Soldiers aboard troop transport from Glasgow to Norway, with their new woolen blankets. From the Imperial War Museum
It was in the frozen landscape of Norway that Tony Bell and the other men of the Horncastle company were first to see action. The intension had been to capture Trondheim, yet before they had even set sail word arrived that the Nazis had not only captured Tronheim but also most of the country’s other principal ports and aerodromes.
At Glasgow they boarded the Empress of Australia, an ocean liner captured in the last war, and set sail. On the 13th April 1940 they left the safety of Scapa Flow and together with four other transport ships and an escort of 26 warships they set off for Norway:
“We were greeted by an icy blast which was as cold as the snow-covered mountains we could see on the distant horizon. Soon afterwards we steamed into a fjord and dropped anchor. We were about 60 miles north of the small town of Namsos where were due to land and disembark the following day.
“Suddenly one of our destroyers opened up with her 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns, and looking up we saw flak bursting around a German reconnaissance plane. It was the first taste of war any of us had had…one moment we were enjoying a luxury cruise, the next we were in a war where people get killed.
A bomb dropped into the sea 30 yards from our ship’s side. Guns started to go off everywhere and I had never heard so much noise in my life: 3.7s, multiple Pom-Poms, and just about everything else. I followed someone down a ladder and found myself on board a destroyer [HMS Sikh] with the rest of my company.
As the Sikh cut through the still waters of the fjord at over 30 knots the enemy tried to hit us with bombs. We had some quite near misses, but we were a difficult target and came through unscathed, finally steaming into the moonlit Namsos Fjord at about midnight… We immediately boarded a train and headed off towards the east. The countryside out of the train windows was wild and rugged and, except for a few isolated houses, it seemed devoid of all human habitation. In the moonlight we could see snow-covered mountains stretching high up into the sky.”
Tony recalled how although at the time the company had no idea of the mission, the plan had been to attack Trondheim from both north and south. It was decided that the 4th Lincolnshire Battalion would lead Brigade, and “B” (Horncastle) Company with Captain Tweed at the helm was to lead the Battalion.
For no fault of their own, the whole operation and the campaign was a disaster. As Tony recalled, despite what they heard in the BBC Radio news, they lacked air support and effective anti-aircraft guns. The Nazis were able to destroy their supplies depots and burn to the ground the timber houses of the towns they sheltered in.
Tony Bell recalled the first engagement where “B” Company were sent to engage a party of Germans who had landed down the fjord from them in graphic detail:
“Two minutes after the information came through form intelligence that the enemy were 10 km away, two shots rang out – and the two leading scouts dropped bleeding into the snow. One second later a couple of mortar bombs came over and exploded with a tremendous crash about 10 yards away. Lieutenant Always said “Get down!”, a precaution I had taken some time before. The next order was: “Fix bayonets Eleven Platoon”. I had a nasty feeling as I hooked the 18 inches of cold steel onto the end of my rifle. We had always been told that the Germans hated cold steel… but I confess at that moment I didn’t feel too fond of it myself.
Captain Tweed, after a brief reconnaissance, decided on the right course of action, which was an attack upon the German’s right flank. He put himself at my platoon’s head and led us round the enemy’s flank towards some farm buildings in a clearing in a forest. We approached them cautiously, but as we got within shelter of the walls we were greeted by a hail of machine gun fire. Tiles began to fall and there was a lot of noise caused by falling glass. Luckily no-one was hit and soon we had our own machine guns set up and were returning German fire.
The Germans were on the edge of the clearing about 70 yards away, and we could plainly hear the shouting orders to one another. I think that shouting frightened me more than anything else. I was with Sergeant Wilkinson when we spotted some of the enemy in the trees. We have a long burst of gunfire and three of them dropped. Presently who more came along to pick them up and we debated whether or not to shoot them: we finally decided not to.
We were at a great disadvantage because the farm buildings were in full view of the enemy, while they were extraordinarily difficult to see as they skulked in the pine trees. Their guns riddled the buildings through and through, yet somehow everyone escaped injury.
I watched Captain Tweed walking in through the front door of the farm house. He was in full view of the enemy, but he moved casually forward and calmly turned the door handle. As he did so the enemy opened fire and bullet holes appeared in the door all around him. I expected him to fall to the ground and was in fact already trying to decide what steps I was going to take when he did. Instead, without turning a hair, he opened the door and walked in, carefully closing it behind him. A few minutes later he came out again in the same way. This time the Germans did not even trouble to open fire.
In one of the buildings there was a loft which commanded a fairly good field of fire, so into the loft we went. We knocked boards out from the walls so that we could poke the muzzles of our Bren guns through. Soon we were spotted and the enemy directed all his guns into the loft. It is not very funny watching a line of bullet holes appear in the wall about six inches above your head, and I quickly began to wish that I was out of that lousy barn.
One chap got a bullet across his steel helmet which stunned him. Corporal Jacklin got a lump of shrapnel in his eye, and a fellow near me collected a tracer bullet in his leg which made him howl for his mother. To make a nasty situation a little worse the enemy next started using explosive bullets. At this stage I got hold of the Bren gun. I felt a little better with the familiar vibration against my shoulder and heard the good old rattle as a stream of bullets went back at the Hun.
After a while one of the enemy’s tracer bullets set fire to a pile of hay in a corner of the loft and in a matter of a few second the place became a raging inferno. There was only one exit, a small trap door through which only one man at a time could descend. We had tears streaming down our faces, but somehow we got through the trapdoor together with all the wounded men and nearly all of our weapons.
Our position was very rapidly becoming untenable, so it was decided we should withdraw. The tremendous depth of snow made any organisation impossible so we left behind a rear guard of two sections (16 or so men, none of whom returned) and made our way as best we could back to our own lines. We had one slice of good fortune as we did: the smoke from the fire blew right between us and the Germans enabling us to escape across open ground without being seen.”
The destruction wrought by the Nazi’s in Norway shocked them, as it was unlike anything they had seen before. Tony recalled:
“When we’d first been to the village of Grong, little more than a week before, it had been a peaceful little village in the mountains. Now it was a mass of smouldering ruins with bomb craters everywhere. The villagers were living in the railway tunnel for the sake of safety.
We found the [town of] Namsos entirely destroyed; burned to the ground. The only building which remained standing was the church which for some reason had escaped a direct hit. There were also a few houses on the outskirts which had not suffered quite so much.
We were given the job of guarding the brigade ration dump, so at least we were not short of food or cigarettes. We lived in a warehouse on the docks to begin with, but one day decided to move to one of the few remaining houses on the edge of town. The very next day a German plane came over and blew up our old ‘house’, together with an ammunition dump and our brigade rations.”
A little later the men of Horncastle with the 4th Lincolnshire Battalion departed aboard a French merchant cruiser, the El Kantara. Their convoy came under severe attack from the air, sinking two of the destroyers that guarded them.