Scandinavian involvement in the war?
Sweden in 1915
Throughout the autumn of 1914, and in the first months of 1915, German diplomatic activity was focused principally on the Balkans. There was no indication that the General Staff looked to Sweden for a significant accretion of military strength to the Central Powers. In the course of 1915, however, Sweden came to be seen as a possible means of putting pressure on Russia. At first Bethmann Hollweg hoped that the mediation efforts of H.N. Andersen might lead to a separate peace between Russia and the Central Powers. This hope was shaken and later dispelled by the negative results of Andersen's two missions to Petrograd in February and July 1915. Attention shifted to Sweden partly as a result of ill-considered Swedish diplomatic initiatives. In February 1915 Gustav V wrote to the Tsar offering his services as a mediator; in March he made an amateurish attempt to prevent Italian intervention which soon became known to the Entente; in May Hammarskjöld visited Berlin in order to sound the possibility of mediation (as well as to clear up problems of Swedish-German trade). On each occasion Sweden seemed to be less an impartial go-between than an agent of the Central Powers. The growth of activist agitation in Sweden in the course of 1915 convinced many Germans that the tide of opinion was running strongly in Germany's favour. Even if Sweden did not intervene in the war, the threat of intervention could be employed to demoralise Russia, and Swedish diplomacy could be used to influence other wavering neutrals, notably Romania. The prospect of Swedish intervention might also encourage Finnish separatists to attempt an uprising against the Russian empire. As an incentive, Sweden could be offered a German promise of help at least in achieving sovereignty over the Åland islands, and possibly something much grander: Swedish hegemony in northern Europe.
The first moves were made by Arthur Zimmermann, the Under-Secretary of State at the Auswärtiges Amt and perhaps the one German official who took Sweden seriously over a long period. Hammarskjöld was not impressed when Zimmermann held out the prospect of Swedish leadership of a future Nordic bloc during his Berlin visit. However, Zimmermann found a receptive intermediary in a high official of the Swedish court, Count Ludvig Douglas, who conveyed the offer of an alliance to King Gustav on 8 June 1915. This time the future Swedish empire was to encompass Finland and the Baltic provinces of the Russian empire. Douglas sounded Hammarskjöld and Wallenberg - to whom he held out the inducement of strengthening the authority of crown and government - as well as the Chief of the General Staff and leading conservative politicians. But in no case, apart from that of the King, did he meet with a positive response.
Further approaches followed in June and July, but from early August German efforts became more determined as Bethmann's Russian policy underwent a decisive change from seeking a separate peace to securing a military solution. On 11 August he sent the Kaiser an optimistic assessment by Taube, the inveterately pro-German Swedish minister in Berlin, of the likelihood of Swedish entry into the war. It was accompanied by a proposal from the German naval attaché in Stockholm, Fischer-Lossainen, for a German landing in the Åland Islands aimed at provoking a Finnish uprising against Russia and forcing Sweden into the war. The proposal was submitted to Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, who decided that no action should be taken until Sweden had made a firm decision to take Germany's side. It was therefore necessary to keep up the political pressure on Sweden. More dignitaries visited Stockholm in August and September, and German efforts culminated on 15 November with the arrival in Stockholm of Prince Max of Baden, a cousin of the Queen, ostensibly to discuss prisoners of war on behalf of the Red Cross.
