When the Second World War started on 3rd September 1939 John Crook was a 24 year old soldier and a lance corporal in a territorial Manchester Battalion. He would obtain an emergency commission in the York and Lancaster Regiment in early 1940 and receive his training in the infantry training centre in York that was part of Britain's Northern Command army group.

The HQ was in York. Troops were stationed at Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire. These locations provided the troops for the 49th (East Riding) Division that is now based at Beeston in Nottinghamshire and still wears the Polar Bear badge inaugurated by General 'Bubbles' Barker after service in Iceland.

The Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment was based in Sheffield and part of the 146th Infantry Brigade. The Brigade's HQ was in Doncaster and also included 4th Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment: Lincoln 1st/4th Battalion, and The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry: Wakefield.

The Norwegian campaign seems to have become overshadowed by other perhaps more dramatic events in the Second World War.

Despite haphazard preparation, lack of training in Arctic warfare, poor coordination between naval, air and land forces Norway could have been won for the allies.

This Arctic Circle location was the scene of intense fighting during April and May 1940. Allied forces, headed by Great Britain, and Axis forces, headed by Germany, clashed fiercely to secure Narvik, which was a main shipping port for high-grade Swedish iron ore. The ore was a key element for the production of high-quality steel, and therefore critical to the armaments industries of both Great Britain and Germany.

The fight for Narvik resulted in more than 55 surface ships, submarines, U-boats and airplanes being sunk in the clear water in and around the port city.

When World War II broke out, the Scandinavian nations, including Norway, remained neutral. Because Norway represented an important strategic location, Britain and Germany both decided to violate Norwegian neutrality at almost the same time. Unknown to the other side, and only hours apart, Britain and Germany dispatched large fleets to secure Norway. The German attack was designed to capture all of Norway's important airports and urban centers during simultaneous attacks involving its navy, troops landed from ship and paratroops dropped from the air.


Brigadier Procter who commanded 146th Infantry Brigade for its proper training in Arctic warfare in Iceland after the Norwegian debacle


The British fleet was just behind the German vessels, and both sides battled a fierce gale to achieve their objective.

Using a force of 10 destroyers, each of which carried 200 specially trained Austrian mountain troops and coastal artillery personnel, Germany captured Narvik on April 9-10, 1940, after blowing away the ancient Norwegian coastal defense vessels Eidsvold and Norge.

The British counterattacked on April 10, 1940, in what became known as the First Battle of Narvik.

On the 11th, the RAF attacked Sola airfield, Stavanger, and lost 1 Wellington out of 6.

German destroyers Wilhelm Heidkamp and Anton Schmitt were sunk in this battle and Dieter von Roeder was put out of action by fire resulting from a hit. The British lost destroyers H.M.S. Hardy and H.M.S. Hunter, and H.M.S. Hotspur was badly damaged. The British withdrew, only to mount a counterattack on April 13.

This time, they brought more firepower to what became known as the Second Battle of Narvik: the battleship H.M.S. Warspite was accompanied by no less than nine destroyers. The German fleet, low on fuel and ammunition, tried to flee from the British onslaught, but they had nowhere to go. All of the remaining German destroyers were annihilated, many of them running aground on the sides of the fjords.

During the next six weeks, a siege of Narvik by Allied troops ensued. British warships and the Polish destroyers Orp Grom and Orp Blyskawica prowled the fjords and shelled German positions on land. German bombers pounded the ships, sending Orp Grom to the bottom.

By the 14th, the British North Western Expeditionary Force had begun to land at Harstad, some 96 km from Narvik, and separated from the port by a sea channel and snow-covered mountains, on the 15th.

John Crook was being trained at the York and Lancaster's Infantry Training Centre in York when the Hallamshires were conveyed across the North Sea in the Empress of Australia. Destination: Namsos as part of 'Mauriceforce'- a special operation to secure Central Norway.

There was considerable concern that Namsos was conspicuous from the air and vulnerable to air attack during the day.

So a convoy of destroyers joined the troopships 100 miles North of Namsos at Lillesjona.

Destroyers Afridi, Sikh, Matabele, Mashona and Nubian went alongside the Chrobry and Empress of Australia to transfer the York and Lancasters and Lincolnshire troops of 146th Infantry Brigade.

As soon as the operation began, the Hallamshires were to discover the terror of Stuka dive-bombers.

