Fire and Ice: The Nazis' Scorched Earth Campaign in Norway

Fire and Ice: The Nazis' Scorched Earth Campaign in Norway

by Vincent Hunt


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When Hitler ordered the north of Nazi-occupied Norway to be destroyed in a scorched earth retreat in 1944, everything of potential use to the Soviet enemy was destroyed. Fifty thousand people were forcibly evacuated—thousands more fled to hide in caves in sub-zero temperatures. The author crossed northern Norway gathering scorched earth stories: of refugees starving on remote islands, fathers shot dead just days before the war ended, towns burned to the ground. With extracts from the Nuremberg trials of the generals who devastated northern Norway and modern reflections on the mental scars that have passed down generations, this is a journey into the heart of a brutal conflict set in a landscape of intense natural beauty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750989138
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 588,741
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Vincent Hunt is a journalist and documentary maker who has won many awards in a 25 year career with the BBC and has worked across America, Europe, and Africa.

Read an Excerpt

Fire and Ice

The Nazi's Scorched Earth Campaign in Norway

By Vincent Hunt

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Vincent Hunt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5807-3



Two women and a man, all three of them elderly, are sitting on a red sofa opposite me in my hotel room in Kirkenes, Norway's most north-easterly town. We are 400km above the Arctic Circle at the final stop of Norway's famous Hurtigruten coastal steamers. The border with what was the Soviet Union is 7km east on the other side of the Pasvik river at a controlled crossing called Storskog.

The man, Knut Tharaldsen, worked for many years at the crossing as a border policeman. He grew up on a farm nearby close to a fjord called Jarfjord. As Red Army soldiers pushed the Germans out of the Soviet Union and back into Norway in October 1944, triggering the scorched-earth retreat, his farm was in the centre of the battlefield. Knut, then aged 8, looked on from a forest as the battle raged. As he is about to tell me, he saw things that no child should see.

One of the ladies, Eva Larsen, grew up in a place about 10km from here called Bjørnevatn, the site of an enormous iron ore mine. During the war 3,000 people from Kirkenes sheltered in the mine to escape the incessant bombing of the town and the fighting that liberated them. When Red Army soldiers reached the mine they were greeted with jubilation.

The third member of the group, Svea Andersen, grew up less than 1km from this hotel, down by the harbour. The Germans built a causeway across to an island in the fjord called Prestøia, which they turned into a military stronghold bristling with guns called 'Festung Kirkenes'(Fortress Kirkenes). Svea's was the last house before the checkpoint leading to the causeway. It's still there.

My three guests are about to tell me my first scorched-earth stories. I have a microphone and a tape recorder ready. They are the friends of a lady called Bjarnhild Tulloch, who grew up here and wrote about her wartime experiences in English. Her book – Terror in the Arctic – is one of the few accounts of the war in Kirkenes. Thanks to her generosity in putting me in touch with Svea, Knut and Eva, I have the chance to hear stories about a war I am not familiar with and which will touch me deeply.

Norway will never seem the same again. It is more than a land of picturesque fjords, tourists on Midnight Sun cruises and cheerful cyclists waving from the pages of holiday brochures. There are dark, disturbing chapters buried under the surface. I am at the start of a journey through a landscape of sadness, cruelty and bitterness.

Following the Nazi invasion and occupation of Norway in 1940, Kirkenes became increasingly important to Hitler's long-term aims. As the military build-up began in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the strike against the Soviet Union set for the following June, Kirkenes became a vital strategic town. Tens of thousands of troops, mostly specialist Austrian mountain soldiers, or Gebirgsjäger, who were trained for the extreme conditions, were sent to Kirkenes for the northern punch through the Arctic against Murmansk and Leningrad.

Kirkenes was the ideal place: it was an ice-free port very close to the Soviet border with a direct road to Murmansk. German ships and commandeered Norwegian boats brought in tanks, lorries, fuel, weapons, building materials, food and liquor. Warehouses, stores and repair shops were built in the gaps between civilian homes and enough ammunition was brought into Kirkenes to support 100,000 men taking part in the offensive for a year. Soon the town was filled with vehicles, guns, barracks and stables and tens of thousands of men, horses and mules.

