Hammerfest, Norway: The Town that Will not Die
Hammerfest, in the Finnmark region, is the most northerly town in Norway. It has been demolished by war and destroyed by natural disasters, and yet it thrives. In the dead of winter, the Sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for ten weeks while the community is battered by ferocious snowstorms. As a permanent settlement it dates back only to the late 18th century, although the area has long been inhabited by the nomadic Sami reindeer herders. Today, more than 10,000 people live there.
Uninvited and unwelcome, Britain’s Royal Navy created havoc in the town. Through alliances, Denmark-Norway (they were one country then) threw in its lot with Napoleon Bonaparte as he set about conquering Europe.
Britain took exception to this and sent its warships, the brigs HMS Fancy and HMS Snake, to deal with Hammerfest, which was an important centre of commerce. When the Royal Navy appeared over the horizon, the town’s burgers unleashed the power of their four six-pound cannons. This mighty arsenal was backed up by a force of 50 men.
On July 22, 1809 the British attacked. The poorly equipped Norwegians held off the British warships for an hour-and-a-half, but the superior firepower prevailed. The fact that the Hammerfest militia ran out of gunpowder didn’t help in the defence.
Royal Navy sailors had the run of the town for eight days and looted everything they could find. They even stole the collection box and silver from a church.
Wind and Fire
In 1856, a hurricane pretty much flattened the town, but it was rebuilt thanks to financial help from distant cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen.
Then, in 1890, a fire broke out in a bakery. When the smoke cleared, two thirds of the town had been destroyed. Again, rebuilding took place this time with major funding from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Wilhelm had sailed his yacht into Hammerfest’s harbour several times and had developed warm feelings about the place.
As reconstruction took place, the town installed electric street lighting. It was the first community in Northern Europe to adopt this newfangled technology.
The town had suffered so many trials and tribulations in its short history that its citizens might have expected to be left in peace. It was not to be.
In 1940, Hitler’s jackbooted Nazis marched into town and used the harbour as a submarine base. Its importance to the Third Reich increased when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Allied convoys carried supplies to the northern Soviet ports of Archangel and Murmansk. The Germans based surface ships, sea planes, and U-boats in Hammerfest to attack these convoys. During the campaign, 85 merchant vessels were sunk along with 16 escorting warships.
The Worst Disaster
Of course, the tide of war turned against the Nazis. As the Soviets advanced and the Germans retreated they decided to leave nothing behind that might be of use to the Red Army.
On October 27, 1944 Hitler ordered that his troops on the Finnmark destroy everything. As the BBC notes “… with no shelter, food, or supplies, the plan was for the Red Army to starve and freeze to death.”
The Nazis set fire to all the communities in the Finnmark region; they blew up the roads, destroyed communications lines, smashed boats, and shot cattle. By February 1945, the Germans had burned almost all of Hammerfest’s buildings; the only structure still standing in the town was a small funeral chapel.
The citizens fled south to other towns for refuge. Treasured items they couldn’t take with them were buried. A couple of red armchairs upholstered in silk were dug up after the war; they are now in the Museum of Reconstruction for Finnmark and North Troms in Hammerfest.
Many other people took to the hills and sat out the winter and the rest of the German occupation in caves and mountain huts.
Throughout the Finnmark the destruction was almost total. The Museum of Reconstruction notes that the arson ruined “11,000 houses, 4,700 cow sheds, 106 schools, 27 churches, and 21 hospitals.” In addition, 70,000 people were rendered homeless.
As soon as the war in Europe ended in May 1945 the people of Hammerfest started to return, even though they were warned not to because of unexploded mines and other ordinance.
Undeterred, they rebuilt their town and it’s now a prosperous community. There is commercial fishing, tourism, and a liquid natural gas plant.
Despite its location 500 miles (800 km) inside the Arctic Circle, Hammerfest has an ice-free harbour. It is warmed (although warmed is a relative term for a place that only has five months of each year where the average temperature is above the freezing point) by the remnants of the Gulf Stream.
In the spring of 2008, a 300 kg German mine was found on the seabed just outside Hammerfest harbour. Captain Bjarte Haugsvær, who was in charge of blowing it up, said there are probably still a lot of unexploded weapons in the area.
The American travel writer Bill Bryson went to Hammerfest in 1990 to view the Northern Lights. In his book Neither Here Nor There Bryson wrote rather ungraciously that the town was “an agreeable enough town in a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way.”
Hammerfest has a bit of a reindeer problem. Thousands of the animals migrate through the town each year on their way to their summer territory. They wander about dropping dung and urine that has to be cleaned up. While popular with tourists, the locals are not so fond of them.
- “The NorwegianTown the World Tried to Erase.” Mike MacEacheran, BBC Travel, December 4, 2017.
- “Hammerfest, Norway: Phoenix of the Far North.” Susan Zimmerman, Historynet, September 30, 2010.
- “Hammerfest.” Visit Norway.com, undated.
- “German Mine of 300 Kilos Blown.” Terje I. Olsson, iFinnmark, June 9, 2008.