Captain McIntyre in his book 'Narvik' writes:

'Enemy aircraft found them even so far north. The destroyers left in a flurry of frothing stern wash, curving bow waves and the tall thudding splashes of bomb burst for their high-speed run down the coast to Namsos where they arrived during the night of the 16th April. By daylight the Hallamshires had all been landed, the men dispersed from the quay sides and all traces of their arrival obliterated. However, the hurry of the embarkation and the constant harassment by the Luftwaffe meant that the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry of 146th Brigade were still aboard the Empress of Australia. The air-raids at Lillesjona had been almost continuous. Near misses constantly shook the converted liners and Captain McIntyre wrote that the bombardment 'shook also the morale of the young inexperienced soldiers, receiving their baptism of fire cooped up helplessly aboard.'

Unfortunately the Empress of Australia was sent home still carrying 170 tons of stores. The Chrobry left with 130 tons of supplies and stores still aboard.

On the 17th the 148th Brigade landed at Andalsnes. Operation Sickleforce was to experience massive losses - 1,402 men in series of defeats. 148th Infantry Brigade never saw active service again. John Crook would have been familiar with the personal experiences of soldiers at Andalsnes because he was posted as a 2nd Lieutenant to the 1st Battalion York and Lancasters following their return to Britain after being caught up in this fiasco. They had been rapidly evacuated when their position became impossible and they had taken heavy casualties.

The Germans were now isolated in Narvik, although with plenty of captured Norwegian weapons in addition to their own, and with a 'Mountain Marine' unit of 2,600 men, survivors of the annihilated destroyer fleet, to use the Norwegian rifles and machine guns. This force was ordered to 'hold out for as long as possible'. Each day, the RAF attacked German military installations, and the sea war continued with losses on both sides.'

The traitor Quisling, meanwhile, had been ousted on April 15th, and replaced by an 'Administrative Council' of Norwegian bureaucrats and lawyers. Suddenly and belatedly, this government on April 18th, declared war on Germany.

The problem for 146th Brigade known as 'Mauriceforce' was that there was no air cover. Most of its supplies had not been landed.

The British troops were 'totally inexperienced in any form of warfare, let alone the specialised Arctic version facing them, without antiaircraft guns or artillery.' The Hallamshires were commanded by Lt. Col C G Robins. Instead of having maps of the Namsos area, they had been issued with maps of Narvik.

There is no doubt that the soldiers had not been adequately trained or equipped for this operation. The transport section were landed in Namsos without any vehicles. They had to beg and borrow cars and trucks from the local Norwegians.

It was somewhat fortunate that they had been moved out of Namsos. Because within 24 hours of embarkation the Luftwaffe descended on the town, completely unopposed and reduced the place to a rubble and set it ablaze. The base for 'Mauriceforce' was largely obliterated, making reinforcement and supply almost impossible.

Commander Ravenhill on the Nubian observed on the 20th of April: 'The whole place was a mass of flames from end to end and the glare on the snows of the surrounding mountains produced an unforgettable spectacle.'

The Hallamshires were under the overall command of General Carton de Wiart, a Victoria Cross holder who inspired his men with awe by his cool contempt for danger during air attacks.


General Carton de Wiart at HQ near Namsos with Captain Ford


But the general knew that the position of his brigades was untenable.

The Hallamshires were ordered to move into a reserve position south west to Namdalseid via Rodhammer.

The rest of 146th Brigade marched towards Central Norway on the 19th. The first march was 20 miles east to Grong. They then marched 50 miles south west via Kvam to Steinkjer, linked up with 2,000 Norwegian troops and hoped to deploy around Verdalsora. This put the British 146th Infantry Brigade 80 km from Trondheim.

The advance to Trondheimsfiord had to be endured with passive courage. Bombardment by German naval guns and aircraft and attack by highly-trained and mobile German ski-troops dogged their movements.

The French Chasseurs Alpins - fully trained mountain troops - landed at Namsos on 22nd from the liner Ville d'Alger but without some essential strap for their skis. They were effectively immobilised particularly as they relied on mules for transport. Again their troopship left Norway carrying most of the stores, some antitank guns and an invaluable antiaircraft battery.

The Hallamshires engaged the enemy at Beitstad and Colour Sergeant Major Howden won a military medal for his bravery. They were eventually relieved by the Chasseurs.

The overall plan for Mauriceforce was that the brigade would advance on Trondheim and link up with the Norwegian forces retreating northwards, but the arrival of substantial reinforcements for General von Falkenhorst's army, despite the attempt at a blockade of German shipping by Allied submarines in Skaggerak, made the Allies look again at the weaknesses of their position.

