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Force Primrose - Holding on at Åndalsnes

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

A force of Marines, some 700 strong, with an anti-aircraft battery, was given notice on the 13th April to embark for Norway, with the object of seizing the port and railhead of Aandalsnes and preventing the landing of German troops by seaplane, submarine and parachute.


It was known as Force Primrose and was composed mainly of detachments from the Nelson, Hood and Barham, which were then refitting. Lieutenant-Colonel (now Major- General) H.W. Simpson was in command. Travelling independently from Portsmouth and Plymouth, the Force had sailed from Rosyth in four sloops by 4 a.m. on 15th April.


The flotilla, steaming with all possible speed, arrived at the mouth of Romsdals Fiord, which leads to Aandalsnes, on the 17th. Then the four sloops went forward cautiously in line ahead, led by the Black Swan (Captain A.L.Poland, D.S.C., R.N.), which carried the Hood detachment.



There was no knowing whether the town was occupied by the enemy or not. The marines stood-to in silence on the upper decks. The fiord was very narrow, and they could see the mountains rising almost sheer out of the water on either side.


HMS Black Swan

The night was fine but intensely cold. It was almost pitch dark when the sloops anchored off Asdalsnes. The actual landing was an anticlimax after the grim preparations for battle. Instead of German opposition, they found a small crowd of friendly Norwegians waiting to welcome them. There was a stone quay, with a travelling crane to help unload stores and equipment. It was said that there were no Germans in the neighbourhood; nevertheless, Colonel Simpson took the precaution of arranging defensive posts near the jetty.


About 2 a.m. the marines moved off in lorries to take up their positions. One detachment went to a military camp, Setnesmoen, where they spent the night; another was sent to Aalaesund, under the command of Major H. Lumley, with a battery of coast artillery, to prevent enemy traffic passing down between the islands and the mainland.


Halfway between Trondheim in the north and Bergen in the south, the Central Norwegian plain is joined to the waters of Romdals Fiord by a narrow valley, more than 60 miles in length and flanked by the precipitous hills. As the valley approaches the shores of the fiord it opens out into the shape of a fan. In one corner of the fan, fronting the fiord, is the little town of Aandalsnes, in the other corner the village of Veblungsnes. The camp of Setnrsmoen is - or was - situated at the point where the valleys starts to widen - a collection of long white wooden huts, with low roofs and verandas.


Setnesmoen before the German bombing in 1940 destroying much of the original settlement [https://www.forsvarsbygg.no/no/verneplaner/landsverneplan-for-forsvaret/trondelag/setnesmoen/]


When the marines reached it, the camp was in thick snow. The task of Force Primrose was similar to that allotted to the Sheffield and Glasgow detachments at Namsos, but on a larger scale; to occupy Aandalsnes and district and to make arrangements for its use as a port of disembarkation for the Central Norwegian Expeditionary Force, the advanced units of which were expected that day.


Seaman platoons were to provide working parties for unloading the ships. The Royal Marine detachments occupied a perimeter beyond the town. One of the Hood platoons covered the village of Veblungsnes. Veblungsnes was one of those typical Norwegian villages which became familiar to the British troops in that distressful campaign. On two sides it was washed by the quiet waters of the fiord; behind it rose a grassy slope which soon merged into the steep sides of a snow-covered and sparsely-wooded mountain. A small wooden church stood back from the Asndalsnes road in a tree shaded cemetery which sloped down to the fiord’s edge. Beyond the church, the road was fringed with houses, some of wood, some of stone, low and red-roofed, with narrow doorways and thick framed windows, a few with fenced front gardens. Off the village square was a solidly-built stone house with steps up to a door, a tall tree shading the entrance. It was a tailoring factory. Inside there were piles of cloth, readymade suits and sewing machines. Here the Hood platoon took up their quarters.


It was not long before the Germans discovered the occupation, and the Royal Marines’ positions were bombed every day. There were no airfields in British hands from which fighter cover could be provided, and the Germans had complete mastery of the air throughout the operation. But the Royal Marine anti-aircraft guns met them with spirited fire and the Black Swan gave protection to shipping from the fiord. One day she was bombed for three hours continuously.


