Secret Nazi Papers Seized in British Commando Raid Reveal Inner Workings of Third Reich

What happened to a person in wartime Norway who hit a German national? What was the local press allowed to print? Documents retrieved by British commandos recently found in Israel's National Library shed light on life under the Nazis

Shai Ben-Ari, National Library
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A facsimile of a German document which details how the Norwegian press was to be handled under the Nazi occupation, as it appears in the booklet found in the National Library of Israel collection.
A facsimile of a German document which details how the Norwegian press was to be handled under the Nazi occupation, as it appears in the booklet found in the National Library of Israel.Credit: National Library of Israel
Shai Ben-Ari, National Library

Leafing through the frayed pages of the old, brown booklet, one large German word – appearing in dark, bold print – jumps out at the reader: "GEHEIM (secret)!"

These papers were not meant to be seen by unauthorized personnel. They relay instructions from high-ranking German officers in the Wehrmacht to rank-and-file soldiers engaged in the Nazis' occupation of Norway. The language is laconic and to-the-point, as befits military documents, but there can be no mistake: The instructions were written in the spirit of National Socialism.

The orders published in the booklet – a rare copy of which has recently been found in the archives of the National Library of Israel – essentially constitute a brief, practical manual on how to take over a democratic country and suppress its population.

The story of this stash of confidential German military documents, from 1941, takes us back to the early stages of World War II. Operation Dynamo, aka the Miracle at Dunkirk – when over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to safety, between May 26 and June 4, 1940 – was still fresh in the memory of the British population. France, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Denmark and Norway were all already under the Nazi boot. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was preparing his country for the long and difficult fight ahead. The situation was dire, the national mood grim.

This was the setting for Operation Claymore: a large-scale raid by British special forces on Norway's Lofoten Islands in 1941.

Fires burning in Stamsund, Lofoten, Norway as British commandos leave following their attack on March 4, 1941.Credit: Capt. Tennyson d’Eyncourt, British War Office official photographer.

In the early morning hours of March 4, hundreds of British commandos quietly entered the Vestfjorden, a 155 kilometer-long sea in northern Norway. They immediately set about destroying German-controlled ships, some of them laden with thousands of tons of cargo. The main objective of this mission, however, was something else: Fish oil. This substance was being shipped at a rapid pace from Norway to Germany, where the glycerin extracted from the oil was used in the production of powerful explosives.

Around 800,000 imperial gallons of fish oil were set alight during Operation Claymore as the commandos descended upon factory after factory.

The Germans were caught by surprise: 228 prisoners of war were captured in the operation. In addition, the ranks of the free Norwegian forces were strengthened by 300 volunteers who jumped at the chance to join the war against fascism, boarding the British ships as they began their return voyage. Perhaps most importantly, the commandos managed to seize the rotor wheels of an Enigma cypher machine and several code books, which helped Allied ships evade German U-boats for some time.

“My congratulations on the very satisfactory operation,” wrote Churchill in a memo addressed to all those involved after their safe return. The large British force had suffered only one injury. The operation provided a badly needed boost to Allied morale and the Norwegian volunteers proved “that the people of the Occupied Territories were still spiritually with us in the fight.”

There was another interesting find among the items seized in the raid: German documents captured at the military Harbor Control Post at Svolvær, an important town on one of the islands.

Svolvaer, Lofoten, Norway, 2010.Credit: Vincent van Zeijst

These secret papers, addressed to German soldiers stationed in Norway, provided a glimpse into the nature of Nazi military occupation and what life was like under it. The documents were quickly translated and published in the form of a small booklet by the British government that same year. It was a copy of that booklet, complete with facsimiles of the original documents in German, which was recently discovered in the National Library in Jerusalem.

The papers show that the Norwegian people did not make things easy for their German occupiers: “Appearances would indicate that the temper and attitude of the Norwegian population have recently stiffened against our endeavors,” wrote General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the commander of German forces in Norway, in one document.

On February 20, 1940, Hitler notified von Falkenhorst that he was to be in charge of the invasion of the Scandinavian country, and ordered the general to have a basic plan ready by 5 P.M. that same day. On the way back to his hotel, with no time to consult military charts, von Falkenhorst stopped by a local shop and purchased a Baedeker tourist guidebook of Norway. He planned the invasion in his room that afternoon using the maps in the tourist book. Hitler promptly approved the plan.

In his written address to his troops, the general surprisingly called for calm in the face of Norwegian stubbornness: “…it has become necessary, and it is more than ever urged, that restraint and caution be exercised.” Von Falkenhorst ordered his soldiers to avoid all political discussions or controversies (such matters were the responsibility of the Gestapo, not the army). But there was to be less tolerance if a threat emerged against troops or army property: “In such cases […] Military force should be brought into action in its full severity […] where action is taken it must be ruthless and employ the severest measures."