The German general in command of the strike was General Eduard Dietl. He had led German troops to victory in an intense two-month battle for Narvik twelve months previously against a combined force of Norwegian, French, British and Polish troops in difficult conditions in the mountains around Narvik, narrowly avoiding defeat when Norway suddenly capitulated in June 1940. On 22 June 1941 Dietl moved his Alpine troops across the Norwegian border to take control of Petsamo, home to a mine producing nickel, a vital component in the manufacture of armour plating. Supported by their Finnish allies, the German operation clicked into a second phase, Operation Platinum Fox, with the aim of pushing on and taking Murmansk. But before long, Dietl's men met fierce resistance. The Russians landed reinforcements east of Petsamo, well before Murmansk, which slowed and then stopped the German advance across the tundra before the advance units could cross the Litsa river.

Try as he might throughout July, August and September, Dietl could not get across the Litsa, despite repeated and often costly attacks. Soviet reinforcements were poured into the area to protect Murmansk and by late September, with supplies into Kirkenes now threatened by Russian submarines, Hitler was resigned to suspending the offensive for the winter. The Germans called off the attack in September and dug in, having already lost around 10,000 men. They had advanced just 25kms into Soviet territory.

The lines were drawn for an Arctic war of attrition supplied from Kirkenes that would last for the next three years and claim tens of thousands of lives, not just through combat but also through exposure, frostbite and blizzards. The Litsa Front remained stable until 1944, but the entire situation in the Arctic north changed when the Soviets broke the year-long siege of Leningrad early that year. In the face of powerful Red Army offensives throughout the spring and summer of 1944, the Finns were pushed back from almost all of the territorial gains they had made since 1941 and suffered upwards of 60,000 casualties – military and physical losses that meant Soviet victory was inevitable. Finland's survival as an independent nation began to hang in the balance and they discreetly opened peace talks with the Soviets.

To be ready for the increasingly likely event of a Finnish surrender, which would leave them exposed and vulnerable throughout the region, German commanders drew up contingency plans – Operations Birke and Nordlicht ('Birch' and 'Northern Lights') – to pull their 230,000 men and a mountain of supplies and weapons back to new defensive lines in the mountains surrounding the Lyngenfjord near Tromsø. Here they would regroup to stop any further Soviet advance or Allied invasion.

In late August the Soviets offered Finland a conditional peace deal. The war would end, but the Finns had to pay huge reparations, cede territory and get the Germans out within a fortnight, or turn their guns on their former friends. The Finns accepted the peace deal on 2 September and broke off relations with Germany. The armistice was signed on 19 September.

General Dietl had died in a plane crash in June 1944 in the Austrian Alps on his way back from a meeting with Hitler to discuss tactics. His replacement was Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic, another Austrian and a veteran of the partisan war in Yugoslavia. As he took command the Soviets were building up their forces for the onslaught of the October 1944 Petsamo–Kirkenes offensive, which would turn the tide of the war on the Northern Front in the Arctic and trigger the German destruction of Finnmark in a scorched-earth retreat back to the Lyngen Line. This is where my scorched-earth stories begin.

Seated in the centre of the hotel room sofa, Eva Larsen, a former teacher in Kirkenes, speaks very good English. She has agreed to tell not only her story but also to translate Knut's for me. 'For many years people didn't want to speak about what they saw in the war. It was not for discussion,' she says. 'Knut's parents after the war didn't want to speak about what they saw. In October 1944 Knut was 8, so he had lots of memories – very clear and distinct.'

Knut nods. He understands English but doesn't speak it so well, so Eva translates:

We lived on a farm near Storskog, where you cross the border with Russia. The German general Dietl determined to stop the Russians at a defensive line near to my home. He went back to Germany and discussed with Hitler how to do it. They built a series of short trenches in the hills from where the Germans could fire on the Soviets. We can see them today when we are picking blueberries.

