THE STORY OF NAMSOS
How a concert tour of Norway played a part in the birth of the British War Memorial for the casualties of the first ‘Dunkirk’ – the 1940 Norwegian Campaign.
By Anda Anastasescu Gritten
In 1999, John Gritten - journalist and author and the London Schubert Players’ Trustee and honorary secretary - was writing his war memoirs, a record of six wartime years. He had been an official Royal Navy reporter for the Admiralty’s press division and had his baptism of fire aged 20 in the Namsen Fjord, on the destroyer Afridi during the Allies’ evacuation from Namsos, Central Norway in April - May 1940.
Full Circle was going to hold a couple of claims to uniqueness and one of them was the presentation of the Norwegian civilian interpretation of the events. In John’s own words: Almost exclusively, the numerous books published since 1950s about the short-lived Norwegian Campaign have concentrated on its military and naval aspects. But what impact did the invasion, the Allied intervention and five years’ Nazi occupation have on Norwegian civilians?
To be able to research the civilian dimension and collect personal information from the people of Namsos 60 years after the events, John needed to find local contacts. Serendipitously, I was just about to take the London Schubert Players string orchestra on our first concert tour of Norway and, although we were not performing in Namsos, John gave us an inspiring mission: to try and find him a Norwegian person with connections in Namsos, who could put him in touch with an official of the town. I was not at all optimistic to find such a person…but I did. It was a teacher from Lillehammer, who had offered the orchestra hospitality in his house after our concert there and who, I discovered, had personal connections at the Namsos Town Hall!
What followed is history: John was introduced to Namsos-based historian Jens-Anton Andersen who just so happened to be the son of the town’s Harbour Master of 1940, who had helped the Allied cause and for which he suffered arrest, torture and captivity in concentration camps.
The meeting of the two men in London led to a significant result: the establishing of the British War Memorial at Namsos - 60 years after the town was the scene of the Second World War’s first Allied evacuation - and the setting up by the Norwegians of a Namsos British War Veterans’ Committee which hosts the annual May remembrance visits.
On the Norwegian National Day of 17th May 2000 I witnessed at John’s side the unveiling of the British War Memorial by the British Ambassador and the jubilation that surrounded it. Since then, the London Schubert Players engaged in various professional and charitable activities in the town that had been completely re-built after being left in ruin by Luftwaffe in April 1940.
We performed in the traditional Constitution Day concerts and on occasions led the string sections of the local orchestra; we gave master classes for local schools and performed chamber music in local venues and nursing homes; and we have plans for a joint venture in 2020 to commemorate 80 years from the Allies’ evacuation and the bombing of Namsos.
Above all, we took part in the ceremonies commemorating those who perished there in the war - Norwegians, British, French and Russians - and we were very moved by the throwing of the red roses at sea, above the wrecks of the lost ships. We felt privileged to share these unique moments with the war veterans themselves and to learn about little known but compelling aspects of WWII history. Emotionally and symbolically, we became carriers for the preservation of the links between past, present and future in this part of the world.
The British War Memorial, John Gritten, the Mayor of Namsos, historian Jens-Anton Andersen and the bell rescued from anti-submarine HMT Aston Villa, one of the ships bombed in the fjord.
At the traditional lunch offered by the Mayor of Namsos to the British guests: LSP violinist Barbara and cellist husband Peter Rayner feeding their baby son, who made the long journey from London to Namsos and required Norwegian babysitters while his parents rehearsed and performed.