Heinkel He 111 H in flight

The Hood platoon at Veblungsnes watched her from their trenches as she dodged and twisted in the narrow waters of the fiord, at times almost hidden by splashes, but keeping up an incessant barrage. When at last the raiders departed, without having scored a single hit, the little ship steamed triumphantly past Velungsnes on her way to re-ammunition at Aandalsnes. The Hood platoon jumped from their trenches and cheered her. Their voices must have carried across the water, for she flashed an Aldis lamp in answer as she passed.


It was not long before it became clear that the Central Norwegian campaign had failed. The deciding factor was the German domination of the air.


On 29th April came the orders for the evacuation. Cruisers and destroyers were coming up the fiord that night and the following to embark the troops. Force Primrose was to form the rearguard and to hold the mouth of the valley while the evacuation was in progress. By that time there were but two or three scattered houses still standing on Aandalsnes. Setnesmoen Camp was destroyed on the 29th.


In the early hours of the 30th the marines took up their rearguard positions, which they were ordered to hold for the next 24 hours.


Åndalsnes in ruins , 1940. [https://digitaltmuseum.no/021015822299/andalsnes-bombing-brannruiner-1940-2-verdenskrig?]


“Those hours were the longest I have ever known”, wrote an officer. “When dawn came we lay up on our hillside while the Heinkels and Dorniers had a positive field day over Veblungsnes and Aandalnes. We could see them through the tree-tops only a few hundred feet up, firing burst after burst of machine-gun and cannon fire into Setnesmoen. It was not long before it became clear that the Central Norwegian campaign had failed. The deciding factor was the German domination of the air. As the darkness deepened, the air raids became fewer and fewer and finally stopped altogether. The valley grew silent and still. Little night noises made themselves heard; the stirring of the tree-tops in the faint breeze; the rustle of some animal in the undergrowth; the far-away hum of a motor-cycle bringing a last lonely despatch-rider back from the front; my watch ticking away on my wrist; the slow breathing of men hidden in the darkness. What was the time? Half and hour after midnight. another two and a half hours to go. Were we going to get away with it altogether? At last two black shapes loomed panting out of the gloom. Order. ‘Withdraw at once. Rendezvous Company Headquarters’. Hurry “.


The men rose, stretching cramped limbs. They formed up in sections, then slipped and tumbled down the slope they had climbed twenty hours before. When they reached the rendezvous they were told that the destroyers were waiting. The ships had been ordered to sail not later than 1 a.m. Hearing that there were marines to be withdrawn the had remained beyond their time.


The marines moved off, a long line of men, black shadows on the snow in the moonlight. They came to the beach. Two destroyers were lying 200 yards off shore. The scene was flung into harsh relief by the glare of their searchlights. The men were dazzled and blinded as they emerged from the dim Norwegian night. They moved knee-deep in the icy water and scrambled into the waiting boats. The destroyers gathered way as they drew alongside. [1]


27 Apr 1940 - KG 54 together with KG 26 and G 1 furnished a total of 61 He 111s for attacks on Aandalsnes town and harbour, shipping in Moldefjord and Romsdalsfjord and other targets - KG 30 also sent 34 Ju 88s to take part in these attacks.


30 Apr 1940 - KG 54 together with KG 4, KGr. 100 and LG 1 sent 65 He 111s to attack shipping found between Aalesund and Aandalsnes following up on an early morning recce flight by an aircraft of KuFlGr. 506. [2] Related Royal Marines 'Dits'


References/ Further Reading:


[1] Extracted from The Royal Marines - The Admiralty Account of their Achievements 1939 - 1943

[2] - Luftwaffe Data - KG54


HMS Hood Association - ADM 202/422: Operation "Primrose" Operations in Norway, 1940 by Royal Marines ) (Report upon operations carried out by force "Primrose" commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel H W Simpson, Royal Marines, during the period 13th to 30th April, 1940)


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