Some confusion surrounded Prince Max's mission. Falkenhayn had already ruled out an offensive against Petrograd through Finland, and in the autumn of 1915 the centre of military operations shifted to the Balkans with the attack on Serbia by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. However, he favoured the deployment of Swedish troops in the Baltic provinces, and believed Swedish adherence to the Central Powers to be highly desirable for the effect it would have 'on the other neutrals and on the morale of our opponents'. For the Wilhelmstrasse, too, there were still political advantages to be derived from a Swedish alliance. It might add to the pressure on Great Britain to seek peace (about which the German leadership remained surprisingly optimistic). Sweden also figured in the ideas of Mitteleuropa which were being vigorously debated in Germany and Austria at this time. The General Staff wanted closer economic, political and military cooperation with a number of European countries, including Sweden, in order to combat Britain's economic pressure. In the longer term, Mitteleuropa was a model for reorganising the European economy under German leadership after the war. The Auswärtiges Amt appears to have wanted Prince Max to win Sweden over to a close partnership with Germany with a view to political and economic collaboration in the future, not immediate military intervention. Both the General Staff and the Auswärtiges Amt were therefore sceptical about the mission and appear to have regarded it principally as a means of appeasing the Swedish activists. However, the instructions Prince Max received from the Kaiser and Falkenhayn still emphasised the goal of obtaining 'an alliance with Germany and a military convention' with a view to joint operations against Petrograd.
Prince Max therefore aimed at securing immediate Swedish intervention. In exchange he offered Sweden German support during the war in the form of troops, war material, coal and other economic requirements. After the war Sweden would receive the Åland Islands, an adjustment of its frontier, an autonomous or independent Finland as a buffer state, and free access to the Russian market. If Germany entered into a customs union with other states, Sweden would have the right to become a member. Germany was also prepared to conclude an offensive and defensive alliance with Sweden. It is hardly surprising that, faced with an alliance offer couched in such terms, the King and his ministers should have returned a negative answer. On 20 November 1915 King Gustav told Prince Max that Sweden could not go to war against Russia without some cause that would unite the whole country. Clearly Swedish hegemony in the north, however tempting to the King and his associates, was not something for which the majority of the Swedish population would be prepared to fight.
The Swedish government followed up its negative reply with gestures
of goodwill to Germany, including a prohibition on belligerent
submarines from using Swedish territorial waters - a measure designed
to keep British submarines out of the Baltic. The Swedish refusal
appears to have been accepted by Germany with remarkably little
acrimony. Prince Max showed sympathy for Sweden's position. In
view of the domestic situation, he told the Kaiser, only an external
threat could bring about Swedish entry into the war. The Kaiser
for his part merely sent a friendly telegram to King Gustav acknowledging
the difficulties that stood in the way of the proposal but expressing
confidence that Sweden would not 'miss its great opportunity'.
In fact the alliance project had been indefinitely shelved. The
German leadership may have belatedly accepted Lucius's message
that the activist party in Sweden was too small and isolated to
carry a united country into the war. Furthermore, the benefits
of Swedish intervention were by no means self-evident, and there
was much to support the view that Germany would gain more from
Sweden as a benevolent neutral. Sweden's wartime relations with
Germany had been friendly but remarkably self-assured: there was
nothing to suggest that Sweden would be a comfortable alliance
British anxiety about Swedish intentions, which surfaced periodically up to the beginning of 1916, was not based on any knowledge of Germany's overtures, but rather on the fear that events elsewhere in Europe or ill-judged action on the part of Russia might precipitate Swedish intervention. In order to reassure Sweden, the Allied ministers in Stockholm gave a second guarantee of Swedish independence and integrity in May 1915 to reinforce the one given at the outbreak of war. But Britain also had to take account of Russian fears. Throughout 1915 the Russian military authorities were convinced that a Swedish attack was imminent. Even if Sweden did not intervene, the transit trade to Russia remained dependent on Swedish good will. The Russians thus repeatedly urged the British to moderate their war trade dealings with Sweden. In response the British made a significant concession on the treatment of iron ore as contraband. Finally, Britain had its own worries about the position of Norway. If Sweden entered the war 'we should run the risk of seeing the Swedes establish a base for Germany on the western coast of Norway, which might turn our position in the North Sea, and would in any case threaten our communications with Russia viâ Archangel'.
