War actions in Scandinavia constitute a crucial stage in the unfolding of WWII events in Europe. The strategic position of the Scandinavian peninsula was not overlooked by strategists in the Third Reich and the USSR, and by the Western Allies. As a matter of fact, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway took place as early as the Spring of 1940, starting just weeks before the invasion of Holland, Belgium and France.
History & Remains – A Quick Summary
For Germany in WWII, the long and impervious coast of Norway constituted an ideal strong point to carry out raids over the North Sea, Norwegian Sea, the northern Atlantic and the Barents Sea, interfering with resupply convoys from Britain and the US. Especially after the start of the war against the USSR in 1941, the polar routes going to Murmansk – the only non-freezing port on the northern coast of the USSR – were within range of German warships and aircraft operating from the north of Norway. Control over Norway and Denmark meant total control on the access to the Baltic Sea, thus protecting the northern coast of Germany from direct attack by the Western Allies, allowing unimpeded action against the Soviet Union on that sea. Of the greatest importance in the northern European territory was also the abundance of raw materials – mainly metals for industrial production – so desperately needed by the Third Reich.
For the Allies, keeping Scandinavia was an objective of great relevance in the early stages of the war, since this territory could be a convenient springboard to launch attacks against the flat and easy coast of Germany. In the rapidly changing complex alliances and diplomatic relationships of the early stage of WWII (1939-40), Norway and Sweden tried to keep out of the war. Finland fought the Winter War against the USSR (itself one of the results of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, albeit not to the knowledge of the Finns), loosing part of its territory and strengthening its link with Germany for some years to come (see this post). The Third Reich attacked Norway by air and sea in April 1940, and help was sought especially in Britain. King Haakon VII of Norway left for exile in England, and the initial battles of WWII between the Reich and the UK were fought – mainly at sea – in proximity of Norwegian ports.
The Atlantic Wall
Possibly the most impressive military trace of WWII in Europe, the Atlantic Wall – a defense line stretching from France to northern Norway – was designed and built in Denmark and Germany, immediately following the successful push of the Third Reich into these Countries. Actually, those are the Countries where the most relevant remains of this interesting trace of war can be found today. A very ambitious project both in purpose and required resources, the Atlantic Wall never reached completion. Despite that, the geography of Norway, with a coastline featuring only limited access to the inland area, allowed to create an effective barrier against a potential enemy landing. Hundreds of gun batteries, complemented with anti-aircraft artillery and radars, constituted a powerful deterrent against any invasion. As a matter of fact, after the unique episode of the Battle of Narvik in the early stages of WWII, no Allied forces ever landed in Norway from the sea for the rest of the war.
A complete visit to all sites of the Atlantic Wall in Norway is a really immense task, due to the number of installations and their geographical remoteness. However, a few impressive highlights can be found in convenient locations, and can be easily visited by everybody. In this post some of them are presented – the colossal battery ‘Vara’, the southern fortified area of Lista, the forts of Fjell and Tellevik near Bergen, and the massive cannons of Austratt.
But other fragments of the rich legacy of WWII in Norway can be retraced also away from the preserved installations of the Atlantic Wall. An interesting page is that of naval warfare deployed by the Navy of the Third Reich – the Kriegsmarine – to counter Allied shipping activities. Names like Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau are frequently found in history books as well as in movies or scale model shops, and they are just a few of the mighty vessels linked to the Scandinavian war theater. Dedicated exhibitions can be found in little but impressively rich museums on these topics. In this post, the Tirpitz Museum in Alta, the War Museum of Narvik and the exhibition in the visitor center of North Cape are covered.
Special interest sites
Heroic actions involving the Norwegian resistance organization are proudly remembered all over the Nation. A particularly interesting location being the Rjukan hydroelectric power-plant, which produced heavy water, a key-component in the research leading to the preparation of fissile material. This strategic asset was highly needed by the German nuclear program. On the other hand, its possession by the Third Reich was seen as a clear and present danger by the Allies, who tried to have the plant destroyed in several instances. The Norwegian resistance was clearly much involved in sabotage missions, due to the difficulty in targeting the place through air bombing raids. The power-plant is today a nice museum, covered in this post.
