Sweden during World War II

Sweden during World War II

The policy of Sweden during World War II was to remain neutral. Swedish neutrality had been the policy for more than a century, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

When hostilities began on 1 September 1939, the fate of Sweden was unclear. Eventually, even though 20 nations had held a policy of neutrality in September 1939, only eight European nations were capable of sustaining a policy of neutrality throughout the entire war (the others being Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Vatican City and Switzerland). Sweden was one of those countries able to maintain this delicate balance and avoid engagement in the European Theatre. Sweden owed this maintenance of neutrality to its location in the Scandinavian Peninsula, its long-held neutral stance in international relations, a dedicated military build-up and an unpredictable course of events which went in its favour. Another important factor was the concessions the Swedish government made to Germany, for example allowing the Wehrmacht to use Swedish railways to transport an infantry division, along with war material freight, i.e., howitzers, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons and associated ammunition, from Norway to Finland, and to transport soldiers on leave between Norway and Germany.

poster reminding Swedes to be wary of spies asking questions.
"Svensk" can mean both "Swedish" and "Swede" while "tiger" could be read as either the animal or "keeps his mouth shut," giving the poster the double meaning "A Swedish Tiger" and "A Swede keeps his mouth shut." Comparable to "Loose lips sink ships." The Tiger is colored as the Swedish flag]

Military balance in the Baltic

Sweden's long-standing policy of neutrality was severely tested on many occasions during the 1930s. The challenges came from a strongly rejuvenated, nationalistic Germany. From 1919 until 1935, Sweden had been an active supporter of the League of Nations. Most of Sweden's energy in the international arena had been directed towards preservation of the League.

The Swedish non-aligned policy was founded on the assumption that there were two opposing powers in the Baltic, Germany and the Soviet Union. As they have to guard against each other, they could only deploy minor forces against Sweden or other non-aligned countries which made defence of a small country feasible. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that was signed in the end of August 1939, upset this balance.

Pre-war preparations

Beginning in 1936, the Swedish government regularly increased its defence budget to strengthen its military preparedness as the international situation was seen to worsen. Military spending went from $37 million in 1936, to $50 million in 1937, to $58.575 million in 1938, and then increased over fivefold to $322.325 million in 1939. During the war itself, military spending peaked in 1942 at $527.575 million.

During European hostilities, Swedish industry had to supply an increased share of domestic goods, due to the German blockade of the North Sea, as well as to satisfy the vastly increased demand for armaments. Before the war, annual production of armaments typically totalled tens of millions of Swedish kronor, but during the war, output exceeded SEK 1 billion (US$240 million).

Not only was the Swedish government buying material to strengthen its defences, it began drafting conscripts. On May 6, 1938, the government called up the entire conscript class of 1923, then at the age of 35, for short periods of training. In addition to this, the Swedish Cabinet ordered that one quarter of the 1938 military draft intake be retained for further training.

In 1940, the "Swedish Home Guard" (Hemvärnet), was created. Its units comprised small groups of former soldiers who were equipped with rifles, machine guns, ammunition, medicine and uniforms. They had the option to buy additional materials such as skis, sweaters and marching boots. The "Swedish Women's Voluntary Defence Service", or Lottorna, had been created in 1924.

While arming itself, Sweden felt that it was necessary to articulate and enforce its policy of neutrality. Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson stated shortly before the Second World War began: "Friendly with all other nations and strongly linked to our neighbors, we look on no one as our enemy. There is no place in the thoughts of our people for aggression against any other country, and we note with gratitude assurances from others that they have no wish to disturb our peace, our freedom, or our independence. The strengthening of our defence preparations serves merely to underline our fixed determination to keep our country outside the conflicts among others and, during such conflicts, to safeguard the existence of our people." Other members of the Swedish government expressed similar sentiments.

Georg Homin, a captain on the General Staff, said, "without a defensive force we cannot follow any policy of our own, our declarations become merely empty words, and we leave the country's fate to chance or to the decision of others. With a defence as strong as Swedish conditions allow we secure for ourselves the basis of a continued independent Swedish policy."

The outbreak of wars

After the outbreak of war between Germany and Poland, France and Britain in September 1939, Sweden declared itself a neutral country.

At the outbreak of the Finnish Winter War in November 1939 Sweden declared itself not neutral, but ”non-belligerent”. This allowed the country to send volunteers and weapons to Finland. Sweden and Finland also laid minefields in the Sea of Åland to deter Soviet submarines from entering the Gulf of Bothnia. [Carl-Axel Wangel et al ”Sveriges militära beredskap 1939-1945” (Köping 1982) ISBN 91-85266-20-5 page 126]

The defence of Finland

When the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939, many Swedes favoured some sort of involvement in the conflict, both on a humanitarian and a military basis. Sweden's interest in Finland lay in the fact that Finland had been an integrated part of Sweden for more than six hundred years, Sweden losing control of the eastern provinces in 1809. Despite several pleas from the Finnish government, the Swedish government chose not to engage militarily when the Red Army advanced during the Winter War. However, Sweden was declared non-belligerent rather than neutral during the conflict and did accept that as many as 8,000 Swedes voluntarily went to Finland. The Swedish government and public sent food, clothing, medicine, weapons and ammunition to aid the Finns during the Winter War, but avoided official military involvement. The military aid included: [Carl-Axel Wangel m. fl. ”Sveriges militära beredskap 1939-1945” (Köping 1982) ISBN 91-85266-20-5 page 136]
*135,402 rifles, 347 machine guns, 450 light machine guns with 50,013,300 rounds of small arms ammunition.
*144 field guns, 100 anti aircraft guns and 92 anti-armour guns with 301,846 shells.
*300 sea mines and 500 depth-charges.
*17 fighter aircraft 5 light bombers and 3 reconnaissance aircraft. 12 of Sweden's most modern fighter aircraft (Gloster Gladiator) was flown by Swedish pilots [http://www.canit.se/~griffon/aviation/text/f19.htm] . This was one third of the Swedish fighter force at the time. In addition, some 70,000 Finnish children were sent to safety from Finland to Sweden during the 1940s [http://www.hs.fi/kuva/1076154390838] .

