Swedish iron-ore mining during World War II

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Swedish iron ore was an important economic factor in the European theatre of World War II. Both the Allies and the Third Reich were keen on the control of the mining district in northernmost Sweden, surrounding the mining towns of Gällivare and Kiruna. The importance of this issue increased after other sources were cut off from Germany by the British sea blockade during the Battle of the Atlantic. Both the planned Anglo-French support of Finland in the Winter War, and the following German occupation of Denmark and Norway (Operation Weserübung) were to a large extent motivated by the wish to deny their respective enemies iron critical for wartime production of steel. [1]

Iron ore ore rich in iron or the element Fe

Iron ores are rocks and minerals from which metallic iron can be economically extracted. The ores are usually rich in iron oxides and vary in colour from dark grey, bright yellow, or deep purple to rusty red. The iron is usually found in the form of magnetite (Fe
, 72.4% Fe), hematite (Fe
, 69.9% Fe), goethite (FeO(OH), 62.9% Fe), limonite (FeO(OH)·n(H2O), 55% Fe) or siderite (FeCO3, 48.2% Fe).

European theatre of World War II Huge area of heavy fighting across Europe

The European theatre of World War II, also known as the Second European War, was a huge area of heavy fighting across Europe, starting with Germany's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and ending with the Soviet Union conquering most of Eastern Europe and Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. The Allied powers fought the Axis powers on two major fronts as well as in a massive air war and in the adjoining Mediterranean and Middle East theatre.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.


Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was particularly concerned about Swedish exports of iron ore to Germany, and pushed for the British government to take military action to end the trade. From the beginning of the war Churchill tried to persuade his cabinet colleagues to send a British fleet into the Baltic Sea to stop shipping reaching Germany from the two Swedish iron ore ports, Luleå and Oxelösund. The project was called Project Catherine and was planned by Admiral of the Fleet William Boyle, 12th Earl of Cork. However, events overtook this project and it was canceled. [2] Later, when the Baltic ports froze over and the Germans began shipping the iron ore from the Norwegian port of Narvik, Churchill pushed for the Royal Navy to mine the west coast of Norway to prevent the Germans travelling inside neutral territorial waters to escape Allied Contraband Control measures.

Winston Churchill Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during most of World War II

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was a British politician, army officer, and writer. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, when he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955. Churchill represented five constituencies during his career as a Member of Parliament (MP). Ideologically an economic liberal and imperialist, for most of his career he was a member of the Conservative Party, which he led from 1940 to 1955, but from 1904 to 1924 was a member of the Liberal Party.

Baltic Sea A sea in Northern Europe bounded by the Scandinavian Peninsula, the mainland of Europe, and the Danish islands

The Baltic Sea is a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, enclosed by Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, northeast Germany, Poland, Russia and the North and Central European Plain.

Luleå Place in Norrbotten, Sweden

Luleå is a city on the coast of northern Sweden, and the capital of Norrbotten County, the northernmost county in Sweden. Luleå has about 75,000 inhabitants and is the seat of Luleå Municipality.


Iron ore is extracted in Kiruna and Malmberget, and brought by rail to the harbours of Lulea and Narvik.
(Borders as of 1920-1940.) Lapland1940.png
Iron ore is extracted in Kiruna and Malmberget, and brought by rail to the harbours of Luleå and Narvik.
(Borders as of 19201940.)

Upon the beginning of hostilities on 3 September 1939, Britain and France enacted a repeat of the blockade of Germany system used to great effect throughout the previous war. They were able to do this because they had vastly more powerful naval forces at their disposal than Germany, a country lacking in natural resources and heavily reliant on large scale imports of a wide range of goods. Perhaps the material Germany needed above all others was iron ore, a steady supply of which was imperative in the creation of steel to sustain its war effort and general economy.

Blockade of Germany WWI naval blockade

The Blockade of Germany, or the Blockade of Europe, occurred from 1914 to 1919. It was a prolonged naval operation conducted by the Triple-Entente powers during and after World War I in an effort to restrict the maritime supply of goods to the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. It is considered one of the key elements in the eventual Allied victory in the war. The German Board of Public Health in December 1918 claimed that 763,000 German civilians died from starvation and disease caused by the blockade up until the end of December 1918. An academic study done in 1928 put the death toll at 424,000.

