Why couldn't iron ore from Sweden be transported just through the Baltic Sea?

Discussion in 'The Third Reich' started by Iron Rooster, Aug 28, 2022.

  1. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    It is known that the Third Reich transported ore (one of its most important strategic raw materials) from the Gällivare and Kiruna mines in northern Sweden, mainly via the port of Narvik along the Norwegian coast. This was the so-called western route.

    In addition to this route, there was also an eastern route through the Baltic Sea. However, it was only open in the summer, as the Baltic Sea freezes in the north. Iron ore was transported by this route from the mines mentioned above from the Gulf of Bothnia via the port of Luleå between May and November. Another alternative was ore from the Bergslagen mines, shipped via the port of Oxelösund, south of Stockholm, which only freezes from January to March, but the amount of ore was far too small for Germany's needs. The reason given for this was poor capacity of rail transport.

    This begs the question of why couldn't the rail transport have been arranged in such a way that the iron ore could have been transported to the southern part of Sweden in the necessary quantities and then safely transported from the ice-free ports to Germany? If there are not enough railways or they have a low transport capacity, there always is a way of solving this problem, especially as it was an important matter for Germany and also very useful for Sweden. And if it could not be done, then I wonder why. For instance, during the war against the Soviets, Germany built thousands of kilometers of railway just by changing the Russian gauge standard to the European standard. What was the problem with arranging the transport of ore through Swedish territory, where no enemies were in the way? Is shipping along such a dangerous route along the Norwegian coast really a better solution?

    And after all, if not railways, there is such a thing as icebreakers. Couldn't the Nazis have made and used them to cut a path through the frozen sea?

    The western route is both much longer and very dangerous in terms of enemy attacks, so it would be very interesting to know why the eastern route could not have been arranged to be the main route, as it would have been safe in the first place, and also closer. And finally, the ore would not only come from the Gällivare and Kiruna mines, as was the case with Narvik, but also from the mines in the Bergslagen region, which would make the total amount of ore coming in even greater!

    Was it not worth the money and effort for such a task? Especially given the enormous sums of money that Germany often spent on various Utopian projects. So it would be interesting to know what people think about this. Maybe somebody has some explanations or material to show why it was this way and not the other way around, whether there was any discussion in Germany on this issue, etc.
  2. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member Patron

    Can't say much about the railways, though perhaps the Swedes didn'rt want new lines through their territory . The icebreakers were of fairly low capacity (mostly bulit in UK or Germany oin the early part of the century) and you needed ice-strenghtened ships to follow them. Just to illustrate how low capacity the icebreakers were: in the late 50s I was in United Baltic - a shpping company; we got to the Uto pilot station to be told that the route to Turku was nor passable, we could go along the coast to Hanko, through the islands, but again the breaker did not have enough power. The solution was that we pushed the breaker from behind, and it was strong enough to break the channel. The funny bit came when we got to Hanko, the breaker blew 'assistance is ending' on her steam whistle; having pushed her all the way our Old Man said cheeky buggerl
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  3. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member Patron

    And don't forget the Swedes were neutral and treading a very fine line between supporting the Axis and the Allies. Witness the fascinating story of the ball-bearing boats
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  4. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member Patron

    The ball-bearing boats

    One of the more unusual operations involving merchant crews during the war was the transport of ball bearings through enemy controlled waters from neutral Sweden to the UK. The scheme was the brainchild of Frederick George Binney, who in 1939 had been recruited by Iron and Steel Control, Ministry of Supply. As their representative in Sweden his job was to purchase steel, machine tools and ball-bearings essential to the British armament industries. Sir George Binney DSO, as he became, was something of a gentleman adventurer. He was educated at Summer Fields, Eton and Merton College, Oxford. He had organised various Arctic expeditions and had worked for the Hudson Bay Company and United Steel Companies.

