Review by Dr. James Corum, in US Army War College Quarterly, `Parameters`, Volume 48, No 3, Autumn 2018
The campaign in Norway, which lasted from April to June 1940, is one of the understudied campaigns of World War II. After all, Norway never assumed the decisive importance that both the Germans and the British thought it would have. After the German offensive in the west in May 1940, it was seen as something of a sideshow. Yet the Norwegian campaign highlights an incredible level of deficiencies in the British wartime command and control system at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels at the outset of the war. It was a campaign that the British, French, and Norwegian forces might well have won if only they had possessed a basic competence in joint operations and a command system capable of effective and rapid planning and response. Unfortunately, the Germans possessed an effective command system and understanding of operational warfare in 1940 while the British did not.
Retired Lieutenant General John P. Kiszely, an officer with an impressive background in command and higher staff positions, has written about the 1940 campaign in Norway with a new perspective that focuses on British leadership and command. Few historians would have the insights into the personalities of high command that General Kiszely has, simply because the author spent years in the senior staffs in Whitehall and has a clear understanding of what commanders need to know and do. Thus, his analysis, based on a careful reading of the minutes of the staff conferences, is pretty damning in terms of the performance of Britain’s military chiefs in April and May 1940.
In this thoroughly researched and documented study, General Kiszely dissects the campaign and explains how the world’s top navy, alongside a very capable air force and a less capable army, could fail so badly. A British campaign that included poor planning, muddled decision-making, failed coalition operations, and a lack of any operational concept or interservice cooperation plagued the allies from the start. The title describing the British fight in Norway as a “fiasco” is apt, and in Kiszely’s analysis none of the major British strategic players—the service chiefs, the military staffs, the war cabinet and First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill—performed well.
Both the Germans and the British saw Norway as strategically important, and the military staffs of both countries began planning for major operations there in December 1939. The contrast in planning is remarkable. The German navy, Luftwaffe, and army staffs worked closely together, understanding this campaign would be the first campaign in warfare in which all three services would play a major and essential role. The German plan identified the forces to be allocated, which included almost all the German navy’s surface fleet, a few recently raised infantry divisions not needed for the upcoming spring offensive, and a sizeable and well-balanced air component. German operational planning anticipated some of the obvious requirements of the campaign. Widely separated task forces would require a lot of communications, and the Germans built a considerable signals force into their initial landing plan. A joint operation would require close interservice cooperation, and the German staffs established an effective liaison and command system under a theater headquarters. At the lower level, the German army task forces ensured they had a good mix of supporting arms, especially antiaircraft and engineers, in the first attack wave.
The contrast with the British approach to planning is striking. At the lower levels, the British Army planning for deploying forces to Norway were abysmal. Little thought was given to ensuring adequate communications, liaison with the other services, or in ensuring adequate antiaircraft cover. In short, pretty basic stuff was ignored. There was no British theater headquarters or commander, and when the fight came, the different British landing forces in central Norway and Narvik all reported to different commanders in London.
On paper the British seemed prepared for joint warfare. Britain had the Military Coordination Committee with some exceptionally capable officers assigned to it. But at this stage of the war, the committee had no real staff and limited powers, and its role had not been clearly defined. The war cabinet providing strategic policy was too large to be effective. Interservice rivalry was intense. Poor communications kept the military chiefs in London in the dark about the conditions in Norway. The British did not appoint a senior liaison officer to the Norwegian Army and this onsiderable force, eager and ready to fight, was virtually ignored in British operations. The British effort at the tactical level included some successes in the fight for central Norway and in the Royal Navy’s destruction of ten German destroyers at Narvik. But the confused headquarters in London failed to exploit tactical success.
General Kiszely demonstrates how the personalities of the service chiefs can have a decisive impact on a campaign. In the case of the British service chiefs, all were seasoned professionals with good reputations, but none were perfect, and all exhibited serious flaws in their command style. Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Dudley Pound, was already worn out and exhibited little interest in issues that did not directly involve his service. Chief of the Air Staff Sir Cyril Newall was known as a talented administrator, but had a weak understanding of doctrine and operations. Like Pound, he declined to get involved in issues of joint operations. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Edmund Ironside had a superb military record but had always served as a field commander, had never served on the senior staff, and had no experience in strategic level planning. The senior officers of each service well knew much better candidates for these jobs were available.
The technology of war has greatly changed since 1940, but the human aspects including the essentials of command, planning, and coordination have not changed. This is why I highly recommend this book as essential reading for all military officers and civilian leaders to understand the dynamics of decision-making, operational planning, and execution in modern conflict. As we have learned from some recent conflicts, experienced and highly educated senior officers can get campaign planning and execution horribly wrong. Sometimes we need to highlight a campaign that offers some concentrated lessons on the basics of senior leadership and organization.
Review by Richard P Hallion in Air Power History December 2018
A retired lieutenant general of the British Army, Kiszely has written what is undoubtedly the definitive history of the ill-fated Norwegian campaign. As one reads it, it is quickly evident why it received the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies’ prestigious Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History, presented yearly for the best English language writing on military history.
