15. Milorg and SOE
My subject for this chapter is the relationship between the Norwegian Military Organisation and the British Special Operation Executive - henceforward 'Milorg and SOE'. The evolving relationship between the two ad hoc organisations followed a pattern familiar in occupied countries during the Second World War. It was one of growing together from point zero through a period of reluctant acceptance, and then finally entering an almost frictionless stage with virtually no discord at all. The wartime period can thus be divided into three phases. The first may be labelled the phase of non-collaboration, to put it somewhat dramatically. This attitude, which was mutual, lasted from the summer of 1940 throughout the year 1941 and into the best part of 1942 as far as the rank and file of the two organisations were concerned. At the leadership level, however, one aspired to do better, and consequently a period of coexistence and even cooperation developed from the autumn of 1941 onwards. It was, however, the last two years of the war that constituted the time of cooperation on all levels.
In order to understand this development, it is necessary to sketch the events from 1940. Having recovered from the shock created by the German attack on 9 April, different groups of people in Norway began to plan for some sort of resistance. By the end of 1940 an organisation for military resistance - Milorg - existed, though at an embryonic stage. It was founded, inspired and directed by Norwegians in Norway, and was recognised as part of the Norwegian armed forces under the command of the Norwegian government and the Norwegian High Command in London on November 20, 1941. During this premature stage, Milorg was joined by an unknown, but large number of men. The aim was to build up a secret army in the most careful manner, avoiding actions and even weapons, and to prepare for the day of liberation. Milorg wanted to 'go slow, lie low'. One should not attract German attention and thereby jeopardise the lives of civilians and have the fragile Milorg nipped in the bud.
As for the British, their military intelligence had jumped the gun and dispatched a few men to Norway a few days before the German attack. The man who later became head of SOE, Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins, participated in the campaign in Norway in the spring of 1940. These men established contacts with quite a few Norwegians, and when SOE was established in July 1940, they became the core of the Norwegian component in the British effort to hamper the German exploitation of the country. SOE's aim was to carry out acts of sabotage in German-occupied countries. Its Scandinavian Section, began to develop under the direction of Charles (later Sir Charles) Hambro. Norwegian refugees were happy to be asked to go on special training courses with the purpose of becoming British agents in Norway. Gradually, this resulted in the formation of the Norwegian Independent Company No. 1, later called the Linge Company after its leader, Captain Martin Linge. In December 1940 the important Shetland base was established as a joint base for SOE and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Norwegian refugees, who had crossed the sea in their fishing boats, were recruited as agents. These agents joined the Linge Company and Shetland base, and adopted the British view of active resistance policy in occupied countries, which corresponded roughly to their own. It is therefore evident that this group of Norwegians was bound to clash with their Milorg colleagues - in spite of their having the same goal, a free Norway - as their ways of achieving this objective differed so much.
What, then, was SOE's resistance policy for Norway? While the Milorg leadership wanted to build up a centralised secret army, slowly and carefully over a long period, avoiding activities that might endanger the work of the organisation, SOE's leaders were in a hurry. They had a great need for activity that would produce results to present to MEW. The idea of a 'secret army' was not too popular in the Admiralty, in the War Office or among the Chiefs of Staff. 'Irregular warfare' could easily become a war fought by amateurs. But SOE had Churchill on its side as he favoured any offensive strategy, especially in Norway. SOE's solution was raids and sabotage, contrary to the policy of Milorg. Furthermore, inside SOE's Norwegian Section, both in London and Stockholm, there were 'several Britons who took the absolute standing' that SOE should conduct its work without interference from Milorg. Colonel J.S. Wilson, head of the Section, put it like this:
There was still amongst its staff the inherent British attitude of kindly - but none the less galling - superiority to the foreigners. There existed ... a distrust of Milorg's ability to take ordinary security precautions. The arrests in the autumn of 1941 gave apparent reason for this distrust.
Wilson concludes that 'the tendency of the British officers concerned was to demand that all S.O.E. organisation should be independent of Milorg'.