Prewar iron ore supplies to Germany

In the year before the war, Germany received 22 million tons of iron ore from various sources. Although it was able to produce around 10m tons of its own iron ore each year, it was of low grade quality and needed to be mixed with high grade material from other countries such as Sweden, which annually supplied it with 9 million tons: 7 million from Kiruna and Gällivare in Lapland and 2 million from the central Swedish ore fields north-west of Stockholm.

With the declaration of war and the start of the blockade, many of these foreign supplies were lost to Germany, and although it retained access to 3 million tons per annum from neutral Norway and Luxembourg, the supplies from Morocco and Spain were lost to it, and so the remaining supplies from neutral Scandinavia became of crucial importance. Grand Admiral Raeder, head of the German navy, declared that it would be "utterly impossible to make war should the navy not be able to secure the supplies of iron-ore from Sweden".

Britain, who itself imported large quantities of iron ore, was fully aware of the Swedish exports to Germany and through its system of Contraband Control was routinely stopping ships of all nations to ensure they were not delivering important supplies to the enemy. Germany considered the allied blockade illegal, and to counter it embarked upon a system of unrestricted submarine warfare whereby enemy and neutral ships could be attacked without warning. As a result, during the first nine months of the war a large number of neutral ships were sunk with considerable loss of life.

While the allies were keen to maintain the moral high ground and stressed at every opportunity the difference in impact between their approach compared to their enemy’s, they were mindful that many neutral mariners relied upon the Germany trade for their livelihoods, and so during the opening stages of the war they were careful not to be too strict with non-combatant vessels for fear the blockade would alienate neutral nations into joining the war on the side of Germany.

The Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA) of 1935, concluded between Britain and Germany, seriously challenged the independence of Sweden and its long-standing policy of peaceful neutrality. Despite provisions in the Treaty of Versailles, the AGNA allowed Germany to increase the size of its Kriegsmarine to one-third the size of the Royal Navy, which when completed in 1942 would have allowed Germany to dominate the Baltic.

Anglo-German Naval Agreement

The Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA) of 18 June 1935 was a naval agreement between the United Kingdom and Germany regulating the size of the Kriegsmarine in relation to the Royal Navy. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement fixed a ratio whereby the total tonnage of the Kriegsmarine was to be 35% of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy on a permanent basis. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on 12 July 1935. The agreement was renounced by Adolf Hitler on 28 April 1939. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement was an ambitious attempt on the part of both London and Berlin to reach better relations, but it ultimately foundered because of conflicting expectations between the two states. For the Germans, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement was intended to mark the beginning of an Anglo-German alliance against France and the Soviet Union, whereas for the British, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement was to be the beginning of a series of arms limitation agreements that were made to limit German expansionism. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement was controversial, both at the time and since, because the 35:100 tonnage ratio allowed Germany the right to build a Navy beyond the limits set by the Treaty of Versailles, and the British had made the agreement without consulting France or Italy.

Treaty of Versailles one of the treaties that ended the First World War

The Treaty of Versailles was the most important of the peace treaties that brought World War I to an end. The Treaty ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to the war. The other Central Powers on the German side signed separate treaties. Although the armistice, signed on 11 November 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty. The treaty was registered by the Secretariat of the League of Nations on 21 October 1919.

<i>Kriegsmarine</i> 1935–1945 naval warfare branch of Germanys armed forces

The Kriegsmarine was the navy of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It superseded the Imperial German Navy of the German Empire (1871–1918) and the inter-war Reichsmarine (1919–1935) of the Weimar Republic. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches, along with the Heer (Army) and the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces from 1933 to 1945.

Iron ore routes

There were two main routes by which iron ore was shipped to Germany from Sweden.

The Eastern Route

Annually from May to November, ore from the Northern region was shipped from the port of Luleå down the Gulf of Bothnia to the German north Baltic ports at Lübeck, Swinemünde, and Stettin. Outside these months, the Gulf of Bothnia froze over, severely restricting supplies, and although an alternate port was available at Oxelösund, south of Stockholm, for the transport of iron ore from the mines in Bergslagen, this facility was unable to supply the full amount required by Germany, and in any case froze over from January to March each year. Luleå remained outside the reach of Royal Navy's patrols but it was estimated that when Luleå and the Baltic ports of Oxelösund and Gävle were open it could only supply around 8m tons, or less than half pre-war imports.

