IG JOURNAL, 1965
From IG Journal, 1965: NORWEGIAN MEMORIES By ex-Sgt. P. ABRAHAMS (late 1st Battalion SCOTS GUARDS) Twenty-four years ago, 7th April 1940, saw the 1st Battalion IRISH GUARDS embarking from a Scottish port for their first campaign of World War II, a campaign that although little known at the present day, produced some of the finest deeds of bravery under great hardships in the snows and mountains of Norway. The Micks took part in the battle that will go down in the annals of war, ranking with Waterloo etc, the battle of Narvik. I, as an ex-1st Battalion Scots Guard, who had the privilege to serve alongside the Micks during that campaign, have been prompted to put pen to paper as I recently covered the ground between the Saltdal area, south of Rognan and Pothus Bridge, and to the north, Bodo. I was on route to Finland and Spitzbergen for six weeks survival training, and it was with mixed feelings and memories that I entered the small town of Mo-I-Rana, where three Companies of my Battalion came to grips with the German mountain division, who were supported by aircraft and paratroops. The Micks sailing from Harstad in the Lofoten Islands were to have supported the Scots in the expected attack, as were the South Wales Borderers. Bad luck dogged our preparations to meet the attack, we, the Scots landed at Mo-I-Rana on Sunday, 12th May, 1940, under heavy dive-bombing attacks, while the Micks sailing in the “Chrobry” had a direct hit with a heavy bomb, killing most of the senior officers including the C.o., and Major “Clubs” Denham 2nd in Command who was badly wounded and died in Harstad some days later. The South Wales Borderers fared no better, as the battle-cruiser “Effingham” was run aground on a rocky ledge in one of the fjords as she sailed to join the Scots at Mo-I-Rana. It was the general opinion that it was the work of the pilot who was a German-Norwegian. They returned to Harstad to re-fit, as did the Micks, outstanding discipline reminiscent of the sinking of the Birkenhead (“none but the brave”) was a credit to the Micks, as they were taken off the bombed and blazing “Chobry.” this news was given to me by Major John Elwes my Company Commander (“B” Company) on the evening of the 17th May, 1940, as we prepared to march the 14 miles to the help of Left and Right Flank Companies, who were under heavy German attack at Dlsklubben across the fjord and approximately 10 miles south of Mo. I was Company Runner, and Major Elwes spoke to me of the Micks, and the sinking of the “Chobry” saying, “the moral to this is, never put all your eggs in the one basket” meaning that all the Senior Officers had been accommodated together in deck cabins when the bombing took place. The action around Mo and the blowing up of the town bridge over the river Rana, leaving my Company (“B” Company) on the German side to hold Mo at all costs, the epic march over the mountains through the German positions; crossing the deep river by three small boats, etc.; the award of the M.C. to Major Elwes is Scots Guards history. Had the Micks and the South Wales Borderers been with us at the actions around Mo, the German attack would have been broken, and the tragic fighting withdrawal up north over the Arctic Circle would never have taken place. On the evening of the 24th/25th May we passed over Pothus Bridge, and the Micks around Pothus and Rognan had been re-equipped and sent to Bodo, a port town (later a German Naval base) that was undefended, and a few days later was subjected to waves of dive-bomber attacks until it was reduced to a pile of burning rubble. The hospital and nurses, etc., were not spared from attack. I well remember how weary we were as we passed through the Micks, a week without sleep, daylight twenty-four hours a day, dirty, and worn out with continuous marching and actions; the Micks were taken aback by our “turn-out” but gave us a real hearty welcome, believing that they, with the Independent Company could hold the German advance through the Saltdal district, a vast mountainous wooded region with one rough road running through it, the Arctic Highway, Route 50. The heroic courage shown by the Micks, who, like the Scots were hopelessly outnumbered and out-flanked by mountain troops supported by aircraft (of which we had none), guns, etc., was never publicised. The bridge at Pothus had to be destroyed because the Germans were advancing rapidly and almost reached it. Many Micks had to try to disengage themselves from the enemy and swim the river which was in full spate. On re-visiting the Saltdal area, I remembered vividly the courageous attempts of R.S.M. Johnny Stack to rescue many non-swimmers, using rifle slings, etc., in a magnificent effort to save his boys. From the 5th June, 1964, I spent two days between Evenesdal, Vensmoen and Rognan speaking to hill farmers, townsfolk, etc., who remembered vividly the Micks who had been billeted for a short time in their houses, prior to going into battle positions. They must have made a hit with the local “lovelies”, several of the farmers’ wives admitted to me that their first love had been the “big Irelanders” perhaps that explains why I noticed some young Norwegian men and women with a marked “Irish” look. In Rognan churchyard lie some Micks who fell in action, while others were never recovered as they were both shot and drowned in the river. Perhaps survivors will remember some of the following, whose names I have taken at random: 2717801 Guardsman J. Tierney, 25 May 1940 2718899 Guardsman