The situation was as dangerous as British troops found themselves in France before Dunkirk. It was clear to the senior officers that the British troops in Norway were not properly equipped or trained for the position in which they found themselves. Because of the poor organisation of their embarkation, they had not even their full complement of stores and equipment.

General Carton de Wiart signalled the War Office: 'I see little chance of carrying out decisive or, indeed, any operations unless enemy air activity is considerably reduced.'

The German army was well-organised, well-trained and recently reinforced. It quickly became clear that the British plan to retake the centre of Norway would not work and, as to emphasise the point, on April 26th the German 196th Division, on the right of the 21st Corps, succeeded in joining up with the 181st Division on the left, south of Trondheim.

Germany found the Norwegian campaign more difficult to win conclusively than had been expected, and continued to pour in men and equipment to reinforce those who had formed the initial invasion. These troops were landed at Oslo on April 27th.

The 4th Lincolns and 1/4th KOYLI endured the worst attacks, casualties and humiliating retreats.

Captain Dick Newsum in the 4th Lincolns wrote:

'We travelled by train to Steinkjer at the head of the Trondheim fjord. On arrival we discovered how short of equipment we were, as much of it had been left behind in the UK due to our rather hurried and mismanaged departure. We had mortars and bombs but no sights, telephones but no exchanges, and absolutely no transport, not the best way to start a war.'

By April 23rd 146th Brigade found themselves dominated by enemy air power, and had to retreat from their position on Trondheimsfiord which they did in good order. Without artillery or antiaircraft guns, they could do no more than stand grimly on the defensive. Behind them their base lay in ruins.

Aerial photo of Namsos after being bombed by the Luftwaffe

The curse for the British infantry and naval forces was undoubtedly the Stuka dive-bomber with its 'screaming' siren. The destroyer HMS Bittern was sunk in Namsos Harbour on April 30th.

All Allied efforts were now concentrated on Narvik, and the blocking of the vital route for iron resources through the port.

General Carton de Wiart received orders to evacuate Namsos on 27th April. The Hallamshires and the rest of 146th Brigade were to leave on the nights of the 1st and 2nd of May.

British and French troops were to withdrew from Andalsnes and Namsos, King Haakon and General Ruge (and the Norwegian gold reserves) headed for evacuation from Tromso.

The final phase of the Norwegian battle began on April 26th.

The pull back to Narvik on April 26th had also marked the beginning of the final phase of Neville Chamberlain's career as British Prime Minister. A motion of censure in the House of Commons debated on May 7th and 8th brought about his resignation, and on May 10th 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. On that same fateful day, Hitler unleashed his long-awaited Blitzkrieg in the West, and the attention of the world shifted from Scandinavia to Holland, Belgium and France.

5,500 British and French troops had to be evacuated from Namsos.


Ruins at Namsos following a German air-raid


It was an operation that could only be done during the hours of darkness which at this time of the year were short. The operation was dogged by fog. Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten in the destroyer Kelly was part of the the naval taskforce under Admiral Cunningham who stressed the importance of speed and the minimum of equipment being taken by the men. Most of MauriceForce was evacuated between 9.15 and 1 a.m. on 2nd May.

But the York and Lancasters - a total of 780 men were still some way from Namsos. Their job had been to hold the retreat in good order, to deny the Germans transport and protect the embarkation. Admiral Vivian who was ashore at Namsos to superintend the operation called for volunteers from anyone who could drive a car to take any available lorry to fetch them.

A convoy of vehicles was assembled and the bulk of the regiment reached the pier by 2.20. But the British destroyer HMS Afridi had to remain. Lieutenant Colonel Robins and 33 men of the Hallamshires who had been detailed to blow away the last rearguard bridge at around midnight and had ten miles of atrocious, snowbound road to cover had not arrived.

As hilltops were in view against the morning twilight lorries clattered onto the pier at 3.15 a.m. and disgorged the rearguard. The Afridi cast off. The campaign in Central Norway had lasted 16 days.

Lieutenant Colonel Hingston who fought with the KOYLI at Namsos wrote: 'The retreat of 146 Infantry Brigade to Namdalseidet is not a bright story in the history of the British army. Indeed it is doubtful whether British troops have ever been forced to retire with so little effort on the part of the enemy. On the other hand it is also doubtful if a British force have ever been asked to do so much with so little.'

Attacks by the Luftwaffe on the convoy started at 8.45 in the morning with high-bombers and JU 88 dive-bombers.