Gulf of Bothnia the northernmost arm of the Baltic Sea

The Gulf of Bothnia is the northernmost arm of the Baltic Sea. It is situated between Finland's west coast and Sweden's east coast. In the south of the gulf lie the Åland Islands, between the Sea of Åland and the Archipelago Sea.

Lübeck Place in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

Lübeck is a city in Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, and one of the major ports of Germany. On the river Trave, it was the leading city of the Hanseatic League, and because of its extensive Brick Gothic architecture, it is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In 2015, it had a population of 218,523.

Oxelösund Place in Södermanland, Sweden

Oxelösund is a locality and the seat of Oxelösund Municipality in Södermanland County, Sweden with 10,870 inhabitants in 2010. It is located less than 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) south from the city centre of its larger neighbour Nyköping, with the two urban areas forming a wider agglomeration of nearly 50,000 people.

This meant that during the early winter months of the war, Germany had no choice than to transport the majority of its ore along the much further route down Norway’s heavily indented Western coast from Narvik.

The Western Route ("Norwegian Corridor", Western Leads or Skjaergaard)

The port of Narvik, high above the Arctic Circle was open for iron ore shipments all year round. But the stormy Atlantic coast of Norway also provided another extremely useful geological feature for Germany in her attempts to continue shipping the ore and beating the allied blockade.

Immediately offshore from Norway's western coast lies the Skjaergaard (Skjærgård), a continuous chain of some 50,000 glacially formed skerries (small uninhabited islands) sea stacks and rocks running parallel to the shore. A partially hidden sea lane (which Churchill called the Norwegian Corridor) exists in the area between this rocky fringe and the coastal landmass proper. Inside this protected channel it is possible to navigate the entire 1,600 km length of the Norwegian coast from North Cape to Stavanger. Such coastlines, sometimes known as Leads a rough English translation for the common Norwegian nautical term Ledene (shipping lane) are common around Scandinavia Skjaergaard also exist along the Swedish and Finnish Baltic coasts and off Greenland.

Skerry A rocky island smaller than an islet

A skerry is a small rocky island, usually too small for human habitation. It may simply be a rocky reef. A skerry can also be called a low sea stack.

The Skaergaard intrusion is a layered igneous intrusion in the Kangerlussuaq area, East Greenland. It comprises various rock types including gabbro, ferro diorite, anorthosite and granophyre.

The Germans made great use of the Norwegian Corridor to avoid the attention of the vigilant Royal Navy and RAF. In the winter of 1939–1940 a steady stream of their specially-constructed iron ore vessels made the long trip south from Narvik, sometimes within the three-mile curtilage of neutral Norwegian territorial waters, sometimes just outside if the way appeared hazardous or the sea particularly turbulent. At the southernmost point the iron ore captains had to make a choice:

  1. Follow the Skjaergaard around the coasts of Norway and Sweden, down through the Kattegat and finally into the north German N Baltic ports of Lubeck and Stettin. This route was safer because it brought them much closer to the protection of the German naval patrols and Luftwaffe air cover but involved hauling the very bulky and heavy iron ore the long way overland to the industrial centres on the overburdened German railway system.
  2. Leave the safety of the Skjaergaard and make a dash south across the Skagerrak (the sea channel north of the Danish Jutland peninsula), and hurry down the west coast of Denmark to Hamburg and Bremen. This was the preferred route because it allowed the ore to be taken straight along the efficient inland waterways to the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr and the Rhineland where it could be processed. It was much more hazardous, putting the ships and their cargo at the mercy of allied submarines and patrolling destroyers of the Contraband Control. A number of German ships were sunk in this area.

