October 1, 2016. Hey folks, to prevent chronological confusion, here’s a head’s up: I’m jumping back in time a bit to catch up with my calendar of events. In my last post before the U.S. presidential election, I’d written aboutNorway’s Oscar Bidand the film Kongens Nei (“The King’s No”). Matthew and I were so taken with the movie that we decided to make a trip the next day to Oscarsborg Festning. It’s the island fortress where one of the film’s pivotal scenes — the sinking of the Blücher, Hitler’s flagship — takes place.
If you haven’t had the chance to watch the trailer yet (or you can try downloading the movie here), let me set the stage for you. It’s the night of April 8, 1940. Unbeknownst to neutral Norway, Germany has sent a flotilla up the Oslo fjord to seize the city, king, and cabinet, and thus launch the Nazi invasion of the country. But the surprise attack goes awry. Shortly after 11:00 p.m., a Norwegian patrol boat spots the flotilla. The boat barely manages to radio headquarters of the impending strike by an unknown enemy before being torched. Warning fire from nearby Norwegian coastal guns does nothing to dissuade the mystery flotilla’s advance.
Darkness and fog continue to cloak the invaders. The flotilla sails further into the fjord, towards the antiquated and undermanned Oscarsborg Fortress. Situated on an island at the end of the Drøbak Straight, the fortress is the last line of defense before reaching Oslo’s bay. In charge is 64-year-old Oberst (Colonel) Birger Eriksen, who is six months away from retirement. His troops? Reservists and raw recruits, who’ve been called up within the last week and have limited training. Thirty men in all — only enough to man two of the fortress’s three big guns.
In the pre-dawn hours of April 9, the fog lifts briefly, and the fort’s searchlights suddenly illuminate the ominous silhouette of the Blücher. Eriksen radios military headquarters, asking “Should we fire?” The government waffles, unsure whether the ships are British or German. Eriksen’s men call out the closing distance between the ship and the fort; every second ticks away the chance to square a direct hit. Still no response from the Norwegian government, which clings to the hope of neutrality.
Eriksen tersely observes “Those ships are running with no lights and no signals — those are the actions of a foe, not a friend.” He makes a momentous decision and shouts out his now-famous command: “Either I will be decorated, or I will be court-martialed. Fire!” The shell from Gun #1 hits the Blücher’s command tower and sets the ship ablaze. Gun #2 takes out the airplane hangar and ignites stored fuel. The explosion disables electricity to the Blücher‘s guns and does damage to its boiler room, reducing engine power. But Eriksen’s novice crew cannot reload the big guns fast enough, and the Blücher begins to move out of range.
Smaller, secondary guns on the coastline and along the fort’s east-shore battery take over the fight, eventually disabling the Blücher‘s steering. The ship soon drifts with range of Oscarborg’s torpedo battery. Men stationed within the fortress’s hidden underground tunnels quickly load two of the torpedo chambers and fire.
Torpedo #1 does little damage, but Torpedo #2 manages to blow a hole in the Blücher‘s side. Efforts to save her prove futile when subsequent explosions rip open her bulkhead. She sinks in less than an hour, taking some 800 crewmen and 1300 troops with her. Only about 200 men survive to swim to shore. The rest of the German fleet turns tail and runs. An invasion by air will commence later that day, but the delay of a few hours gives the royal family, cabinet, and parliament time to escape Oslo. They will eventually be evacuated to England, where they will continue to work as the Norwegian government in exile and lead the resistance movement for the remainder of the war.
Okay, so that’s my 500-word wrap-up summarizing a mere five minutes of the film’s many incredibly intense moments. It’s a true David-and-Goliath tale. Maybe now you can see why Matthew and I loved the the movie and were so interested to see the real Oscarsborg Fortress. If you’re visiting Oslo and are also intrigued by the idea, I’d devote a full day to the trip. In summer you can take the B21/B22 ferry to the adorable village of Drøbak (a scenic 1.5-hour voyage). Or throughout the year, you can hop on the Drøbak Express Shuttle from Oslo’s main bus station, a trip that takes 45 minutes and provides lovely coastline vistas along the way.
From Drøbak, you can catch the tiny ferry to Oscarsborg itself. But I’ll warn you that the walk from the Drøbak bus stop to the ferry landing is quite circuitous. I think we stopped about five times to ask for directions. The good news is that the path takes you along the outskirts of the town, which is made up of gingerbread cottages possessing serene seaside views. With our usual flair for terrible timing, we finally arrived at the dock during the ferry crew’s lunch break, so we spent the hour before boarding-time prowling back lanes and taking photos of the town’s storybook cuteness. (Click on them for bigger views.)
Check out this stunning home on one of Drøbak’s quiet country lanes.
Seems like every home in Drøbak is cottage quaint.