The most sustained debate on the question of Swedish intervention resulted from a series of misunderstandings which began when the Norwegian military authorities strengthened their defences in the Narvik region in the autumn of 1915. The Swedish General Staff linked this to reports from their military attaché in London that Britain planned a landing in Norway with the aim of establishing direct contact with Russia and, incidentally, depriving Germany of supplies of iron ore from northern Sweden. The defensive measures undertaken by Sweden near the frontier with Norway were then interpreted by the French military attaché in Stockholm, Commandant Thomas, as pointing to the likelihood that if Sweden went to war (which he doubted for the present), it would not move against Russia but would 'make a dash for Narvik', which could then be used as a base for German submarines. Thomas suggested that the Allies should reach a prior arrangement with Norway to occupy Narvik as soon as Sweden entered the war. An approach to Norway was also proposed by Sazonov, the Russian Foreign Minister, towards the end of January 1916. A promise of British military assistance, he suggested, might persuade Norway to oppose Sweden if the latter entered the war.
Although an approach to Norway was ultimately ruled out, the Chief
of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, was asked
to investigate the military implications of a Swedish declaration
of war, and the question was discussed by the War Committee on
3 February 1916. It was thought unlikely that Sweden would either
attack Norway or go to war against Russia, but there remained
the need to allay Russian anxiety about the danger of a renewed
German offensive in the east. Moreover if Sweden did intervene
it would be, in the words of the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Jackson,
'absolutely impossible to force the Baltic' and thus bring British
naval power directly to bear on Sweden. By March 1916, however,
it was evident that the Verdun offensive had transformed the situation
by returning the centre of strategic attention to the western
front and reducing Germany's capacity to undertake offensive operations
in other theatres. Objectively there was thus little reason to
expect fighting to break out in the far north of Scandinavia in
the winter of 1915-16. Sweden had declined Germany's offer of
an alliance in November 1915, and reports of aggressive intentions
on the part of Sweden, Russia or Great Britain were mainly the
products of the minds of over-imaginative military attachés.
With the new German offensive in the west, and in the light of
the persistent reluctance of the British military and naval authorities
to contemplate any kind of action in northern Europe, there was
never any likelihood that either Sweden or Norway would become
embroiled in the war at this stage.
Denmark and Norway in 1916-17
The rumours about German or British military action against Denmark which were current in 1916 served to reinforce the caution of both belligerents. The reports received by the Foreign Office in April 1916 that Germany was planning to occupy Jutland seem to have originated in rumours deliberately spread by the News Department of the Foreign Office that Britain intended to send an expeditionary force to Schleswig. After the battle of Jutland, and in particular after Romania's entry into the war, the Germans feared that Britain might seek to force an entry to the Baltic and that this might draw Denmark into the war on the Allied side. However, Brockdorff-Rantzau successfully reassured Ludendorff in September 1916 that there was no reason to doubt Denmark's determination to maintain its neutrality. He also returned to Copenhagen with a personal message from the Kaiser to King Christian explicitly acknowledging the correctness of Denmark's conduct.
On the British side, rumours of German action against Denmark appear to have been regarded mainly from the point of view of their effect on Danish morale. In April 1916, realising that German plans were based on the assumption of a British landing, the Foreign Office wished to reassure Denmark about British intentions but also to promise that if it were attacked by Germany Britain would do all in its power 'to assist Denmark's resistance'. But no such promise could be made in the light of the consensus of naval and military opinion, expressed authoritatively in a joint Admiralty - War Office memorandum of October 1916, that Britain was quite incapable of coming to Denmark's assistance. The War Committee thus drew back from a secret proposal for military cooperation which seemed to have emanated indirectly from the Danish General Staff in September. It also authorised the British minister to inform Scavenius that Britain would do nothing to bring Denmark or the other Scandinavian countries into hostilities with Germany. Within a few weeks, therefore, Denmark had obtained reassurances from both sides.
Norway's position was far more precarious. At the same time as it was embroiled in the dispute over the copper agreement with Great Britain (above), it came under pressure from Germany on the question of submarine warfare. On 20 October 1916 Germany protested vehemently against a decree, introduced under Allied pressure, prohibiting the use of Norwegian territorial waters by submarines. For Germany the key point at issue was the demand that neutrals should recognise submarine warfare as equal in principle to the methods of economic warfare employed by the Entente. Norway was therefore a test case for the future of German submarine warfare. In the light of the growing intensity of the German campaign against Norwegian merchant shipping, there was a widespread assumption in Norway that the country would soon be at war with Germany. It was a possibility that the British and French governments also had to take seriously.
