London, England · December 19, 1939

The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union broke out on Novem­ber 30, 1939, 2‑1/2 months after Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had partitioned Poland between them­selves in accor­dance with a secret pro­tocol in the Molotov-Ribben­trop Non­aggression Pact. The French and British govern­ments strongly desired to aid the out­manned and out­gunned Finns 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 in 1939 to send help to Fin­land, should help be requested, against the wishes of the neu­tral Scan­di­na­vian states. The Allies recog­nized that a new dynamic might give them a chance to inter­rupt Ger­man 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. (In vio­la­tion of their neu­tral­ity, Norwe­gians had per­mitted the Brit­ish to sur­rep­ti­tiously use their ter­ritory to trans­fer air­craft and other wea­ponry, but not troops, to Fin­land during the 105‑day Fin­nish-Soviet Winter War, which ended in March 1940.)

The un­real assump­tions of the British and French military advisers would have huge con­se­quen­ces in the second week of April 1940, when Hitler pre­empted the Western Allies with Opera­tion Weser-Exer­cise (Unter­nehmen Weser­uebung), the occu­pa­tion of Den­mark and Nor­way. 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. For her 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 Axis 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 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.

Narvik during World War IINorwegian soldiers on Narvik front

Left: Narvik provided an ice-free harbor in the North Atlantic for iron ore trans­ported by rail from Swe­den’s Kiruna ore mine. Both 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 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.

Norwegian Army field gunReturning British troops

Left: The Battle of Narvik, which started with 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 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