Photographs in this chapter were collected on a visit in August 2022.
The map below shows the location of the sites mentioned in this chapter. Their listing in the descriptions roughly follows a clockwise sense, starting from the southernmost point of Kristiansand (Vara battery). Red items are in disrepair, whereas blue ones are official tourist destinations.
Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll
- Vara Battery – Kristiansand
- Nordberg and Marka Batteries – Farsund
- Fjell Fortress – Bergen
- Tellevik Fort – Bergen
- Austrått Fortress – Austrått
- Arctic Circle & North Cape
- Narvik War Museum – Narvik
- Tirpitz Museum – Alta
- Vemork Power Plant – Rjukan
The Vara battery was built as the core of the strongly fortified area around Kristiansand. Thanks to its position close to the southernmost tip of the Norwegian territory, this port town is still today very busy with passenger and freight traffic from nearby Denmark.
The Third Reich military started to lay sea mines as soon as it gained control of both sides of the Skagerrak strait. The coast around Kristiansand was reinforced with several coastal artillery pieces, and production of a set of special 38 cm caliber guns – called Siegfried -was started by the Krupp ironworks in Essen in 1940. The aim was that of controlling access to the Baltic sea by means of two batteries of long-range naval guns, one to the south in Denmark (Hanstholm, see here), and one to the north in Kristiansand.
The cannons should be capable of revolving by 360 degrees, and special concrete rotundas were prepared for the scope in a location called Møvik, on the southwestern end of the gulf of Kristiansand. The complex morphology of the terrain in this site led to a smaller than desirable area for the battery, where all technical buildings – including ammo storages – had to be built relatively close to one another. These massive constructions alone, built by the same ‘Organisation Todt’ responsible for the implementation of the coastal defense positions all over Europe, make for a remarkable work of engineering, carried out with the help of local builders, working relentlessly around the clock to have these emplacements ready as soon as possible.
In the event, only three of the four Siegfried cannons made their way to the battery in Kristiansand, one being apparently lost when the transport ship carrying it was sunk on the Baltic Sea. Transporting these 110 ton, around 60 ft long barrels by rail from Germany into the narrow valleys of Scandinavia was not an easy task. However, two cannons were test-fired in May 1942, and the third in November the same year.
The battery received the name ‘Vara’, after a high-ranking official killed in Guernsey in 1941.
Battery Vara went through the war without seeing an involvement in any major war action, and was mainly test-fired only. The whole installation, comprising target detection points, analog computers for target aiming, ammo storages – including more than 1.400 shells! – and many other service buildings, was inherited intact by the Norwegian Armed Forces in 1945, similar to many other installations along the coast of the Skagerrak and the North Sea. It was incorporated in the Norwegian coastal artillery between 1946 and 1954, being later placed in reserve having by then become obsolete for Cold War warfare standards. Two cannons were scrapped, whereas one – the only entirely surviving battery Nr. 2 – was luckily kept. The site survived subsequent stages of demolition works over the next decades, but in the early 1990s it was finally re-opened as a museum.
Cannon Nr. 2
Today, the centerpiece of the visit is constituted by a walk around the perfectly preserved building of cannon Nr.2. This bunkerized building is composed of a set of technical rooms, for ammo assembly and storage, as well as for services like Diesel power generators, and an adjoining rotunda, where the big cannon revolved around a pinion, and could be pointed to its target, following instructions from the battery control center. The latter elaborated target data from detection, identification, measuring and range-finding positions scattered around the battery perimeter.
Access to the back of the concrete building is via the original hatch, closed by iron doors. You can see the narrow-gauge railway track leading in. This linked the cannon buildings with the ammo storages around, and allowed to supply the cannon with ammo parts (the explosive cartridge and the shell are not assembled in a single unity for larger cannons, unlike for lighter weapons). The hatch drives you into a long corridor, the backbone of the bunkerized quarters behind the cannon rotunda. Here some shells have been put on the original railway trolley for display.
