13. Norway's role in British wartime intelligence

Edward Thomas

For the purpose of this chapter, the term intelligence is used only in the sense of information gathered and analysed in support of those making operational and strategic decisions. I will be discussing the role of SOE and the Norwegian resistance only inasfar as they were sources of this sort of information.
Sharing Sandy Glen's great admiration for the Norwegian people I would be less than human if I did not start by saluting some of the fine Norwegian naval officers I had to do with during my two years as naval intelligence officer in Iceland: the celebrated Captain Ullring, then in command of the gunboat, HNMS Fridhof Nansen, who shared my office when he came ashore; Commander Brinck and his brave squadron of young Kvartermester who flew dangerous patrols in single engined Northrop float-planes over the fog and ice of the Denmark Strait on the look-out for German raiders - and gave me a taste of their work; and Commander Brekke who commanded HNMS Honningsvåg, an armed trawler captured from the Germans in circumstances calling for great courage and presence of mind. I sailed with him in fair weather and foul, learning to like 'Labskaus' and to say 'Fand steke mij'!
It was in Iceland in 1940 that I first experienced the workings of Ultra, though I was not then party to the secret. Fridhof Nansen did important - and largely forgotten - work in frustrating early German attempts to land meteorological parties in Greenland and Jan Mayen. These were organised by the Abwehr whose cypher had just been broken at Bletchley Park. The decrypts revealed their intentions and the fact that Goering attached great importance to them, as did the Germans to their subsequent met. activities in the Arctic. What intelligence made of them is chronicled in our history.
Ultra played no part in the Altmark incident, the German naval Enigma not being broken till a year later. Coastal Command followed up reports from agents run by the French, and these led to her interception in Jøsingfjord. If the Nelson touch was displayed there it was Nelson's intelligence methods that led to the first battle of Narvik. Captain Warburton-Lee and his destroyers were sent there on the strength of no more than a solitary Reuter report saying that a single German warship had reached Narvik, and wisely sought confirmation from a pilot station in the Vestfjord. There he was told that six destroyers, 'bigger than yours', had passed by, steering north. This was to prove a sorry underestimate.
The failure to give warning of Hitler's invasion of Norway was a disgrace to British intelligence and to Whitehall in general. Many clues pointing in the right direction had been received. But they went separately to the three Service Departments and the Foreign Office, none of whom individually thought them conclusive. For example the report of 4th April of a German photo reconnaissance flight over Norway's west coast - a unique event - went to ground in the Air Ministry, while the operational significance of Abwehr decrypts about the activities of a German spy ship in Norwegian territorial waters well before the invasion went undetected in the Admiralty. In those days there was no effective machinery for bringing all the evidence together and thinking about what it might mean. Had there been it is scarcely credible that it would not have dented the prevailing view in Whitehall that the Germans would never dare send an expedition acrosss the sea in face of British naval power. As it was, sightings of Germany's big warships were thought to presage a break-out into the Atlantic.
The short campaign taught the British quite exceptionally valuable intelligence lessons. One arose from the breaking of the first operational Enigma. This was the version of the cypher used by the German Army and Luftwaffe throughout the campaign. Bletchley poured out decrypts about the strength, intentions and whereabouts of the enemy. No one had expected the Enigma to be used in this way or on this scale. No arrangements had been made to send its highly secret yield to the battle zone, and none could be improvised. So it served only to keep London informed of what was going on and laid an immensely important foundation for future understanding of the organisation and workings of the German forces. But a manner in which it might in future be sent to operational commanders was suggested during the retreat from Oslo to the north by King Haakon and the British Embassy staff. The Oslo representative of the SIS succeeded in keeping in touch with London throughout the perilous journey by means of his secret radio channel. In all future campaigns, from France onwards, the SIS's signals network was used for passing operational intelligence direct from Bletchley Park to Army and RAF commanders in the field. The Admiralty used its own network. After Iceland I worked for a time at Bletchley translating and editing, at breakneck speed, decrypts revealing the instructions sent to U-boats in the Atlantic, the activities of the German navy off Norway, and very much else besides.
The British Embassy in Oslo had already, in the first days of the war, been the scene of a sensational intelligence coup. The 'Oslo Report', pushed through the letter box by a German who was to remain anonymous for fifty years, was one of the most remarkable intelligence documents of the war. It set forth so much about German scientific and technological advances - radar, navigational beams, guided missiles, rockets and other experimental weapons - that at first practically everyone believed it to be a hoax. But Dr R. V. Jones - that redoubtable scientific intelligence officer - thought it probably genuine and used it throughout the war as a touchstone for interpreting often fragmentary evidence about German scientific innovations. In the end its truth was to be proved in almost every particular. Dr Jones now tells us that its author was Professor Hans Ferdinand Meyer, wartime head of Siemens Central Laboratories.