It is fair to say that the British view on the lack of security inside Milorg was based more on facts than on a condescending attitude to foreigners. Members of Milorg and their leadership were of course amateurs in the field of clandestine activities. Some British officers claimed that Norwegians in general were too talkative and open. But then again some Norwegians commented on certain British officers: for instance the Milorg pioneer Paal Frisvold remarked on Major Malcolm Munthe: '... to carry out secret military missions in Norway, I don't know anyone who is less suitable than him'. I shall not elaborate on this quotation, but as for the British view, it is indisputable that Milorg had to learn 'the hard lesson of security' and they had to learn it 'in the bitter school of experience', as the British put it. And, it may be added, they did.
SOE decided to carry out its resistance activities in Norway independently of Milorg and the Norwegian government and other Norwegian authorities in London. SOE's important document pertaining to this decision, 'Norwegian Policy' of 11 December 1940, gave directives to those Norwegians who worked for SOE in Norway; it also reflects the importance that the British attached to Norway. Although the document stated that the liberation of Norway would most probably come as a result of an Allied invasion, it was also necessary that SOE boost the Norwegian morale by means of propaganda and sabotage. The key phrase here is that through SOE, Norway was to become 'a thorn in the German side'. The ultimate aim was a general rising in Norway. This could only be achieved by having a separate SOE organisation in each district. The document stated finally that SOE had a 'long-term programme' and a 'short-term programme'. The former aimed at building up a Secret Army, trained in guerrilla and sabotage, and assisting an Allied invasion. The 'short-term programme' aimed at raids and sabotage, so-called 'tip-and-run landings and air raids', carried out in association with the Directorate of Combined Operations (DCO).
One such raid was the Claymore operation against the Lofoten Islands on 4 March 1941. The British evaluated this raid as a great success, 'a classic example of a perfectly executed commando-raid'. I do not intend to go into details about these raids as such, but it is obvious that the British attitude was not shared in Norway. The Germans took heavy reprisals: homes were burnt, people arrested. Besides, the targets destroyed were regarded in Norway as Norwegian property, not as a blow to Germany's capacity to wage war. It even struck a jarring note among the participating Norwegian soldiers who began to doubt whether it was right to operate under British orders and carry out British plans, perhaps even without the knowledge of the Norwegian Government. SOE, however, was thrilled by the success of Operation Claymore. The result was a document entitled 'Scandinavian Policy' of 16 April 1941, in which SOE expressed its wish to do things its own way and get things going in Norway's fight for freedom. In doing this, however, SOE definitely overestimated the Norwegian willingness to fight the German occupation regardless of the consequences.
Why then this concern for the consequences? The answer is that the Norwegian resistance leaders felt a heavy burden of responsibility. Norway had lived in peace for 126 years: they were not mentally prepared for war. In their report of 10 June 1941, which was addressed to King Haakon, but ended up with SOE, Milorg's Council emphasised that they did not want weapons and that they resented any sabotage acts, whether carried out by SOE or by any other organisation. It was this attitude that provoked the famous remark from one of the Milorg pioneers in London: 'Military Sunday School'. The Milorg leaders received a reply from SOE in August of the same year, but it contained no changed attitude. On the contrary, SOE stressed the need for a more active policy: sabotage, training and arms drill. Last but not least, the reply implied that Milorg must take orders from the British. This was not at all reassuring to Milorg. Besides, they were not at all convinced that the Norwegian government was kept informed about SOE's activities in Norway. When the problems and misunderstandings concerning their own attempt to make contact with the government were solved in October 1941, they learnt that their letter of 10 June had never reached its destination. Their suspicion that SOE was keeping the Norwegian government in the dark was proved. To avoid further calamities, the Norwegian government recognised Milorg in November 1941.
SOE responded quickly with a memorandum entitled 'Anglo-Norwegian Collaboration regarding the Military Organisation in Norway', written by Sir Charles Hambro and sent to the Norwegian minister of defence, Oscar Torp. Hambro expressed a wish to cooperate with the Norwegian government and other Norwegian authorities. But Milorg must work along the same lines as SOE had drawn up for resistance in other occupied countries, based on mutual confidence and harmonious cooperation between British and Norwegian resistance leaders in England. Torp accepted the invitation and, with his personal assistant Thore Boye, met Sir Charles Hambro. He assured Hambro that 'not only was he in favour of continuing the arrangements that existed between the Norwegian authorities and S.O.E., but that he wanted to facilitate them'. In return he personally expected to be taken into SOE's confidence 'absolutely'.
