Eighteen months ago, I had booked a trip on my own to Gallipoli to see and experience another area of the the Great War, I was hoping to see the Nek, Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. Covid sadly put paid to that and due to circumstances out of my control the trip was sadly cancelled. Hopefully when the pandemic is over, I will make the trip over to the Dardanelles. In the sadness of not being able to go, I took the opportunity to make a personal journey to another country that in the years to come hopefully defines my future.
Earlier this month I visited the west coast of Norway for the very first time and I have to say that I found it an incredibly beautiful part of the world. The mountains and fjords to the east, the Atlantic/North Sea to the West, I was blessed with incredibly good weather also but there was a hint of the autumn coming from the sea. The people of Norway are incredibly hospitable and very welcoming to everyone, I felt a tinge of sadness as I got on the plane home, hopefully next time I will have a far more extended stay. Whilst I was there though I made a quiet pilgrimage to two small and intimate CWGC Cemeteries, Eiganes in Stavanger, and the Sola Churchyard, opposite Sola Airport, tantalisingly close to the coast. The legacy from another darker war still remains frightfully intact and the fight for freedom and liberty ever more stronger.
Norway on the onset of the Second World War was a neutral country, but several outstanding factors played against the nation from the very beginning which attracted attention from not only Nazi Germany but the Allies, at that time Britain and France. Iron Ore, an extremely important commodity to prosecute the means of war was imported from Sweden via the northern Norwegian port of Narvik to Germany. This link of raw materials had to be cut, and the Allies decided to enter Norway in the early spring of 1940. The problem was that Nazi Germany was keen to protect it’s own supply lines and also invaded at the same time. After 62 days of fighting and heroic resistance in Andalsnes, Namsos and Narvik itself, the Allies due to lack of preparation, planning and training suffered a embarrassing defeat at the hands of the German forces. The Norwegian King was exiled to England, his wife and children went to the United States via Sweden for the remainder of the war. The pain for him to leave his country in that moment of trial must have been beyond our understanding. The defeat at Norway resulted in the fall of Chamberlain’s Tory government, a fundamental political examination in how Britain was to prosecute the war, resulting in a Coalition under Winston Churchill and Norway now sadly was at the mercy of the Nazis.
Norway entered into a new dark age, and the German forces utilised their territorial prize to the maximum. With the fall of France and the Low Countries in June 1940, Germany now had control over the west coast of Europe and surrounded the British Isles, leaving it exposed to attack from the sea via U-Boats on merchant shipping and aerial attacks. Germany began the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a barrier to prevent invasion of its new conquered territory. It also began experimenting with heavy water in factories to create an atomic weapon capable of wiping out the Allies altogether. The race for the Atomic Bomb had begun.
Britain, although isolated and alone, reinvigorated itself under the leadership of Winston Churchill and won the Battle of Britain in September 1940, giving Britain superiority over its own airspace and protected itself from the threat of invasion. This was absolutely critical as it meant that Allied aircraft would have a landing space in which to assault German interests. Britain’s only means of taking the fight to Germany in 1941 and 1942 was by fighting in the Western Desert of North Africa, or to attempt air raids at military targets. As Britain’s fighting capability slowly recovered after defeats in the early years of the war, it finally began to take the initiative.
But the rebuilding process took a lot of time and was not without severe losses. In the case of Norway, many experienced pilots were sent over across the North Sea to attack targets in poor aircraft and without fighter escort. Many crews were lost at sea, or were buried in secret by a people who were given hope by their sacrifice that their country had not been forgotten by the Allies. Norwegian citizens who dared resist the occupation were captured and executed. In the case of Stavanger where I visited, the Jewish community was destroyed within three months, deported to Auschwitz, over the course of 1942, 20 out of 22 Jewish inhabitants of the city were incinerated, a memorial at Eiganes and bronze paving stones where they used to live is a reminder of the darkest moment of human civilisation.
Eiganes Cemetery is a beautiful cemetery, but the occupation by the Nazis leaves a bitter mark, it is the resting place of Soviet prisoners of war, Norwegian Resistance fighters, and members of the British and Commonwealth forces, some from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. It also contains the men of the failed Freshman operation in November 1942 when 2 Gliders attached to two Handley-Page Halifaxes, loaded with soldiers of the Commando units attempted to strike the heavy water plant at Vemork, where the Germans were trying to create an atomic weapon. Due to horrific weather conditions both gliders and bombers crashed close to Stavanger, the men who survived were rounded up by the Germans, brutally interrogated and were executed under direct orders from Hitler himself, and were supposedly buried in a secret location, the Norwegian people however remembered the burial site and after the liberation in 1945 a grateful nation honoured them by reinterring them here, reunited with other comrades who had tried to free the country. Sadly three of the commandos who were discovered by the Nazis were captured and after being tortured were thrown into the North Sea in the depths of winter, they were never recovered. They have a memorial stone close to the Cemetery at Eiganes, it is small but is so very moving, close to their comrades.
Sola Churchyard Cemetery is a very quiet place, but it overlooks Sola airport, and in the dark years of occupation, German Luftwaffe planes took off from this location. As Britain got stronger it launched attacks towards the airfield, launching from bases at Scotland. Maintained by the Norwegian Air Force, it contains 45 burials, with 2 unknown men. Most of the men are from the Royal Air Force, some were killed in the fight for Norway in April 1940, some were killed in attacks on German targets later in the war and were buried with affection and gratitude by the Norwegian people. These men are remembered with the dignity that they deserve. It reminded me of a line on the memorial stone at church, ‘In the defence of Liberty and the Freedom of the Earth’.
As you walked along the beach at Sola it was very peaceful and tranquil, but it was not until the last day travelling the road in-between both the beach and airport that the German pillboxes, guarding the flat beach and airfield still remained, it certainly brought into my mind that Sola airfield was constantly under the attention of the Allies. It also brought to my attention the German soldiers who were based in these pillboxes over the winter, waiting for a enemy that never came and in the freezing cold.
Norway is indebted to the British people, the sacrifice in the attempt to give light in a time of darkness has never been forgotten, and despite the fact that I didn’t go to Gallipoli, Norway’s forgotten cemeteries stories have a right to be told, and I hope that in the years to come after I have done my dissertation, I will be able to visit more of these special sites in Scandinavia.