The cannon building hosted a permanent watch of a few men, which manned it permanently in shifts. A living room with some berths is the only one offering some comfort in the building.
A number of rooms in the bunker are dedicated to the power generator plant. A primary and a back-up generator share the same room. Of special interest are the labels on all machines and mechanisms, proudly made in Germany – in some cases, by brands still existing today.
Electric power was required for the motion of the cannon, besides for smaller appliances like lights and radios. The cannons could make use of the regional grid, but since an unstable supply might have damaged the cannon motors, aiming operations were often carried out on the controlled internal power grid, fed by the generators, and producing an optimal output.
Beside the generator room, the air conditioning plant (not for comfort, but to slightly pressurize the bunker in order to repel and pump-out poisonous or exhaust gas), the Diesel tank and the water tank for cooling the generator can be seen in adjoining rooms.
To the far end of the corridor, a radio room was used to maintain a link with the battery command post, located more than 1 mile away from Vara battery. Actually, by design the electric signals to orient the cannon could be given by the control post, and the radio communication system was there for backup.
On the other side of the corridor with respect to the generator rooms – i.e. towards the cannon rotunda – are four adjoining rooms, used to store the components of the explosive cartridges and shells. The shells and cartridges prepared for firing were moved via a crane to a tray, and from there sent side-wards to the rotunda, where they were loaded on a trolley. The cranes, trays and slots linking these rooms to the rotunda can be found around the area of the bunker closer to the rotunda.
The cranes moved along tracks hanging from the ceiling. These tracks had some switch points, allowing to allow the crane to move across different rooms in the bunker.
Inside these rooms, today you can find much original material of special interest. Specimens of high-explosive (yellow) and armor-piercing (blue) shells are displayed. The weight of the shells was around 800 kg, where the cartridge could feature different weights, roughly from 100 to 200 kg.
The top range of these cannons and shells was around 43 km. Smaller 500 kg shells could alternatively be fired by Siegfried cannons, with a longer range of 55 km. Furthermore, the cannon could be test-fired during drills with smaller caliber shots, by reducing the bore of the cannon. This was a very useful feature, since the estimated loss of barrel metal due to attrition was a staggering 0.25 kg per shot, implying a life of the barrel of only around 250-300 shots, firing with sufficient accuracy. Shooting smaller shells allowed to spare barrel wear and extend the time between overhauls of the cannon.
The sealed canisters for the explosive cartridges, with original markings in German, can still be seen piled in a room!
More material on display includes a rare example of fire direction computer. Actually, that on display is smaller than the one originally used for the long-range cannons of Vara battery, but it provides a good idea of the level of sophistication of this mechanism. Data like target distance, velocity, orientation, wind speed and direction, etc. were set as input to this analog computer, producing fire direction variables to point the cannon. An incredible masterpiece of engineering and craftsmanship, this type of computer is difficult to find in museums, and allows to appreciate the level of development of warfare back in the 1940s.
Data including range of the target was found with the help of special instrumentation. A stereoscopic range-finder was installed in the battery command post, with an arm of 12 m, which allowed good accuracy for very distant targets – required for the long range of the cannons of Vara battery. Smaller instruments with the same principle are displayed in one of the rooms.
Among the special features of this bunkerized building are the restored, original writings from German times, as well as a one-of-a-kind painting made by a Soviet prisoner of war.
From the bunkerized room, you can get access to the rotunda. Cartridges put on trolleys moved along a circular railway track all around the rotunda. This way, cartridges could be taken to the cannon whatever the direction it was pointing. Once to the base of the cannon turret, the explosive charge and the shell were lifted separately by means of two special elevators, up to the level of the gun shutter.
An impressive feature of the rotunda is the ring cover for the circular railway. In order to protect the railway passage from above, while allowing the cannon to rotate, a roof made of thick metal scales was implemented. When revolving around the pinion, the cannon turret would automatically lift the scales on its passage. The sound of the scales being lifted and released while the cannon body was revolving must have been really an experience!
Pictures can hardly tell how big the cannon turret is!