The Oscarsborg ferry itself is a dear little thing compared to Oslo’s big boys. I wanted to put it in my pocket, then wind it up and launch it in my bathtub back home. After climbing aboard and claiming a spot on deck, we got a good gander at the coastal hillsides studded with the old gun batteries that had played such an important role in the Battle of Drøbak Sound. And we got our first glimpse of Oscarsborg Fortress — covertly tucked into the greenery of South Kaholmen, an island that sits in the middle of the fjord’s narrow neck. From a distance, South Kaholmen appears completely wooded, so I can understand why the Nazi flotilla was caught unawares by the fort’s gunfire. It’s only at close range that you can see the island’s shaved flanks, crowned by the main battery and fort.
If you look closely, you can see one of the WWII coastal guns that fired upon the Blücher. Look for the tiny brown bunker sitting on a rocky outcropping just below the hilltop and above the little red house.
In the distance, you can see the green-domed islands that host Oscarsborg Fortress and some of the gun batteries. The naked bit in the foreground is where the main fort and biggest guns are located.
A signboard for the Oscarsborg Hotel & Spa advertises a “Sink the Blücher” gaming experience.
As you approach Oscarsborg, you can see the top of the fort itself peeping above the barren foreground and big hillocks that hide the main guns. The East Shore Battery sits to the left of and behind the small red tanker. The green mound in the background is the island of Håøya, which holds two cannon batteries.
A ten-minute jaunt aboard the ferry brought us to the fort’s main dock, where we alighted and began the hunt for a late afternoon lunch. Crossing a sweet little stone bridge brought us to the larger island of North Kaholmen, where we sat at the harbor bar, sucked in the sunshine, and watched the boats bob on the water — a truly relaxing experience that’s reason enough for a trip to Oscarsborg. But with only a couple of hours left to tour the site, we finished our meal quickly and made a beeline for the main fort.
A stroll through the fort’s museum provided us with some historical background (in English, thank goodness). Built in the 1850s, Oscarsborg was once considered the most modern fortress in Northern Europe. It underwent numerous upgrades over the years, but by the Battle of Drøbak Sound, time and economic depression had taken its toll, and the fort’s guns were over 40 years old. Yep, that’s right. The weapons that took out the Blücher were ancient and out of date. Gives me hope that middle-agers like me still have some life left in them.
The fort itself follows the traditional design of French military engineer Montalembert, who favored horseshoe-shaped structures that sported tiers of weaponry, all embedded neatly into a hillside for protection.
The main fort was built between 1849 and 1856 and remained an active military base until 1993. The officer’s school at Oscarsborg was finally closed in 2002, when the fortress was decommissioned. It’s now one of 14 such historical fortresses maintained by the state as The National Fortifications Heritage (“Nasjonale festningsverk”).
King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway came to inspect the fortress on August 23, 1855. From then on, it became known as Oscarsborg (“Oscar’s Castle”).
The fortress itself only saw action once — the night of the Nazi invasion in April 1940. After taking out the Blücher, the fortress endured hours of bombing by German planes. Notice that the walls still bear bullet wounds from the strafing runs of enemy aircraft.
During the Battle of Drøbak Sound, the curved corridors of the main and east-shore batteries, as well as underground tunnels that connected the two, helped provide limited protection for Oscarborg’s men.
These old photos show you what the fort originally looked like, and how the all-important searchlights worked.
A couple of rooms are devoted just to the Drøbak battle, with photos, weapons, and other ephemera that help tell the story of that fateful night. Aside from incredible images of the sinking Blücher, my favorite exhibit consisted of an old-timey diorama — the kind where you push the button for a narrative, lights, and sounds that bring the miniature battle scene to life. The audio is in Norwegian, but a nearby panel provides a translation, although I’d recommend a quick Wikipedia reading to really understand how events unfolded.
Seen here during her sea trials (test run), the Blücher was the second of Nazi Germany’s five Admiral Hipper-class heavy cruisers. For her inaugural mission, she lead the invasion of Norway on April 8, 1940, accompanied by the heavy cruiser Lützow, the light cruiser Emden, and several smaller escorts. Wrap your head around this: A brand new German ship with a huge crew of trained men got taken out by 40-year-old weapons manned mostly by raw recruits.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 9, two torpedoes from Oscarsborg deliver the killing blow to the Blücher. She anchors near the Askholmene islets to try and get the fires and water intake under control. But by 5:30 a.m. the blaze reaches an ammunitions magazine. The resulting explosion rips an enormous hole in the bulkhead and the ship begins to sink.
By 6:21 a.m., the Blücher goes keel up, and sailors and soldiers abandon ship. Most of those who don’t drown in the freezing waters end up being burned alive when oil spilling out from the sinking ship catches on fire.
Continuously leaking oil from the Blücher eventually spurred remediation efforts. In 1994, a team of divers retrieved 1,000 tons of oil from the wreck, buried at a depth of 35 fathoms (210 ft; 64 m). Bonus: the oil was then scrubbed and sold at market! But 47 fuel bunkers still remain too deep to reach, so periodic oil spills continue to mark the spot of the Blücher’s demise.
