London, England December 19, 1939

On the afternoon of August 23, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s foreign secretary Joachim von Ribben­trop appeared in Moscow’s Krem­lin fortress to sign off on the Nazi-Soviet Non­ag­gres­sion Pact. The 10‑year pact, also known by the twin sur­names of Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Ribben­trop, was the neces­sary “green light” Hitler needed to finally make good on his inten­tions to end the carto­graphic exis­tence of his eas­tern neighbor, Poland. Soviet dicta­tor Joseph Stalin, extracting the maxi­mum pos­sible con­ces­sions from an obses­sive Hitler, demanded “an addi­tional agree­ment that will not [be] published any­where else,” a secret proto­col that set out “spheres on interest” in Central and Eas­tern Europe and Scan­di­navia for each of the total­i­tar­ian states. After a tele­phone call to Hitler at his Bava­rian retreat, the Berg­hof, Ribben­trop was able to inform Stalin and his foreign minis­ter, Vyache­slav Molo­tov, that “the Fuehrer accepts [Soviet terms].” And so the pact with its secret attach­ment was signed amid many cele­bra­tory toasts (vodka and Crimean champagne) in the early in hours of August 24, 1939.

The Winter War between Finland and the aggressor Soviet Union predict­ably broke out on Novem­ber 30, 1939, following Hitler and Stalin’s agree­ment 2½ months earlier to parti­tion Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithu­ania between them­selves. The French and British govern­ments, igno­rant of course of the “spheres of influ­ence” into which the two totali­ta­rian states could insert them­selves, strongly desired to aid the out­manned and out­gunned Finns (popu­la­tion 3.5 mil­lion) with volun­teers and war mate­riel. The only pos­sible route for such aid was through the Scan­di­na­vian countries of Norway and Sweden, both neutrals.

The Allied Supreme War Council, con­sisting of British and French mili­tary advisers, decided on this date, Decem­ber 19, 1939, to send help to Finland, should it be requested, against the wishes of the neu­tral Scan­di­na­vian states. The Allies, at war with Nazi Germany since Septem­ber 3, recog­nized that a new dynamic might give them a chance to inter­rupt their enemy’s imports of Swedish iron ore (9 mil­lion tons out of 22 mil­lion in 1938) if Narvik, an ice-free port in North­ern Norway closest to the major Swedish mining dis­trict, became an Allied supply base for Finnish assis­tance. The British War Cabi­net hoped that direct aid to Finland via Norway would pro­voke Nazi Germany into taking counter­pro­duc­tive meas­ures that might nudge neutral Norway and Sweden into the Allied camp.

The unreal assumptions held by the British and French govern­ments regarding Scan­di­navia would have huge con­se­quen­ces in the second week of April 1940, when Hitler surprised the Western Allies with Opera­tion Weser-Exer­cise (Unter­nehmen Weser­uebung), the occu­pa­tion of Norway and Denmark. Sweden remained neu­tral through­out World War II, exporting ore through its ice-free south­ern ports, thus removing German rel­iance on Narvik as a shipping port despite its even­tual occupa­tion following the two Battles of Narvik (April 9 to June 8, 1940). For its part Finland emerged as a natural-born ally of Nazi Germany in June 1941, taking part in the inva­sion of the Soviet Union (Opera­tion Barba­rossa), though care­ful not to do so as an Tripar­tite (Axis) treaty member. As for Swedish iron ore exports, the fall of France to Hitler’s Wehr­macht (armed forces) in May and June 1940, which added the Lorraine fields in East­ern France to the iron ore resources avail­able to the German war machine, meant that Sweden and Norway no longer domi­nated the con­ver­sation of German armaments ministers in the same way they had earlier.

Western Allies and Nazi Germany Engage in Scandinavian Contest

Map of northern Scandinavia showing iron ore sites and rail network

Above: Swedish iron ore was extracted in Kiruna and Malm­berget and brought by rail to ice-free Narvik har­bor in neu­tral Norway and Sweden’s Luleå harbor. Luleå harbor and the sur­rounding sea were blocked by ice in the winter. The May–June 1940 German con­quest of France, with that coun­try’s iron ore fields in Lor­raine, mini­mized the importance of Scandinavian exports to Germany.

Battles of Narvik: Norwegian port of Narvik during World War IINBattles of Narvik: orwegian soldiers on Norway’s Narvik front, 1940

Left: Narvik, Norway, provided an ice-free harbor in the North Atlantic for iron ore trans­ported by rail from Sweden’s Kiruna ore mine. Both Allied and Axis sides in the war had an inter­est in denying this iron supply to the other, setting the stage for a resump­tion of large-scale land battles in April 1940 following the German and Soviet inva­sions and annexations of Poland and the Baltic states eight months earlier.

Right: The total number of Norwegian defenders during the Battle of Narvik (April 9 to June 8, 1940) was 8,000–10,000. French, British, and Polish forces in and around Narvik brought the total Allied force to 24,500 men. Facing them were 5,600 German soldiers, paratroopers, and shipwreck sailors.

Battles of Narvik: Norwegian Army field gunBritish troops returning from Norway, June 1940

Left: The Battle of Narvik, touched off by the German cap­ture of the vital rail ter­mi­nus and harbor in Norway’s north at the start of Opera­tion Weser­uebung, pro­vided the Allies with their first major land victory in World War II on May 29, 1940.

Right: However, the successful German attack on Britain’s ally France in May and June 1940 forced the Allied expe­di­tionary force to eva­cuate Norway, which these British sol­diers did in June. With­out Allied air and naval support, the Nor­we­gians at Narvik were forced to lay down their arms, doing so on June 10, 1940, the last Norwegian forces to surrender their country to the invaders.

Newsreel of German Invasion of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands