Friday, April 9, 2010

The Invasion of Denmark 1940 (Weserübung Süd)

Panzerkampfwagen I of the 11th Schützenbrigade, 9 April 1940

The conquest of Denmark was the quickest campaign in German military history. In the course of one day, actually in a few hours, the German Wehrmacht was able to secure an entire country. This campaign is interesting for many reasons, but before I get into that a bit of history . . .

Denmark once controlled a vast empire, but declined in power over a long period of time. During the 16th Century Denmark fought a series of devastating wars with Sweden and by the 1700s Denmark was lucky to have escaped Swedish hegemony.

In 1866 Denmark lost a short, but decisive war against the German Confederation losing the southern province of Schleswig which was predominately German, but with a Danish majority in its northern part. The treaty of Prague had promised the Danes of Schleswig a plebiscite as to which kingdom they would belong, but the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 removed France as the patron of the Schleswig Danes and a revised treaty did away with this requirement. Between 1870-1920, Schleswig was part of Prussia and thousands of ethnic Danes served in the German Army in World War I. Prussian policy in northern Schleswig, as in Alsace-Lorraine and the Polish areas in the east was harsh in the cultural sense - German as the official language, children required to attend German schools, Lutheran pastors required to make a pledge to the Kaiser among other measures. Essentially the same as being Welsh, Irish or Scottish under the English imo.

With the defeat of Germany in 1918, Schleswig's position came once more under question. Although neutral during the war, Denmark petitioned the Allies with their claims to Schleswig to the extent that the status of the province was addressed in the formal 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Section XII Articles 109-114. This required the German authorities to vacate the province and a plebicite to be held under Allied supervision. To ensure the desired outcome the Allies stipulated that two votes be carried out, one in the predominately German south and a second in the predominately Danish north. This against German protests that the province be treated as a whole entity, which it had been for centuries. Unsurprisingly the Danes voted to return to Denmark and the German/Danish border moved south.

I add this bit of history to indicate the connection between this frontier and the hated Treaty of Versailles, particularly for Hitler and the Nazis who had promised to overturn every element of the hated document, including of course designated borders. While there was nothing like the drive to regain the former German areas of 1919-1939 Poland, the history of the plebiscite and the memory of Danish moves against a prostrate Germany were clearly in the minds of the Nazis in 1940. This history made the decision to invade and occupy Denmark all the easier.

The invasion of Denmark does not rate a lot of study in terms of military history, for the obvious reason that the combat actions were all tactical - at the most basic level - and short, measured in minutes. However for strategic theory Weserübung Süd it is extremely interesting. The Germans (basically under Hitler's orders) carried out perhaps the most bloodless victory in history. In one day they took complete control of not only the territory of Denmark, but more importantly the Danish state. The campaign includes the full spectrum of negotiation, coercion and military force, from economic incentives to destroying the Danish Air Force in a surprise attack. Denmark was necessary to conquer quickly since the much more ambitious invasion of Norway (Weserübung Nord carried out starting the same day) required German control of Danish airfields and sea ports. Effective Danish resistance, including sabotage could have compromised the Norwegian campaign from the start. As it was the Germans were successful in capturing Denmark intact, while the submission of Norway was in the balance for some time and only concluded after two months of hard fighting. From this perspective, the invasion of Norway is roughly the opposite of the Danish operation, given the conditions of 1940.

Background on the Danish Army's stand on April 9, 1940 is available for review on the net.

The Germans of course made newsreels . . . and domestic propaganda . . .

The Danish operation was conducted by General der Flieger Leonhard Kaupisch's XXXI Corps headquartered in Hamburg. The XXXI Corps comprising the 170th and 198th Infantry Divisions. The other major unit involved was the 11th Schützenbrigade (later the 11th Panzer Division) which is usually translated as the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade but included Mark I and II tanks. Additional German Army units included a battalion of the 69th Infantry Division and unidentified Brandenburg elements, and the Luftwaffe provided a company of paratroopers, a motorcycle company from the Hermann Göring Regiment and FLAK units.

The 11th Schützenbrigade and the 170th Infantry Division crossed the border on a broad front at 05:15 on 9 April 1940. At 07:30 the paratroopers were in control of the northernmost and most important airfield in Denmark, that at Aalborg. By 08:00 the Danish Army had ceased resistance. The railroads were captured intact and the 11th Brigade was able to reach Aalborg in the course of the day. These are the military time lines.

The Luftwaffe essentially destroyed the Danish Army Air Corps on the ground at Vaerloese airfield outside of Copenhagen. The attack took place according to Danish accounts at 05:45 (the Germans put the time as later). Two squadrons of Me-110s destroyed or badly damaged 25 aircraft, mostly Fokker D-XXIs.

