Campaigns that end in ignominious failure tend to be quickly forgotten. Yet there is often far more to be learned from such operations than from those that were successful. A graphic example is the largely-neglected British campaign in Norway in 1940.

In the spring of that year the British, with French support, dispatched an expeditionary force to oust the Germans, immediately following Hitler`s  coup-de-main seizure of the country on 9 April. In just eight weeks of fighting, the Allies committed a series of catastrophic blunders and suffered a string of defeats. Humiliated, the British and French promptly evacuated, leaving Norway to four years of Nazi tyranny. The ill-fated mission was almost immediately overshadowed by another crisis: the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland in May 1940. Today, few people outside Norway know much about the campaign. Yet it contains lessons that resonate strongly with more recent campaigns such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Much of the failure in Norway occurred at the tactical level. In almost every battle and engagement on land, British troops, many of whom were semi-trained Territorials, retreated or were utterly routed. Hundreds of soldiers were taken prisoner during these engagements. Amazingly, most of the British infantry units sent into action lacked artillery, mortars, air defence, effective anti-tank weapons and even maps. Engineers and logistic support were in short supply. Administration was chaotic.

But, as so often, the underlying reasons for these tactical failures can be traced to higher levels. At the grand strategic level, the campaign, as planned from the earliest days in December, 1939, was deeply flawed. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was entirely unsuited to the role of wartime leader and presided over a divided war cabinet, dominated by one of its members, Winston Churchill, at that time minister for the navy. The war cabinet argued, dithered and procrastinated. Too often it failed to engage in the process of strategy – balancing ends, ways and means. Instead, it fell prey to wishful thinking and frequently indulged its fascination with tactics. As chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee at the outset of the campaign, Churchill made a number of serious errors of judgment and pressurised the chiefs of staff, often during late-night, alcohol-fuelled meetings, into unwise decisions.

On the military side, the chiefs of staff had a shallow understanding of strategy and an over-simplified view of its place. They appeared to believe that their constitutional role was to give advice to ministers and then implement their wishes. Such a view did not take into account the need for strategy to be continuous and iterative. They also failed to grasp the need for discourse and, if necessary, robust debate, while still accepting the principle of civilian primacy, which held that formal political direction must ultimately be followed. The chiefs also balked at pointing out the huge risks in their military plans. Likewise, they rarely challenged the war cabinet`s wishful thinking, seemingly unwilling to speak truth unto power. Ironically, the chiefs were receiving generally excellent advice from their subordinates, the joint planners, but too often they ignored or rejected this counsel, believing that because they were more senior they knew better. Such hubris was to have grave consequences.

The chiefs also bore much responsibility for two critical failures. First, they failed to recognize intelligence that pointed to a German invasion, thus offering Berlin complete strategic surprise. Second, unlike their opposite numbers in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), they and their predecessors failed to study the evolution of warfare with open minds and thus missed the emerging potential of air power. Instead, they allowed single-service agendas to skew perceptions. As a result, the dominance of German air superiority hit the chiefs of staff as what would now be called a revolution in military affairs.

At the next level down, the operational level – the link between strategy and tactics – the contrast between the German and British structures and performance was even more stark. For while Hitler appointed a lieutenant general and his corps headquarters to design and plan the campaign and then command and control it, there was no equivalent on the British side. Indeed, there was a complete vacuum. Thus, higher planning was the responsibility of each service ministry – the War Office, the Admiralty and the Air Ministry – with some very broad-brush coordination from a small and inadequate joint planning staff. For the army, this meant that, in practice, planning was carried out by the various branches in the War Office who dealt direct with the tactical commander, a major general with a small divisional staff based 200 miles away in York. Inevitably, there were large gaps in planning and preparation, which led to a dangerous reliance on improvisation. Although the Chief of the Imperial General Staff was directly responsible for the training standards of the formations to be deployed, and knew the testing conditions that awaited them inside the Arctic Circle, he did not find the time to provide the necessary supervision of their training.

When the forces deployed, the absence of an intervening level of command between strategy and tactics became even more critical. In a fast-moving campaign and with poor radio communications, the decision-makers in London became increasingly out of touch with the situation in theatre. Their decisions were overtaken by events. Furthermore, without a joint-service, deployed headquarters, coordination between services in theatre — for example, for air support – had to be referred back to London where messages were passed from one ministry to another. In addition, campaign coordination with the French and Norwegians suffered, exacerbated by a reluctance to place any trust in the local forces or fight a joint campaign with them. As a result, the efforts of the British and Norwegian militaries were rarely more than the sum of their parts.

Such incompetence at higher levels would have mattered less had the British been fighting a colonial war or conducting the sort of imperial policing that had occupied much of the military`s attention in the inter-war period. Unfortunately for them, in Norway they faced well-trained, well-equipped, well-led German forces. As a French officer in Norway observed at the time, `the British have planned this campaign on the lines of a punitive expedition against the Zulus, but unhappily we and the British are in the position of the Zulus…`

In sum, as so often after a long period of peace, the British military capacity, in its widest sense, faced the audit of war and was found wanting. The result was a fiasco – a textbook example of how not to plan and conduct a military campaign. The Allies received no end of lessons at the hands of the Germans. And these continue to be relevant today. Indeed, a study of this campaign offers a better understanding of campaigns in general and of some of the likely pitfalls that await the unwary. The British fiasco in Norway in 1940 may have been a sorry tale, but it is also a cautionary one.

This blog is based on an article in Military History Now, April, 2018


Anatomy of a Campaign. The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 is published by Cambridge University Press.


2 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale – the British Campaign in Norway, 1940.

  1. Dear Gen Kizsely, The review I wrote for Anatomy of a Campaign ought to be in the next issue of Parameters. They seem to like the review (I only had 1,000 words).
    Remind me of your email and I’ll send you what I wrote.
    It was a real joy to review– really. It gave me some great insights into high command and especially the strategic level. I was pretty well-versed in the British operational and tactical problems in Norway but clueless about how things worked at the service chiefs and cabinet level. Needless to say, I think the book has huge relevance to modern command issues and I’d make it part of a staff college course any time.
    cheers, James Corum


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