December 26, 1941: The Boxing Day Odd Nansen Would Never Forget

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Boxing Day, December 26, also known as St. Stephens Day, originated in Great Britain, but is observed in many other European countries, including Norway.

Boxing Day 1941 must have been a dispiriting day indeed.  Germany had overrun practically all of Europe, and was all but poised to defeat the Soviet Union.  The United States had formally been in the war for a mere 19 days; much of its Pacific Fleet lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, its army was woefully undersized when compared to that of its new enemies, the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, Italy).

Great Britain was less than 18 months past the “miracle” of Dunkirk, but calling the evacuation a miracle could not soften the blow to its armed forces, with many of its best troops, and most of it tanks, artillery, trucks, etc., lost.

Things looked bleak.

Churchill was eager for any kind of victory, symbolic or otherwise, to change the narrative, and lift the spirits of the Allies.  With that motivation in mind, the British, along with Norwegian special forces, conceived and launched two audacious commando raids against the Norwegian coastline.

Operation Anklet was the code name given to a commando raid of 300 men (223 British and 77 Norwegian), along with a 22-ship naval task force, aimed at Norway’s Lofoten Islands, beginning at 6:00 AM on Boxing Day, December 26, 1941.

Much like George Washington’s assault on Trenton during America’s War for Independence (December 26, 1776), the planners of Operating Anklet were counting on the German garrison at Lofoten being distracted by Christmas festivities.

They were right.

The landings were unopposed, and the raiders successfully destroyed several German boats, as well as two radio transmitters, and captured a number of German soldiers (together with some Norwegian sympathizers—Quislings).  Most embarrassing of all, over 200 local Norwegians made the spontaneous decision to volunteer to serve in the Free Norwegian Forces, returning with the departing Allies, who left the area on December 28.  Allied forces suffered no casualties.

Operation Archery

Operation Anklet, while successful on its own terms, was primarily designed to serve as a diversionary raid for a much larger, more important, raid by British and Norwegian commandos on December 27, 1941, known as Operation Archery.  The immediate goal of Operation Archery was the destruction of fish-oil processing plants at Vågsøy, in western Norway (such plants were used in the production of explosives).  In the longer term, it was hoped that the raid would induce Hitler to deploy more troops to Norway, instead of the all-important Eastern Front.

Lofoten and Vågsøy

Much like Anklet, Operation Archery was a success.  At the cost of four naval deaths, and the loss of 17 commandos (including the commander of the Norwegian Armed Forces in exile, Captain Martin Linge), the Allies killed 120 defenders, captured another 98, destroyed several fish-oil plants, sank 10 enemy ships, and returned with 70 loyal Norwegians eager to join resistance forces in England.

A Fish-Oil Plant Burns

The material damage incurred by Operations Anklet and Archery was modest; the psychological impact, on the other hand, was substantial.

First, the raids convinced Hitler to divert 30,000 additional troops to Norway, troops that were badly needed on the Eastern Front.  Hitler was reported to have said “the outcome of the war will be decided in Norway,” and ended up stationing almost 370,000 soldiers there, or approximately 1 soldier for every 10 Norwegians.

Equally important, the repercussions were felt in Norway itself.  Hitler’s personal representative in Norway, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven was mortified at the embarrassing news generated by the raids.  His reaction was not long in coming.  Finding that many of the Norwegian escapees to Britain were former Norwegian officers and soldiers on parole, Terboven ordered the re-arrest of many such officers, who spent the remainder of the war in POW camps.  Secondly, the SS arrested and imprisoned relatives of the Norwegians who had opted to leave with the British.

Finally, and most ominously of all for Odd Nansen, “Twenty former high court officials and close friends of the exiled royal family were arrested in reprisal for what . . . Terboven . . . called ‘the kidnapping of eight members of the Nasjonal Samling party by Englishmen in violation of international law.”

One of those close friends of the exiled royal family was Odd Nansen (whose father Fridtjof had been instrumental in bringing King Haakon VII from Denmark to Norway in 1905). Nansen was taken into custody “for questioning” on January 13, 1942, and would spend the next three and a half years in captivity—the very last of the 20 hostages arrested in January 1942 to see freedom.

Nansen’s agony would be our gain, for without the fateful events triggered on Boxing Day 1941, we would never have had the “epic narrative of life in Nazi concentration camps,” in the words of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, a narrative which has taken “its place among the great affirmations of the power of the human spirit to rise above terror, torture and death.”

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"Timothy Boyce captivated a larger than usual, attentive and appreciative audience with his spellbinding presentation of Odd Nansen and his World War II diary. He brilliantly demonstrated Odd Nansen’s will to survive while also helping others. A remarkable tale presented in an informative and fascinating way by a truly engaging speaker."

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