The French were particularly worried by the German note and asked the British government to 'do everything possible to encourage Norway' as well as to consider occupying bases on the Norwegian coast. Their chief fear was that Germany might bomb the Norwegian nitrate factories on which the Allies, and France in particular, relied for the manufacture of explosives and ammunition. The initial response of the British cabinet, backed by the advice of the Admiralty, was that Britain had 'no desire whatever to encourage Norway to enter the war', but would 'come to her assistance to the utmost of our power in the event of an attack upon her by Germany'. A very different perspective on the question was offered by a memorandum prepared by Crowe for the War Committee which argued that it would be to the advantage of the Allies if Norway was brought into the war. The blockade would be strengthened first by the stoppage of all Norwegian exports to Germany; secondly by the diversion of the whole mercantile marine into the service of the Allies; and thirdly by the opportunity to put greater pressure on Sweden, Denmark and Holland. In addition Britain would obtain greater security for its own supplies from Norway, and the route to Archangel and Murmansk (when the railway to the latter port was completed) would be made safer. If, on the other hand, Norway gave in to German pressure, both the direct consequences and the indirect effects on other neutrals would be very great. There might be a chain reaction which, if it reached the United States, might force the Allies 'to abandon the blockade altogether.' For Crowe, as for the German naval authorities, Norway was a test case.
Crowe's memorandum swayed the War Committee in favour of a stronger line towards Norway. At its meeting on 31 October his views were strongly endorsed by McKenna (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Cecil, while Grey admitted that it would be 'disastrous' if Norway were allowed to 'cave in to Germany'. At a further meeting on 2 November the members of the committee moved still further in favour of Norwegian involvement. As the Prime Minister summed up the debate, 'they were all agreed that they wanted Norway in. The only question was how to effect it - By assurances, or threats, or both?' It was left to Lloyd George to remind the War Committee of the limits of Allied capacity. 'We were,' he said, 'suffering from the effect of not being able to support any ally who has come into the war with us.' Asquith agreed that 'it was a dangerous thing to offer to protect another small country unless we were able to do it'. The Committee nevertheless resolved to strengthen the diplomatic pressure it had authorised on 31 October. Grey was to reiterate the promise of support, but this time to add the warning that if Norway took any action to hamper trade with Great Britain, the consequence 'would be the cutting off of all overseas supplies for Norway'.
While maintaining pressure on Norway, the British government had thus decided to do nothing which might precipitate Norwegian involvement in the war. Over the next two months the crisis between Norway and Germany remained in suspense and the Anglo-Norwegian copper dispute moved towards its climax, the imposition of the coal embargo on 22 December. It was against this background that the French again suggested that the Allied should consider the possibility that Norway might be forced into the war. On 11 December 1916 the French Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Joffre, wrote to Robertson suggesting that the Allies should make preparations to meet a combined Swedish and German attack on Norway. Although the likelihood of a Swedish attack was fanciful, the principal French fear remained a German attack on Norwegian nitrate plants. In the light of plans developed by Germany only a few months later, in the spring of 1917, this latter fear was by no means far-fetched. A second proposal came from Admiral Beatty, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet. On 15 December he requested permission from the Admiralty to infringe Norway's territorial rights in order to intercept the traffic in contraband and prevent the passage of German raiders. If the result was to involve Norway in the war, Beatty wrote, 'I would point out that even with Norway as an enemy the situation would permit of the more effective use of our naval power, whilst with Norway as an ally the general strategic position would be immensely relieved.'
The Admiralty's response was cautious. It accepted that if Norway
was forced into the war by Germany it would be necessary for Britain
to establish a base at Kristiansand, but found it 'difficult to
see what advantage Germany would gain by hostilities with Norway'.
