Sweden in World War II - across borders

British and French war plans for Sweden

What did the British and French know about Scandinavia before World War II? One example is the French reference book "Dictionnaire des Arts et Métiers" where Sweden is a white spot and Norway has the name Sweden. At the end of the 1930s the British foreign minister interprets the border line between Norway and Sweden as a railroad [s12]. Maybe extreme examples, but Scandinavia was not a part of central Europe - but a kind of an outskirt.

Swedish iron ore in Narvik harbourThe location of Sweden was not so interesting for neither Britain nor France. Swedish export of iron ore to Germany may have been the most interesting subject. In the Scandinavian summer season it was transported from Swedish ports in the northern Baltic Sea. In the winter season the sea froze to ice that far north, so instead the iron ore was transported on trains to the Norwegian city Narvik. The water along the Norwegian coast, warmed up by the Gulf Stream, doesn't freeze - so ships could carry the iron ore from Narvik. And the ships could sail to Germany in territorial waters of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

According to British experts Germany had imported 22 millions metric tons iron ore in 1938, of which 9 millions metric tons came from mines in northern Sweden. [s12]

A German industrialist had written a memorandum in which it was said that Swedish iron ore was critical for the German war industry, a document the French studied. [s58]

Denmark and Norway had a much more strategic geographical position. Norway had a long coast towards the Atlantic Ocean, and German ships on the way from the ports in the Baltic Sea had to pass the waters between Denmark and Norway to reach the Atlantic Ocean. I think it is very interesting to read about British and French plans and preparations for actions in Norway, but it is not the focus of this web site. But, sometimes Sweden was involved in plans for the neighbouring countries.

In April 1939 a person in the British foreign office said to a chief in the Swedish foreign office, about the Swedish export of iron ore to Germany, that "I am afraid we have to destroy your mines". [s63]

Winston Churchill had in September 1939 made a sketch of operation Catherine, to send British naval ships into the Baltic where ships transporting iron ore were to be sunk. [s69]

Later Churchill mentioned to stop the iron ore traffic from Luleå and Oxelösund "with methods neither diplomatic nor military" (note: my translation from the Swedish book). [s69]

During the winter 1939-40 British and French politicians had discussions about sending troops to Finland. [s09]

France was more eager for actions in Norway, for example various ways to stop the possibility for German ships to sail along the Norwegian coast. One suggestion was to occupy selected Norwegian ports. Britain was more worried that Norway would see Britain and France as aggressors, and choose or feel the need to be allied with Germany. [s10]

Among others the French suggests operations against Petsamo in Finland, Luleå in Sweden, Narvik in Norway and Murmansk in the Soviet Union. [s12]

One reason for the French interest in opening a war front in Scandinavia may have been the memories from World War I, when much of the war was fought on French soil. A war in Scandinavia could both keep the war away from France and reduce the German threat to French territory. [s13]

This is a short description of the four main ideas for actions in Scandinavia. Churchill wanted a more powerful way. On 16 December 1939 he among others wrote, that the stopping of the Swedish iron ore deliveries to Germany had the same meaning as a larger offensive undertaking. Mining of the Norwegian waters would both decrease the iron ore transports, and lead to German attacks in Scandinavia. This could open a battle front in Scandinavia to end the "phoney war", with a good possibility that both Norway and Sweden joined the Allies. [s69]

General Ironside thought it was better to occupy the Swedish mines, but to manage that both Norway and Sweden would have to give their consent. Chamberlain and the British foreign minister lord Halifax still wanted a diplomatic solution, and hoped that the war would lead to a change of power in Germany. During a cabinet meeting on 22 December Chamberlain supported Ironside's idea, which was an opportunity to act politically stronger while he was sure that both Norway and Sweden would say no to a proposed landing and transit of British and French troops. The cabinet decided to send a memorandum to Norway and Sweden. [s69]

France's cabinet president and foreign minister Daladier also wanted to reach a diplomatic solution, but was more eager to actually give military support with troops to Finland - even with the risk of war with the Soviet Union. One important issue for France was not to have another war in France itself, but rather on other fronts. [s69]

Other considerations was the risk of a successful Soviet Union campaign in Finland and further advancement towards the Atlantic Ocean. How would Sweden react? How would Germany react? A French suggestion was to send military supplies to Sweden and Norway, to rise the will and possibility for Sweden to defend itself (except against Britain or France, I suppose... My note). [s58]