A different document offers a string of examples of various possible “offenses” by the local population, along with the acceptable response to be taken by German soldiers:

A facsimile of the first page of Gen. Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s letter to his troops, as it appears in the booklet published by the British government, in the National Library.Credit: The British Government / National Library of Israel

Offense: A German National is insulted or struck because he is German. Measure to be taken by the Wehrmacht: Provisional arrest of the culprit if he is caught in the act.

Offense: A local commander is informed on a Wednesday that on the previous Tuesday, a German National was struck. Measure to be taken by the Wehrmacht: Report to Security Police (Gestapo).

Offense: A Norwegian girl of friendly disposition toward Germans has her hair cut short. Measure to be taken by the Wehrmacht: Provisional arrest of the culprit, but only if caught in the act, or if strongly suspected of attempting to escape. In other cases report to the Security Police.

Offense: Public statements by fortune tellers or members of sects derogatory to Germany. Measure to be taken by the Wehrmacht: In cases of serious insults, for example, in respect of the Fuehrer, provisional arrest, otherwise report to the Security Police.

Offense: Subversive preaching by Ministers of Religion either in the pulpit or at the grave side. Measure to be taken by the Wehrmacht: Particular restraint and caution necessary. In all cases only report to the Security Police.

British officers with a captured Nazi flag after the British commando raid on the Lofoten Islands in Norway, on March 4, 1941.Credit: Capt. Tennyson d'Eyncourt, British War Office official photographer

No weather reports

We can see from the above that even those who were merely suspected of even the slightest offense against the German occupiers would soon attract the attention of the Security Police, aka Gestapo, which did not bode well for those under suspicion.

Another document makes clear that “All political parties in Norway, together with all branch and subsidiary organizations are dissolved and forbidden […] the Nasjonal-Samling, with its affiliated branches and organizations, is the only exception to these prohibitions. Its activity is subject to no restrictions."

The Nasjonal Samling was a far-right Norwegian political party that had never been able to gain even a single seat in the Storting, the country's parliament. The German army, however, was ordered to assist in its transformation: “No difficulties, either of a personal nature or of organization, must be allowed to obstruct the granting of every aid in building up the Nasjonal Samling.”

The party’s founder, Vidkun Quisling, was appointed minister-president of Norway by the German authorities in 1942, serving as such until the final Nazi defeat more than three years later. (To this day, the world “quisling” is synonymous with “traitor” in several languages.)Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning author, was another of the few Nazi sympathizers in Norway; he even eulogized Adolf Hitler after his death.

Heinrich Himmler (second from left) and General von Falkenhorst (far right) in Norway, 1941. Credit: German Federal Archives

One of the most interesting documents found in the archival collection relates to the handling of the local Norwegian press, which was ordered to “publish only such news as is designed to further, or at least not to hinder, the policy of the German Reich."

Here are some of the directives set out there: German and Italian official communiques must be published daily and, wherever possible, on the front page; the greatest care must be taken in publishing every sort of report that it contains nothing that might lead to unrest among the population in any way; all reference to former political questions in Norway (the question of the King, the Nygaardsvold Government, the Party System, Trade Unions &c.) is forbidden; in publishing German news and news from countries with which Germany is at war, preference has to be given to German news, and this extends to typography as well (make-up, headlines, size of type, etc.).

Moreover, weather reports are absolutely forbidden. In this category are included weather surveys dating back over long periods, damage through bad weather, lightning, temperature, snowfall, and indirect reference to weather in sporting news.

Reports on economic matters, regardless of whether they are short announcements or detailed surveys, must avoid showing the slightest negative tendency.

In addition, with respect to reporting on domestic politics in Norway: All attacks on the German authorities, either in direct or veiled form, must be suppressed.

The following reminder, to encourage an optimistic and happy atmosphere, was also included: Editorial staff cannot be too often prompted not merely to write in the sense of their instructions without comment, but to adopt a positive attitude, i.e., in their articles editors must give full support to measures taken in Norwegian domestic politics and express themselves in a positive sense.

In conclusion, this document adds: The above outlines should form the subject of intensive oral instructions to editors. In no circumstances must these instructions be made public, nor must the fact that such instructions have been given to editors become known in any way. Editors should, however, make notes while they are receiving oral instructions.

The document is signed “Dr. Ehmer, Captain, Army Press officer."

Amy Simon, a cataloger in the foreign languages department of the National Library of Israel, contributed to this article.

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