    With the occupation of Denmark and Norway the British found it nigh impossible to ship sufficient amounts of the materials that Binney had bought,i so he conceived a series of daring runs to carry the badly needed cargoes to Britain. The first of these, Operation RUBBLE, took place in January 1941, using five of the Norwegian ships that were detained in Sweden. Binney had contacted the Masters of the British steamers Romanby, Blythmoor, Mersington Court and Riverton, who were interned north of Stockholm, asking for volunteers to man the Norwegian ships Elisabeth Bakke, John Bakke, Tai Shan, Taurus and Ranja. Some of their crews were, understandably, not keen to make the trip. None of the British Masters were willing to go either, but their Chief Officers and various crew members were. The British officers were put in command of the vessels, though the Norwegian Masters remained aboard as representatives of the owners, Nortraship. Many of the crew also remained. The crews were supplemented by Britons from the four ships that had been sunk at Narvik and seamen of other nationalities, including some Swedes.

    The news of the breakout leaked when the Master of one of the Norwegian ships asked his owners in Norway for instructions. The message fell into the hands of the Gestapo and as a result the Ranja was substituted for the Dicto. Once the fleet was at sea the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau passed them, but neither party became aware of the other. The Ranja was attacked by aircraft and her Swedish 1st Mate, Nils Ryderg, who was shot and later died, was awarded the OBE. The ships arrived safely in Kirkwall.

    A total of 146 men and one woman (the wife of John Bakke's Chief Engineer Hans Hansen) reached Orkney: fifty eight were British, fifty seven Norwegian, thirty one Swedish and one a Latvianii.

    Buoyed up by the success of Operation RUBBLE, Binney set to organising a much bigger project that was to become Operation PERFORMANCE. This time the British chartered ten of the Norwegian ships that remained in Sweden and loaded them with more valuable material. The British Masters who had declined to join the first breakout volunteered this time. It was decided that they would take charge of the vessels until the limits of Swedish territorial waters were reached, when their regular masters would resume command. Strangely the Norwegian masters were excluded from the pre-sailing conference.

    The ships, in the order that they sailed from the still partly frozen Gothenburg harbour were: Charente with twenty three British, five Norwegian, one Polish and two Dutch crew; Buccaneer - five British and forty one Norwegian crew; Lionel - forty one Norwegian and one British crew; Storsten - forty eight Norwegian and one British crew; Dicto (Flag Ship, with Binney on board) - thirty one British and twelve Norwegian crew; Gudvang - twelve British and thirteen Norwegian crew; Rigmor - four British, one Swedish and thirty five Norwegian crew; Skytteren - fifteen British, ninety six Norwegian crew; Lind - two British and eleven Norwegian crew and B P Newton - five British and sixty six Norwegian crew.

    This time the Germans were waiting. Only two ships, together with the crew of a third, reached the UK, and two made it back to Sweden. The others were sunk or scuttled by their crews to prevent the ships and cargoes falling into German hands. Mrs Lawson has calculated that of the 471 people involved, 234 were taken prisoner, including eight women and children.iii Of those taken prisoner forty three died: most of those were executed. At sea nineteen people died, including seventeen missing in a lifeboat from the Storsten. The ships that returned to Gothenburg, with their cargoes, were the Dicto and Lionel. An effort was made to get them out during the winter darkness on 17 January 1943, but again the Germans were waiting and the ships turned back. Another attempt in February was abandoned for the same reason.

    The British continued to fly small cargoes out, but it was obvious to Binney that the only way to obtain enough ball bearings was to transport them by sea. His new plan involved using modified fast Motor Launches. After some deliberation the Admiralty made five diesel powered gun boats available for the work. These had been part of an order of eight destined for the Turkish Navy. Three were handed over to Camper and Nicholson for conversion and the other two went to the yard of Amos and Smith in Hull. Everything forward of the engine room was stripped out to make a hold in which forty tons of ball bearings could be stowed, and the bridge structure and accommodation were substantially altered. The boats had a maximum cruise speed of twenty knots, with a range of 1,200 miles at seventeen knots. The Hull based liner company, Ellerman Wilson, managed the boats, which they manned with volunteers from among their crews and with trawler men.iv In accordance with usual Merchant Service practice the Radio Officers were supplied by Marconi or IMR (International Marine Radio?).

