Christmas tree and menorah in Trafalgar Square 2019. (Picture: Alamy)

Naval History

Why does Norway give London a Christmas tree every year?

A strategic failure that cemented long-lasting cooperation and friendship.

Christmas tree and menorah in Trafalgar Square 2019. (Picture: Alamy)

Norway gifts the UK with a Christmas tree every year in an annual tradition to mark the Nordic country’s appreciation for British help in World War II.

The tradition, which has been in place since 1947, sees the tree erected in Trafalgar Square opposite the National Gallery in London.

Last week, during the ceremony of lighting the Christmas tree the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Councillor Andrew Smith said:

“The Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is an annual gift from the people of Norway in thanks for Britain’s support in World War II. Its shape and size may change, but it’s a perennial reminder of the friendship between two nations and the enduring bonds forged in adversity.”

Hitler’s Gamble

In 1940, a few months into World War II, Hitler made a risky bid to occupy the strategically important neutral country of Norway.

On April 9, German troops easily took Norway’s ports from the capital Oslo to the northern port of Navrik.

The seaborne invasion was combined with the first use of a parachute battalion ever used in warfare, as well as the power of 800 aircraft.

The parachute battalion took the Oslo and Stavanger airfields and entered the city, laying to rest Norway’s attempts at resistance.

Britain and the Allies invaded five days later. By this time, the Germans had 25,000 troops in Norway. They held out against five times as many British and French troops. By that time, the German offensive in France had progressed and the British could no longer afford to have any troops in Norway.

Norway was lost to Hitler and remained occupied until the end of the war. However, British assistance in the resistance pvaed the way for Norwegian forces to escape and fight from abroad.

The Norwegian government and the royal family escaped to London where they were given safe haven from where to carry on ruling Norway while in exile for four years.

Norway has been thanking the UK for allowing their government and royal family to escape and welcoming them in London by delivering a Christmas tree from Norway’s forests straight to Trafalgar Square every year.

The German cruiser Blücher after being hit by cannon fire and torpedoes from the Norwegian coastal fortress Oscarsborg. (Picture: Alamy))

The Norway Campaign

Norway was neutral but strategically significantly important. Whoever controlled Norway would have access to the Atlantic Ocean. Capturing the ports of Bergen, Narvik and Trondheim would give the German Navy an advantage over the allies and create holes in the economic blockade of Germany.

The port of Narvik was particularly important. Iron ore from Sweden on which Germany depended to make its steel was exported through it. During the winter months with much of the Baltic Sea frozen, it was the only way.

The allies were adamant that neutral Norway must not fall to Hitler. However, they had differing opinions on how to ensure this which may have cost them dearly.

Britain and France agreed that that mines should be laid in Norwegian waters, followed by the landing of troops at four Norwegian ports. But they disagreed on the date of the mining. The delay was catastrophic.

The postponement from April 4 to April 8 allowed Hitler to get the upper hand. On April 8, the Norwegian government, being a neutral country, was preoccupied with protesting British mine laying, and, meanwhile, Hitler launched his attack.

The distracted Norwegian Government was unable to mount much of an offensive. Although the Norwegian coast defences did manage to sink Germany’s brand-new heavy cruiser Blücher in Oslo Fiord.

This delayed the occupation of the capital and helps explain why the Norwegians are grateful to this day for British help.

The Norwegian government and royal family escape

The loss of Blücher delayed the arrival of the main German invading force. The cruiser carried the administrative personnel intended for the occupation of Norway and the commanders of the army division assigned to seize the capital.

The 24-hour delay allowed the Norwegian parliament, the royal family and with them, the national treasury, to flee Norway.

King Haakon, Crown Prince Olav, Prime Minister Nygaardsvold and his cabinet arrived in London where they would remain for the remainder of the war.

Residing officially at the Norwegian embassy at 10 Kensington Palace Gardens, they planned and executed the Norwegian resistance while in exile in the heart of London, fully supported and welcomed by the British.

The occupation of Norway

The Norwegian campaign was fought from April until June 1940. It ended in the occupation of Norway in its entirety by Germany.

Norway and Britain put up a fight together. The Norwegian campaign saw the first major warship to be sunk by an aircraft.

The German light cruiser Konigsberg was damaged by Norwegian shore batteries at Bergen and was finished off by British naval dive bombers the next day.

Ultimately, Germany succeeded in pushing back the British blockade line, while exposing the Royal Navy’s strategic weakness – lack of radar control. A total of seven British destroyers were lost.

According to naval historian Dr Eric Grove, the occupation of the Nordic country did not prove to be as useful as Hitler hoped it to be.

Later used as a base from which to attack Allied Arctic convoys, according to the historian Norway’s “defence tied down more forces than the country's strategic usefulness merited.”

Retreat from Norway was ordered in May after the Germans had taken Navrik.

The decision to evacuate was based not only on the losses in Norway but more on the challenging situation in a different part of Europe – the German victories that month in France and the Low Countries meant that it was more pressing to concentrate forces elsewhere.  

King Haakon VII visits Queen Elizabeth II 1955. (Picture: Alamy)

Norway Campaign led to Churchill becoming war leader 

It was clear after the first few months of the Norway campaign that Britain was not going to be successful in protecting the neutrality of Norway and preventing the Nordic country from slipping under Hitler's control. 

The losses lead to a vote of no confidence in the British Parliament. The government suffered a reduced majority, contributing to the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

The true winner who came out on top was the British First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

In an ironic and fateful twist of events, Churchill as the main architect of the Norway Campaign was partially responsible for the strategic failure.

The government shakeup served Churchill well, as he was the favourite to become Prime Minister, it can be argued that the Norway Campaign paved his way to becoming Britain’s war leader.

Churchill’s rise to power may have been forged through defeat in Northern Norway, ultimately his strong-willed wartime leadership, even though controversial at times, solidified allied victory over Nazism.