Anatomy of a Campaign is a thoughtful, sobering, and, indeed, damning account of how unfounded prewar and wartime assumptions; intelligence failures; political and military miscalculation; inadequate and questionable strategy; multiple liaison and communication failures; deficiencies in doctrine, equipment, logistics, and training; poor operational and tactical execution; and, above all, failure to appreciate and use air power properly, led to disaster. Overall, Kiszely’s book, a volume in the Cambridge Military History series, adds further luster to a highly regarded series of impeccably researched and written works.
Kiszely employs a chronological framework, but within this, he discusses and digresses on a wide range of issues offering insights, information, and assessments that speak highly of his research. His bibliography constitutes a superb reference for anyone studying the early history of the Second World War in Western and Northern Europe, and his source notes will feed and assist the scholarship of historians who may seek to explore in greater detail individual parts and issues of the story that he tells.
Unlike many historians who often lose themselves in narrow discussions of individual tactical actions, he ranges freely and widely over the battlespace, covering the decisions, actions (and their consequences) of individuals at the senior, operational, and tactical levels of planning and war. An appendix of the dramatis personae of September 1939 to June 1940, is surprisingly useful in keeping people and their positions straight. Kiszely is fair but unsparing in his judgments: Prime Minister Chamberlain’s “great disadvantage was not that he did not know the answers but that he did not know enough about the subject [military affairs] to know the right questions to ask.” General Sir Edmund Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) was “totally miscast as CIGS,” prone to “erratic judgment,” and “constantly rejecting the warnings of his staff and the Joint Planners.” The Army, Air Force, and Navy chiefs “were not of the highest quality,” and “made a poor team.” Too little prewar thought was given to joint and combined operations so that, when war erupted in 1939, all three British services were deficient in joint doctrine, training, and experience and in combined operations with potential allies. This latter was a constant source of frustration, and resulted in national forces—British, Norwegian, French, Polish—often having to go-it-alone against an enemy who, if not perfect, was nevertheless perfectly instructed and comfortable with joint operations.
At times, Kiszely’s account is darkly comic and would be almost funny if one did not keep in mind the sobering reality of killed, wounded, and captured soldiers, sailors, and airmen, and destroyed ships, planes, and equipment. In perhaps the most bizarre episode of the campaign, the aircraft carrier Glorious was caught by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and sunk (together with two destroyers) with great loss of life, all because its captain, a submariner by training and experience, was racing to make a court-martial in Scotland and didn’t bother to have any of his aircraft scouting around the ships.
Overall, Kiszely concludes that while the Allied campaign failed most obviously at the tactical level, the outcome was decided at the grand-strategic and operational levels. Allied lack of appreciation for what the German Luftwaffe could accomplish—quickly seizing air superiority, moving 2300 tons of supplies and 29,000 troops from Germany to Norway using 500 transport aircraft (mostly the ubiquitous Junkers Ju 52-3m), sinking ships at sea, and undertaking punishing bombing strikes of Allied forces and positions—highlighted prewar failures not only by the British Army and Royal Navy, but by the Royal Air Force’s own leadership as well. “Britain’s command of the sea, on which the campaign strategy from the outset had rested, was shown not to extend to inshore waters dominated by Germany’s command of the air,” Kiszely concludes.
In sum, Kiszely, whose historical judgments and insights draw freely on his extensive experience as a military commander at the highest levels of NATO, offers a cautionary tale that commanders today at all levels would be well advised to read and ponder, given the challenges faced in Asia, the Mid-East and—again—in Northern Europe, particularly the Baltic. This is a book that should find a home on the shelves of any officer assigned to joint and combined planning: the lessons presented here, cogently argued and thoroughly documented, are enduring ones.
Review by Nigel Jones in The Times Literary Supplement 6 October 2017
On May 7, 1940 the diminutive senior Tory backbencher Leo Amery rose in the House of Commons to speak in an adjournment debate on Britain`s first campaign of the Second World War. The attempt to foil Hitler`s sudden devastating attack on Norway had rapidly dwindled from a mere reverse into what General John Kiszely calls a “fiasco”, and Amery did not mince his words.
After eviscerating the government led by the son of his own mentor Joseph Chamberlain for its feeble and incompetent conduct of the war, Amery quoted Oliver Cromwell`s words in dismissing the Long Parliament (another administration that had outlived its purpose): “You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
Amery`s dramatic intervention administered the coup de grace to Neville Chamberlain`s tottering premiership. Although the National Government had an unassailable majority and technically won the debate, Amery`s speech was instrumental in persuading almost eighty Conservative MPs to rebel by abstaining or voting with the Opposition. Within three days, Chamberlain was out and Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, with a single-minded determination to avoid a looming defeat and, eventually, to win the war.
