On this day in 1941, a contingent of 550 Allied commandos landed on the Lofoten Islands on Norway’s icy northern coast. Their mission – codenamed Operation Claymore – was to destroy Nazi German fish oil refineries (an important component of military-grade explosives), disrupt Axis shipping lines and generally wreak havoc. Comprised of British Commandos, Royal Engineers and men from the Norwegian Independent Company 1, the force was ferried over 1,400 km (900 miles) from England by the Royal Navy. As they landed in the early hours of March 4th, the commando forces achieved near-total surprise, wading through the frigid coastal waters and creeping into the various glycerine-producing plants and oil refineries on the islands.
Within a matter of hours, the commandos had set over 3,500 tonnes of glycerine and oil on fire, sunk the German vessel Krebs, and captured 228 disgruntled Axis sailors and police officers. By 1300 hrs, they crept back to the sea and disappeared, their only casualty being a commando officer who shot himself by accident with his service pistol. (The unfortunate man survived).
The landings on the Lofoten Islands were a big Allied success, a much-needed morale boost in the wake of the crushing Dunkirk Evacuations of British troops from France. Not only had the Brits (and their Norwegian guides) wreaked havoc on German war production, they had brought back an additional 300 Norwegian men and women, desperate to join the Independent Companies back in England and begin fighting for independence. Perhaps the greatest success of Operation Claymore, however, was the retrieval of components for the top-secret Enigma machine, an advanced German encoding device. Upon their arrival in England, the Enigma components were used by the brilliant women and men of Bletchley Park to successfully crack the German code. Nicknamed Ultra, the new intelligence asset enabled the Allies to predict the movements of German submarines, mastermined the D-Day invasion and get an insight into the workings of the Nazi German war effort.