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Articles Blog

Narvik, Norway

Karyn Planett

“The Shetland Connection”

It was William Friedkin’s Academy-Award-winning film “The French Connection” that kept us on the edge of our theater seats, eyes riveted to the silver screen, scared out of our ever-lovin’ wits.  This celebrated director could and should apply that same talent to making a film about Scotland’s Sheltand Island connection to Norway during the dark days of World War II.  It’s a chapter in history that should never be forgotten … rich with intrigue, featuring a cast of brave freedom fighters, and all set in a landscape that’s the perfect backdrop for this story.  It’s where you will be today.

Truly, all hell broke lose for the proud people of Narvik in the opening days of April 1940 as the “Norwegian Campaign of World War II” began.  The fierce battle for the Ofotfjord, as well as the surrounding mountains, was underway.  German military tacticians theorized that control over Norway’s rugged coastline would enable their forces to protect vital iron ore shipments from Kiruna, Sweden to Narvik.  Kiruna was the location of one of the largest deposits of high-grade magnetite ore in the world, ore that was nearly 300% richer per ton than that from Alsace-Lorraine.  With the loss of these French deposits via the 1919 Versailles Treaty, the German steel industry was heavily dependent on Swedish iron ore for their production requirements.

Keeping control over Narvik’s ice-free port was critical as it was here the ore was loaded onto ships bound for Germany. The entire stretch of coastal Norway between Oslo and Narvik became a strategic prize for Hitler that would severely disrupt the Allies’ blockade of Germany.  His troops landed in Narvik despite the fact that two German destroyers were sunk in Narvik harbor.  Ultimately Norwegian, British, French and Polish troops brought their might to the fight.  Britain was also interested in the rich iron ore supply and also wanted to open a path for supplies and aid to Finland.  The French were interested in opening another front far from France that Hitler would have to defend.

The Battle of Narvik was considered the first Allied victory over Hitler’s military.  The Germans withdrew and, on May 28th, Allied troops retook the evacuated city. Then on June 8th, German forces retook Narvik and held control over it until the tragic chapter of World War II was ended some five years on, on May 8, 1945.  Before their withdrawal, the German troops obliterated the iron ore facilities.

So, what is it about a Shetland Connection?  With Germany’s occupation of Norway, her people were forced to flee to the West, to safety, to the Scottish Shetland Islands among other places.  They began training with British forces bent on somehow supplying their trapped countrymen with arms and communication equipment.  Tiny fishing boats brought escaping Norwegians to Shetland and returned, again and again, even across the harsh winter seas in the black of night.  Shetland became the base and refuge for the Norwegian resistance.  Back and forth they sailed to Norway with radio sets, ammunition, trained fighters, and weapons.  They returned with even more refugees.  To this day the people of both nations remember this emotional connection and share a destiny that was thrust upon them by the heavy hand of war.

The City Itself

Narvik is a mere 215 miles from the Arctic Circle so the summer days go long into the midnight-sunsplashed night, and winter is a stretch of endless darkness.  Her 19,000 residents are engaged not only in the busy activities associated with an active port, but also with tourism and technology.  Visitors come from Sweden, only 30 miles away, as well as the world over to fish, ski in the winter, visit the offshore islands, and hop aboard the 7-minute cable car ride to Fagernesfjellet Mountain for stunning views of the area. Of course many come to remember the events of WWII at the war cemeteries, the Chapel of Peace, and the War Memorial Museum.

Some travelers arrive in Narvik on the Ofoten Railway.  Other visitors to the city enjoy just a short trip on this same train simply for the scenery.  The one-hour journey across the 26-mile stretch to Sweden is easy compared to this same trek between the Swedish Lapland iron mines to Narvik undertaken first by reindeer, then horses.  Thankfully, in 1902 this nod to engineering magic was officially opened.  It’s claimed that this railroad was the most brutal to build due to the rugged terrain and freezing arctic weather.  That seems all forgotten by those traveling from Narvik to Riksgränsen for a day on the ski slopes.

What shouldn’t be forgotten is the time you sail.  Whether you’re a history buff, nature nut, medal-winning shopper, or simply a find-what-you-find wanderer, there’s plenty to fill your day in Narvik.