    All five vessels first sailed on 26 October 1943, but four were forced to turn back because of a combination of engine problems and bad weather. The fifth was the Gay Viking, who reached the UK with forty tons of ball bearings. Over the next five months another eight successful trips were completed and cargoes totalled 347.5 tons out of a planned 400 tons. The Germans captured the Master Standfast in November. The Nonsuch only completed one trip, because of engine problems, which plagued all of the vessels. Hopewell completed two trips and Gay Viking and Gay Corsair did three. Later they were used to carry supplies for the Danish resistance, but that was also a failure.
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  5. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery

    Would the ships be open to attack from the RAF or even Russian aircraft?

    Also sabotage from all angles might have been an issue for the Germans
  6. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member Patron

    There is an 'inside route' down much of the Norwegian coast, which gave the German ships some protection. British aircraft would have had to put up with a lot of hostile fire before they got to the ore ships
  7. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    Actually, I didn't really believe in the possibility of using icebreakers, especially in the Gulf of Bothnia, where the ice stays longer and is much thicker. The water in the Gulf of Bothnia isn't very brackish and can freeze well. And probably we can accept the reasons you have given as a reasonable explanation. And if you are talking about the port of Oxelösund, the ice is only there for a couple of months and probably very thin, so maybe it would have been possible to take advantage of icebreakers or not ?
  8. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    How is it related to the shipment of ore to Germany though?
  9. JeremyC

    JeremyC Well-Known Member

    You need a large-scale physical map of Sweden - it's a big country, bigger than many map projections make it appear and the geography is not good for building railways. The north of the country is seamed with deep river valleys draining fair-sized lakes and it is only down on the coastal plain that railway building is easier, but even there there are still large rivers to bridge. So building more lines to take long, heavy iron ore trains would be very expensive and difficult. And to what end (as far as the Swedes are concerned)?
    You cannot compare the Swedish effort with the German - the Germans were at war in what they saw as a life-or-death struggle, so they went to fantastic efforts to achieve their aims. The Swedes were at peace, and their economy was suffering badly from the restrictions on international trade caused by the war around them. Why would they go to the time, expense and trouble of building railways just to suit the German need, even if some of them were sympathetic to Nazi ideas? They knew that, however long the War went on, it would not be forever, and then the railway to Narvik would resume its former importance.
    You make a good point about icebreakers, but again, that would surely have needed a German initiative, rather than a Swedish. Clearly, in the event, their minds were focused elsewhere . . .
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  10. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    If the ore ships could safely navigate the 'inside route' down and up the Norwegian coast without significant losses presumably there was no reason for Germany to get Swedish cooperation on alternative routes?
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  11. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member Patron

    Not at all, but I thought it might be of interest as it refers to shipping steel from Sweden in WW2. As for ice conditions in the Baltic, the winter of 1940 was severe and I believe that the whole of the Baltic was frozen for some months - as it can be in some years, 1963 for instance
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  12. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    Even the southern part of the sea? Then maybe it was possible to simply transport through the ice, similar like to the blockaded Leningrad? :D
  13. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    I suspected that geography might be the reason, and you might be right that it might have been just an insurmountable obstacle. But, if it were to be done, of course, it would have to be at German expense. I did not even think that it would be at Swedish expense.
  14. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    Exactly, in the summer, the Swedes allowed ore to be shipped through their ports, so they were collaborating with the Nazis, so they were not afraid of Britain. So why should they be afraid of building railways.
  15. Ramiles

    Ramiles Researching 9th Lancers, 24th L and SRY

  16. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    I've known this page for a long time, and if there was an answer to why the eastern route couldn't be made the main route, I wouldn't write anything. All it says on the subject is that "due to the thick ice, Germany had no choice other than to transport the majority of its ore by rail to Narvik". And nothing about why! Why it couldn't be changed, what the problems were, what the reasons were (the ice was the only reason), why the railways couldn't be used for transport to the south, or why they couldn't be expanded, and what about the icebreakers etc.
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2022
  17. Ramiles

