Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Battles for Scandinavia

Battles for Scandinavia
© 1981 John Elton
203 pages
Time-Life History of WW2

In Battles for Scandinavia, John Elton takes readers into the three nations who had the distinct bad luck to lay between the warring powers of World War 2.  Norway, Sweden, and Finland lay to the north of Germany, the east of Britain, and the west of Russia,  guarding the sea access to both Russia and Germany's heartland.  In the opening year of World War 2,  Finland and Norway would fall to the Soviets and Nazis respectively, while Sweden armed itself to the teeth and dared the evil empires -- "Molon labe!"   Although devoured by separate empires, the Scandinavian nations shared a common plight, and Battles combines three distinct conflicts: Russia's attempted takeover of Finland, the German seizure of Norway and Denmark, and the shoving match between Germany and Russia that entangled Finland once more. In Battles we see three nations over their heads but resisting as best they can.

I knew little of the Winter War except that Finnish soldiers defending their land from Soviet aggression exacted a heavy price from the invading army, inflicting five times as many casualties as they took. Throughout a savage winter, Soviet ineptitude at fighting in novel terrain and Finnish guerilla tactics that made the most of limited resources made Soviet ambition cost them dearly.  In the end, their sheer weight of numbers did force the Finns into a settlement, but no sooner had a cease-fire been declared there than did German troops launch an invasion of Norway. They were competing with English troops who wanted to seize key ports to prevent their being used to aid the Nazi war effort, but fortunately the Norwegians overlooked that little detail and welcomed any assistance against their new peril.   The English fared well on the high seas, but an attempt to fracture the German offensive at Trondheim ended only in retreat.  Norway would remain Germany's for most of the war, providing space for airfields and submarine pens to launch attacks against Britain.   Immediately after the conquest of Norway, of course, Germany invaded France and then spent a deadly summer threatening Britain with its own invasion until the weather changed and Germany shifted its focus to invading Russia, instead.    When the devils' alliance ended with Panzers racing through the rodina, the Germans found an interesting ally -- Finland, who had not been conquered, merely temporarily pacified.  The Germano-Finnish invasion put the Allies in a difficult place:  the Finns were counterattacking, not building empire, but Stalin demanded somebody do something to help.  Britain did declare war on Finland, but mercifully never crossed swords with it.  The book is full of little anecdotes, and a favorite is an Finnish soldier who sighs at the English declaration: "We shall have to shave now, we are fighting 'gentlemen'!"    Finland's alliance with the Nazis would ultimately backfire, however;  kept alive by English blood and American resources, the Soviets would recover and drive back the Germans. Threatened with Soviet wrath, Finland made a separate peace and found itself ravaged instead by its one-time ally, who slammed the door and burned everything on the way out, with an indignant "Thanks for nothing, 'comrades-in-arms!".   Poor Finland -- so far from God, so close to nations with dreams of world conquest.

Battles for Scandinavia also covers Sweden and Denmark, though more briefly. Denmark was taken by Germany so quickly that its dazed population woke up to find Germany already in control of the country; only later did resistance break out.  Along among the north countries, Sweden remained free: refusing to entangle itself in alliances, its people and its leaders determined to make themselves as "indigestible" as possible. Sweden became an armed camp,  a nation prepared to fight for its life.  Much of the combat around Scandinavia happened literally around it,  in the sealanes that allowed the Allies to transport war material to Russia. The nearness of combat to the pole made such sea transit doubly dangerous: the Artic seas are harsh and unforgiving, and Allied ships sailed through months wintry gloom under a blackout,  waiting for an enemy to shoot from the dark.The Germans were late to realize the importance of the convoys to Russia, but once they do an extensive chapter on naval warfare follows. As with other Time-Life books, photographs here are ample, and include paintings depicting life in the snowy wastes.  Maps are very good, and the writing well communicates the suffering of men fighting in intense conditions.

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