In the very early hours of 9 April 1940, Colonel Birger Eriksen stood next to one of his fortress’s German-made 28 cm guns, peering south towards the Skagerrak and the open sea. It was long before dawn; the waxing crescent moon had set hours before and the dark was impenetrable.
Col. Eriksen was commander of Norway’s Oscarsborg fortress on the island of Kaholmen in the Oslofjord, 15 nautical miles south of Oslo. The fortress is strategically situated at the narrowest point in the Oslofjord, where the channel is only 0.3 miles wide. Therefore, every vessel transiting the Oslofjord must pass within less than 1000 feet of Oscarsborg’s guns.
Col. Eriksen, six months from retirement from the military, was on alert. Germany had invaded most of her neighbors in Europe and persuaded Sweden to remain neutral. Norway had long ties with Germany but also with Scotland and the UK; while not allied with either of the combatants, Norway had hoped to stay out of the conflict and had been sending mixed messages. Col. Eriksen had attended school in Germany so perhaps he, too, was ambivalent. Only hours earlier, a Norwegian patrol boat in the Skagerrak had been fired upon by an unknown vessel and managed to make a report. By radio, Norway had ordered all lighthouses and navigational lights to be extinguished. Col. Eriksen may have known that a Norwegian battery farther south had fired on ships proceeding north. He likely feared the worst: a German naval show of force or even an invasion. His king and government were in Oslo. His standing orders were to fire warning shots before attacking an approaching vessel; he did not receive any new orders as a result of developments in the hours preceding his vigil.
At 0420, searchlights from the fortress illuminated what turned out to be the new German heavy cruiser, Blücher, flying the swastika: 206 m (676 feet) long; armed with eight 20 cm guns, torpedoes and seaplanes; complement of almost 1400 officers and men. Col. Eriksen likely could see other ships, which included another heavy cruiser, astern of the Blücher.
As the Blücher emerged from the darkness, Col. Eriksen may have considered that he did not have time to fire a warning shot before the ship would pass. He likely had seconds to make a decision: allow the convoy, or least the Blücher, to pass and be off of Oslo in an hour, intentions unknown; or give the order that would draw a ferocious response and plunge Norway into war with the mightiest power on earth.
On a warm, sunny day in July 2015, I stood where Col. Eriksen had stood that cold, dark night 75 years earlier, next to one of the 28 cm guns. GOLDEN EYE was in the excellent Kaholmen Marina. Kaholmen is now a public park, meticulously kept, with an interesting museum. Especially in the morning, before the tourist boats start to arrive, residents of the marina have the delightful island to themselves. Standing at that spot, it is hard not to contemplate Eriksen’s dilemma and also imagine what was in the mind of Konteradmiral Oskar Kummetz, commander of the Blücher, flagship of the German flotilla, as he approached the guns of Oscarsborg, under orders not to fire unless fired upon. Golden Eye subsequently followed the Blücher’s route from the south, looking down the barrels of Oscarsborg’s guns.
Saying, “Either I will be decorated, or I will be court-martialed”, he made his decision: “Fire!”
Col. Eriksen could not have known that the mission of the German fleet was to capture Oslo; that the Blücher also carried 700 landing troops and huge quantities of munitions; and that attacks on other Norwegian ports – the invasion of Norway – were being conducted at the same time.
One of Oscarsborg’s shots ignited the fuel for the seaplanes and started a massive fire. The Blücher accelerated to get out of the firing sector of the guns but, 13 minutes after the first shot, was struck by two torpedoes from the fortress. An ammunition magazine exploded. The Blücher sank in 210 feet/64 m of water; she still lay there in 2015 as I stood at Col. Eriksen’s vantage point.
The remaining German ships, some of which had also been hit, regrouped, landed troops, called in aerial bombardments and took the fortress and, in concert with airborne troops, went on to capture Oslo the following day. However, the delay afforded by Col. Eriksen’s decision allowed the Norwegian government and royal family to escape the city and eventually to reach safety in Scotland.
After the war, Col. Eriksen commented, “It’s not really hard to fire guns, but it’s immensely hard to make the decision to fire.”
Inevitably, there was second-guessing of Col. Eriksen’s decision and surrender of the fortress. However, he received Norway’s highest-ranking gallantry decoration and, from France, the Croix de guerre and Légion d’honneur. An investigative commission in 1946 cleared his name. Twenty years after his death, his ashes were moved to Norway’s main honorary burial ground and, more recently, King Harald V unveiled a statue of Col. Eriksen at Oscarsborg’s main fort in recognition of his place as a national hero.