The naval actions started earlier when Naval Groups 7-11 left their ports in Germany and seized various important points during the hours after about 05:00 on 9 April. Group 8 which landed at Copenhagen reported the Citadel captured without resistance at 07:30. Group 8 consisted of the motorship Hansastadt Danzig carrying 1,000 troops, an icebreaker and two picket boats as escort. Earl Ziemke in The German Northern Theater of Operations, the Dept of Army "pamphlet", describes the mission of Group 8 as being "predominately political and psychological". The guns guarding the harbor had been unable even to get off a warning shot due to their barrels being too full of grease to be fired. The German Army commander of the landing force had arrived in Copenhagen on the 4th and had spent his time getting acquainted with his target. The officer, a major who was even was able to get an escorted tour of the Citadel days before its capture, met his men at the docks as they were coming ashore.

He was not alone, also Kaupisch's Chief of Staff, Major General Kurt Himer had arrived on the 7th and presented himself to the senior German representative in Denmark Cecil von Renthe-Fink at 23:00 on the 8th. Himer was able to keep open a direct telephone line with his headquarters in Hamburg and give up-to-date information of the course of early morning's actions. When the Danish government delayed in surrendering, Himer warned that the next wave of German He-111 bombers would be dropping bombs instead of the propaganda leaflets they had been dropping up to that point. The Danish government ordered a cease fire at 07:20 and surrender followed within an hour. Himer requested an audience with the Danish King Christian X right after the surrender. Kaupisch issued a proclamation that same day. The official Danish government's history of the occupation provides an accurate source of what happened afterwards. Denmark is rightly remembered for having rescued their Jewish citizens from the Holocaust.

The campaign is noteworthy for two different aspects today. First, the French especially, and later the British saw Scandinavia as a second front to distract Germany from attacking in the West. The initially effective Finnish resistance against Soviet aggression in the Winter War offered the Western Allies the opportunity of shifting the focus of the war away from France and towards a completely different theater. The British were at first adverse to confronting the Soviets, but after the strong showing of the Finns started to doubt Soviet military effectiveness (as did Hitler). The British promised 100,000 troops for the Scandinavian Front and the French 50,000. What precluded this was the Finnish surrender in March 1940. It is also interesting to note that the German Navy suggested offering the Soviets the area of northern Norway including Narvik to guarantee their participation as allies, but Hitler refused this.

The second aspect involves strategic theory rather than military history. The Danish campaign shows that the Germans in 1940 were very flexible in their use of power to achieve their political purposes, rather than instinctively reaching for the military option at every opportunity. Denmark offered a whole series of advantages to Germany, but she would have to be captured intact to achieve almost all of these, a devastated Denmark and a hostile population would not achieve German goals, not to mention would make the attack on Norway almost impossible to carry out. For this reason the full spectrum of economic incentives, assurances, coercion and force were utilized to demonstratable effect. In spite of Nazi memories of Danish exploitation of German weakness in 1920 (Christian X had been King of Denmark in 1920) there was no adjustment of Danish borders and the Danes were promised that they would retain control of their own internal affairs, a status which remained in effect until mid 1943. That the Germans were able to achieve this had much to do with their successes in Poland the previous fall which had surprised the world and awed the Danes. Coercion has to be credible to be effective, but at the same time force has its limits. Seventy years to the day after this campaign it is amazing to consider that the Nazis - of all people - were clear about this, whereas there is much to be learned by the politicians of today in the use of incentives, non-violent and violent coercion and force used together to achieve strategic goals.

In summary there are specific reasons for this remarkable German success. First, they were not adverse to taking casualties. German losses were approximately 200 KIA and WIA, whereas the Danes lost about 50 including civilians. The Germans were interested in speed and their armored cars were lightly protected and with nothing above 20mm, as were the Mark I and II tanks. The Danes had 37mm anti-tank guns which could have taken on anything the Germans had effectively. From the accounts, the Danes were not prepared for strafing by fighter aircraft and there were instances of Danish military resistance collapsing after having been strafed. The successful attack on the Danish Army Air Force was a stroke of luck. Had the Me-110s arrived 20 minutes later they would have found the Danish Fokker XXIs in the air and at an advantage against the Me-110s at low altitude. Had the artillery defenses of Copenhagen been prepared they could have wiped out the German invasion force, that is Group 8, as was witnessed on the approaches to Oslo. Had the Danes resisted longer, the involvement of Sweden could not have been ruled out.

In Chapter 3 of the Art of War, the Chinese General Sun Tzu writes:

Generally, in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this. To capture the enemy's entire army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a regiment, a company, or a squad is better than to destroy them. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.

Oh, and a hearty thanks to Zenpundit for his kind post . . . yes, we're back!


  1. It really is a remarkable campaign.

    And yet, it's undramatic nature causes it to be a mere footnote.

    Funny how it works that way.

  2. Ael-


    Btw, this is the second of a series of posts commemorating the 70th anniversary of WWII. The next one will be posted next month: "Fall Gelb".

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