The situation on 28 December was among others plans to inform the Norwegian and Swedish governments that Britain and France were willing to help in case these countries met difficulties due to support to Finland against the attack from the Soviet Union. A little later another meassage would be delivered, with general wording that the Allies intended to send naval ships to Norwegain and Swedish territorial waters to stop shipping from Norwegian harbours to Germany. [s12]

Wagons with iron oreIn one of the plans troops should sail to Narvik in Norway and pass through Norway and Sweden to Finland. One important part of the plan was to leave large troops in Sweden, to force Sweden to stop the export of iron ore to Germany. [s09]

There was also a hastily prepared plan, with the aim to comfort the Swedes, to ship at least two divisions Allied troops to Trondheim in Norway with the purpose to defend southern Sweden in case of a German attack on Sweden. One reason for the ideas to act in Scandinavia seem to be that both the British and French leaders are criticized by their citizens for not doing anything. (Apparently the troops designated for Scandinavia only existed on paper.) [s12]

During the British-French war council in Paris on 5 February 1940 it was decided to go on with Chamberlains line, with a covert 'aid expedition' to Finland. The decision lead to the plans Operation Avonmouth (British, French and Polish troop landing in Narvik in Norway) and Operation Stratforce (British troop landings in Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim). Two brigades were to be in the Swedish port Luleå in May when the ice melted and the harbour became operational after the winter, and more troops were to follow. Some 150,000 soldiers and 11,000 vehicles were to be used for actions in Scandinavia, including Operation Plymouth (British troops in Trondheim prepared to support Sweden in case of a German attack). One order document for 6 April 1940 for an infantry brigade came into German possession, and was spread with the comment that British troops were on the way to attack Norway when Germany came to Norways protection. This order was never issued, but the brigade was kept armed and prepared during March-April. [s69]

Another thought was that if Norway and Sweden had accepted British and French troops to pass, they would in a way have chosen side in the war. [s10]

As neutral states both Norway and Sweden denied any foreign troops to pass through their countries. [s09]

The Swedish government understood that the real target for the Allied support to Finland was to occupy the iron ore mines in the north of Sweden. [s43]

There were many discussions about what and how to do ...

The Altmark incident on 16 February 1940, when a British destroyer followed the German supply ship Altmark into a Norwegian fjord and liberated 299 British sailors and left 7 dead Germans, sharpened the situation. Norway had shown that they could not defend its neutrality. [s51]

There were discussions about a larger operation in three parts. One was to land in Narvik and continue inte Sweden where the iron ore fields and the cities Kiruna, Gällivare, Boden and Luleå were to be occupied. Two was to occupy the Norwegian port sities Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim. Three was to advance from Trohdheim towards southern Sweden, where Germany was expected to land troops. [s51]

On 12 March 1940, when British and French troops embark for transport to Norway, there is a last meeting on Downing Street 10 about the operation. In the final directives it was said among others: It is not the governments intention that the expedition force shall use force to enter neither Norway nor Sweden. But if Swedish troops block the way, you shall stress the request to the Swedish officers to let you pass. The approved order for the operation say that the troops shall not fight with Norwegian or Swedish troops, but not refrain from taking action if these offer formal resistance. [s12]

The war in Finland ended on 13 March 1940. Churchill made one more attempt to convince the British War Cabinet to continue with the operation despite the peace between Finland and the Soviet Union, since their real target was the iron ore fields in G&aunl;llivare in Sweden. [s09]

Many British politicians and others saw Norway and Sweden as guilty to Finlands defeat. [s12]

Finland blamed Sweden, and the denial of transit of Allied troops to aid Finland, as the reason for the tough peace agreement with the Soviet Union. [s69]

Some had used the belief that Norway and Sweden would continue to say no for various political reasons. [s69]

A new suggestion for a plan was presented by Churchill on 18 March 1940. A carrier should be sent to Norwegian waters, and the planes attack the Swedish city Luelå's iron ore harbour with torpedoes. The sunk ships would then block the harbour. During the following discussions the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain mentions that the expedition force designated to seize the iron ore fields now had been dissolved. Actually he had given the order to dissolve the expedition force a week earlier. [s12]

