September 01, 2019

The Good Raid

The Marine Corps raiding manual singles out one raid for particular praise, Operation Claymore, the March 1941 British commando raid on the Lofoten Islands off the northern cost of Norway.
The attack of the Lofoten Islands is an excellent example of an ideal selection. It met a military need; the location and enemy defenses made it susceptible to attack; it was within the capability of a well-trained but inexperienced raid force; and it provided a much needed morale boost to the nation.

According to the Manual, this is how you do things.

Target Selection, Intelligence
The Lofoten Islands are remote (north of the Arctic Circle) and difficult to defend, but strategically important.  Normally a quiet, pleasant place.

An ideal target:
The Lofotens provided the Germans the majority of their fish oils, an essential ingredient in manufacturing explosives. The nearest German airfields were iced over at this time of year and the nearest garrison able to influence the battle was almost 60 miles away. It appeared resistance from both ground and air forces outside the objective area would be slight.
In contradistinction to Dieppe, the intelligence in this case was precisely accurate.

Force Composition
According to the Marine Corps manual, it is best to keep raiding forces as small as possible, and put as much firepower as possible behind and above them.  On the first count, the British did reasonably well, sending about 500 troops - enough to handle prisoners and demolitions, but only about 1/10 of the size of the forces employed at Tatsinkaya or Dieppe.

On the second however, they traded firepower for stealth, employing just five destroyers to support the attacking force.  The British were not willing to risk bigger ships on this sort of operation.  The error had no consequences in this raid, but a similar miscalculation at Dieppe meant that when the raiding force got into trouble there simply was not sufficient firepower offshore to suppress the enemy and allow an orderly evacuation.

HMS Expendable Legion

The RAF did not participate for the same reasons as the Luftwaffe - the target area was out of reach of military air bases at this time of year.  Still, you couldn't have Ark Royal with its obsolete aircraft hanging around a couple hundred miles offshore?  What if a Geman cruiser or two had been in the area?

(By the way, when Ark Royal was critically hit by a sub in November 1941, it was Legion, one of the destroyers from the Lofoten Islands raid, that evacuated her crew.)

In any case, excess firepower was not needed because surprise was complete.  The raiding force took a very roundabout route to the target to avoid detection, sailing first to the Faroe Islands and then north toward the Arctic before turning east toward Lofoten.

The target selection, intelligence, and approach were so well done the raid was virtually unopposed.  The only German asset to fire a shot was the armed trawler Krebs, which was quickly disabled, plundered (more on this later), and sunk.  After that, it was a cakewalk:

The raiding force had one casualty.  Against that, it...
  • Destroyed a cod boiling plant, two factories, and 800,000 imperial gallons of fish oil.
  • Destroyed 18,000 tons of shipping including the merchant ships Hamburg, Pasajes, Felix, Mira, Eilenau, Rissen, Andø, Grotto, and Bernhard Schulte, as well as the aforementioned Krebs.
  • Took 228 prisoners and, according to the Marine Corps manual, "over 300 Norwegians returned with the commandos to serve with the Allies throughout the remainder of the war."
  • Achieved a much-needed propaganda victory - the Marine Corps manual states that "the raid was filmed and shown throughout Britain to the delight of every audience."
  • It is debatable whether the raid "held the Hun in a constant state of jitters" as promised in the newsreel, but the fact is that this and subsequent raids forced the Germans to divert significant forces to the defense of Norway.  They garrison ultimately consistent of almost half a million men, a larger force than Sixth Army (the one they lost at Stalingrad) or the Afrika Korps.
And best of all...
  • Captured from Krebs rotor wheels and code books for an Enigma machine, which "enabled Bletchley Park to read all the German naval codes for some time and provided the intelligence needed to allow Allied convoys to avoid U-boat concentrations." - Wikipedia

Also, Full marks for theatrical effect.  As they departed, the raiders left behind the hallmark of a successful raid operation: a massive column of smoke:

As seen from HMS Legion (Wikipedia)

Well done.  I wish the reader many such raids in their careers.

  • "Operation Claymore" on Wikipedia - (link)
  • "Lofoten Islands Vacations in Norway" - (link)



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