In the meantime, a report on the raid against Måløy, Operation Anklet in December 1941, stated that the year 'ended on a sad note', with Captain Linge himself being among those killed. This time a group of twelve Linge soldiers took action. They felt they could not go on fighting, feeling almost like mercenaries as they did not have the blessing of Norwegian authorities. Though in a minority, their view was soon approved, after a short period of internment. The principle at stake - full information and approval of the Norwegian government - was guaranteed in the year 1942.
There were no more raids. Instead, SOE concentrated on the long-term programme. On 1 January 1942 a special Norwegian Section, headed by Wilson, was established within the SOE to direct SOE's work in Norway. In addition, the talks between Sir Charles Hambro and Oscar Torp resulted in the establishment of the important Anglo-Norwegian Collaboration Committee (ANCC). Thirdly, on 6 February, Torp established the Norwegian High Command (FO). On 16 February the first meeting of the ANCC was held, with representatives of SOE and FO. One may say that the two organisations now entered the phase of cooperation, and one might consequently conclude that this goes for SOE and Milorg as well. However, though these organisational improvements at the top marked a great step forward, the problems in the field were far from being solved. The gap between word and deed was in fact at its greatest in the year 1942, as the policy of non-collaboration continued among the rank and file. Agents were still sent to Norway with strict orders to avoid contact with members of Milorg. I therefore choose the expression 'coexistence' to characterise the relationship at this time.
As for SOE's relation with the Norwegian legation in Stockholm, which also had an important link to Milorg, the legation was, according to Wilson, more reluctant to adopt the new policy of 'complete trust and co-operation'. As a result, Major John Rognes, who had assisted SOE activities from Shetland in 1941, was sent by Minister Torp to Stockholm. His mission helped to improve relations between the legation and SOE, Norwegian Section in Stockholm.
The main issue for the SOE-Milorg relationship in 1942 was the question of their role in the reconquest of Norway. A Norwegian committee in Great Britain had drawn up the main tasks for Milorg, and their view was then evaluated by SOE. Lack of space prevents me from elaborating on this theme, but an important Norwegian claim was that Milorg should only be fully engaged in case of an invasion aiming at a permanent reconquest of Norway or part of it. This meant, according to SOE, that SOE could not carry out its 'short-term actions'. A meeting was held in Stockholm in February to coordinate the view of the Ministry of Defence with that of the Milorg leaders. Finally SOE delivered its report in April on 'The Reconquest of Norway. SOE's Role'. Here they summed up their activity and expressed their will to cooperate. However, it would still be necessary to maintain separate SOE organisations in the districts in Norway, which would have no contact with their Milorg colleagues. The formal expression for this 'apartheid' policy was 'certain lines of parallel action'. SOE and Milorg should, however, let these lines fuse 'when the proper time for amalgamation comes'. SOE considered the establishment of radio communications between Norway and Great Britain, between Sweden and Norway, and inside Norway, to be SOE's main role in the future, together with supplying Norway with weapon and explosives, training and transporting Norwegian agents. Finally SOE would do the utmost to help with 'long-term planning with a view to the reconquest of Norway'.
During the year 1942, the policy of 'parallel action' often led to grave episodes. At Lillehammer, the agent 'Anvil', suspected of being a traitor, was nearly killed by Milorg. Careless agents jeopardised Milorg's regional resistance network, and the crises piled up as the year progressed. The process began when 'Penguin' and 'Anchor' got into a fight with the Gestapo, leading to the German reprisals at Telavåg in April 1942, 'the greatest shock that Resistance in Norway had yet encountered'. This community on the western coast of Norway was destroyed and its inhabitants deported. In addition, eighteen men were shot as a reprisal. The military resistance on the west coast of Norway received a heavy blow through these arrests and executions. To add to the problems, SIS played a part in the same area and 'contributed in part or in whole to the disaster'.