Returning to Ultra, the Enigma of the Luftwaffe had been broken in 1940. But the versions of the cypher used by the German Army and Navy proved much more difficult. That the German naval Enigma was broken, and an immense contribution to winning the war thereby achieved, owes much to Norway. By April 1940 Bletchley had made good theoretical progress, and was then helped by the few papers remaining in a German patrol vessel captured and looted on its way to Narvik. But to make the further decisive step Bletchley needed further and more systematic captures. The Lofoten raid of March 1941 was planned primarily with this end in view. Material captured from the armed trawler Krebs set Bletchley well on the way to a decisive solution which was completed soon afterwards by three further captures. Two, from weather ships on the high seas (but based in Norway), were planned operations. But the third - the famous U-110 - was fortuitous. With this invaluable help Bletchley read the Home Waters settings, which carried 95% of the traffic, from March to the end of May, albeit with some delay: but from then on it broke the daily changing settings with little or no delay until the end of the war. The December 1941 raid on Vågsøy yielded further valuable cryptographic material. So the high price exacted by German reprisals was not wholly in vain. Ultra made a very great contribution to winning the Battle of the Atlantic - a battle on which all depended - and was thus responsible for saving perhaps hundreds of Norwegian merchant ships and the lives of their crews. Its illumination of the sea war off Norway included regular testimony to the German's constant fear of Allied landings.
The Enigma played a part in the early stages of the Bismarck episode. The Luftwaffe was flying abnormal reconnaissance of the ice edge from Trondheim/Værnes, and decrypts revealing this were the first warning that something was afoot. They caused the C in C, Home Fleet, to refuel his shadowing cruisers. But what set British forces in motion was information from the Norwegian military attaché to his British colleague in Stockholm to the effect that two large German warships - the other was Prinz Eugen, later to be torpedoed off the Norwegian coast - had been sighted steaming through the Kattegat by the aircraft of a Swedish cruiser. The rest of the story is well known. But the part played by the Norwegian MA is insufficiently acknowledged.
It was not until 1942 that Hitler's fear of invasion - he said that every ship not in Norway was in the wrong place - and German knowledge of the successful passing of convoys by the Arctic route to north Russia sent their big ships to Norwegian bases. The intelligence story revolved largely round their movements and intentions. But not exclusively. In June 1941 Ultra from north Norway had finally dispelled doubts in Whitehall as to whether Hitler really intended to invade Russia. Because the Germans had to resort exclusively to radio communication with remote Finnmark their traffic, in the Luftwaffe Enigma, could be intercepted and decrypted. This was not the case on other fronts. From 14 June it furnished clear indications that Germany intended to push forward in Finnmark, and to do so on 22 June. That they failed to capture Murmansk and the Kola Inlet - a failure pregnant with significance - was helped by the disruption of their supply shipping off north Norway by British and Russian submarines. The British were guided by authorities in London who now had good information from the Enigma about German convoy movements, routes, escorts and patrols.
Ultra was to provide information of this sort right up to the end of the war. But it was seldom complete and often late. That the information needed for Allied air and naval operations in coastal waters, and for the activities of SIS and SOE, was so extraordinarily full sprang from the enormous amount of information that came to hand to supplement the Ultra. Ultra was, in any case, only distributed to very few recipients and was mostly used as background. Photo reconnaissance played a big part. But most of the non-Ultra information came from Norwegian sources. The Norwegian High Command in London had its own sources, and collaboration between them and the SIS almost entirely lacked the friction experienced with other governments in exile. They agreed on an early division of labour, the SIS obtaining information from the ship-watchers, and the Norwegian government political, military and static information. This filled out the information about the German army of occupation received from Ultra. The OSS had no difficulty in accepting the Anglo-Norwegian system of control I seem to remember that it was OSS agents who warned in early 1941 of the German intention to renew their attempts to establish met. stations in Greenland.
Even the SIS and SOE got on with much less than their normal friction. So there must have been something special about Norway. All information about the Resistance came, of course, from the SOE. But they also gathered enormous amounts of information about the German occupation. Since, by a ruling at the highest level, this was circulated by the SIS as CX reports it is impossible - as is the case with other occupied countries - for historians to tell precisely what information came from SOE. A further valuable non-Ultra source was the systematic and informed interrogation of escapees from Norway and elsewhere at the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth which was run by naval intelligence. Captured, or stolen, documents were always another valuable source. Perhaps the biggest coup of this kind was the capture during the Vågsøy raid of maps showing the coastal defences not only of Norway but of all occupied Europe. All this is the sort of information which, evaluated against the background of Ultra, was used for the planning of Jupiter and the re-occupation of Norway.