A new meeting in the 'prime council of war' on 28 March resulted in an activity plan.
1 April - a threating note to Norway and Sweden, that the Allies consider that they have the right to act against the iron ore transports.
4-5 April - Mining in Norwegian territorial waters and operations against German shipping. Later mining to block Luleå.
4-5 April - Mining in the German river Rhein.
15 April - Magnetic mines in all German waterways, from airplanes. [s12]

Another of Churchill's ideas was a British fleet operation in the Baltic Sea, both to defeat the German navy in the Baltic Sea and to stop the export of Swedish iron ore to Germany. The fleet should contain of 2-3 battleships, cruisers and more ships, and be equipped to operate in the Baltic Sea for at least 3 months. Churchill wrote that they would need access to Swedish harbours, but little was written about how Sweden would react. [s63]

By now Hitler had come to the conclusion that the Allies would use the first suitable opportunity to stop the transports of Swedish iron ore to Germany. [s69]

On the evening of 5 April 1940 both Norway and Sweden received a note from Britain and one from France, both with the same text. The note had an opening with among others references to the denial of transfer for British and French troops to Finland, export to Germany of resources that was vital to German production for war, and that Germany could benefit from relaxations(?) that put the Allies in a more hazardous position. [s10]

The opening ended with this text (my translation): They now feel that the moment is here to make the Norwegian government aware of certain vital interests and demands the Allies will safeguard and carry out by any means they may find necessary. Then followed five paragraphs that described these vital interests and demands. In short: do not stop a new aid force to Finland in case of German or Russian attacks, any political agreement with Germany would be seen as an unfriendly act, any attempt from Russia to establish a minitary base on the Atlantic coast would be against the Allies interests, and the fourth paragraph dealt with trade with the Allies as a neutral state. [s10]

The fifth paragraph was sharper. In short and simple text: if Norway and/or Sweden help Germany in any way that supports the German warfare, or is against the Allies interests, the Allies reserve themselves the right to stop such activities. [s10]

In the morning of 6 April the British ambassador in Copenhagen informed London that a trustworthy source told of a German order for embarcation of a division for a landing in Narvik. The source also told that Jylland in Denmark also would be attacked, but Sweden would not be attacked. [s12]

On the morning of 8 April the British and French ministers in Oslo informed the Norwegians that three minefields had been laid along the Norwegian coast - in Norwegian territorial water. [s10]

In Oslo these Allied minefields made the officials so occupied with discussions on 8 April 1940 about how to react and answer, that they missed or ignored other important messages that fatal day.

On the evening of 9 April a French diplomatic delegation was in Stockholm, with the purpose to persuade Sweden to stop the export of iron ore to Germany. Despite the earlier deceit to Finland, Sweden could count on all the support France could give. France was also prepared for talks of military nature. On the way to Sweden the delegation visited the British prime minister, in the morning of the 11 April. Chamberalin told them that a British delegation too would be sent to Sweden, and he added that it would be positive if Sweden could be persuaded to send troops for support of the Allies in Narvik. Shortly before lunch he began to change his mind. If Sweden declared war on Germany they probably would need help, and that would be bad for the defensive preparations towards German attack in central Europe. [s12]

Sweden answers with a firm determination to remain neutral, and to defend itself against any agressor. [s12]

And the discussions continued among the British, and among the French, and among the British and French. What to do? Where to attack? The Swedish iron ore? [s12]

Norwegians, and Swedes, had said that it was a key in the war to liberate and hold Trondheim. When the British landed in Norway, they had not informed the Norwegians about neither their strength nor their plans. [s12]

One of the reasons that several Norwegians politician, officers and others were dubious about the Allies military support, was the troops that arrived in Åndalsnes around 17 April. Due to a series of changed plans ships had been loaded and unloaded, also during nighttime with blackout. Many of the 1000 soldiers only had 30 hours of evening courses as military education. They had a complete set of maps over Namsos, but not Åndalsnes where they landed, anti-aircraft guns without sights and grenade launchers without grenades. They had one truck and three motorcycles. Their order was to hold Dombås, and get north to attack the Germans in the Trondheim area. During the transport they also got the order support the Norwegian troops south of Lillehammer. 350 kilometers apart. This is one example of the confusions that played a part in the events. Also the British Foreign Office admitted regrettable events. [s12]