Rankin 2718597 Guardsman Donnolly. (Age 21) Guardsman Jordan. If anyone knows of a Mick named Reardon, his tin hat was given to me by a farmer who told me that Reardon was with his section and under fire, when they attempted to swim the roaring torrent, he, with the others, was both shot and drowned, some miles down river near Sundby. I would like to return his “tin-hat” to the Regiment. Also handed to me by another hill farmer was the Platoon roll book, which had lain in the rain for a long time in the side-pack of a Mick. I was told that he had fallen on the hillside overlooking the little wooden church at Satertind near Saltdal. His rifle is also in another house, complete with bayonet and in perfect working order. I have forwarded the roll-book to R.H.Q. for the museum. When I visited the little chapel at Saltdal, I was told how a Mick, at over 600 yards, picked off a German sniper who was in the spire of the church, the bullet-hole is still there, and this excellent shot is local legend. The Micks must have made a great impression on the people, as I was asked several times why they had never returned with their pipes, etc. They had heard of them over the years but no Micks ever returned. On a small farm outside Rognan, a grass hillock in front of the farmhouse and facing the road, was pointed out to me by the farmer’s wife. On this very spot a very young Mick (allegedly from Dublin) was shot dead from the rear of the farmhouse by outflanking Germans. They quay at Rognan has been re-built, many Micks must remember their evacuation under fire, while the quay was ablaze, but it is no longer used by the now extinct ferry. The railway built by German slave labour in 1942 runs from Trondheim to Bodo, along the fjord-side via Hopen bridge, is called the “Bloody Road” as countless thousands of Russian and Slav P.O.W.s perished during its construction. Hopen Bridge, the last action we (“B” Company) the Scots Guards fought in Norway, was the scene of the withdrawal through our lines of the Micks five to six days after we had passed through them at Pothus and Rognan. In 1964 as I stood at the modern Hopen Bridge, I remembered that it was here the transport had passed with many Micks wearing old civvies and trilby hats, etc., as they had lost everything whilst crossing the roaring river at, or around Pothus. I had recognised an old friend, Paddy Tellin, who was later killed in action, siting on the tail board of a lorry, as he passed I asked him if he had been demobbed, owing to this rather short civvy-suit and a very natty trilby, but he was holding a tommy-gun and his reply was rather rude, and I gathered that he was in a bad temper. On the outskirts of Hopen village the morning that the Micks withdrew through “B” Company, Johnny Stack got off some transport, he looked “all in” and was very excited when discussing the action he had seen so much of at Pothus. He then proceeded on to Bodo. In 1964 I was take by a Norwegian Army Captain to a house on the outskirts of Bodo, here he showed me some excellent drawings on a kitchen wall done by a Mick in late May or early June, 1940, also he remembered one or two names of officers. These were the only houses left standing outside the town after the Blitz. Near Pothus I was presented with a practice pipe chanter by an old lady, who informed me that it had belonged to an “Irelander”, as there was no reed in the chanter it greatly puzzled the owner how it was played. In 1963 when I was en route to Finmark on expeditionary training I spent a day in Harstad, which had been the main base in Norway for the attack on Narvik. Here again the Micks were remembered, especially by the ladies, who well remembered their Irish blarney. The Mayor of Harstad, Magnur Hellibus, had made enquiries for me regarding a set of pipes which had been lost by Pipe Major Alexander MacDonald, P/M to H.M. the Queen, during the evacuation in June 1940. Mr. Lars Larsen, an old fisherman, had recovered part of the drones complete with faded Stuart tartan ribbons, also a near complete set of Irish Guards pipes which had been found on the bombed quay at Harstad. They were presented to me at a small gathering of Councillors, and as I had a bottle of “Glen Grant” plus a few “Yank” cigars, the party went with a swing. On my return to the U.K. the pipes were sent to R.H.Q. Relatives and friends are welcome to a photograph of any of the graves I mentioned previously. The graves are well kept by the local Norwegian people, and I placed flowers on the graves of some lads I had known. I would also like to hear from any Mick who had taken part in the actions near Rognan and Pothus or around Narvik. My address can be obtained from the Editor. The grave-digger in Rognan churchyard is still very annoyed with the “Irelanders” for blowing up the bridge at Pothus in 1940, he wanted to know who the blackguard was who had done such a terrible deed, and without compensation too. The cellar beneath the Parson’s house near Rognan church, had been used to house Micks who had been captured around Saltdal and Pothus. The Germans were very surprised to hear hearty singing coming from the cellar, and on opening the door it was found that the prisoners were drunk, having found a stone of home-made wine in the cellar. The Parson told me that it greatly puzzled the Germans as the Micks were singing Irish rebel songs and laughing. They were later sent to Trondheim. To conclude, I have been assured that a very warm welcome awaits any Mick who re-visits Norway.