It was six o’clock in the
morning. We had been slugging it out on the steep mountainside since
sunrise. That had been over four hours ago. The attack had not come an
instant too soon. Just past the medical station we had run into a strong
German force whose objective, it seemed, had been the medical station.
At least that was what the few prisoners we had taken had told us.
I was cold and wet. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie and his squad were
deployed to my left even higher up, just beyond the tree line. Sergeant
Bill Johnson was in charge of the squad to my right. Lieutenant Hiber
had been our first casualty when a sniper’s bullet had hit him in the
chest as we made contact with the enemy. He was dead before his body had
crumpled to the ground. He had not felt a thing. Johnson had taken over
The ground was rocky in places. Where there was soil it had turned into
mud by the melting snow. The gnarled birches and aspens reached up to my
hip. I was leaning against a rock face. The tree line snaked across the
mountainside like a line drawn by some omnipotent being. On one side of
it were the scrubby trees and on the other lichen and a few hardy
grasses. While the line was not straight it was nevertheless a clear
demarcation. In the distance to the east I could make out the waters of
the Herjangsfjord, grey and menacing.
Although we held the higher ground it did not appear to be much of
advantage. The enemy was well concealed in the denser ground cover below
us. For the hundredth time I swept my binoculars over the rocky area in
front of me. A cold wind blew in from the northeast, right down the
Herjangsfjord. To the southeast across the water I could just make out
the peninsula where Narvik was located although I could not distinguish
any buildings nor any port facilities.
Every few minutes the Germans would send a round over from the opposite
side of the fjord. Their field guns could just reach our positions. The
shells landed mostly in the no man’s land before us or behind the line
we held, but occasionally they were right on target. I had already lost
six men to their gunnery. It certainly kept us on our toes.
Before me the mountainside seemed deserted right down to the water’s
edge. But I knew that at least a company of trained mountain troops
faced our position. We had made contact with them almost from the
instant I gave the order to advance. Despite their fierce resistance we
had forced them halfway down to the water. I swept my field glasses
slowly over the scrubby birch trees. The Germans seemed to have left, so
perfectly did the grey green of their uniforms blend into the grey green
of the landscape.
“Mackenzie, over here,” I yelled. I waited. After a couple of minutes
heard a noise on top of the rock face. Somebody slid down its left side
and then jumped the last meter, rolling under a scrubby tree as he
landed. A series of splinters showered down on me. The Germans were
there, on guard and alert. A volley of small arms fire concentrated on
the area where Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie had been just a fraction
of a second ago. A stray bullet caught the end of my collar. I could
feel it as a tug close to my throat. I flattened myself against the
ground. Then I carefully crept towards the gnarled tree behind which
Mackenzie was crouching.
“That was a close call, Sir,” he said to me when I faced him. He pulled
on my collar and a piece of cloth came loose in his hand.
“I guess my time isn’t up yet,” I said.
“You were just plain lucky, Captain.”
“We have been pinned down here long enough,” I said to Mackenzie. “ We
shall have to figure out a way to take the initiative again.”
An artillery shell whistled over and landed some ten meters above us. We
both hugged the ground. The explosion hurled metal splinters in all
directions and showered us with dirt.
“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered and slid down the hill. Mackenzie
moved like a snake over the uneven ground. We both halted some twenty
meters away between two boulders as another shell announced its arrival
with a brief whistling sound. We both pressed against the rock. The
shell burst in exactly the location we had just vacated.
“I guess you are right. Your time isn’t up yet,” Mackenzie said in a low
voice. His teeth were chattering and he was shaking. I gave him the
benefit of the doubt and assumed it was the cold. A third shell burst
farther up the mountain.
I worked myself around the boulder so that I could look down the slope.
My field glasses were covered with dust. With the cuff of my sleeve I
wiped the lenses and then raised the glasses to my eyes. Something
moved. It appeared so close that I could almost touch it. Lowering the
glasses I strained my eyes to see where the movement was. Everything
down slope was grey, different shades of grey. I could not make out
anything in detail beyond thirty meters. Hastily I raised the field
The terrain sprang back into sharp focus. Very slowly I moved the
glasses, studying the field from close by to the far distance. And there
it was again, the faint motion. It was an arm, an elbow, braced on the
ground. There was another arm, a hand holding a rifle. And then came the
head, covered by a helmet, a German helmet. The gun swung around and
steadied, pointing to the south of me. There was a flash, a puff of
smoke. I lowered the binoculars once more.
It seemed like an eternity before I heard the report of the shot. A
single shot. I heard a scream. And then there was silence.
Several other shots rang out. Far away to my right somebody yelled for a
“They are there,” I heard Mackenzie say next to me. I nodded.
“We shall have to flush them out. Johnson over here.” I shouted the last
It took some time before Johnson arrived.
“Smitty bought it,” he said hoarsely as he slipped around the boulder
and faced me.
Johnson grunted. “He did not even cry out.” He shuddered. “I was right
next to him. The bullet grazed Muldoon, ricocheted off a rock and caught
Smitty in the ear. He just toppled over.”
Johnson groaned. For a moment I thought that he was going to be sick.
Two artillery shells came whistling down. They landed higher up to my
right, behind our lines.
I outlined my plan to both my squad leaders. I would feign a frontal
attack. Mackenzie would infiltrate the enemy and attack from the north.