After touring the museum, we wandered outside to explore the main battery armed with three big biblical guns — Aaron, Moses, and Joshua — the first two of which were responsible for those devastating initial shots fired at the Blücher. (The third, Joshua, was armed and loaded, but there simply weren’t enough men to man him.) Kinda ironic that the weapons responsible for sinking Hitler’s invading flagship had Jewish names. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?
A panoramic view shows you Joshua, Moses, and Aaron, Oscarborg’s big guns.
Pictured is Aaron, complete with battle scars inflicted by Nazi planes that attacked the fort a few hours after the sinking of the Blücher. The gun is a German-made 28-cm (11-inch) calibre Krupps that fires 255 kg (562 lb) high-explosive shells.
It seems that every historic battle site, Matthew finds himself overcome by the urge to stick his head in a cannon’s neck. Should I be worried about this predilection?
Okay, now he’s got the hang of things. He’s pretending to use a system of gears and levers designed to move the gun into position and site the target.
Yes, dear, big gun go BOOM! I’m thinking he might need something more than just his fingers in his ears for protection.
We continued our walk along the main battery’s bristling bluff, down to the east and west shore batteries, and eventually to the torpedo battery that put a final period to the Blücher‘s short career. Looking down the narrow Drøbak straight towards the ship’s gravesite gave me goosebumps. If not for Colonel Eriksen’s willingness to take a chance at being court-martialed, Norway’s fate might have been quite different. (See the details in my post, Norwegian Resistance.)
Oscarborg’s Austro-Hungarian Whitehead torpedoes carried 100-kg TNT warheads that dated back to 1900 — the last time the fort received a serious upgrade. The torpedoes had been successfully practice-launched more than 200 times, but no one was sure they would actually detonate, due to their age. While the torpedoes’ speed could be set, targeting had to be done via dead reckoning (estimating the distance and speed of the target visually.) A few days before the Nazi invasion, the regular torpedo commander became ill. So the Navy had to call in the nearest local expert, Commander Andreas, who had retired 13 years earlier.
The Nazis knew of Oscarborg and its antiquated guns but had no knowledge of its hidden torpedo battery. A natural cave had been enlarged and enhanced with three torpedo chambers loaded via underwater cage elevators. The Blücher unwittingly passed with 500 m (550 yards) of the torpedo battery. Colonel Andreas took aim and sent two torpedoes racing towards their target, hidden underwater at a depth of 3 m (9.8 ft).
In this Google Satellite image, you can see Oscarsborg Fortress and the main fort where the big guns and torpedoes were fired. Follow the dotted lines towards the Askenholmene islets, and you’ll see the red dot where the mortally injured Blücher anchored and eventually sank.
For those of you who might be considering a visit to Oscarsborg, I’d recommend a few things. First, download the QR code for the walking tour to make the most of your wanderings around the site. Second, try to plan your visit in mid summer, when the fort hosts re-enactments of the historic battle. And if you get a chance, stop by the Commandant’s House for a fascinating look at today’s Norwegian military. I didn’t get an opportunity to try out the spa or check out the hotel, so those are on my “to-do” list for next time.
Built in 1855, the Commandant’s House was both a personal residence and place for official gatherings and parties. Commandants came from the upper classes and received not only officers’ training, but also an education in music, dance, art, and social manners. Besides their military duties, they were responsible for “keeping it classy.”
Today the Commandant’s House holds exhibitions on the Norwegian Armed Forces. Various videos educate visitors on the crazy stuff Norwegian recruits must learn to do, such as shoot while skiing. By the way, one year of military service is mandatory for both men and women.
While we were visiting, the Commandant’s House had a special exhibition on the work of Ragnvald Blix (Stig Hook). He was a caricaturist famed for his biting political cartoons during WWII. This one shows Norwegians taking their radios and other forbidden communication devices to a Nazi “Delivery Place.”
This cartoon shows “Germany vs. Norway” with the caption “weapons of war returned without loss or damage,” alluding to the ridiculous measures taken by Germany to invade a virtually defenseless Norway.
As it was, we barely finished our tour in time to catch the last ferry back to Drøbak, where we prowled the streets looking for a good place to have dinner. Eventually we came upon Drøbak Fiskerøkeri(Fish Smokery), which had a great backyard space set up with outdoor heaters to ward off the autumn chill. In celebration of the season, the place was hosting an Oktoberfest party, complete with oom-pa-pa music, guests dressed in lederhosen and dirndl skirts, lots of beer on tap, and an amazing buffet consisting of bratwurst, potato salad, sauerkraut, pretzels, and more — really delicious.
We sat there, chatting with our friendly neighboring table, singing along with the crowd, and marveling that, having just come from a battle site commemorating a Norwegian victory against the Nazis, here we were celebrating German culture. Ain’t life bizarrely grand?