In a memorandum circulated to the War Cabinet on 30 December it
accepted that there might be naval arguments in favour of involving
Norway in the war but was worried about the political effect on
other neutrals. The War Cabinet too thought that Britain might
lose its supplies from both Norway and Sweden, and asked Jellicoe
to discuss with Beatty the possibility the other measures might
be taken against German raiders. The consensus at the beginning
of 1917 was thus still against the idea of Norway's entering the
war, or of seizing a naval base in the face of Norwegian opposition.
However, since rumours of impending British action continued to
circulate in Stockholm, the Foreign Office asked the Admiralty
for an authoritative statement of its views. On 3 March 1917 Howard
was informed that the British government had 'definitely decided
against the suggestion that they should seize a Naval base on
the Norwegian Coast', and was authorised to make this statement
known if he judged it appropriate.
Denmark and Norway in 1917-18
The intensification of submarine warfare from the summer of 1916 onwards, together with the debate on the resumption of an unrestricted U-boat campaign, led the German naval and military authorities for the first time to make detailed plans for operations against Denmark and Norway. It was thought that the neutrals might be provoked into joining the Entente against Germany or, more plausibly, that Britain might seize the opportunity to launch a Baltic offensive or to establish a base on Norwegian territory. The Admiralty Staff had given serious consideration to the possibility of a British invasion of the Baltic as early as April 1916 but had decided that such action was improbable in view of the risks and the lack of plausible objectives. Planning began in earnest in August 1916, when Romania's entry into the war prompted fears that Denmark, 'under the increasingly powerful influence of English propaganda', might take the same course. Although the initiative came primarily from the navy, the General Staff was also worried about Danish sympathies. The navy's plans, as they evolved in the autumn of 1916, rested on the premise that the army would have to occupy the Jutland peninsula and a number of the smaller islands. At first the General Staff was reluctant to spare any troops for such an operation, although Ludendorff ordered three cavalry regiments to be sent to North Schleswig to guard against a British landing as a precautionary measure in January 1917. By April and May 1917, however, the high command had come to share the navy's fears.
German military intelligence indicated that Great Britain, supported by the United States, planned to establish a base at Kristiansand in southern Norway to combat the U-boat offensive. Ludendorff appears to have been particularly anxious at this prospect. On 17 May 1917 the General Staff agreed to make sufficient troops available for an occupation of Jutland. The persistent distrust shown towards Denmark, especially by the German navy, created acute difficulties for German diplomacy. Brockdorff-Rantzau and the Auswärtiges Amt tried to reassure the navy of the Danish government's will to defend its neutrality and to persuade it of the political dangers of launching an unprovoked attack on Denmark. Brockdorff-Rantzau was particularly concerned that no irrevocable decision should be taken on the basis of reports from agents in Denmark and elsewhere, which were usually wholly without foundation. In order for his strategy to work, Brockdorff-Rantzau had to take Scavenius into his confidence; and Scavenius for his part had to provide the German minister with sufficient reassurance about Denmark's attitude to enable him to press his case with the highest authorities in Berlin.
German nervousness was revealed in draft ultimatums sent to Brockdorff-Rantzau by the Reichskanzlei on 20 May 1917 for presentation to the Danish government in the event of a British landing in Jutland or Norway. Brockdorff-Rantzau succeeded in modifying the tone of the draft notes, but it was only after further exchanges in July and August that the German military and naval authorities were convinced that the Danish government would in no circumstances make common cause with a power seeking to defeat Germany. On 25 September 1917 the new Chancellor, Michaelis, told Brockdorff-Rantzau that it was no longer considered necessary to prepare an ultimatum to Denmark.