One very important supplement to Ultra was the establishment by the SIS of its ship-watching stations from the Kattegat to furthest north which was in action from early 1942. One subject on which Ultra could not be relied on to provide timely warning , or sometimes any warning at all, was the movement of Germany's main naval units. Reports from the ship watchers were often the first to be received in London. The movements of these ships between Germany and their Norwegian bases were often accompanied by dramas in which I became involved when I later joined the Home Fleet. But today I must concentrate on Bismarck's sister-ship, the Tirpitz. Her sucessful destruction, wrote Churchill, 'would alter the entire naval situation throughout the whole world. She thus became an intelligence target of the highest priority. After Bomber Command's three unsuccessful attacks on her in the Trondheimsfjord in early 1942 she sailed north for Altafjord and the notorious PQ 17 operation - one which demonstrated the frailty of Ultra. The ship-watchers played no part in this as it was not until a year later that the SIS, after many attempts, succeeded in establishing an agent overlooking Tirpitz's anchorage at the base of Altafjord. I could say more about PQ 17 since the view we take in our history differs from that generally propagated. But now is not the time.
After PQ 17, in July 1942, Tirpitz returned, not to Altafjord but to Narvik. It was against her that one of the most daring attacks of the war was planned. It is not generally known that Leif Larsen's attempt to bluff his way to her vicinity had to be switched at the last moment to Trondheim. Ultra had revealed, on the eve of his planned departure for Narvik, that Tirpitz had arrived, completely unheralded by any sources, at Trondheim on 24th October. Larsen sailed as scheduled on 26th October having had barely 24 hours in which to re-jig his attack. The sad outcome of this has already been related at this conference. He was in the mould of the great Norse heroes. Another Leif Eiriksson.
Another Norwegian, no less brave, figured in the next attacks on the Tirpitz. This was the SIS's man in Altafjord - the famous Torstein Raaby who was to re-appear after the war as radio operator on the Kon Tiki. After a refit in Trondheim Tirpitz sailed again for the north in February 1943, her departure having been reported by the ship-watcher in Trondheimsfjord. Thereafter she lay in Altafjord while the next attack was planned. This was to be by RN midget submarines, or X-craft, towed north by six fleet submarines. This attack had also to be planned for both Narvik and Trondheim in case Tirpitz moved. RAF photo reconnaissance from north Russia kept watch on her, making sure she didn't. I leave to your imagination the vast amount of all-source intelligence needed for the planning. The operation succeeded - though not fully. One of the X-craft had difficulty in getting through the battleship's net enclosure and this hampered its attack. What proved to be correct information about the depth of the net enclosure had been provided by the British naval attaché in Stockholm who had received it from 'young Norwegian resistance men'. Goodness knows how they obtained it! But their information was unfortunately, not to say scandalously, rejected by Admiralty's boom-defence experts.
The first damage reports came from Raaby. They were the first he sent. Thereafter both he and Ultra kept up a running commentary on the repairs to the wounded battleship. In fact, Raaby was to transmit daily for ten months. By this time, September 1943, I had been posted to HMS Duke of York as intelligence staff officer to that great and much-loved Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fraser of North Cape, who on Boxing Day 1943 brought about the destruction of Tirpitz's stable-mate, the Scharnhorst. She had sailed into the Arctic night, reported only by Ultra, on Christmas Day completely unaware of the presence of the Duke of York. It is a proud thing for us all to know that a memorial to the event, and to Bruce Fraser, now stands on Nordkapp. The Norwegian fleet destroyer, HNMS Stord, played a notable part in the battle.
In the spring of 1944 Raaby reported that Tirpitz was once again fit to travel and a further attack was planned. It was to be made in April by carrier aircraft of the Home Fleet and they required intelligence of a different sort, notably about anti-aircraft defences. Again it came from all sources and was valuably supplemented by Raaby and PR from north Russia. All this was put together by the excellent Inter-Service Topographical Department in Oxford where many Norwegians were present to lend realism to the intelligence. It had been set up in consequence of the pitiful dearth of this sort of intelligence which had hampered the British forces in Norway in 1940. The Duke of York was present at the fly-off and nothing more beautiful, or professional, could be imagined than the sight of the entire fleet racing into the wind in Arctic sunshine against the backdrop of Norway's snow caps.
The attack disabled Tirpitz for three months and this time the navy had to depend entirely on Raaby for information on the progress of repairs. Follow-up attacks were attempted by the carriers for which Raaby, with utmost daring, transmitted hourly weather reports. All were frustrated; and in July, Raaby having by now been forced to flee into Sweden, another agent from a safer place in Altafjord reported Tirpitz again on the move. A further large-scale attack was planned and this time, at my suggestion, we took Raaby with us in the Duke of York. Alcohol meant no more to him than mother's milk: and my mess bill soared.