The next SOE operation, Redshank, in Trøndelag in May 1942, was more successful. It was the first coup-de-main operation against an industrial target: a transformer station was destroyed to slow down the delivery to the Germans of the valuable pyrites from the Orkla mines. The drawback was of course sharpened vigilance against resistance work in the district. But the year 1942 continued to produce disasters. The capture of the Anchor organiser in Drammen in May resulted in a series of arrests two months later. Added to the seizure in Østfold of the SOE agent 'Crow', this was a heavy blow to Milorg in eastern Norway. The Milorg leader Knut Møyen wrote in a contemporary report that had it not been for the standing order given to the SOE agents to avoid Milorg, this would not have happened:
The difficulties and the situation as a whole change every week, so to speak, and it is therefore necessary that all who arrive get thorough additional briefing, no matter how well they have been instructed in England.
In September and October, the time had come for Trøndelag and northern Norway. To make a long story short, the first joint SOE-DCO coup-de-main operation ever, Knotgrass-Unicorn, against the Glomfjord Power Station and the SOE operation Kestrel against Fosdalen Mines, both carried out entirely without the knowledge of Milorg and with no information about the activities whatsoever, led to a fervent search for resistance people in the district. From 6 to 12 October, a state of emergency was inaugurated in Trøndelag and 29 persons were executed.
As this tragic year in the history of military resistance in Norway progressed, the Milorg leaders were on the verge of giving up their work. New meetings were held at the highest levels. To solve the crisis of confidence, not only between Milorg and SOE, but also between Milorg and Norwegian authorities in England, FO in June 1942 sent Jacob Schive back to Norway. A Milorg pioneer highly respected by the organisation, Schive returned to London with a report which slightly exaggerated Milorg's strength. Together with the disastrous effects of the 'certain lines of parallel action' pertaining to SOE and Milorg and the continuing process going on inside the ANCC, it resulted in a new document issued by SOE on 21 September 1942. Written by Wilson himself, this amounted to nothing less then a new programme called 'SOE Long-term Policy in Norway' in which SOE finally gave up its independent course. SOE admitted the mistakes that had been made on both sides, including the 'lines of parallel action' and declared that a 'drastic revision' was necessary. Wilson's attitude played a great role in this process of mutual understanding:
...in time all realised that it was impossible to run two independent para-military underground movements side by side. Inevitably it would lead to crossing of lines and to the two cutting each other's throats.
Major Leif Tronstad, one of the leading resistance pioneers, now in London and member of the ANCC, and 'whose memory as "The Professor" will be held in reverence by all in S.O.E.', expressed it this way:
We have experienced that it is impossible to maintain two separated military organisations without intermixing and complications that may trigger off the worst consequences. We must therefore go for one effective organisation with a mutual strong leadership.'
Directives were issued by both SOE and FO aiming at securing good relationship on all levels. SOE and FO agreed on what were to be their respective responsibilities and duties. Initiative, planning, education of agents and instructors, transport, supplies, were all to be taken care of by SOE, in cooperation with FO. Milorg should roughly speaking provide the rank and file. Resistance policy should be a matter for the ANCC, whereas the everyday performance in Norway should be handled by the Milorg leaders. To quote Wilson again:
Taking it all in all, FO IV/SOE/OSS seemed to have come through most of their childhood's ills, and to be gaining in strength and, possibly, in wisdom.
One should, however, bear in mind that SOE had been established for the purpose of coordinating the irregular military resistance with the Allied war effort. Consequently, it was important for the Chiefs of Staff Committee that SOE's hegemony as the only 'co-ordinating authority' in these matter was recognised.
