Added 4 February 2015.


Bob Carruthers: Hitler's Forgotten Armies

The history of Scandinavia in the Second World War is probably a mystery to most Western readers, with the possible exception of the Russian attack on Finland in 1939 and the German invasion of Norway in 1940. After that, history books tend to relegate the Scandinavian countries to footnotes such as Finland dropping out of the war in September 1944. In fact fighting and other war-related activity in Denmark, Norway and Sweden did not cease between 1940 and the end of the war in Europe, and even the far north the continent saw conflict, at times desperate.

Carruthers' history starts with an overview of the political situation at the start of the war, with the Scandinavians desiring neutrality but essentially caught between the desires and ambitions of the Western Allies (then Britain and France), Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Although the Finnish Winter War is not covered in any detail, the political ramifications for all the major countries are illustrated. Interestingly at this point it was Admiral Raeder, who was largely exonerated at Nuremburg, who urged a German conquest of Norway to strategically assist the German Navy, rather than Hitler, although the latter was soon persuaded. Ironically, in the light of this initial reluctance, Hitler was later to have an obsession with defending Norway, to the point of trying to create a strategic reserve there when other fronts were crying out for reinforcements. As in most histories, Quisling's near-uselessness to his political masters is also demonstrated.

From then on German military, aerial and naval campaigns in Scandinavia are covered in some detail, including the brief campaign in Denmark. The campaign in Norway from the German point of view is well illustrated, including the tendency evident at this early stage of the war for German service chiefs to operate in a vacuum independently of one another. Much of the Norwegian history has been covered in other books, although perhaps more from a more Allied view. The chief value of the book's history for this reader lies in its subsequent coverage of the war in the North (including Lapland and north of the Arctic Circle) against the Soviet Union. Little armour was involved at divisional level, perhaps one reason why the campaign has been neglected, but this meant hard fighting for the mountain- and other infantry forming part of the German forces. An interesting detail, illustrative of the punishment that inaccurate information can bring on a campaign, is that German planners counted on two roads in the area, whereas of these, one was in fact an animal track and the other simply did not exist. This considerably affected the German operations in the far North since resupply had to be largely done by foot or mule rather than train or lorry. The campaign against Murmansk was largely for political and economic reasons, Hitler hoping to stop the flow of aid from reaching the Soviets. Unsurprisingly the Red Army fought hard to defend it, but later in the war this was to prove a chimaera in any event as Western aid flowed into the USSR via Persia. Linked with this, the history does show the battle of the Arctic convoys from the German point of view, illustrating in the process the frustrations of the German surface fleet, much of which spent the war in and around Norwegian waters.

Much of the interest in the book lays in the examination of Finland's actions in the Continuation War (as they termed their involvement in the campaign against the USSR, 1941-44) and particularly in Finnish-German relationships. Although the Finns arguably had right on their side in trying to seize back the territory annexed by Stalin in 1940, Carruthers shows that anti-Russian sentiment was not hard to find among some Finns in high place, and in a more extreme form: thus one senior military commander expressed involvement in Barbarossa as the last and best chance to forever destroy Russia. Given the turbulent relations that had existed over a couple of centuries between the two peoples, this is perhaps hardly surprising, but it says much for Mannerheim's statesmanship that he avoided embroiling Finland too deeply in the war, despite the desire of some Finns to seize more territory than they had lost to Stalin. It was this moderation that caused frustrations to the Germans: the Finns referred to them as “brothers-in-arms” rather than allies and were reticent about lending men and material to purely German initiatives, refusing to participate directly in either the attack on Murmansk or the siege of Leningrad. In fact Mannerheim made the German seizure of Leningrad a prime condition for further Finnish operations, one which was never met. For their part the Germans viewed the Finns as superior forest fighters but also as preferring to avoid pitched battles. After Stalingrad the Finnish parliament was informed that Germany could no longer win the war, and thereafter the Finns looked for ways to extricate themselves, which led to interesting machinations between themselves and the major powers before the Soviet summer 1944 offensive, the armistice of September that year and the driving out, albeit reluctantly, of German forces in Finland. Carruthers makes the reasonable comment that the moderation of the Germans in dealing with Finland (in contrast with their treatment for example of Hungary) was to their credit.

Sweden's role in Scandinavia during World War Two is also mentioned in the book. The Swedes were put under considerable pressure in 1940 during the Norwegian campaign and even prior to Barbarossa allowed German troop movements via their railway system. As the war progressed against Germany, Swedish attitude hardened to the point where Hitler, ever fearful of Western intervention in Norway, ordered contingency plans to be drawn up for an invasion of Sweden. The plans are described in some detail.

The capitulation of Finland left German armies in the country and Lapland with a difficult situation, fighting at the end of long supply lines and facing resurgent Soviet armies. The subsequent evacuation of Finnmark and the retreat into Norway was well executed, although as Carruthers points out, the Germans were also lucky, not least because the Soviets in the light of their other requirements did not commit strong forces to the area. Thereafter the Norwegian front settled into a strange, almost peaceful state despite increasing acts of Norwegian resistance and the hard attitude of the Nazi commissar Terboven, and the final military commander of the area, Bohme, was to complain that Sundays were still being regularly observed by the German occupation troops (for which his suggestion was to provide more National Socialist leadership courses and sports events). Indeed Bohme's attitude at the end of the war was to show how out of touch with reality some high-level commanders still were.

The book ends with a short but interesting chapter on the military lessons learnt from the campaign in the far North (principally, that in such conditions men and their well-being and condition become of greater importance than machines), and a brief list of military commanders and political figures who were involved from all nations. The only criticism this reviewer would make of this section is that we learn little of their subsequent fates, for example that Finnish ex-president Ryti was imprisoned after the war or that the leader of the German campaign in 1940, von Falkenhorst, was sentenced to death at Nuremberg but had his sentence commuted at the last minute. Perhaps the original sources (the book was first printed in 1952) were too close to events to make a final writing of the participants' fates possible. Nevertheless this is a fairly objective and detailed account of a neglected theatre of war, and this reprint of Bob Carruthers' history is therefore to be welcomed.

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