Potential Allied invasion

Hitler wrote in a letter to Sweden's King Gustaf V, dated April 24, 1940; "I have no doubt that our action (the invasion of Norway and Denmark), which at the last moment forestalled the execution of the Allied plan and which under all circumstances will stop France and England from getting a foothold in Scandinavia, will have consequences which will be a blessing to the Scandinavian peoples."] the "Kehl-Strassburg"

cite book |last=Pocock|first= Rowland F|title=German Guided Missiles of the Second World War|year=1967 |publisher=Arco Publishing Company, Inc. |location=New York |isbn= |pages=p71,81,87,107] joystick radio control equipment (code named Burgund) planned for the Wasserfall

cite book |last=Garliński|first=Józef|title=Hitler's Last Weapons: The Underground War against the V1 and V2|year=1978|publisher=Times Books|location=New York|isbn=|pages=p166] anti-aircraft missile - a modification of the joy-stick system to direct the Henschel Hs 293 glide bomb.

cite book |last=Neufeld|first=Michael J |title=The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era |year=1995|publisher=The Free Press|location=New York|language= |isbn=0-02-922895-6 |pages=p235] The ground controller appeared to have no trouble maneuvering the rocket until it disappeared in the high cloud layer. A captured German prisoner later explained to the British that the controller was an expert at steering glider bombs "from aircraft", but that the spectacle of a rocket caused him to incorrectly operate the control lever in his astonishment.

cite book |last=Franklin|first=Thomas|title=American in Exile, An: The Story of Arthur Rudolph|year=1987|publisher=Christopher Kaylor Company|location=Huntsville|pages=p91 (see also "Triumph and Tragedy" by Churchill, 1953)] Peenemünde guidance and control expert Ernst Steinhoff explained that the excited operator applied the set of planned corrections (such as for Earth rotation) in the opposite direction as he had been told.

cite book |last=Ordway |first= Frederick I, III|authorlink= |coauthors=Sharpe, Mitchell R|title=The Rocket Team|series= Apogee Books Space Series 36|year= 1979|publisher=Thomas Y. Crowell|location=New York|pages=p167] The rocket had exploded in an air burst (a common defect for the rocket) several thousand feet above Bäckebo, [cite web |title=The Air Torpedo of Bäckebo |url=http://hum.gu.se/institutioner/arkeologi/pdfs/Backebo_Current_2006.pdf |format=pdf |accessdate=2008-09-16] [cite web |last= |first= |title=The Rocket and I |url=http://www.df.lth.se/~triad/rockets/therocket.html |format=html |accessdate=2008-09-16] and the wreckage was exchanged for British Supermarine Spitfires.

cite book |last=Henshall|first=Philip|title=Hitler’s Rocket Sites|year=1985|publisher=St Martin's Press|location=New York|isbn= |pages=p133|quote=] On July 31, 1944, military intelligence

cite book |last=Johnson|first=David|authorlink=|title=V-1, V-2: Hitler’s Vengeance on London|year=1981/1982|publisher=Stein and Day|location= |isbn=0-8128-2858-5|pages=p100] experts at Farnborough Airfield began an attempt to reconstruct the missile.

cite book |last=Collier|first=Basil|title=The Battle of the V-Weapons, 1944-1945 |origyear=1964 |year=1976|publisher=The Emfield Press|location=Yorkshire|isbn=0 7057 0070 4 |pages=p103]

Forced repatriation

" (English title: "A Baltic Tragedy"), about the Latvian soldiers who were given to the Soviets to be sentenced to hard labour in prison camps. [New York Times movie summary [http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=159109] ]

Impact on domestic politics

The Liberal, Conservative and Agrarian parties were concerned about a perceived threat from the Soviet Union and were more favorably disposed towards Finland than the Social Democrats were. Among the latter a certain wariness from the Finnish Civil War still lingered. The Communists were on the other hand loyal to the Soviet Union, and supported its Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. However, once Germany attacked the Soviet Union they swung around to a pro-Allied view.


Sweden's neutrality has been criticised as ineffectual in reality, as steel and machined parts were supplied to Nazi Germany throughout the war. Many feel ashamed that the government did not stand up to Germany, and many felt this way at the time as well. However, the government believed that protecting its people was of the highest importance, and believed that Sweden could remain uninvolved.Fact|date=July 2008 Ultimately, the government faced a dilemma: help their close neighbours and the war effort, or protect their own people from invasion by remaining out of the conflict. While it proved impossible to remain entirely uninvolved, they did manage to avoid invasion, at the cost of being seen as cowardly by some. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously referred to Sweden during the war as "that small, coward country". [cite book|last=Zubicky|first=Sioma|year=1997|title=Med förintelsen i bagaget|language=Swedish|publisher=Bonnier Carlsen|location=Stockholm|pages=122|id=ISBN 91-638-3436-7] The lack of military support for Norway caused some distance in feelings between the two nations, yet they have managed to maintain close relations. Most are aware that the situation was extremely complex, with similarity to the case of Sweden deciding not to come to Finland's aid at the time of the Soviet invasion. Yet, it could be seriously questioned if an armed conflict with the axis powers would have brought anything other than despair and misery for the Swedes.Fact|date=July 2008

See also

*"Nordische Gesellschaft"


WWII history by nation

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