Though there are sources indicating that 'especially from December 1943 ... the cooperation has had an intimate character', it is fair to say that the period of non-collaboration in the field and coexistence at the top level was transformed into full cooperation on all levels from the beginning of 1943 onwards. Contact between Oslo and London was improving, followed by a better understanding between the Central Leadership of Milorg and FO and SOE in their joint capacities. An important factor in this process was Milorg's own decision concerning the future character of the organisation. Was it to be a poorly trained resistance group, built on the organisational principles of the prewar army and not armed until the very day of an allied invasion, or a decentralised, fully trained and armed guerilla organisation? In the spring of 1942, the Central Leadership of Milorg through its 'Directive No.1 to the District Leaders' chose the latter alternative. This did not mean, however, that resistance policy in Norway was settled once and for all. The decisive battle was fought in the autumn of 1942 and in the spring of 1943 at the top level of Milorg and its civilian equivalent, Sivorg. The Central Leadership of Milorg gave an unconditionally answer to FO in London in January 1943: Milorg wanted weapons, indeed their whole existence depended on it. Sivorg protested, but shortly afterwards, its leaders realised the necessity of this decision. This acceptance of the reality of war, and of military resistance as such, made it of course easier for Milorg to adjust to the British activity and to appreciate SOE's new policy of cooperation in the field.
Wilson attributed much of the improved atmosphere in the field to the instruction of local Milorg leaders by SOE agents. He explicitly mentions the two Gannet instructors dropped in Gudbrandsdalen in November 1942. When they returned to Great Britain two months later, they had held eleven separate courses, training 59 men in lonely mountain huts in guerrilla warfare, small arms, demolitions and unarmed combat:
Men from the United Kingdom were no longer looked on as dangerous interlopers, but as friends and allies who were recognised as well-trained and secure ... F.O. IV and S.O.E. were over the top of the hill.
During this period, SOE intensified its sabotage activities and Milorg was little by little engaged. The usual pattern was for Linge soldiers to be dropped in the vicinity of the target, or even sometimes in Sweden. They would then launch the attack, often helped by local Milorg men. Three groups of targets were hit: ships, industry and railways. It is impossible to go into detail about these operations here. The most famous, Operation Gunnerside against the heavy water plant at Vemork in February 1943, is, however a good example of thorough Anglo-Norwegian planning, the use of Norwegian agents who knew the area like the back of their hand, and, in the sinking of the Hydro ferry carrying semi-finished heavy water, in cooperation with the local Milorg group. It is also an example of the effectiveness of coup-de-main operations as compared with heavy bombing, in terms of both casualties and accuracy, a theme that was often on the agenda in Anglo-Norwegian meetings and in which SOE, FO and Milorg took a unanimous view in favour of the former.
From the turn of the year 1943, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied European Forces (SHAEF) decided the lines of policy to be followed in Norway. In other words, the joint British-Norwegian resistance had to adjust itself to the framework of SHAEF. Because of the plans SHAEF had at that time for the invasion of the Continent, no commitment in Norway was wanted, and Milorg was strongly warned that it should not encourage any rising in Norway. Ironically, the old Milorg slogan 'lie low, go slow' now had a renaissance. The idea was to grow in strength and wait for the day to come. Any untimely rising, like that of the French maquis in the Vercors, would not be supported.
Nevertheless, the more than 30,000 men in Milorg waited eagerly to do something more than mere training, and after the Allied invasion on the Continent they were allowed to attack and sabotage German shipping, lines of communication, industries etc. This was quite important as the restlessness amongst the rank and file increased. The sabotage of the offices for labour conscription in the spring of 1944 represented a little outlet of steam. However, when the above mentioned directive came in June, the opportunities for action increased. Regular clashes with the Germans were still to be avoided. Usually, the attacks were planned and launched by combined groups of Milorg and SOE personnel. But even before this new directive, Milorg's role in these joint British-Norwegian operations had been steadily increasing. In fact, Feather II, which crossed the border from Sweden on 22 April 22 1944 to attack the Thamshavn railway, was the last British operation planned outside Norway. Henceforward, it was the Central Leadership of Milorg that decided on these issues. Meanwhile, Milorg grew in strength and numbers. Supplies, equipment, instruction and training were provided by SOE and FO in London. This was no easy task considering Norway's topography and climate.