As Kiszely points out in his admirable analysis of the Norway campaign, it was Churchill, the chief beneficiary of the fiasco, who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, bore, at least in part, ministerial responsibility for the disaster. Although, unlike Chamberlain, Churchill knew what war was about, wanted to win it, and relished conflict with almost unseemly glee, the Norwegian campaign played to his most glaring faults: his impetuosity, his bullying military commanders to take decisions they knew were wrong, and his secret nagging need for a victory to cancel out his responsibility for another amphibious disaster in the First World War: Gallipoli. “The Norwegian campaign was not”, Kiszely concludes starkly, “…his finest hour.”
Kiszely advances a host of reasons for the campaign`s failure: including confusion about aims; reactive rather than proactive responses to enemy moves; a lack of co-ordination between Army, Navy and Air Force and with Britain`s French and Norwegian allies; and Chamberlain`s dithering habit of postponing action and running the war by committee. Kiszely calculates that the Service Chiefs had to attend a staggering ninety-two meetings in April alone, when they would have been better employed running the campaign.
Kiszely castigates the confusion among the Allies caused by Hitler`s lightning invasion, and their belated and piecemeal reaction, while pointing out that in the long term the Fuhrer`s apparent stunning success cost Germany dear: half her surface feet was lost off Norway, arguably making the invasion of Britain impossible; and tying down 400,000 men sorely needed elsewhere in garrisoning a country with a 1,000-mile coastline.
As former Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, turned academic military historian, General Kiszely writes whereof he knows. (One wonders how many unnecessary committee hours he chalked up in his forty-year military career.) Perhaps as a consequence of issuing orders his prose has a refreshing clarity not always apparent in academic history, and this book must surely stand as the definitive account of a minor campaign with major consequences for the rest of the war.`
Review by Allan Mallinson in The Spectator
Review by Williamson Murray in Joint Force Quarterly
Review by James Davis in Grounded Curiosity
Review by Niall Barr in The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute
Volume 163, Number 1, March 2018
On 4 April 1940, the British prime minister used a phrase which would return to haunt him with particular force. In a speech to Conservative MPs, Neville Chamberlain claimed that Adolf Hitler had ‘missed the bus’. Just five days later, in a highly bold and risky venture, German forces overwhelmed both Denmark and Norway in a rapid air, land and sea assault. The governments and chiefs of staff of both Britain and France were completely wrong-footed by Operation Weserübung. Chamberlain was forced to eat his words while desperately attempting to improvise a response.
The Allied campaign in response was a misbegotten, woeful affair that gave the lie to any British or French presumption of superiority in strategic or operational decision-making. After a series of naval actions, some of which went very much in the favour of the Royal Navy, the first British troops landed in Norway on 14 April 1940. Yet with debate over the importance of Trondheim and Narvik, British efforts were fatally divided and ill-prepared. The movements against Trondheim ended in disaster and, although Narvik eventually fell to the Allies, by this time the entire campaign had become an irrelevance; France itself was about to succumb to German assault.
This important early campaign of the Second World War has not been overburdened by historical studies or analysis. In its immediate aftermath, the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, who had been one of the chief architects of the British campaign in Norway, had no wish to rake over its failings. As John Kiszely points out, no official report was produced in the immediate aftermath. While some histories of the Norwegian campaign have been produced subsequently, it has not attracted the same level of attention as many other, more famous and, let it be said, successful British campaigns of the Second World War. In short, the Norwegian campaign has long lacked a proper assessment.
Kiszely’s title is well chosen: he provides a clear and complete forensic dissection of Britain’s strategic and operational failings. Indeed, the author does not simply reveal the skeleton of British failings, but also emphasises the interactions between the military and political structures: the debate and discussion among the service chiefs and the War Cabinet. Kiszely brings to bear his considerable experience as a military officer and commander who has had his own experience of the political-military interface.
This is, in many respects, not a work of standard military history. There is no question that Kiszely writes from a British perspective: phrases such as ‘our troops’ makes this clear. That said, the author also works in the German decision-making process and perspective skilfully, with the comparison and contrast between the two protagonists often placing British failings in sharp relief. There is also something didactic about this work – Kiszely draws numerous points on wider themes of operational decision-making, strategy and policymaking. However, it is clear why this is the case; his experience as a professional military educator of senior British officers is evident in the emphasis he places upon the wider themes he draws from this campaign.
This is therefore a detailed and well-executed campaign study. The twists and turns of British policy and the military implications of such changes are very well handled and the clarity of description and analysis always useful. Kiszely pulls no punches in his analysis or criticism. In his harrowing description of the fate of the 148th Infantry Brigade, which landed at Åndalsnes with insufficient equipment and ambiguous, even contradictory, orders, he states with a soldier’s bluntness that ‘the result was a rout’ (p. 189). Indeed, his analysis of the shortcomings of Britain’s strategic decision-making and operational flaws are searing and consistently hit their mark. Of Churchill, to whom Chamberlain tended to defer on strategic questions, Kiszely points out acidly, that ‘[as] a strategist, whether professional or amateur, [he] was not necessarily a good strategist’ (p. 214). In the contemporary era, when almost everyone in the field of defence and security seeks to claim strategic expertise, his point is well made.