The Hallamshires endured an attack by 3 Stukas as the Afridi attempted to rejoin the evacuation convoy.

One bomb hit her squarely at the foot of her foremast and plunged on down to burst between decks, causing heavy casualties, and starting a furious blaze. Another fell close alongside her forecastle and blew a hole in her hull. The combination was too much for the ship.

More than a thousand hungry and cold troops were terrorised. An effort was made to take the Afridi in tow by the stern, but had to be abandoned when it was clear she was foundering. It is understood that some of the Hallamshires were trapped below deck and still alive when they were abandoned. Their comrades could hear their cries as they pulled away in the other destroyers.

The Arctic waters would have killed a man through exposure in a matter of minutes. Survivors of the crew and the Hallamshires were taken aboard the destroyers Griffin and Imperial. Amongst the hundred dead were thirteen soldiers from the rearguard of the York and Lancasters who had protected the embarkation and in the words of Captain McIntyre 'had endured so much.'

The Hallamshires arrived in the Firth of Clyde on 8th May 1940, disembarked and re-formed at Hawick.

Ironically the Allied operation in Norway proved more successful after the failure of the Central Norwegian campaign.

On May 13, at Bjerkvik, north of Narvik, the Allies mounted the war's first combined operations, involving shelling from warships, infantry and armoured vehicles landed by specially built landing craft and air support from aircraft carriers.

It lasted effectively until May 28th, when the French 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade with the support of British, Polish and Norwegian troops finally recaptured Narvik, although by then other events in the Low Countries and France had captured the news.

The Germans expected the Allies to try to make their stay in Narvik permanent - but on June 7th the French and British departed, having covered the evacuation of the Allied armies from Norway. Norway and Denmark were totally in German hands.

Narvik was again occupied by the Germans. Norway was to remain in German hands until the end of the war.


HMS Bittern ablaze in Namsos Fjord after being dive-bombed


The Hallamshires had experienced a bloody and frustrating baptism of fire. They had seen terrible things. It was clear to the men of 146th Brigade that they needed training in Arctic warfare. They needed equipment. Within the year they would find themselves patrolling the glaciers of Iceland and Greenland.

The deaths of the thirteen Hallamshires on the Afridi was a terrible blow to the battalion and their families. They were poor working class men from Sheffield and adjacent towns and they had been the only breadwinner of their families. By November 1941 one of the widows wrote to the Commanding Officer at their headquarters in Iceland describing the difficulties faced by the bereaved families. The Hallamshires set up an 'Afridi Christmas Fun' to bring a little happiness at Christmas for the widows and children of the men killed. The appeal raised £44 and 10 shillings and Christmas gifts equivalent to £3 to each widow and £1 for each child were sent to the relatives.

The Norwegians have also erected a memorial for the Hallamshires who died in the Afridi bombing in Namsos.

The York and Lancaster Regiment's official history of the Norwegian campaign states that although the Hallamshire Battalion 'had only met the enemy on land in two minor actions the success of these and the whole experience gained in the campaign definitely raise the morale of all ranks.

The extreme climatic and other difficulties imposed very heavy tasks upon some of the officers and other ranks with specialist duties. Nevertheless, in spite of everything, they succeeded in carrying them out. In this connection particular mention must be made of the Assistant Transport Officer 2/Lieutenant J. Randall, and his twenty drivers, who had to work entirely with local lorries and cars: the Signals Officer, 2/Lieutenant S.M. de Bartoleme, and his signallers; and last but by no means least, of the Adjutant, Captain H. J.W. Marsh.

The names of the other ranks killed in H.M.S. Afridi on 3rd May 1940, were: Corporal Goddard; Lance-Corporal Starkey; Privates Barker, Bell, Bruce, Crookes, Lee, Lockwood, Martin, Peacock, Shaw, Shepherd and Wade.' (Page 123, The York and Lancaster Regiment VOL III, 1955).

A veteran of the Norwegian campaign states that part of the horror of the Alfridi's sinking was that at least one of the dying Hallamshires could be heard crying for help as the other destroyers drew away. They had been trapped beneath the buckled steel and could not be rescued, but were aware of their fate as the destroyer slowly took water and slipped beneath the waves.

Surviving Hallamshires could also hear the loud metallic crashes of U-boat torpedoes against the hull of their transport ships. Fortunately for the British, a technical fault in torpedo fuses meant that although some reached their target they failed to detonate.