All in all, Allied aircraft flew 717 successful sorties out of a total of 1241, dropping 208 agents, 9662 containers and 2762 packages with arms, munition, explosives, radio equipment, uniforms, medicine etc. In addition, supplies were sailed from the Shetlands: in 194 trips, 190 agents and 385 tons of arms and equipment were landed in Norway and 345 agents were brought back to England. Instructors were sent to train members of Milorg, together with W/T operators. It was mainly in the last year of cooperation between SOE and Milorg that the figures grew to such proportions and thus gradually increased Milorg's striking power.
The SHAEF directive of June 1944 was based on the assumption that it would be easier to let the Germans retreat from Norway and defeat them in central Europe. However, as the situation in this part of Europe changed towards the end of 1944, SHAEF changed its strategy. In a directive of 5 December 1944, Milorg was told to attack the railways in Norway on a large scale to prevent the Germans from withdrawing their fresh troops from Norway and sending them to the central European theatre for use against the Allies. Milorg was naturally very pleased to get this opportunity. After the surrender in Finland, an enormous number of troops were withdrawn into Finnmark in northern Norway and thence southwards. In close cooperation with SOE parties which had been held in readiness, Milorg attacked railways and bridges on a large scale. So well did Milorg carry out its task that, according to the head of SOE, Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins, 'From Norway, there was a reduction in rate of movement from four divisions to less than one division a month'. However, German documents such as the Kriegstagebuch, do not support such an unreserved conclusion. Eleven divisions were withdrawn from June 1944 until the end of the war, seven of these in the first four months of 1945.
Despite sabotage activity, the main objective for Milorg in the last year of the war was protection against German destruction of communications, transport, industries,
ports etc., in case of a German withdrawal accompanied by the scorched earth policy practised in Finnmark in the autumn of 1944. The detailed plans were made in London and a total of 110 officers were sent in from Great Britain to lead this work. In addition, a considerable number of Linge officers already in Norway on various other missions were directed to such tasks in the last phase of the war. Milorg also established a few bases - groups of specially handpicked men placed in camps far away in the forest and up in the mountains - ready to strike if the signal was given. The leaders and instructors were SOE personnel.
At this stage, in the spring of 1945, approximately 40,000 Milorg men, equipped, trained and well disciplined were prepared for the worst alternative, a German last stand in Norway. The equipment as well as the training and partly, I should say, the discipline, could be attributed to the fruitful cooperation with SOE which in turn had at its disposal some of the best specimens of Norwegian youth. Milorg obeyed SHAEF's order not to provoke the Germans but could not avoid a few clashes as the Germans attacked. On these occasions, Milorg proved their capability to defend themselves and even strike back. Their losses were small compared with German casualties.
As we all know, the German Commander in Norway, General Boehme, signed the German surrender in Norway on 8 May 1945. Milorg did not have to fight at all. Their role in this rather risky period of transition was to stand guard, protect buildings, arrest traitors etc. They were finally demobilised in July 1945. As for the Linge Company, they were inspected by Colonel Wilson on 30 June and demobilised.
These few pages are of course only a rough survey of the relationship between Milorg and SOE. However, I have tried to show how two ad hoc organisations, with basically the same goal, operating side by side, at the outset virtually as antagonists with an attitude of non-collaboration, managed gradually to adjust themselves to each other's course and, in the last years of the war, to achieve such a high degree of cooperation that the SOE phrase from the spring of 1942, 'amalgamation' may be used. 'Basically the same goal': yes, but the inherent contradiction in the SOE programme made the first two or three years difficult: the building up of a secret army combined with offensive actions. The former required an attitude that did not attract the attention of the Germans and thus agreed perfectly with Milorg's policy. The consequence of offensive actions, on the other hand, was precisely the opposite, and this was Milorg's constant worry. For reasons already described, SOE had to concentrate on the offensive part early in the war. As the war developed, SOE toned down this aspect of its activity. At the same time, Milorg adjusted its policy to the harsh reality of war. In this way the two lines met and converged. Although this pattern may not have differed much in outline from that which developed in other occupied countries, there was perhaps one important difference after all: the degree of success achieved by the partnership, or 'amalgamation', between the two organisations.