Johnson would lead his team down slope and attack from the south. We
synchronized our watches. I gave them fifteen minutes to get into
Both Johnson and Mackenzie returned to their respective squads. They
moved so stealthily that I could not see their progress. Evidently the
Germans did not see it either. There was small arms fire but it was far
A good ten minutes had gone by without a shot having been fired in our
sector. The sky was beginning to clear. As I swept my glasses over the
waters of the Herjangsfjord it was taking on a blue color. To the
southeast the city of Narvik was emerging from the haze. Closer at hand
everything seemed dead. Nothing moved. Some distance below me a German
mountain trooper lay quietly as if he were part of the scrubby trees or
a boulder. I had to look very carefully to make him out and even then I
was not quite sure. Thirty seconds left.
The mitten on my left hand was awkward. Things were hard to grasp. I sat
up between the rocks, then rested on my knees. Fifteen seconds. One last
glance through the binoculars. Nothing had changed before me. I fixed
the location of the enemy trooper in my mind. Then I took my submachine
gun in my left hand and released the safety catch. I pulled a grenade
off my belt with my right hand. Ten seconds. I crouched on the tip of my
feet, ready to spring up, the grenade held close to my mouth. Five
“Follow me,” I yelled at the one second mark. With my teeth I pulled the
pin out of the grenade and flung it down the mountainside to where I
figured the enemy trooper was hiding. Simultaneously I jumped diagonally
to my right from between the two rocks. After three giant strides I
dropped to the ground behind a couple of trees. Then came the explosion
of the grenade.
There was shooting all around me now as well as farther down the slope.
I took the submachine gun in my right hand again. On my elbows and knees
I wriggled forward to the protection of another large boulder.
Straight down in front of me I could hear the bursts of a machine gun.
From close to the ground I could not make out its exact location. It had
us pinned down and had to go. Way up ahead a shadow flitted from tree to
tree. I lined up my weapon and waited. After two seconds the shadow
moved again. I pressed the trigger.
There was a scream and something staggered and then fell to the ground.
Meanwhile I rolled another three meters down the hillside to come to
rest against a small mound. There was water in the depression in which I
had landed. My left upper arm and thigh got soaked. The feeling was
highly unpleasant and the urge to find a dry place was very great. But I
stayed put. Again I heard the bursts of the machine gun. It was a lot
closer now. Strangely I had not been shot at so far. I held my breath
A short distance to my left was a small stand of tall grasses. I wormed
my way towards it. An eerie silence had descended on my immediate
surroundings. The ground became dry and rocky. Cautiously I made my way
through the grasses. Abruptly they came to an end. Reaching ahead with
my left hand I felt empty space. I was on top of a small precipice. I
crept to the very edge of it and peered through the last few blades of
Below me nothing moved. All I could see was the grey of the ground and
the grey of the scrubby trees. Here and there a few rocks came to the
surface, also grey. I retreated a step and grappled with my field
glasses. Lying on the partially frozen ground at an awkward angle, my
fingers stiff from the cold, I encountered some difficulties in pulling
the glasses out of the carrying case. But at last I succeeded.
Back at the edge of the precipice I carefully scrutinized the ground
before me once more. It still looked grey and deserted. Some distance to
my right I heard the report of a rifle. Suddenly I noticed the most
minute movement about thirty meters away. In a brief burst the machine
gun spat out another couple of dozen bullets.
I lowered the binoculars in order to get a better view of the machine
gun nest relative to my position. Yes, there it was. Right next to the
clump of gnarled birch trees, hidden by the low branches and the dried
grass. One more quick peek through the field glasses to make sure I had
the place correctly located. As I raised the glasses a tremendous force
yanked them out of my hands. There was the sound of metal banging on
metal, of splintering glass. I dropped back and for a moment lay on the
dry grass. I had two grenades left. I took one, pulled out the pin and
flung it over the precipice.
The machine gun was starting up again when there was a muffled
explosion. I rolled over on my stomach. I crept the short distance to
the edge of the precipice. Where the machine gun nest had been I saw
only broken trees and some smoke. Nothing moved.
I slid back and quickly worked myself around the precipice, sliding down
the steep rock and gravel to the north of it, firing short bursts from
my submachine gun at the scraggy birch trees below. Then my feet hit a
narrow stretch of level ground. I let myself collapse and rolled behind
a clump of trees, still firing short bursts without aiming at anything.
Suddenly small arms fire exploded from everywhere behind me as my
troopers jumped up and advanced. I quickly rose and raced from cover to
cover, firing at anything that moved. In no time we had covered a
hundred meters, then two hundred. The enemy was thoroughly confused.
From all around the Germans rose, their hands held high.
We took a large number of prisoners. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie to
the north of me and Sergeant Bill Johnson to the south had just gotten
into position when the action came to an end.
The enemy still sent occasional rounds of artillery shells over, but
they were not aimed and did no damage. By noon we reached the shore of
the fjord. There were a few snipers to be flushed out here and there but
we lost no more soldiers. Late afternoon saw us make contact with a
French unit. Our objective had been achieved.
Not until the supper hour did our field kitchens catch up to us. The sun
had broken through the clouds and the city of Narvik stood out clearly
on its peninsula across the water with the tall mountains as a backdrop.