There are many dramatis personae in this sorry tale, many of whom were soon eclipsed by more famous successors. Indeed, when most people today think of British strategy-making in the Second World War, it seems almost natural to consider Churchill and Alan Brooke, not Chamberlain and Edmund Ironside. Ironside emerges as a professional head of the army who is madly busy, tied up in endless meetings and discussions, yet also clearly well out of his depth. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for him. As Kiszely mentions, there is, surely, a heavy irony in the fact that Churchill came to power on the back of this fiasco for which he was largely, if not solely, responsible. Churchill would be remembered while Ironside, among others, would be forgotten as ‘guilty men’.
There is another irony in that, while the British adventure in Norway may be ‘a textbook example of how not to plan and conduct a military campaign’ (p. 299), Kiszely’s work is a model of how to analyse the political, strategic and operational dimensions of such a campaign. As such, it provides a great deal to ponder on the nature of war and decision-making. In an era when the UK seems to have abandoned the attempt to produce official history and analyses of past campaigns, Kiszely’s work demonstrates the value of assessing the key failures and lessons of military campaigns. His analysis also holds up a mirror, albeit indirectly, to contemporary British defence policy and military capability. The reflection is not always a comfortable one. Seventy-eight years on from the events, Anatomy of a Campaign provides an object lesson in the follies of wishful thinking and strategic assumptions when they are not backed by military preparedness.
Review by Sebastian H Lukasik in The Journal of Military History
Volume 22, Issue 3, July 2018
Largely overshadowed by the series of world-changing events that took place
in France and the Low Countries in May and June 1940, the Norwegian campaign of the Second World War rarely merits more than a few paragraphs in general histories of that conflict. It has, however, inspired a significant body of specialized studies dedicated to analyzing various elements of this fascinating and complex episode. A showcase of the larger problems that dogged the western Allies’ initial conduct of the war, the Norwegian campaign was the first operation directly to pit British and French forces against those of Nazi Germany in battle, the war’s first truly tri-service operation, and the first campaign in which airpower proved a central, if not the most important, influence on the ultimate outcome.
John Kiszely’s fine book does not dispute earlier assessments’ collective portrayal of the Allies’ Scandinavian adventure as an unmitigated disaster. A retired lieutenant-general in the British army with a long record of distinguished service in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and Iraq, Kiszely affirms that judgement by characterizing the campaign as “a textbook example of how not to plan and conduct a military campaign” (p. 299). What is original, however, is his approach and his overarching argument. Most scholars have explained the Norwegian disaster with reference to failures of Allied intelligence to predict German designs on Norway, Germany’s superiority in the air, Allied ground troops’ sub-par tactical performance, and the questionable decisions made by Britain’s senior political and military leaders. Kiszely acknowledges the importance of these factors, but argues that the British fiasco in Norway was the result not just of real-time failures, but ultimately of long-term systemic flaws in the mechanisms that senior decisionmakers employed to plan and execute the operation.
The main source of these flaws lay in the committee-based framework for managing the higher direction of the war in general and of the campaign in particular. The Scandinavian venture was conceived and conducted through the interplay of several committees, at whose apex stood the War Cabinet. Though well-suited to the direction of a protracted conflict, this system— one that privileged consensusbuilding and conflict-avoidance among principals, rather than rigorous strategic calculation—proved completely inadequate for dealing with fast-paced crises such as the Norwegian campaign. Committee meetings and bureaucratic procedure consumed enormous amounts of service chiefs’ and government ministers’ time. Worse, this arrangement distracted senior leaders’ attention from what really mattered: the need for an intellectually honest and analytically rigorous appraisal of how individual operations fit into and facilitated broader strategic and policy objectives. As Kiszely demonstrates again and again, senior leaders’ “attention became fixated on what to do next and on eye-catching tactical schemes” regardless of their coherence or strategic value (pp. 277–78).
The implications were dismal. The campaign really consisted of three poorly coordinated operations, with no unified commander appointed to impose some sort of coherence over them. In fact, effective unified command was conspicuous by its absence even within individual operations. At Narvik, for example, command of the joint naval-ground task force was initially split between two flag officers who heartily detested each other (pp. 135–38). Complicating things even further was the tendency of high-level leaders back in London to micromanage tactical and operational problems that should have been left for in-theatre commanders to deal with. The proclivity that First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill displayed for giving tactical advice to local commanders exemplified this problem, and was by no means the only example of this unfortunate trend (p. 145).
Grounded in an impressive array of primary sources, Kiszely dissects British decision-making processes with relentless logic and a keenly analytical eye. The detail and insight with which he analyzes what was, for the Allies, a foretaste of the even more bitter defeats to come later that year makes this book an important addition to the historiography of the early phases of the Second World War in Europe.
Sebastian H. Lukasik Air Command and Staff College
Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
Review by Simon Doughty in The Guards Magazine, October 2017
There is a common theme among modern military history books to focus, almost exclusively, on battles and campaigns from the perspective of those who are actually engaged in the fighting. While this is a perfectly respectable genre, and one that has become particularly popular, it is also an approach that can fail to answer the important questions about the campaign itself. Not so much how a campaign was fought at the tactical level, a question that can be answered by studying the methods, training and equipment available to the opposing armies, but why it was fought in the first place, and its real purpose. The political decisions, the professional military advice, the application of lessons from previous wars, so often ignored or misinterpreted – these are all the questions that can be overlooked by those authors who are too quick to get themselves down to the fighting itself.