Following an exploration from beneath, you can exit the bunker building, climb up to the level of the barrel, and finally enter the turret.
Here the back of the barrel dominates the relatively large firing chamber. The shutter has been left open, so you can see the sunlight through the barrel.
The shell and explosive charge were received from the two elevators on a special tray, and here they were finally aligned one before the other. Somewhat in contrast to the top-notch technology level of the installation, the cartridge had to be pushed from the back into the barrel by hand. A long wooden stick was used for the task. Actually, it was so long that it protruded from the back of the cannon turret, thus requiring a small hatch to be pierced in the metal armor correspondingly. On one side of the barrel, instrumentation for measuring the pointing direction is still in place.
Air-pumping mechanisms can be clearly seen, similarly to communication phones to the back and top of the room.
Cannon Nr. 1
The position of cannon Nr.1 was prepared unusually close to that of Nr.2. As said, this was due to the limited available area on the uneven coast section where the battery was put in place. However, Nr.1 never received a cannon. Conversely, it was modified later in the war, when experimenting with cannon protection from air-dropped high-yield bombs. The rotunda was capped with a very thick concrete roof, sustained by sidewalls which limited the side-wards rotation of the cannon to 120 degrees.
The rotunda can be walked freely. The central pinion is still in place. Inside, the ceiling is covered in original metal panels. The round corridor for the trolleys can still be seen, but there is no access left to the bunkerized part.
The firing position can be climbed, and from the elevated top you get a great view of the battery and of the area ahead of it.
Following the railway around the site is a great way to find what remains today of the original installation. There are two bulky ammo storages. These were reportedly more thickly armored than usual, in view of a higher risk of getting hit, due to the unusual proximity with the cannons – designated targets for the enemy.
Furthermore, other smaller buildings are scattered around, which may have served as storage for lighter weapons.
The positions of cannons Nr. 3 and Nr. 4 have been largely demolished, and access is permanently shut to the bunkerized part. However, you can easily climb to the top level, to get a nice view of the rotunda.
Vara is in the top-five list of the most famous surviving installations of the Atlantic Wall in Europe, and a visit to this destination is in itself a good reason for a detour to Norway for war historians and like-minded people. Due to its proximity to the port of Kristiansand, just minutes apart by car, and the relatively easy-to-reach location in the most populated part of Norway, it is also a top destination for any tourist in the area. As a matter of fact, the place is run as a top-level museum, with great reception capability, and is visited by thousands of visitors per year.
Visiting can be performed on a self-guided basis, with an explanation leaflet which allows to get much from your visit, especially if you are not new to installations of the Atlantic Wall (which are mostly standardized, despite Vara having really oversized guns!). A tour of the main features – cannon Nr.2 and the building of Nr.1 – may take 1 hour at least, for an averagely interested person. For an in-depth visit and a quick tour of the premises including other remains, more than 2 hours are needed. Thanks to the exceptional level of conservation and the explanation of whatever is on display, the visit is not boring and may be very rewarding even for younger people.
Large parking on site, picnic tables and warm reception are available – as usual in Norway! Website with full information here.
Located in the southwestern corner of the Norwegian territory, about 100 miles south of the port of Stavanger, the municipality of Farsund encompasses a number of small coastal villages, around the landmark represented by the lighthouse of Lista.
Two batteries were set up by the German occupation forces as part of the Atlantic wall, both fully operative by 1942. The northern one is called Nordberg fort, where the southern one, very close to the shore line, is known as Marka fort. Between the two, the Germans installed a full-scale airbase, with a runway of roughly 1.5 km, complemented by hangars and shelters largely standing today. Following the end of WWII and the withdrawal of the German military, all these installations were converted for military use by the Norwegian armed forces, which also developed the original airfield into a more modern airbase by stretching the runway.
Today, Nordberg fort is a museum. The German Navy was in charge of the station, which had as centerpieces three 150 mm cannons, with a range of around 23 km. The cannons have been scrapped (with the exception of a lighter piece of Russian make). However, the firing positions are still there, linked by a semi-interred trench.
You can see also the original control point for the battery, developed by the Norwegians more recently, and the concrete base for a radar antenna originally on site.
