Crawl through the weeds
Pursued by one wounded Norwegian
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In 1814, rule over Norway passed from Denmark
to Sweden, ending 434 years of Danish-Norwegian
union. Some Norwegian elites resisted the
imposition of Stockholm’s authority,
but by the end of the year the Swedes had
established control of the country. They promised
to respect Norway’s separate constitution;
union with Sweden would be a personal one,
with a common king and direction of foreign
During the second half of the 19th century,
Norway saw its economy become ever more dependent
on its shipping industry. While Sweden followed
protectionist policies to shield its native
industries, particularly steel, Norwegian
business interests clamored for free trade.
In 1884, tension led to new laws allowing
the Norwegian parliament to fire cabinet ministers,
but this did not solve the underlying problem.
Swedish embassies and consulates around the
world were not, Norwegian shipowners complained,
supporting their interests and often worked
against them. In 1895 the Swedes ended free
trade even between the two countries, and
tensions grew hotter.
Norway maintained its own separate army
and navy, and began steady increases in both.
Sweden armed as well, and war seemed imminent.
In May 1905, the Norwegian parliament passed
a law establishing its own foreign service,
which King Oscar II vetoed. Norway mobilized
and armed the frontier forts; on 7 June parliament
made a formal declaration of independence.
After declaring their own mobilization,
the Swedes soon agreed to await the outcome
of a Norwegian vote on independence. By 368,208
to 184 the motion carried. While many of his
advisors spoke for war, Oscar declined to
fight. Sweden formally recognized Norway’s
independence in October.
As part of their militarization, Norway
ordered a division of coastal battleships
similar to those operated by Sweden. A minor
arms race broke out between the two nations;
a number of Swedish industrialists even complained
that Norway was ordering her ships in Britain
rather than Sweden.
Armstrong-Whitworth laid down two small coastal
battleships in 1896, Harald Haarfagre and Tordenskjold; even the names (Swede-smiting
Norwegian heroes of the Viking and latter
Danish periods, repsectively) were a provocation.
They displaced 3,858 tons each and carried
a single 8.2-inch gun in a turret fore and
aft plus a half-dozen 4.7-inch guns. They
made about average speed for battleships of
the time (17 knots) and adequately armored
for their role. They were superior ships to
the Swedish Svea class then completing;
the Swedes responded with a new class of their
own, three ships of the Oden class.
Tordenskjold on a visit to Kiel,
Not to be intimidated, the Norwegians ordered
two more slightly larger but similar ships, Norge and Eidsvold. These had
a slightly heavier secondary armament, with
5.9-inch rather than 4.7-inch guns, and displaced
4,165 tons. The two new ships commissioned
in 1900; the Swedish Navy Minister asked for
one more ship in reply but right-wing elements
in the parliament’s First Chamber rammed
through an appropriation for four of them.
Norwegian naval construction halted for the
next several years with Swedish acceptance
of independence. In 1912 parliament voted
to fund a pair of larger coastal battleships,
the 4,900-ton Nidaros and Bjørgvin.
Elswick, Armstrong’s rival, received
the contract (British firms sometimes competed
for arms contracts, but more often this was
a public show to promote sales). The two ships
were laid down in January 1913 and confiscated
by the Royal Navy in 1915. The British completed
them as the monitors Gorgon and Glatton.
In Norwegian service, their main armament
would have been two 9.4-inch guns, plus four
6-inch guns. They were slower than the previous
Norwegian ships, rated at only 15 knots. The
British kept the armament basically unchanged
(substituting 9.2-inch Mark XII guns for the
Norwegian big guns) but added wide anti-torpedo
bulges that increased displacement to 5,700
tons. Gorgon, the former Nidaros, was commissioned in May 1918 and performed
several bombardments of the Flanders coast.
After the war the Royal Navy tried unsuccessfully
to sell her back to Norway and to Peru, Romania
and Argentina before using her as a target. Glatton, the former Bjørgvin, was commissioned in September 1918 and
blew up at her moorings a week later when
red-hot cinders heated a bulkhead between
the engine room and her 6-inch magazine.
During the First World War, the Norwegian
fleet performed neutrality patrols, swept
hundreds of mines that drifted into Norwegian
waters, and recovered over 200 bodies. The
coastal battleships saw no action, and Norway
remained neutral throughout despite growing
public hostility toward German unrestricted
Harald Haarfagre and Tordenskjold became training vessels in the 1930s,
and were captured undamaged at the Horten
naval yard by the Germans in 1940. Both were
converted to floating anti-aircraft batteries
by the Germans and saw much more action in
the Second World War in this role; they were
returned to Norway afterward and scrapped.
Norge and Eidsvold were both
at Narvik on 9 April 1940 when German destroyers
entered the fjord. The Norwegian ships challenged
them; the Germans replied with torpedoes that
All six Norwegian coastal battleships, plus
the fleet’s small collection of gunboats
and torpedo boats, appear in our Great
War at Sea: Jutland game. Norway did not
fight in the First World War, but there are
hypothetical scenarios in the game based on
Norwegian, British and German war plans, and
also for the 1905 potential conflict with
Sweden. Any proud Norwegian gamer will now
be able to chase the Swedes.
here to order Great War at Sea: Jutland!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.