Really Strange History: Why Special Forces Went After Hitler's 'Oil'

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: The raid may have had an outsized impact, as Hitler decided to divert two divisions totaling 30,000 troops to reinforce Norwegian defense

Two days after Christmas on the morning of December 27, 1941 the icy Arctic calm of the Norwegian islands of Vågsøy and Måløy was shattered 8:48 AM as four Royal Navy destroyers and the light cruiser HMS Kenya opened fire on the German garrison stationed there—kicking off with a star shell. 

As RAF Hampden bombers swarm overhead to attack, 570 elite British soldiers and Norweigian resistance fighters descended on the islands in assault landing craft, sub-machineguns and demolition charges ready at hand.

Eighteen months earlier, Nazi Germany had completed its conquest of Norway after a hard-fought campaign in which half of the destroyers of the Kriegsmarine were sunk. The Norwegian King and a gallant band of Norwegian resistance fighters managed to escape to the UK with assistance from the Royal Navy, while a fascist puppet government was installed under Vidkun Quisling, whose name has since become a byword for treasonous collaborationism.

Hitler was determined to maintain his grip on the sprawling but lightly populated Scandinavian nation and its valuable natural resources. 

Furthermore, when Germany began its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Norway served as a convenient base for submarines, bombers and even battleships to interdict British convoys delivering military aid to relieve the beleaguered Soviets.

By 1941, Churchill was hard-pressed to find ways to relieve the pressure on the Red Army as German tanks advanced within a few dozen miles of Moscow, and Japan opened a devastating second front against the British Empire in the Pacific Theater. But one instrument at his disposal was his Commando units trained for lightning raids behind enemy lines, whose employment Churchill championed despite opposition from old-school military leaders.

The raid at Vågsøy was planned with an unusual target in mind: fish oil factories. The Nazis were interested less in the dietary benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids, so much as the oil’s ability to be distilled into glycerin to produce the nitroglycerine used in most high-explosive bombs and shells. And the Wehrmacht was running through a lot of bombs and shells in its war against the numerically superior Red Army.

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