Several original buildings for services – canteen, hospital,… – are still there, making for a an interesting opportunity to see how this installation looked like back in the 1940s.
The Marka fort was assembled around six 150 mm guns, located very close to the sea, grouped in two batteries of three firing positions each. A huge bunkerized command post was built in the premises of the fort. Today, after the Norwegian military left at the end of the Cold War, the Marka battery is basically a ghost site, despite being still in a relatively good shape.
The control bunker is especially interesting, since you can access the top level and watch the sea from the very same room and windows originally used by the German Navy troops! The general arrangement of the bunker is similar to other command posts you can find on the Atlantic Wall – especially in Denmark (see here).
The positions for the coastal guns can be reached close to the control bunker. They are uncovered round areas, slightly below the level of the ground, framed by a circular reinforced sidewall.
More Atlantic Wall remains, like bunkers, foundations for radar stations, or emplacements for lighter guns, can be be found scattered in the area of Farsund – which kept its military site status well after the Germans had left.
The museum of Nordberg keeps some of the buildings on the respective site open. However, the majority of the site is open 24 hours, and can be walked freely. A visit may take about 1 hour. A convenient parking can be found right ahead of the modern and welcoming visitor center, from where you can effortlessly reach most of the points of interest in this installation. Website with full information here.
The site of Marka – not part of any museum – can be approached at any time with some walking in the rural area along the coast line. A good starting point for an exploration is here, where you can leave your car and move along an easy trail to the command bunker and the gun rotundas about 0.5 miles west.
Bergen was a strategic base of the German Navy, which received a fortified submarine deck among the largest, most active and longest lasting in the history of WWII. The complex morphology of the territory around this port town allowed to effectively protect the access by means of a network of nine firing emplacements. One of them – Fjell – was of exceptional power and range.
It was built between 1942-43 diverting one of the batteries of battleship Gneisenau, which had been damaged beyond repair by an air raid while in port at Kiel (Germany). The battery was composed of three 28 cm guns in a single turret. The latter was very compact in design, a real masterpiece of naval engineering, but nonetheless it featured a rather tall substructure, with all that was needed to operate the guns – protruding from the relatively sleek top of the turret, surfacing on the ground.
Placing this special battery in Fjell required carving the rocky coast, creating a cylindrical underground pit, inside coated with concrete, to host the turret. The turret, an assembly of around 1.000 tonnes with the guns on top, was then transported up to this elevated site, and lowered into the pit. The battery was test fired in the mid of 1943. It acted as an effective deterrent, and reportedly never used in combat.
The battery was incorporated in the Norwegian coastal defense after WWII, and sadly scrapped in 1968, since by then obsolete, but not yet considered an historical landmark.
Clearly, the battery was in the middle of an off-limits military area in wartime, where bunkers for several services and for the the troops, at least two radar antennas and many emplacements for lighter defensive weapons were installed to protect the battery from ground and air attacks.
Today, the bunker-pit where the turret used to rest is the centerpiece of a visit to the site. Starting from the visitor center on top, where the guns used to be, you can descend to the base of the cylindrical pit – roughly 30 ft in diameter and 75 in depth! Here you can see the rooms originally employed for storing the explosive cartridges and the shells for the cannons. These were supplied on trolleys and slides, and sent inside the metal turret, to be lifted up to the level of the cannons for firing.
Most of the original German mechanical and electrical systems is still there to see, including wiring, phones, cranes, trolleys, and examples of shells and cartridges.
Back then, you got access to these storage areas from an entrance on the same level (i.e. not from the top of the turret, but from the base). You can see this entrance, as well as the curved corridor leading from the gate to the ammo storage area. Here, examples of sea mines and other war material can be found. The corridor has narrow-gauge railway track, which was used for resupplying the ammo storage from outside.
The corridor is curved, and firing positions are strategically placed to cover it, in order to counter enemy intrusion.
The bunker gives access to the living quarters for the troops. These are well preserved, and feature brick walls to help insulating the inside from the wet rock of the walls and ceilings.