This attack also failed and Tirpitz was finally sunk off Tromsø by RAF Bomber Command. By this time intensified attacks aimed at German merchant shipping in the Leads had been in progress for over a year. Sadly, innocent Norwegian ships sometimes suffered. These attacks were carried out by RAF Coastal Command, carrier aircraft and submarines of the Home Fleet, and the Norwegian motor torpedo boat flotilla based in the Shetlands. Again a large intelligence effort was called for. These attacks had grown in importance. Despite the fact that economic intelligence estimated that ore shipments from Narvik had grown considerably during 1942-1943, it was of the opinion that Germany was suffering from a grave overall shortage of shipping in northern waters. This strain was increased by the restrictions on shipping progressively imposed by Sweden from 1943 and, after the Finnish armistice, by Germany's having to withdraw her northern army through Skibotn and the Inner Leads. The anti-shipping campaign was also intended to reinforce Fortitude North, the Allies' pre - D-Day deception plan. This succeeded in tying down a large force of U-boats in southern Norway, while it was not until six months after D-Day that Germany started to withdraw ground forces from Norway to other fronts. These movements were reflected in Ultra and in reports from Norwegian sources.
The anti-shipping campaign contributed materially to the strategic weakening of Germany at this time. During 1944 economic intelligence showed that sinkings were outstripping new construction, while ore shipments declined from 40,000 tons in October 1943 to 12,000 tons in November 1944. Bombing of Norwegian ports assumed high priority towards the end of 1944 when Ultra and PR showed that the Germans intended to continue the U-boat war from Norway after the evacuation of their French bases, now employing a new type of ocean-going U-boat whose formidable characteristics were disclosed by decrypts of Japanese messages from Berlin to Tokyo. These revealed the high hopes pinned on these monsters by Hitler and Dönitz and were among the reasons why some thought that the Germans would continue the war from Norway after the collapse of Germany. Intelligence in London, while lacking intelligence either way of such an intention, confessed in March 1945 that such a development could not be ruled out, but thought that any resistance must be short-lived because of Germany's chronic shortage of oil and of the difficulty of moving stocks of any description to Norway. Of this there was, in any event, no evidence. Indeed Ultra had shown that oil was being moved from Norway to Germany to ease the shortage there. The Allied bombing of the huge concrete shelters for the new U-boats in Bergen and Trondheim was most regrettably accompanied by many Norwegian deaths. Ultra showed that the start of the new Atlantic offensive, originally planned for the autumn of 1944, was being progressively delayed, largely because of the bombing of Germany by Bomber Command and its mining of the Baltic, and the first of the new monster U-boats did not sail from Bergen until a couple of days before Germany's capitulation. She achieved nothing.
I will conclude, as I started, with scientific intelligence. Our history describes the intelligence background to the famous raids on Norsk Hydro's heavy water plant at Vemork, near Rjukan, of which I can give you now only a compressed summary. In early 1942, when the feasibility of constructing an atomic bomb had been accepted and work on a British one approved, nothing definite was known of a German programme, or even if there was one. That the Germans were in some way active in the nuclear research field was known to Allied intelligence from, amongst other sources, the testimony of Swedish scientists - and one Norwegian scientist - having contacts with German scientists known to be interested in nuclear research. This could, in any case, be safely conjectured from SIS and Norwegian reports of mid-1942 that the Germans attached importance to increasing the output of heavy water from Vemork. Opinions differed among the Allies as to whether heavy water could be used in making a viable military weapon within the likely time span of the war. Given the lack of firm intelligence either way, however, SOE was ordered in mid-1942 to plan the destruction of Vemork.
Much information was collected from well-placed Norwegians; but the attack by Combined Operations personnel of November 1942 ended, as is well-known, in dismal failure. There followed Joachim Rønneberg's brilliant attack of February 1943. This time Norwegian Army volunteers were employed backed by much fuller information from PR, the Norwegian High Command and local SIS sources. This destroyed several months' output of heavy water and put the plant out of action. Further stocks were destroyed, by a separate SOE action, while being moved to Germany.
In August 1943 SOE reported that small-scale production had been re-started and in the light of this, and of other information that the Germans were bent on restoring the position, Vermork was finally razed to the ground by the US Air Force. Some have claimed that this put an end to German attempts to produce an atomic bomb. But the British had long thought that the Germans were interested in heavy water for some other purpose - perhaps for the production of fission weapons less than an atomic bomb proper. Some Americans thought differently. In the end the British were proved right. Just as well they were. Otherwise we might not be here today.