In this masterful study of the disastrous Norway campaign of 1940, John Kiszely gets swiftly to the centre of the Whitehall machine and how it functioned, or failed to, in the early months of the Second World War. Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, there was a strange period known as the Phoney War when the British Expeditionary Force deployed to familiar places in France and Flanders, and with a certain air of deja vu. Trenches were dug, the Army continued its training with inadequate forces and equipment, preparing for…nobody was quite sure. Back in London, it was almost a case of business as usual, with peacetime working hours still being observed and a War Cabinet presided over by Neville Chamberlain, a competent committee chairman but hardly a war leader.
The dominant member of the War Cabinet at that time was, of course, Winston Churchill. Now back as First Lord of the Admiralty, the same post he had held in 1914, it did not take Churchill long to start proposing ideas aimed at relentlessly taking the war to the enemy, exactly as he had done 25 years earlier. The problem, as John Kiszely demonstrates so clearly in this excellent book, is that Whitehall simply did not have a decision-making machine that could maximise Churchill`s qualities while preventing his charismatic style and force of character from leading the War Cabinet to places it should not have gone.
There is, of course, a sense of history repeating itself. Churchill argued persuasively for the Dardanelles Expedition in early 1915 as an alternative way of prosecuting the war away from the stalemate of the trenches. Although the Dardanelles ended in disaster, the War Cabinet would have needed even less persuasion in 1940 for such an imaginative approach, and seemed more than capable of flawed decision-making, without asking the right questions, or, crucially, receiving sound advice. Kiszely quotes Michael Howard`s observation that for those involved in the higher direction of the Second World War `”never again” was not just an epitaph; it had become a guiding principle of strategy`. It was certainly not the simplistic answer that was needed.
So, when Churchill proposed a daring operation to cut off the supply of Swedish iron ore shipped through Narvik to Germany, the War Cabinet was receptive, although it subsequently wavered and changed its mind on more than one occasion, losing much time and initiative in the process. Churchill`s stirring radio addresses had proved good for morale, and with the Royal Navy`s early success at the Battle of the River plate, his star was in the ascendant. Churchill had opposed appeasement in the 1930s, and had more experience than other members of the War Cabinet, and a vision that looked way beyond the tactical level. He could not be ignored.
The problem at this stage, as the author explains so well, was that neither the Government nor its professional military advisers were ready or prepared for running a war. The three Service Chiefs of Staff, all at the tail-end of their careers, seemed to be consumed with single-service issues and rivalries to the extent that these often overshadowed the higher direction of the war. The concept of combined operations involving the three services was in its infancy, and the Chiefs of Staff were not capable of speaking with one voice on any issue of strategic importance. Military advice was so often lacking in clarity, leaving the War Cabinet at the mercy of its most forceful and talented member.
War Cabinet deliberations on Norway were soon overtaken by events, with the Germans managing to achieve complete strategic surprise by launching attacks along the Norwegian coastline in April 1940. The British and French allies had now lost the initiative, and were soon embroiled in battles at sea and on land that were doomed from the outset. The Norwegian campaign failed most obviously at the tactical level, for many reasons, but the seeds of failure had been sown before the troops or ships had even left harbour. While the Germans were able to conduct their campaign as a series of coordinated military operations aimed at delivering a clear strategic objective, for the Allies it was nothing short of a muddle from beginning to end. As just one of many examples, Kiszely cites the Germans` coordinated logistical plan to deliver large numbers of troops, equipment and combat supplies for the campaign, observing that “it is difficult to envisage their British opponents accomplishing this even without an enemy”. It is quite an indictment, but is well supported by the evidence,
The Germans did have some advantages over their enemy. They did not have to worry about public opinion back home, nor the more tiresome aspects of working within a coalition. However, as the author describes so clearly, their strengths in no way explain the weaknesses in the British way of war in those early months of 1940. Churchill later wrote that “Considering the prominent part I played in these events, it is a miracle I survived”. He certainly did survive, and was soon to be Prime Minister, as a direct consequence of the failure of the Norway campaign.
This book is more than history because it has an enduring relevance which, perhaps alarmingly, will find parallels with recent campaigns. In writing the book, John Kiszely has applied all his experience as a commander, and as a senior staff officer in the Ministry of Defence. He has applied, throughout, a thorough and analytical approach, to produce a book which is both readable and incisive. He has sought to answer some difficult questions, and has not been tempted to blame the usual suspects such as lack of intelligence, the strength of German airpower, or the poor performance of the Allied forces assigned to the operation. The failure was much more fundamental than that. This disastrous campaign came early in the war, and might have been forgotten as gradually the British and their allies learnt from their mistakes. However, it is important that such failures are mot forgotten.