British attempts to disrupt German-Swedish trade

From the beginning of the war, Winston Churchill expended considerable energies trying to persuade his colleagues in the British government to take action to stop the iron ore traffic. On 16 December 1939 he issued a memo to the cabinet:

It must be understood that an adequate supply of Swedish iron ore is vital to Germany…the effectual stoppage of the Norwegian ore supplies to Germany ranks as a major offensive operation of the war. No other measure is open to us for many months to come which gives so good a chance of abridging the waste and destruction of the conflict, or of perhaps preventing the vast slaughters which will attend the grapple of the main armies. The ore from Luleå (in the Baltic) is already stopped by the winter ice, which must not be broken by the Soviet ice-breaker, should the attempt be made. The ore from Narvik must be stopped by laying successively a series of small minefields in Norwegian territorial waters at the two or three suitable points on the coast, which will force the ships carrying ore to Germany to quit territorial waters and come on to the high seas, where, if German, they will be taken as prize, or, if neutral, subjected to our contraband control.

Although in late 1939 many of Churchill’s cabinet colleagues agreed with the need to take action to disrupt the iron ore traffic, they decided against the use of mines. At the time negotiations into the British chartering of the entire Norwegian mercantile shipping fleet were at a delicate stage and the British Foreign Office made convincing arguments against breaking Norway’s neutrality. In 1915 (during WWI) Britain had been forced to apologise to Norway for the violation of her territorial waters by British warships following the seizure of a German steamer inside the three mile limit. Near the end of World War I the British, Americans and French had induced the Norwegians to allow the Skjaergaard to be mined in order to prevent German ships and submarines from using their territorial waters as a way around the Great North Sea Mine Barrage, a massive minefield laid from Scotland to Norway as part of the earlier allied blockade strategy.

Despite the ongoing diplomatic exchanges, Britain informed the Norwegians that the Skjaergaard was about to be mined in January 1940, but the plan was postponed following protests from both Norway and Sweden. Yet another diplomatic dispute over alleged abuse of Norway’s territorial waters broke out in February 1940 between the respective governments of Britain, Norway and Germany following the Altmark Incident. A German tanker, attempting to return home via the cover of the Norwegian Corridor carrying British prisoners of war was spotted by British aircraft and pursued by destroyers, eventually being forced onto rocks.

On the evening of 21 March 1940 the British submarine HMS Ursula, (which had damaged the German cruiser Leipzig in Heligoland Bight the previous December) intercepted the German iron ore ship Hedderheim, en route from Narvik, and sank her eight miles off the coast of Denmark, although the crew were all saved. At the time it was seen as an early indication that Britain was at last taking steps to end the iron trade and over the next few days several other German ships were sunk at the entrance to the Baltic. Following reports that strong British destroyer and submarine forces were stationed in the Skagerrak, Berlin ordered all her ships along the iron ore route to port immediately.

By now it was clear to all concerned that the Phoney War was about to end. Antagonised by the German mining of their own waters with deadly new magnetic mines and a general concern that Germany was managing to overcome the worst effects of the blockade, the Supreme War Council met in London on 28 March 1940 to discuss an intensification of the economic warfare strategy.

Finally, on 3 April the War Cabinet gave authorisation for the mining of the Skjaergaard. On the morning of Monday 8 April 1940 the British informed the Norwegian authorities of its intentions, and despite Norwegian protests and demands for their immediate removal, carried out Operation Wilfred. However, by the time it took place German preparations for the German invasion of Norway were well under way and because of this only one minefield was actually laid, in the mouth of Vestfjord leading directly to Narvik.

After the invasion of Norway

Despite warnings from a number of Allied and neutral sources about the imminent invasion, the Norwegians were caught largely unprepared, [3] and on 9 April 1940 the Germans began landing troops in the main Norwegian settlements of Stavanger, Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen and Narvik. The British and French made attempts to assist the Norwegians, landing considerable forces at Narvik on 14 April and fighting fierce naval engagements off the coast. Further Allied landings took place between 18 and 23 April (the Battle of Narvik), but the Germans had already taken too firm a foothold, and the Norwegian government surrendered on 9 June 1940. The railway traversed the significant Norddal Bridge, which was rigged to be blown up in case of war. There was an attempt to blow up this bridge on 14 April, but lack of expertise and of explosives meant that the damages were not so large and it was repaired fairly quickly and was used for ore transport throughout the war.