But if Denmark was relieved from diplomatic pressure, it was not out of danger. German naval planning for operations against Denmark continued at least until March 1918. And there was a growing emphasis on taking action unilaterally, irrespective of any British move against Denmark or Norway. Denmark was a major strategic objective in its own right, still more so in conjunction with Norway. For Prince Heinrich and for Admiral Scheer, the Chief of the High Seas Fleet, northern Jutland was a potential base for the German fleet which would allow it to escape the confines of the Heligoland Bight. The occupation of Jutland was also the first stage in an operation aimed at controlling the northern Kattegat and the Skagerrak and thus dominating all the Scandinavian countries. It would, furthermore, 'create, here in the north, the necessary elbow-room, the possibility of keeping the outlets to the ocean open in the future'. Here is the germ of the idea of acquiring bases in Scandinavia to enhance Germany's strategic position which was to play a prominent role in the debate on German naval strategy between the wars. It also reveals the intimate connection between Denmark and Norway in German naval thinking.
Although the German navy had ruled out an invasion of Norway in
December 1916, the Admiralty Staff was worried by the spring of
1917 that Britain might seek to establish bases on the south coast
of the country. In an operational directive of 1 April 1917, Admiral
von Holtzendorff stated that in order to counteract Britain's
superior naval forces, Germany would have to occupy the Jutland
peninsula, block the Kattegat with a large minefield, mine Norwegian
harbours and shipping routes, and bomb Kristiania together with
other ports and factories in southern Norway. There was still
no question of occupying Norwegian territory but there was serious
cause for concern about the state of German-Norwegian relations.
Negotiations for a major tonnage agreement between Britain and
Norway had been in progress since February; and although the existence
of the agreement, concluded in April 1917, remained 'Norway's
best-kept war secret', the Norwegians knew that the Germans had
their suspicions and feared reprisals if it came to their knowledge.
Tension between Norway and Germany increased in May with the German
seizure, contrary to prize law, of the Norwegian ships Thorunn
and Harald Haarfagre, and with the arrest in June of the
German diplomatic courier Rautenfels (an adventurer of Finnish
origin), with a large quantity of bombs which, it was assumed,
were intended to be placed in merchant ships in Norwegian harbours.
In the spring of 1917 the British authorities thus had every reason to take seriously the possibility of an outbreak of hostilities between Germany and Norway. In April the War Cabinet agreed that Norway should be supplied with anti-aircraft guns and aeroplanes to provide cover against the 'destruction of Norsk Hydro and other factories of military importance by airship attack'. American intervention placed the question of Norwegian involvement in the war in a new light. As early as March 1917 Admiral Dawes, the outspokenly pro-Allied Norwegian commanding admiral, had spoken to Findlay about the possibility that the United States might occupy a base in Norway. For Britain this would have the advantage that America would not be 'open to suspicion of desiring to keep a Gibraltar in the North'. It would also enable the Royal Navy to economise on its overstretched resources. These considerations, together with its growing scepticism about the likelihood of Swedish intervention, led the Admiralty to look more favourably on the prospect of Norway's involvement in the war. However, the War Office remained unconvinced, and it later emerged that the Admiralty was not 'proposing that any steps should be taken to encourage Norway to enter the war', but was merely 'concerned that all naval preparations should be made for that contingency should it present itself'.
With the views of its military and naval advisers apparently opposed,
the War Cabinet was understandably confused. After what one of
its members, Lord Milner, described as a 'rather heated discussion'
on Norway on 22 June 1917, the cabinet could do no more than conclude
it was desirable, on the one hand, to discourage Norway from entering
the war, and on the other, not to convey the suggestion that the
Allies were impotent to help her should she find herself forced
to go to war. Our naval forces should at least be able to protect
Norway from invasion by sea, and we could at least provide a certain
amount of protection against Zeppelin raids.
Tthe War Cabinet decided, 'in view of ... the serious factor which the Scandinavian countries may yet prove to be in determining the course of the war', to 'refer the whole question to the Cabinet Committee on War Policy for early consideration' and to ask the Foreign Secretary to consult the American ambassador on ways in which the United States 'would be prepared to co-operate in the event of Norway declaring war'. The Americans proved unresponsive. However, the demand for clarity on the question of policy towards Norway and the other northern neutrals, voiced most vigorously by Cecil as Minister of Blockade, led to the establishment on 20 July of a 'Northern Neutrals Committee' under the chairmanship of Sir Edward Carson to investigate the position of the Scandinavian countries and Holland.