Anatomy of a Campaign. The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 is an excellent book which lives up splendidly to its title. While it will be of professional interest to serving personnel, providing a fascinating insight into campaign planning and the relationship between grand strategy and the employment of military resources, there is another obvious audience for this excellent analysis: politicians and civil servants.
Review by General Sverre Diesen, former Chief of Defence of Norway, in Norwegian Military Journal (Norsk Militaert Tidsskrift). October 2017
This reviewer has read several accounts, both Norwegian and international, about the British campaign in Norway in 1940. Nevertheless, I have yet to come across one which is as thorough in its recording of the events, as comprehensive in its analysis, and as ruthless in its allocation of responsibility for the failures of the campaign. As such, the title, Anatomy of a Campaign, is well chosen, as one sometimes has the feeling of being present at a military-historic autopsy.
The underlying, structural and human causes
General Kiszely’s ambition with Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway 1940 is not to uncover unknown facts of the British campaign in Norway. As he points out in the introduction, there is no lack of British literature om the topic, nor is there much disagreement about the causes of the failure: failed strategy, neglect of intelligence, German air superiority, weak performance by participating units, and fatal mistakes made by political and military leaders in London. Kiszely’s project is to find out why and how so many terrible decisions could be made. In other words, he is not looking to retell the story and summarize yet again the obvious mistakes that were made; he wishes to detect the underlying structural and human causes leading to the failure of the campaign. This will hopefully contribute to the avoidance of similar disasters in the future which might otherwise well happen to all of us.
To find the answers, Kiszely begins with the British leadership in 1939, analysing both organisation, processes and the somewhat diverse gallery of personalities. Because, as he notes, “military campaigns begin long before the first shot is fired. Indeed, before the first shot is fired, the outcome of the campaign may be largely preordained”. Bearing in mind this insight, and with the gradual revelation of the basic weaknesses of British military capacity for waging modern war in 1939, one is tempted to say that any other result would have taken a miracle. There were, for example, four different councils and committees concerned with the formulation of strategy. In the Supreme War Council, French and British prime ministers met with their key military advisers to coordinate the allied war effort. Secondly, the inner core of the British government, the War Cabinet, constituted a national war council. Under this was the Military Coordination Committee, where ministers in the three military departments – the War Office for the Army, the Admiralty of the Royal Navy and the Air Ministry of the Royal Air Force – tried to coordinate the advice from the three service chiefs. And finally, the chiefs of the three branches were supported by their respective staff and the Chiefs of Staff Committee. As one can imagine, this was not the best point of departure for the quick and efficient making of strategy.
With the description of the organizational conditions as a starting point, we follow the British-French leaders’ discussions about Scandinavia through the autumn of 1939 and the winter of 1940, a time when there was an opportunity for the allied forces to strike a decisive blow to the German war economy by stopping the Swedish export of iron from the Norwegian ice-free port of Narvik. However, as it would still be possible to ship the iron from the Swedish port of Luleå on the Baltic during the summer months, a move into northern Sweden to take direct control of the mines at Gällivare was considered. The most ambitious alternative included sending forces to Trondheim, Bergen and Stavanger, as well as the deployment of large forces to southern Sweden to defend Scandinavia against the probable ensuing German invasion. In addition to this, the Allies had a genuine wish to come to Finland
s aid in the Winter War against Stalin`s Soviet Union, which would have made it possible to combine a transit to Finland from Narvik through Northern Sweden with the occupation of the mines. With assistance to Finland as the lead motive, Norwegian and Swedish compliance was also thought to be more likely, to the extent their wishes were taken into account.
In reality, such an ambition was both politically and militarily impossible, given the situation of the Allies during the winter of 1939-1940. The necessary forces for such an operation either did not exist, or would have to be redeployed from the continent, consequently weakening the forces there. Furthermore, the units in question were also from the Territorial Army, an organisation made up of part-time soldiers who were neither trained nor fit for modern warfare, especially not under Scandinavian winter conditions. Nor was it possible to deploy the necessary supporting units of air defence, artillery, logistics and other arms and services. This was all pointed out by the Joint Planning Committee, supported by the service chiefs, but to no avail. Incidentally, the Joint Planning Committee was the only body among the bewildering jungle of committees emerging from the the planning and execution of the campaign with some credit, unfortunately without anybody listening.
However, the top level British and French leaders proved to be incapable of coming up with a decision, even after weeks and months of deliberation, and in the end, no plans were put into action. Finland surrendered on 12 March, and the entire Scandinavian enterprise was put on the back burner, assigned forces being stood down and plans binned. Instead, it was the Germans, with their lightening strike against Norway and Denmark on 9 April, who would seize and retain the initiative during the campaign that followed. Despite the many indications that the Germans would take actions in Scandinavia, and despite the fact that such an operation required moving a significant forces to Norway across a sea controlled by the Royal Navy, the Germans achieved complete strategic surprise. In the meantime, the British had reverted to Churchill’s original idea to stop the ore transport by laying mines along parts of the Norwegian leads and force the ore ships out of Norwegian territorial waters where they could be sunk. Now they had to deal with a very different and far more serious problem.
