Seventy years ago in February 1945 the modern gas boom town of Hammerfest in the Norwegian Arctic was reduced to ashes by Nazi troops carrying out a scorched earth retreat in the face of a huge Red Army offensive.
The razing of Hammerfest, now home to liquefied gas companies producing 2-3 million Euros of gas daily in a boom expected to last three to four decades, is just one of the episodes in Vincent Hunt’s new book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ published by The History Press.
Hunt details the destruction of Hammerfest following Hitler’s order in October 1944 for a scorched earth withdrawal in the face of a massive Red Army offensive ending a three-year military stalemate in the Arctic north.
More than 200,000 Nazi troops withdrew to fortified positions in the mountains near Tromsø and forcibly evacuated 70,000 civilians in the north before torching their towns so they could not be used by pursuing Soviet troops. Up to 20,000 civilians sought refuge in caves and on outlying islands, where some had to be rescued by Royal Navy destroyers.
Homes were set on fire and every building, bridge, water pipe and pier blown up and burned. The destruction in February 1945 was so complete that when King Olav flew over northern Norway following the German surrender in May he said: ‘‘When we passed over Hammerfest there was nothing. There was snow on the ground so there was nothing casting shadows. It was as if nobody had ever lived there.’ He described the scorched earth destruction as ‘the worst catastrophe in Norwegian history since the Black Death.’
Hammerfest was a major port for the Nazis, a fortified U-boat base and supply centre for ships attacking Allied convoys to Russia in the Arctic Sea. More than 4,000 mines were laid in surrounding sea lanes and numerous anti-aircraft gun positions manned by 400–500 Wehrmacht troops.
The author crossed the Arctic regions of Finnmark and Nord-Troms to see the scale of the scorched earth destruction across a region the size of Denmark, and visited the Hammerfest Museum of Reconstruction to see what survived the devastation, including a 1930s barber’s chair buried to save it. The town’s churches, once earmarked to be saved, were consumed by the flames. The only building left standing was a white funeral chapel where German war dead had been buried.
The Nazi general who carried out Hitler’s orders – an Austrian called Lothar Rendulic – was cleared of wanton destruction at the post-war Nuremberg trials. He told the court Hammerfest was militarily significant and that not destroying it would have helped the Red Army pursue his men.
“We worked through all the possibilities which the enemy had concerning landings. Again and again [we] were confronted with the fact that Hammerfest would be the best point for supply for troops which had already landed.
“Further, Hammerfest was situated in the vicinity of Highway 50… then one had an excellent road. The place itself could accommodate a strong regiment or even a division if necessary. This double significance of Hammerfest was a fact for an enemy in pursuit. You must not think that we destroyed wantonly or senselessly. Everything we did was dictated by the needs of the enemy. That was its necessity.”
Hammerfest was rebuilt by townspeople who defied the post-war Labour government’s orders not to return, and ignored plans to develop nearby Alta as the main centre instead. They erected temporary barracks donated by Sweden and started again. In the 1980s extensive gas fields were discovered 140kms off the coast, and the pipes began pumping in 2007. The start of gas production has been like turning on a tap of money, the head of the tourism office in Hammerfest Knut Arne Iversen told Hunt:
“We say here we have won the lottery since 2002. Hammerfest gets tax income from this gas plant – about 20 million euros a year. There are 10,000 people here, so that’s quite a lot of money for such a small town. Since 2009 they have renovated the whole of the city centre and from next winter  the sidewalks will be heated, so we can do shopping almost without wearing shoes. We don’t have unemployment – only about 2 per cent or 150 people – and we have a lot of foreigners here, about 10 per cent, which is quite a big number.”
Wages, house prices and the cost of living are high, but many skilled young people are heading to Hammerfest to join the modern gold rush. Gas industry engineering jobs have replaced the traditional and sometimes unreliable trades like fishing and fish processing and reversed a slow but steady drift away.
What happened here in wartime hasn’t entirely been forgotten though, says Iversen.
“Nowadays we have a lot of tourists here, especially Germans. A lot of them say their fathers or grandparents were here in the north in the war but never talked too much about it. It can’t have been a good story or an easy story to tell; they can’t have been proud of it. But some certainly did tell their children or their grandchildren because they come here and want to get a feeling of what it was like for Grandpa.”
Looking back to the time when the town was a pile of smouldering ashes will surely be only a fleeting glimpse for the modern inhabitants of Hammerfest. Making the most of the gas boom and securing the future is surely the priority for today’s generation.
Extract from the book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth destruction of Norway’ by Vincent Hunt
Midway through January the fire squads came back, burning the district of Fuglenes and the Feddersen and Nissen fish factory, run by a family with roots in Hammerfest dating back to 1861. Feddersen and Nissen had been involved in fish production, trapping and export for decades and had run a fleet of fishing boats and a retail business stretching across Finnmark, including Gjevsvår, Honningsvåg, Mehamn and Berlevåg, all destined for destruction in the flames.
Now the pace began to pick up. In the following days the remains of the eastern town were burned, the landing stages of the Finnmark Canning Factory and associated buildings were demolished, as was the Robertson coal depot. All the nearby houses were doused with petrol and set ablaze. A fresh southerly wind whipped up a fire started in the elementary school which spread to the centre of the city and burned all night. All the churches – initially earmarked to be saved – were engulfed. The west of Hammerfest was charred timbers. The hospital, refrigeration plant and the offices of the bus and boat company FFR (Finnmark Fylkesrederi) were blown up. The steamboat landing stage was dynamited and the two bridges into town were blown and mines laid on their approaches.
The Germans cut down every telegraph pole, rolled up all the cables, smashed all the ceramic conductors and dismantled all the transformers and apparatus at the power station. Then they loaded everything onto ships and took it all away.
At 9am on 5 February the power station was shut down and an hour later the transformer stations were blown. Depth charges were laid alongside the 9-inch main pipe to the water works running through the lake. Pipes further out were ruptured when the bridges were brought down. On 6 February orders were issued for all remaining Norwegians, Germans and Soviet prisoners to leave the city. This left behind twenty engineers and a lieutenant to blast the rest of Hammerfest then escape in a tugboat. After each building was burnt, the engineers set explosives to blast the foundations, levelling smoke stacks, apartments and foundations.
By 6 February snow had started to fall. A white blanket covered the devastated town with its shattered buildings and charred timbers. On 10 February 1945 the Germans pulled out of Hammerfest. Only the white chapel in the cemetery remained standing.
Copyright Vincent Hunt 2014
‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press, priced £20. More information at www.vincenthunt.co.uk and at the blog https://scorchedearthstories.wordpress.com/