    Ramiles Researching 9th Lancers, 24th L and SRY

  18. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    So when and why do you expect this to happen? Keep in mind that once German conquered Norway, there is a very little Britain could do to significantly, if at all, interrupt transport of the ore through already existing routes. And the same is still true during 1941, and at that time German is probably convinced that they are winning the war. Even during 1942, they would still believe that they could win, as overall, their position still didn't look hopeless. Neither Britain or Soviet Union or, newly joined, US could do much to prevent physically the transport of the iron ore from Sweden, except trying to put political presure on Sweden. German industry was still not even in the full war mode. Only in 1943 could you reasonably expect that German would be seriously concerned for security of the routes. But by than it was already to late to conduct some significant project or additional railway expansion to switch whole transport just through the Baltic. Not counting here increased presure on Swedish government to stop transport all together. Even if hypothetical scenario that German would negotiate with Sweden financing of the project, it is still doubtful could it be done on time or at all. Not everything is in money, and not that Germany was so rich that they could afford such project. There was acute shortages of necessary things, like oil, in both German and Sweden. German could not produce/secure enough oil for its own needs, lets to give it to Sweden. Add to this shortages of other materials. like rubber, which had huge impact on production of tires, it would be really hard for Sweden to speedily complete any large building project. And, by that time, why would they, as by 1943 it was plainly obvious that war is not going good for the Axis side, so why risk everything by siding with Germany. Especially as there is very little that Germany could do to threaten Sweden.
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2022
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  19. Iron Rooster

    Iron Rooster Member

    The website you linked is not working for me, at least right now.
    As for the aid to Finland, it was in practice a cover for the British objective of stopping the shipment of Nazi ore. Apart from some nice words of support, the Finns never received any real help. There were volunteers from various countries, medical supplies and other small aid. And what does that have to do with the issue of ore shipments in general. Because when the British plan failed, they quickly forgot about all the aid to Finland.
  20. Ewen Scott

    Ewen Scott Well-Known Member

    There is a long thread on the Axis History Forum back in 2010 about the Swedish iron ore trade with Germany including some figures and quantities.

    A few points worthy of note
    1. Swedish ore had a higher iron content than that from elsewhere in Europe
    2. Pre-war Britain had been a major user of iron ore shipped from Narvik. Smelters on Britain’s east coast (Newcastle area IIRC) had to have sinter beds added during WW2 to allow use of poorer quality ores from elsewhere.
    3. There were Swedish rail links between north and south but mostly single track and not designed to take the heavy iron ore wagons on the Lulea / Narvik line.

    As for Narvik itself, I’m still trying to clarify in my own mind just what volumes were going through that port in WW2 and therefore it’s overall importance.

    In 1940 during the Norwegian Campaign, there was a bridge on the railway that was intended to be blown up. It was. But the damage inflicted was nowhere near as heavy as planned so it was repaired by the Germans. Then there are reports that the iron ore facilities at Narvik were destroyed by the Germans before they withdrew from the town as the British and French advanced (before they withdrew from the region altogether) and that no/very little ore was shipped for the rest of the war.

    The thread I have linked below includes a statistic that in 1937 55% of Swedish iron ore exports were shipped from Narvik but in 1941 that reduced to 8%. Meanwhile Lulea increased from 22% to 49% with increases at other southern Swedish ports. Now obviously nothing was going to Britain, but clearly, given the level of imports to Germany noted elsewhere on the thread, that surplus capacity wasn’t simply shifted to Germany or the figures would have been similar.

    Swedish Iron Ore and Narvik - Axis History Forum

    The RAF flew anti shipping operations along the southern part of the Norwegian Coast from Scottish bases throughout the war. These however really stepped up several gears from Sept 1944 when the Banff & Dallachy strike wings were formed from Mosquito & Beaufighter squadrons moved north from southern England, ably assisted by 333 (Norwegian) squadron to recce there own coastline.

    The RN also ran anti-shipping operations which were stepped up from early 1944 as more escort carriers became available.
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