger operation to the north (which ended in failure, and prematurely, much to Churchill’s fury). No one had imagined for a minute that it was ARCHERY, not ANKLET, that would cause the greatest consternation in Berlin. And cause not mere unease, but pure panic. For Hitler, Operation ARCHERY confirmed his long-held suspicion that it was in Norway that the Allies would one day launch their inevitable invasion of the mainland. Rich in natural resources, it was a country vital to his war effort and had to be safeguarded at all costs. To that end, Hitler insisted 30,000 troops be immediately dispatched there and ordered the renovation of Norway’s coastal defences. By mid-1944, over 370,000 German troops were stationed in Norway, effectively sitting on their helmets at a time when they were desperately needed to shore up Germany’s crumbling fronts in eastern and southern Europe. From then on, Hitler also began concentrating most of his naval forces in Norwegian waters, where the Royal Navy and RAF were able to keep them penned in for the rest of the war, picking them off one by one and preventing them from breaking out into the Atlantic to attack convoys. By the end of the war, most of Germany’s major warships had been eliminated.

The first amphibious assault on an enemy coastline involving soldiers, sailors and airmen might not have been one of the key points in world history, but it certainly led to one. The men who carried it out were the pioneers of a form of warfare that revolutionised military thinking. The first steps of the D-Day landings in Normandy were taken in Vaagso.

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