The course of action decided upon was to improvise, based on the plan for laying the mines which also contained a land component. This included three brigades landing at Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen and Stavanger at the first sign of a German attack in response to the minelaying. However, this is a good example of Kiszely’s perhaps most important point: that with the absence of a comprehensive, well thought-out and feasible British strategy no one had a clear idea about what the purpose of these landings would be other than getting ashore, and what their mission really was when they arrived there. Add to this the complete chaos when the forces were transferred to Norway, counter-orders following orders as the tempo of the German attack changed circumstances and necessitated rapid changes of the plan. Consequently, the transport vessels were redirected to new destinations with little of no regard to their loading arrangements, causing units and their equipment to end up in different places, and with weapons in one place and ammunition in another.
Kiszely then goes through the operations that followed at Narvik, in Trøndelag and Gudbrandsdalen. His description is excellent, not only of the British operations, but also the political and military complications of cooperation with the Norwegian and French forces. It is worth noting that he paints a different and rather more balanced picture of the events than previous British accounts, which have quite often failed to mention the involvement of other forces completely. Nor does Kiszely hesitate to blame the senior British commanders for the lack of cooperation, triggered by imperial arrogance and a lack of understanding of the fact that the Norwegian units – despite their pathetic equipment and training – could have helped the British in areas where they were even worse prepared. However, that would have required a different attitude among the British leaders from Generals Mackesy and Carton de Wiart at Narvik and in Trøndelag, to Brigadier Morgan in Gudbrandsdalen. Not only did they view their Norwegian allies as incompetent, they were also convinced that half of them were Nazi sympathisers and collaborators, mainly without any other basis than their own prejudices.
It is neither possible nor necessary in this review to give a complete account of Kiszely`s narrative of the campaign since members of the Norwegian defence community are, by and large, more familiar with these events than British or American readers. Instead, it may be appropriate to ask the question of whether Kiszely succeeds in his endeavour, which was to find the root causes of so many things failing on the British side. He does this exceptionally well and that is probably the reason why the book rises above many other accounts of the campaign. This is what makes it such an extremely valuable read, not only for those interested in military history in general, but particularly for the military reader bent on improving his or her understanding of some of the pitfalls of their profession. For example, he points out that when it was possible to ignore the many indications that a German attack on Norway was imminent, it comes back to the fragmented way in which British military intelligence was organized and worked. When it was first noted that the significant German naval forces were heading north through the Skagerrak, the Admiralty drew the conclusion that it must be a German attempt to break the blockade and penetrate the North Atlantic – not because it was objectively the only possibility . but because this was what they had been brought up to believe in – the desirability in British naval thinking of forcing their opponent to accept a decisive battle, another Trafalgar. When there was no apparatus in place to provide coordinated and consolidated intelligence assessments, the individual services subconsciously submitted to their cultural and historical assumptions – a classic cognitive trap.
Similarly, Kiszely attributes the lack of ability to provide adequate air support and protection of ground and naval forces against aircraft to a lack of understanding among a number of the senior commanders. They had failed to pay attention to how technology had developed during the inter-war period, and particularly how the air dimension had fundamentally changed modern warfare. This had catastrophic consequences, because it gave the Germans complete command of the air throughout the theatre of operations. Several factors contributed to this error: the British army’s traditional role in peace and imperial policing in which high-intensity war was really an exception; a significant element of inter-service parochialism; and sheer incompetence among key players. Military organisations are different in the sense that that they are not normally put to the test the are supposed to master everyday. As a result, they are more susceptible to developing false theories and dysfunctional characteristics than organisations in other areas of society, which interact continuously with the real world. It is precisely in the description of how fundamental human, organizational, cultural and other flaws may have fatal consequences that Anatomy of a Campaign reminds us of hw we are exposed to the same mechanisms today.
Ends, ways and means
The most fundamental of Kiszely’s critique is the British leadership’s inability to think and act strategically – that is to create a balance between ends, ways and means. On this point, his critique is scathing. Firstly, because there was no ability to see that the political goals in Scandinavia were completely detached from the resources available and the risk of pursuing them. Much of this criticism hits the government and politicians, primarily the gentle and conflict-averse Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who completely lacked the personality needed to lead an uncompromising war against a regime like Hitler`s Germany. Conversely, the necessary energy, ruthlessness and will were present in abundance in Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, whose personality ensured that he came to completely dominate the discussions in the War Cabinet and the Military Coordination Committee. But, as Kiszely drily observes, ‘his exceptional powers of advocacy, and his remarkable ability to overcome opposition through a mixture of persuading, inspiring, cajoling and browbeating opponents, was not matched during this campaign by the wisdom of his judgment’. Add to this Churchill’s tendency to let his enormous commitment lead to tactical-level micro-management, as well as his total ignorance and lack of interest in logistics, and the conclusion is that Churchill must take a great deal of the blame for the British defeat. In this perspective, it is a paradox that it was the fiasco in Norway that led to Chamberlain’s resignation as prime minister and his replacement by Churchill – something Churchill later acknowledged.