In their report of 27 August 1917 the majority of the Northern Neutrals Committee concluded that 'the intervention of these countries even on the side of the Allies would on the whole not be an advantage to the Allies'. They largely discounted the likelihood that Sweden would intervene on the side of the Central Powers and thought that Germany would invade Denmark only if it wished to launch an attack on Norway. The Allies could not, however, give any naval or military support to either Sweden or Denmark against Germany. The cases of Holland and Norway were different since Britain could do something to defend both countries against a German attack. The committee approved the Admiralty's contingency plans for establishing an advanced base at Kristiansand and urged that the situation regarding American cooperation should be clarified. The one dissenting voice was that of Lord Robert Cecil, who emphasised the 'important political and moral effect in Germany' of the entry into the war of any of the northern neutrals. It would convince the Germans of their increasing isolation and reinforce their fear of 'the economic effect of the loss of their markets after the war, and the destruction of the politico-commercial system that they have built up in various foreign countries'. They might indeed be so demoralised that they sued for peace. 'This consideration seems to counter-balance any strictly naval and military disadvantages that would attach to the declaration of war on Germany, at any rate by Norway.'
The Admiralty had concurred in the committee's view that the entry of Norway into the war would be to the disadvantage of the Allies, thus apparently contradicting its earlier opinion. Findlay demanded an explanation of the Admiralty's change of view. When the question was discussed by the War Cabinet on 7 September, Jellicoe stated that the Admiralty had been influenced by the heavy demands on both British and American naval resources necessitated by the introduction of convoys to combat the German submarine campaign. The establishment of a base in Norway would impose further strains, although the Allies might be in a better position to help Norway by the spring. Findlay was therefore told that while Norway's entry into the war was undesirable for the time being, he should encourage the Norwegians 'to take a firm line against German aggression'.
The Admiralty's apparent vacillation over Norway was perhaps a
by-product of the tremendous political pressure to which it was
exposed as a result of the setbacks at sea during 1917. Lloyd
George took the lead in pressing for a radical shake-up of its
organisation and strategic thinking. The results included the
introduction of convoys in the spring, a major reorganisation
of the Admiralty's command structure and the dismissal first of
Carson as First Lord and then, in December 1917, of Jellicoe as
First Sea Lord. The search for a more vigorous strategy led the
Naval Staff in the autumn of 1917 to take a renewed interest in
northern waters. The weakening position of the Russian provisional
government prompted Jellicoe to ask Plans Division (established
in July 1917) to consider the possibility of sending a fleet into
the Baltic to relieve German naval pressure on Russia. The conclusion,
once again, was that no large-scale operation could be attempted
'without the previous destruction of the German fleet'. Norway
therefore remained the main focus of Admiralty interest, and the
question was given a new dimension by the Allied decision, in
September 1917, to adopt an American proposal to lay a mine barrage
across the North Sea betwen the Orkneys and the Norwegian coast,
in order to limit the operations of German submarines.
The Northern Barrage
The Northern Barrage was a hugely ambitious project which was
not begun until March 1918, but the British Naval Staff soon realised
the that if Norway entered the war on the Allied side, the mine
barrier could be made far more effective - first because it could
be extended into Norwegian territorial waters; secondly because
a base on Norwegian territory would make it much easier to patrol
the eastern end of the barrage. In October 1917 Plans Division
argued strongly for establishing a base at Stavanger instead of
Kristiansand. The former was a larger port and better placed for
patrolling the barrage, and was less exposed to attack if Germany,
either alone or in cooperation with Sweden, went to war against
Norway. The planners declared that
The advantages that would accrue from the use of a base in Norway in connection with the future policy are so great that it would seem advisable to establish a base here whether Norway has been previously forced into the war by Germany or not.
There is reason to believe that Norway would not object to such
action on our part, and might even welcome it as tending to bring
the war to a more speedy conclusion.