Soon after the Germans fully occupied Norway they began pressing Sweden to allow unarmed German troops to travel on the Swedish railway system to and from Norway on leave. On 8 July 1940 an agreement on this traffic was reached. [4]

The supplies of iron ore continued to be shipped to Germany, often under Swedish naval protection through the Baltic and in some cases in Swedish transport ships.[ citation needed ] After the German invasion of Russia, Soviet submarines attempted to sink iron ore ships in the Baltic sea, sinking the Swedish passenger liner, Hansa, on 24 November 1944, causing 84 deaths including children.[ citation needed ] [5]

The Swedish position

Sweden was able to remain neutral throughout the war. According to Erik Boheman, the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs during the war, the main reasons were luck and the development of the war, in combination with the Swedish people's spirit to resist an invasion, and perhaps also some diplomatic skillfulness. [6]

Sweden also sought to maintain its traditional ties with the Western democracies. The Allied blockade of Europe and the German counter blockade of the Baltic prevented all but the bare minimum of commodities such as oil reaching Sweden from the West, but despite the Allies' sympathy with Sweden’s position, there was a general belief among the American and British economic warfare agencies that Sweden went too far in accommodating the Nazi regime. [7]

The Allies believed that without the Swedish iron ore, the German war effort would grind to a halt because not only was the ore being sent in large quantities but it was also of very high quality, making German steel manufacture extremely efficient. The US military was also appalled at Sweden for escorting German ships, allowing use of its own ships to transport the ore and for its failure to stop the transit of German soldiers and war materials across its territory.[ citation needed ]

After America joined the blockade against the Axis forces and assisted in the Economic Warfare measures already being implemented by the British in early 1942, efforts were made to stop the Swedish iron ore trade and to reduce the practical help she was giving to Germany, although these attempts initially did nothing to reduce the German war effort.[ citation needed ]

Later Allied pressure on Sweden

During the last half of 1943 and the early months of 1944, the US sought to cripple Germany's ability to continue the war by carrying out a concentrated and costly bombing campaign against ball bearing production in Germany combined with trade negotiations, including preclusive purchasing arrangements, intended to cut off Swedish ball bearings to Germany. Despite the bombing, German industrial countermeasures and improvisations warded off any serious consequences, and an Allied agreement with Sweden in September 1943 to halt exports of ball bearings neglected to impose restrictions on exports of the high-quality steel used in their manufacture. This allowed Sweden to continue to provide Germany with ball-bearing steel, largely offsetting the drop in the Swedish export of finished ball bearings.

After the tide of battle on the eastern front had irreversibly shifted following German defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk in the winter and summer of 1943, the Soviet Union, at the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers in October 1943, took the lead in suggesting a more active role for Sweden in the War, such as by allowing the establishment of Allied air bases in its territory. Although the Allies decided not to call on Sweden to declare war on Germany, Churchill believed that the War might be brought to an early end if Sweden (and Turkey which provided Germany with chromite ore) entered it on the Allied side in order to confront Hitler on additional fronts.

Although Sweden did not enter the fight, she did later agree to cancel the transit of German military material and troops across Sweden, to further reduce iron ore exports, end Swedish naval escorting of German ships in the Baltic, and reduce ball bearing exports. In exchange, Britain and the US agreed to a relaxation of the blockade to allow Sweden to import certain important commodities, including rubber and oil. The ongoing diplomatic pressure, together with the deteriorating German military position gradually persuaded Sweden to reduce and ultimately end its trade with Germany by November 1944.

See also

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  1. Christian Leitz (2000). Nazi Germany and Neutral Europe During the Second World War. Manchester University Press. p. 64ff.
  2. The Twilight War. Winston Churchill 1948
  3. The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich. William L. Shirer. 1959
  4. Bale, Douglas (1966). "An Episode In Nazi Diplomacy: The German-Swedish Transit Agreement of July 8, 1940" (PDF). Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science for Social Sciences. 47: 318–324 via Oklahoma State University Digital Library.
  5. The Sinking of the Hansa by Soviet Submarine L - 21
  6. Boheman, Erik (1964). På vakt. Kabinettssekreterare under andra världskriget (in Swedish). Stockholm: Norstedt. LIBRIS   714227 . Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  7. State Dept. report on holocaust assets and the fate of the wartime Utasha Treasury. 1998

Further reading