Punching Above Their Weight

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It’s been 77 years since Germany invaded Norway.

History writ large records that the Norwegian capitol, Oslo, fell in hours.

It takes a deeper reading to know that Norway – with a lot of help from troops from Britain, the UK, and the Polish army in exile – gave the Germans not a few bloody noses, small and large, covert and open.

And one of the greatest chapters in Norway’s formal resistance, the Norwegian 6th Division’s battle to recapture the port of Narvik, in the far north, spearheaded by a unit called the ” Ålta Battalion”.

A militia unit based in the town of Ålta, in the far, far north of Norway, Rural men who’d had to report for duty by reindeer sled and ski, they were first called up in the winter of 1939 to guard the Norwegian/Finnish border during the Winter War. Witnessing the brutality of the war in Finland from across the border, the men from Ålta went home with a pretty sure sense of what was coming.

They were called up again just a few months later, when Germany invaded. They were transferred from Alta – a town of 20,000, near the northern tip of Norway – to Narvik – a small port city high above the arctic circle. So backward was this part of Norway, just 77 years ago that they reported for service by reindeer sled and boat, not much different than 130 years earlier. They were carried via steam ferry to Narvik – another small port town, rendered strategic by the fact that Swedish iron ore, vital to the German war effort, was carried there by rail, and then shipped to Germany; the little city was one of the most strategic spots in Europe, for a few weeks in April, 1940; it’s only a matter of dumb timing that Churchill didn’t invade Norway before HItler did; his plan to seize Narvik to interdict Germany’s iron supply was already in motion when Germany invaded.

Geographic and economic strategy didn’t matter that much to the guys in the Alta Battalion

And there – outnumbered, outgunned (they had only rifles and a few machine guns and mortars, and no air support to speak of), they did the unthinkable; they moved through the snow into the hills above Narvik, and they pushed the Germans back. The Alta Battalion, along with the Norwegian Sixth Division (along with the destruction of a GErman fleet in Narvik Fjord by the British Royal Navy), had the Germans on the ropes; General Dietl, the Germans’ commander, estimated that his troops could have held on another day, maybe two, had the attack continued; they’d have had to surrender, or pack it in for Sweden.

But that didn’t happen; France fell, and the French, British and Polish troops pulled out and went back to the UK to face an expected invasion. The Alta battalion turned in its guns and went home (many of them to carry on the fight in the resistance, in Sweden, or in the Free Norwegian forces overseas.

Ingvald Heitmann, the last surviving member of the Alta Battalion.

I bring this up to note, purely in passing, that Ingvald Heitmann, age 100 and the last surviving member of the Alta Battalion passed away last week at the age of 100. (The article is in Norwegian, but I think I got it right).

Everyone else’s greatest generation is passing from the scene, too.