A British general also complained about the British soldiers, who he saw as depressingly young when it came to self confidence and normal masculinity compared to the French and German soldiers. They gave the impression of unexperience and to be late developed, which he saw as not so satisfactory considering the future. [s51]

On 22 April the 'prime council of war' had another meeting. At the time the springtime was on the way in northern Scandinavia, and when the sea ice melted the iron ore could again be shipped to Germany on the Baltic Sea. Among the questions that were mentioned was the possibility to stop the Germans from using Swedish territorial waters with minefields, for example use aircrafts to create minefields at the two most narrow parts of the northern Baltic Sea. The British prime minister mentioned the possibility to dump the iron ore stored in Luleå into the harbour to block the harbour. (How would that be done? The author of the source, a very interesting book, wonders if it meant occupation of Swedish territory or the use of flying lifting cranes.) [s12]

During the council the French prime minister Reynaud urged that Allied forces in Norway among others ought to occupy the Swedish iron ore mines or destroy them, and that other troops should react to possible German advancment in the area of the Swedish lakes. Then British prime minister Chamberlain told about operation Hammer in a way that the French thought it was active, despite the fact that it had been stopped for several days. He also told about other ongoing operations, unknowing that these were on the retreat. [s43]

Reynaud also asked about the possibility to stop Swedish export of iron ore to Germany by minefields in Swedish waters [s43]. (When the winters ice thawed, it would be possible to ship iron ore directly from Sweden to Germany on the Baltic Sea.)

Chamberlain gave a vague answer to such questions, but mentioned minefields in the Swedish port city Luleå. The French believed that everything was executed as planned. [s43]

The following day the British war cabinet concluded that their main target was the iron mines in Gällivare. They also had an idea to block railroads in Norway which would force the Germans to enter Sweden to connect the German forces in the south with those in Trondheim. [s12]

Meanwhile German bomb attacks on the harbours in Molde and Åndalsnes decreased the Allies possibilities to use these harbours. And Norwegian troops were later not informed about the Allied plans to retreat from that part of Norway. When a French batallion embarked on ships on 29 April, the Norwegians were told that the French troops should attack a German coastal battery... [s43]

In early May 1940, when the Norwegian king and government was transported on the British cruiser Glasgow from Molde to Tromsø further north in Norway, the British and French war plans were discussed among the Norwegians. One of the questions they had, as the Allies had begun a withdrawal of troops from the Molde and Åndalsnes area, was if the Allies only would liberate Narvik and keep it as a threath to Sweden and the Swedish iron ore fields. [s11]

Around 5 May the fighting in central Norway ceased [s43]. As far as I know, no Allied troops had got close to Sweden.

Still the Allies believed that stopping the German import of Swedish iron ore would strangle the German war industry. What would the Swedes do if a German landing force approached Luleå while German troops were on the other side of the border to Norway, and Sweden was given a German ultimatum? The Allies meant that Narvik had to be taken back from the Germans, and strong Allied forces positioned at the Swedish border. [s43]

A change of military command over the Allied forces in Norway took place on 13 May 1940. The orders had three main points. The first point was to stop iron ore transports via Narvik to Germany. The third point was to secure an area for the Norwegian government. The second point was to, as much as possible, to disturb iron ore transports from Luleå to Germany. The new commander saw this second point as not possible to fulfill in reality, since all efforts would dramatically worsen the relations to Sweden. [s43]

On 28 May Narvik was liberated. Norwegian and Allied forces almost forced the German troops to surrender or cross the border to Sweden. However the German attack towards France and Britain had become a large threat. The Allies decided to retreat also from the northern Norway, once again in secrecy. The remaining Norwegian troops surrendered to Germany on 10 June 1940. [s43]

Once again Sweden was kept out of direct war actions.

How important was the Swedish iron ore for the German war industry? One source tells that during the first year of World War II, 40% of the steel in Germany was used for civilian purposes. That was besides construction works and export. Also, on 13 April 1940 General Dietl in Narvik was instructed by Hitler to destroy the railway between Narvik and Sweden beyond repair if they found it necessary. Did the Allies believe that the Swedish iron ore was very important for Germany, or were there other thoughts in the background? [s38]

Later during the war Germany had improved weapon constructions, and then needed low-phosphorus iron ore from Sweden. [s38]

2015-01-06. www.granfoss.se. Text/pictures: Arne Granfoss