Their superiors at the Admiralty did not go so far. A Naval Staff memorandum of 6 December 1917 stressed the advantages to be gained by establishing a base at Stavanger but insisted that this must be secured only with Norwegian consent. The Northern Neutrals Committee agreed that an attempt should be made to secure a base at Stavanger, with the assent of Norway, and that 'provided Sweden remained neutral, it would be to our advantage for Norway to enter the war on our side'. On 19 December the War Cabinet adopted the committee's recommendations that a diplomatic approach should be made to Norway and that the cooperation of the United States should be sought.
Although Admiralty planning for the laying of the barrage proceeded officially 'on the assumption that no Norwegian base is likely to be available', Beatty raised the idea of obtaining a port in Norway in January and February 1918, and the planners did not give up the idea of seizing a base by force. In its detailed plans for establishing a base at Stavanger, drawn up in March 1918 shortly after minelaying operations had begun, Plans Division wrote that 'Unless the political situation changes in such a manner as to render the Norwegian Government agreeable to our occupying a base in Norway, such occupation must be carried out as a surprise, without previous notice, and with adequate forces; the Norwegians can then plead "force majeure".' In early August 1918 the Anglo-American minelaying operations reached the three-mile limit off the coast of Norway. The British and American governments had already begun to consider action to prevent German submarines from using Norwegian waters to evade the mine barrage, but they did not adopt the idea of seizing a base. Instead, Norway would be asked to lay mines in its own territorial waters to the east of the Northern Barrage. On 7 August 1918, Findlay delivered a note demanding that Norway enforce its ban on the use of its waters by German submarines by laying a minefield, adding that this operation must be undertaken within four days.
At a time when German-Norwegian relations were becoming more stable, with negotiations for a new trade agreement approaching their conclusion, Norway clearly wished to do nothing to antagonise Germany. On the other hand, it was assisted by the evident disparity between the attitude of Great Britain and that of its allies. The French and Italian representations in Kristiania were much milder than the British, while President Wilson declared that he was 'not in sympathy' with Britain's hard line towards Norway. There were also divisions of opinion in Britain itself. On 12 August the Norwegian government returned a conciliatory note, rejecting the idea of laying mines but promising increased vigilance in the area concerned. This was regarded as insufficient, and Beatty was ordered to mine Norwegian waters without warning and in the face of probable Norwegian resistance. At this he drew the line, arguing that quite apart from numerous practical objections, notably the likelihood that the Norwegians would sweep the mines as soon as they had been laid, such action might do 'irreparable injury ... to the good relations of two friendly navies and two friendly countries'. To his own officers, Beatty spoke even more forcefully. It would, he said, 'be most repugnant to the officers and men in the Grand Fleet to steam in overwhelming strength into the waters of a small, but high-spirited people and coerce them'. If blood were shed, it 'would constitute a crime as bad as any the Germans had committed elsewhere'.
The British therefore confined their efforts to persusasion. Realising, however, that compliance was unavoidable in the long run, Ihlen's subsequent diplomatic efforts were aimed at doing so with as little damage as possible to relations with Germany. He made it clear that the operation would be directed against all belligerent submarines and that legitimate merchant shipping would be unaffected. Two weeks after the signature of the German-Norwegian trade agreement of 14 September 1918, the Norwegian government announced its decision to lay a minefield for the purpose of enforcing its submarine decree. The German reaction was remarkably mild, probably because by the time the minelaying operations were completed, in mid-October 1918, Germany had more pressing matters to worry about. Although Bailey points out that Norway had every right to lay mines in its own waters, a right already exercised by Sweden and Denmark, Riste concludes that the Norwegian operation was an act which went beyond Norway's obligations as a neutral. It had been undertaken out of necessity because Britain had made it clear that it would take action if the Norwegians did not. Norway was lucky that it had taken place at such a late stage of the war: 'it is open to question whether Germany at a different time would have been satisfied with critical commentaries'.
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