North-Norwegian heroes are not only found in centuries-old sagas, some accomplished feats of incredible courage in very historical times, just a few generations back. One of them is Colonel Birger Eriksen who saved the king of Norway during the War.
Birger Eriksen was born in 1875 in Flakstad, a tiny island in the archipelago of Lofoten . His father was a ship captain and Birger joined the Norwegian Army at a young age. Upon graduating in 1896 he quickly rose to higher positions: in 1901 he reached the rank of Captain and in 1915 he became the commander of the fortress of Adgdenes.
In 1940, Birger had been the commander of the strategic fortress of Oscarborg for more than six years. The fortress was of utmost importance because it commanded access to the Oslo-fjord and the capital itself. The fact that Birger had been given command of such an important place speaks volumes about his credentials and experience. Indeed, in April 1940, Birger was just a few months away from retirement. Little did he know that he, an old man leaning towards the end of his career, would still be able to make a difference…
The 9th of April 1940 the occasion presented itself rather straightforwardly: Germany launched Operation Weserübung, invading first Denmark (which was completely conquered in 6 hours) before advancing towards Norway. The German plan of battle was simple: taking over every major city in the south as fast as possible as well as the town of Narvik before assuming control over the whole country. The motivations for the German invasion were multifold, but mostly centred around the issue of Swedish iron ore, an essential component of the nation’s war effort. This is the reason why the town of Narvik, all the way up in North-Norway, was considered a vital position. Indeed, this is where the Swedish iron ore trains unloaded their goods.
But back down south on the morning of the 9th of April such considerations mattered little for Birger. Shortly after four in the morning, unknown ships appeared in the mouth of the fjord. At this point no-one knew if those ships were German, British, or from somewhere else and Birger was faced with the difficult question of how to retaliate to this incursion. Then, the ageing Colonel remembered an order he had been given decades earlier during the first World War: any intruder persisting to move despite warnings must be stopped by any means necessary. Still pondering about the consequence of his action, he ordered the batteries to fire against the still unknown ship, uttering those now famous words:
“Either I’ll be court-martialed or else I will be a war hero, Fire!”
The Blücher, the German war ship that faced the Oscarborg fortress was then hit by two torpedoes and started taking water immediately. In less than two hours, the ship, which, ironically enough had been launched less than a week prior, was history.
The downfall of the Blücher was, unbeknownst to Birger, a much more serious setback for the German fleet than anyone in the Norwegian camp could have thought. Indeed, the original German plans were to quickly reach Oslo and overpower the capital with several battleships while the crew onboard would disembark and take control over the Norwegian government offices and ministries. Even more crucial was one elite battalion that was to capture the Norwegian royal family, and force them to sign a capitulation. Luckily for the Norwegian side, this battalion never reached Oslo. It disappeared in the wreck of the Blücher.
By blocking access to the Oslo-Fjord, Birger and his soldiers had managed to completely disrupt the German invasion plans. Instead of quickly reaching Oslo by ship, the German troops were forced to take a much longer route by land. When they finally reached the capital, the government and the Royal family were gone. With the help of the British forces, they bypassed the German advances and reached Tromsø, the biggest Norwegian city not under attack, the 1st of May where they re-established the Norwegian government.
From Tromsø, the Norwegian government planned the next step in resisting the German assault. With the help of French, Polish and British forces, the Norwegian troops gained much ground in Narvik and all over North-Norway, the allies were successfully forestalling the German advance. Ultimately though,the allies realised that, after the beginning of the Battle of France, fighting over two fronts would be unfeasible and in June 1940 the allies troops departed North-Norway. The king left Tromsø aboard the HMS Devonshire the seventh of June.
In Oscarborg, Birger and his men kept fighting well until the tenth of April, a day after the sinking of theBlücher and the loss of Oslo. Taken prisoner by the German troops, Birger was quickly released and kept a low profile during the rest of the war and was mostly involved in municipal work in various places. After the war he was awarded the French War Cross and Legion of Honour as well as the highest decoration of his homeland, the Norwegian War Cross. Even after his departure in 1958 his memory is still very much alive and he has the distinction of being the Norwegian World War II veteran with the most statues at his effigy. Truly, if a man deserve the title of Hero, it must be Birger Eriksen.
- (1) Den Store Norsk Leksikon encyclopedia.
- (2) The Norwegian Army Museum .
- (3) NRK Nordland Radio station.
- (I) The Blücher sinking in the Oslofjord the 9th of April 1940
- (II) Pictures of Birger Eriksen in 1893, 1918 and 1946. First two pictures taken from the war academy yearbook Studenterne fra 1893 Biograpiske Oplysminger samlet til 25-Aarsjubilæet 1918. (1918). Grøndahl and Søns Boktrykkeri.(71). Third one origin unknown.
- (III) British propaganda picture showing the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.
- (IV) German soldiers parading though the streets of Oslo the 9th of April 1940.
- (VI) King Hákon and his son the crown prince Olav escaping german shelling in the forest near Molde around the 15th of April 1940. Picture by Per Bratland.
- (VII) The old Bishop’s residence in Tromsø. Picture by Krister Brandser.
- (VIII) King Hákon and Birger Eriksen after the war. Picture from ABC Nyheter.