Hitler told Dietl to get 5,000 soldiers to stop the Soviets but as it was the end of the war it was difficult to get that many. So he had to use youngsters, especially young boys from Austria, who were trained in mountain war.

The Germans had to retreat from the Litsa Front back to Norway on 17 October 1944. There was fierce fighting between the Russians and the Germans. On 22 October there was no more left of the German army. They were destroyed. There were German soldiers lying by the side of the road with their intestines outside their body, crying for their mothers. And later, Russians.

The fighting happened very close to my home. The Germans had taken over our house and one of their officers was wounded and died. It was winter – they couldn't bury him. So they threw him outside the house. He was lying there for a whole winter. If a German soldier was so badly wounded they couldn't save him, special German soldiers were commanded to kill their own. They would shoot him, put him out of his misery with a mercy shot.

It was not a big house, but thirty-eight people were living in it, on the floor and in every bedroom and in the hall and everything. There were two Germans living in the kitchen. When the house was modernised after the war you could still see the blood spots on the floorboards and in the kitchen from the wounded officers.

The fighting was coming from the air, from bombing, man-to-man fighting as the Russians attacked the Germans. The war was so close our house was used by both sides. At three o'clock in the morning the Germans left: by four thirty Soviet officers were in the kitchen.

There was fighting for many days. I saw it all. We were hiding in the forest in a shelter my father made, but we were close to the house. Fewer and fewer Germans were coming and more and more Russians. I saw a German soldier lying in the field next to the house shooting at the Russians but he had no helmet. He was hit many times and the front of his head was blown off. I was 10 metres away.

The Russians used to say: 'Bayonet the Germans in the back, above the belt, above his ammunition belt.' When they ran after the retreating Germans they would bayonet them in the back as the blade wouldn't stick. It was easier to kill them. The boys were lying by the side of the road, fatally injured, waiting to die, crying for their mothers.

Of course what you saw as a child affected people very badly: it made many children alcoholics after the war. It's a miracle I am not insane because of all I have seen as a young boy.

Svea and Eva were nodding solemnly and grimacing as Knut told his stories. Now they speak up. 'I think it was special that in Kirkenes we lived in a sort of friendship with the Germans,' says Eva. She goes on to say:

There were so many: seven Germans for every one of us. I remember a German soldier who drove a car and he stopped, opened the door and said: 'Come here.' My mother let me go and I got some sweets – 'bonbons' – from him. Maybe he had a little girl at home, just 3, like I was.

The Germans were clean and polite. They were very handsome men. We used to say: 'The Germans stole the girls' hearts, the Russians stole bicycles and watches.' My mother said: 'I'm so glad I was married because I am sure I could have fallen in love with one of those handsome Germans.'

At this point Svea leans forward:

There were two types of Germans: the green ones and the black ones. The green ones were OK but the black ones, with the death's head on their caps, they were no good.

Everything the Germans made they stamped with a German eagle and a swastika. They stamped the sacks of flour. One day a boat with flour and butter came to Kirkenes and was bombed. When the flour sacks floated up our people could grab them and make cakes and bread. When the sack was empty they made clothes out of them. I had a shirt made out of a flour sack, and when I took it off, it stood up on its own.

Kirkenes became vital to German military operations in the Arctic. It was a fortress town, a communications centre for the Litsa Front and the north of Norway and a base for air operations against both the Soviet ground forces and the Allied Arctic convoys supplying Stalin. It was a crucial link in the support and supply chain both into and out of the front line. Supplies and reinforcements went in and the dead and wounded came out, as well as troops being sent on leave or for redeployment. Soldiers wounded on the Litsa Front received initial medical care in Kirkenes and could then be shipped further south for longer-term rehabilitation.

The rapid and dramatic upgrading of the infrastructure of Kirkenes to handle this sudden influx of so many soldiers and so much cargo was carried out by Soviet prisoners captured in the fighting to the east. Kept in camps around the town, the prisoners were used for unloading the constant stream of ships bringing fresh war supplies, as well as on construction and roadbuilding projects overseen by the Nazi construction company Organisation Todt.

