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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Ruins at Namsos following a German
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
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
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