A lot of Kiszely’s criticism is also directed at the three service chiefs. General Edmund Ironside, Admiral Dudley Pound and Air Marshal Cyril Newall, who could, after all, be expected to be professional warriors and strategists. They should have been a corrective to the impetuous Churchill and the other politicians when they presented impossible ambitions or impractical plans. However, despite having endless meetings in the various committees, and despite grumblings about the shortcomings of their political masters, they did not manage to put things right. This was particularly because they lacked the moral courage to tell the politicians the unpopular truth to their faces, and partly because they did not have the strategic insight expected from officers in their exalted positions. Nor did they understand that the formulation of strategy requires a real, political-military discourse, not just slavishly designing the best possible military answer to political requirements, whether realistic or not.
Furthermore, to the extent they exercised strategic judgment, it was based on their own limited experiences and perceptions. Thus, they overlooked that strategic insight cannot be acquired through personal experience alone, even in the most comprehensive and distinguished of military careers. It requires, as Kiszely points out,
`hard thinking and the deep understanding of concepts, such as strategy, that can only be acquired through rigorous study`. Add to this that their experience in the mainly single-service operations of the British armed forces throughout the British empire had made them narrow-minded spokesmen for their own services, consequently the prospects for defeating the Germans in their thoroughly joint approach to the campaign were not good. To quote one of the French officers serving with them in Trøndelag: `
The British have planned this campaign as they would have planned a punitive expedition against the Zulus. Unfortunately, it is we, and not the Germans, who turn out to be the Zulus.`
As the campaign progressed, the political and military leadership’s strategic perspective unravelled completely, turning into a reactive, tactically-focused substitute for strategy as well as for operational command. This was partly due to the lack of a functioning operational headquarters to lead a unified command and to control of the Norwegian operational theatre as a whole, but also to a lack of a fundamental understanding of what strategic leadership means. Here Kiszely makes an important point: the weakness of the British forces cannot be attributed solely to poor equipment and training. Indeed, “the art of good strategy is to improve one’s position with the ways and means that are available, not to attempt to achieve what would be appropriate were better ways and means available.” In other words, you cannot aspire to more ambitious strategic goals than those that are consistent with the forces available to you.
Of course, other factors than just the leadership contributed to the disaster of the campaign – the low quality of the British units, the German forces’ professionalism at all levels, chance as an omnipresent factor in military affairs and the demanding climate and terrain prevailing throughout the theatre, reinfororced by British ignorance about Norway and Norwegian conditions. Kiszely also addresses some counter-factual speculations, and assesses whether the campaign could have developed differently, had the British made other decisions at critical moments, for example prioritising the deployment of British troops to Trøndelag instead of Narvik. However, he concludes that this would probably not have turned the tables, as long as the decisive factor for the campaign was German air supremacy. Still, here, this reviewer would have liked to see an assessment of whether northern Norway could have been held, had a defensive line been established along the line of the Tys Fjord, south of Narvik, with sufficient air support as Hurricane fighters became operational from Bardufoss towards the end of the campaign, and with the Royal Navy firmly in control of the Norwegian Sea..
Finally, Kiszely points out that while on the subject of strategy , it is an interesting fact that the conquest of Norway did not turn out to be a strategic success for the Germans, for all their tactical and operational brilliance during the campaign. The collapse of France gave them access to large ore deposits in Lorraine, and the only real strategic Norwegian resource – the merchant fleet – was already under British control. Nor did they have any other economic gain to show for the occupation; on the contrary, significant food resources had to be sent to Norway to keep the Norwegian population from starving. Furthermore, the occupation of Norway required a permanent force of 400,000 soldiers, even in the end phase of the war, when there could have been put to better use good elsewhere. And although the aviation and naval bases were important in the struggle to interdict the Murmansk, they turned out to be incapable of changing the outcome of the war.
All in all, Anatomy of a Campaign is an excellent analysis, and can be read with great benefit by anyone with interest in applied strategy and operations, in addition to the obligation Norwegian officers should feel to be familiar with Norwegian military history as part of their general education. This reviewer agrees with the prominent military historian Anthony Beevor (without further comparison), quoted on the cover of the book: “Unquestionably the best book on the subject”. Should there be a critical remark, slightly more comprehensive and detailed maps would have been useful, making it easier for readers without intimate knowledge of Norwegian geography and terrain to appreciate the difficulties the British forces faced. Although explained well in the text, the maps lack the information and resolution necessary or that. As for references, they are complete and excellent.
Readers who do not have the time or inclination to read three hundred pages with well-formulated and easy-to-read English, who are also familiar with the events during the campaign in Norway in 1940 can still read the concluding chapter with great benefit. This is a great summary of Kiszely’s project – how was such an abject failure possible, and what, if any, guarantees do we have of not repeating the same mistakes in future? Because, as Kiszely writes in the last sentence of the book: “The ramshackle British Campaign in Norway in 1940 may have been a sorry tale, but it is also a cautionary one”. Run to the bookstore and buy the book!