The docks became so busy the Germans even built their own railway to transport all the supplies around Kirkenes. Some 800 skilled civilian workers were brought in to build an air base at Hoybuktmoen, 12km from the town, which is the airport to this day. Soviet prisoners built a causeway to the island of Prestøia, which was turned into a military headquarters defended by batteries of anti-aircraft guns with a seaplane base alongside. Around the docks banks of anti-aircraft guns could throw up a fearsome field of fire, supported by artillery both along the coast and sited on the larger islands in the fjords surrounding Kirkenes to the east and west. The sea lanes were mined and U-boats and Luftwaffe bombers searched for targets in the Allied convoys heading for Murmansk and Archalengsk.

Because of the strategic significance of Kirkenes the civilian population found itself on the front line, gradually being bombed into oblivion. Only Malta was bombed more often in the war.

The German defences in Kirkenes were pulverised from the air by Soviet Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmoviks, ground-attack planes fitted with bombs and rockets with a rear gunner to watch their back as they delivered their deadly payload. The Sturmoviks bombed the docks regularly and also attacked German supply convoys in the Barents Sea. They earned the nickname 'The Black Death' from the anti-aircraft crews they terrorised and killed.

After one particularly intense attack in July 1944 had reduced much of the town to rubble, many civilians had had enough and left their homes for the safety of the tunnels at the iron ore mine at Bjørnevatn.

Civilian casualties in Kirkenes from the air attacks were mercifully low, especially as the German soldiers had built barracks and warehouses in the gaps between homes. Seven civilians died, among them Eva's grandfather-in-law. 'My father-in-law's father went out on the steps during an air raid,' she says. 'He heard planes and wanted to have a look and see where they were heading and he never came in again. One of the bombs fell nearby and the shrapnel killed him.'

I mention the prison camps the Germans set up in Kirkenes for the Soviet prisoners they brought back from the Litsa Front to use as slave labour, building roads, bunkers and bases. I ask if my guests have any memories of them.

'Near to my house was a camp with Russian soldiers who were prisoners,' says Knut. 'When the German guards saw that a prisoner couldn't work any more they pressed a bayonet into the back of their neck and pushed it up into their brain then twisted it. I saw that.'

Everybody in the room grimaces. Knut looks at me, pausing for Eva to translate. 'They didn't use a bullet. They just used a bayonet. Because they couldn't work any more.'

There is a silence, broken by Eva:

My mother told me that in the winter when it was very cold she saw a Russian prisoner working outside. She gave him a pair of mittens and he thanked her. But then instead of wearing the gloves, he put them in his pocket. Maybe he used them to get some food.

She sighs, and continues, 'There is a saying: "If you could gather the tears of all the Russian mothers, it would make a river bigger than the Volga".'


Excerpted from Fire and Ice by Vincent Hunt. Copyright © 2014 Vincent Hunt. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7

Introduction 9

Map of Northern Norway 11

1 'It was absolutely normal growing up playing with ammunition' 13

2 'Pity for the civilian population is out of place' 49

3 'The destruction was as complete as it could be' 75

4 The villagers that escaped and the town full of Nazis 83

5 Still mourning the men of Hopseidet 92

6 The white church of Honningsvåg 98

7 The destruction of Hammerfest 103

8 Refugees, rescues and resistance 113

9 The death of Erika Schöne and other secret tragedies 120

10 'You must not think we destroyed wantonly or senselessly' 127

11 'Oh, I know of a land far up north …' 140

12 Even in the wilderness, there was war 149

13 Into the valley of the damned: the Mallnitz death camp 154

14 Walking in the footsteps of the doomed: the Lyngen Line 173

15 A guided tour through Tromsø's war 181

16 Scorched-earth stories at first hand 188

17 Slaughter and supply from the sky 196

18 Questions mount on the streets of the capital 208

19 Dark chapters and cold wars 217

20 The war is not over 223

Appendix 1 The cost of the scorched-earth policy 234

Appendix 2 Worst crashes in Norwegian aviation history 239

Appendix 3 Arbeiderpartiet response 240

Notes 241

Index 253

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