Bodø is one of the ports on the Hurtigruten northbound journey where you get a few hours to enjoy the town. At first glance, it’s not the most beautiful town. The city centre is made up of concrete blocks seeming to lack any architectural imagination. But, this is where the history of Bodø comes in. The town was heavily impacted by World War II, as was everywhere in Northern Norway, and this has resulted in a new image for the town. But there’s more to Bodø’s history than World War II, and I have covered this fascinating story in this post.
Enjoy the history of Bodø!
The first traces of people living in the Bodø region date back to the Stone Age, around 10,000BC, when the rich fisheries of Saltstraumen attracted the nomads, making Saltstraumen the oldest settlement in Bodø. The rock carvings that have been found in the area are the third-oldest rock carvings in the country.
The land around Bodø has changed quite a lot since these first settlers. Originally, the sea was 80m higher than it is today. Additionally, the land rising also carved out more space. The large flat areas of the Bodø Peninsula were originally underwater, but then these changes allowed for the land to rise and become cultivated. Originally Bodø was an island, but as it rose it developed into a peninsula.
When people began to settle in the region, they used the Nordland horses as ordinary livestock. When the weave was invented, it increased clothing production.
The Viking Age
The area around Bodø was mentioned in the Saga of Olav Tryggvason, when he travelled to Bodø to christen Raud the Strong, a pagan priest and seafaring warrior who was strongly opposed to Christianity. Raud the Strong was a large landowner and a leader-priest of ‘Seiðr’ (an Old Norse term for a type of sorcery or witchcraft that was practised by the pre-Christian Norse). He was known for his beautiful longship with a dragon’s head carved into the bow called “The Dragon”. Raud was defeated by Olaf in a sea battle and escaped on his longship to the Godey Isles. Olav followed him and seized him from his bed, then told Raud that if he accepted Christian baptism, he could keep his lands and ship and Olav would be his friend. Raud refused and mocked Olav, which upset Olav. He ordered that Raud be bound to a beam of wood, with his face pointed upward, and a round pin of wood to be put between his teeth to force his mouth open. Then the king ordered a snake to be put in his mouth, but the snake would not go in, so Olav ordered a drinking horn be put into his mouth and then forced the serpent to go in by holding a red-hot iron at the opening of the horn. As a result, the snake crept into Raud’s mouth and down his throat and gnawed its way out his side and Raud died. Olav seized Raud’s gold, silver, weapons and artefacts. All the men who were with Raud were baptized. The King also took Raud’s precious ship “The Dragon”. According to this legend, this is how the famous Viking ships got their distinctive shape.
The Middle Ages
During this time Norway was brought together as one country, and the large farmlands were gathered for goods and the King and Priest gained more power. In total, the church owned about half the land in Norway. Around this time, 1240, Bodin church was built near present-day Bodø.
The Black Death killed around 60% of the population, though Northern Norway was less affected. The survivors were given large blocks of land to cultivate, thus improving living conditions. However, shortly after the Black Death, the King decided that the Hanseatic League, who had high demands for fish from the Bodø and Lofoten areas, could not sail further north than Bergen. Thus, all fishermen would have to sail to Bergen to sell their catch to the powerful League, who then sold the fishermen food, fabric and tools. Bodø’s trade weakened, and the area suffered – especially considering the King acquired back the land the peasants had taken after the plague.
The 17th Century
The 17th century is often referred to as a century of “misery” in the area around Bodø. There was a plague epidemic and Norway became involved in several wars between Denmark-Norway and Sweden. This caused taxes to rise, and the King also sold off all the farms in Northern Norway in 1666 to keep money coming into the Danish Kingdom. To top things off, a mini ice age took place, causing the climate to change drastically and the temperature to drop. The winters became icy and the summers were humid; it became virtually impossible to grow food.
The 17th century is also characterised by the many witch hunts that took place in Norway. Witch hunts occurred because the Danes had moved to Norway with the new Lutheran religion, and the number of women home alone (while their husbands were out fishing) and the indigenous Sami people concerned them. They then started believing that these groups of people were clearing involved in witchcraft. There were two accused witches from Bodø, though several from the region were burned at the stake at Bodin Church. One of Bodø’s witches was Mallena Nilsdotter, who was accused of witchcraft in the fishing village. She was married to a farmer and fisherman Anders Johanesson. It’s unknown exactly what she did, but she died in 1615 for “unknown reason”. No executioner ever sent a bill for her murder, so it’s likely she died of torture during an interrogation.
18th Century Growth
The misery of the 17th century carried over into the first part of the 18th century, as the 1740s were marked by famine. When the economy began to stabilise, the Danish king decided (i.e. forced) to re-buy all the land he had previously sold off. This didn’t last long, however, as it created a large backlash in the local community. The King was once again to sell the land back. This incident caused the farmers’ income to go up, and together with the increased fisheries in the region, the area began to grow and living conditions began to improve.
Despite the improved living conditions for the ethnic Norwegian settlements, the Sami settlements did not fare as well. There was little space for reindeer husbandry, and several Sami had to start farming along the coast where there was vacant land. There was also a discriminatory and racist attitude towards the Sami, and the Sami were only allowed to buy the worst agricultural land. The Sami were led to become more integrated, and many of them became more ethnically Norwegian, forgetting their Sami past.
19th Century Founding
At the start of the 1800s, the trade monopoly Bergen had was declining, and the state wanted to create new cities in Northern Norway to increase trade and increase competition. Initially, they founded towns in the far-north county ‘Troms og Finnmark’, but they realised that they were so far away from the big cities Christiania (Oslo), Bjørgvin (Bergen), and Trondhjem (Trondheim). So, they decided to choose some new places “along the way”. Bodø was the perfect spot: it was somewhat halfway, it had an area with rich fisheries, and there was already a small community living there. There was also an abundance of timber materials for construction, compared to fishing villages in Lofoten that lived on a very bare and rocky coastline. Additionally, during the Napoleonic Wars, a fortress had been built to defend Northern Norway against a potential British attack. This only added to the appeal of the area.
Bodø grew up around the estate “Hundholmen”, which was the original name of the town. Hundholmen had status as trading centre as far back as 1775, so it made sense to develop that area. Between 1813 and 1816, the merchants of Bergen fought hard to prevent Bodø from being established, as Bergen saw this as a threat to the trade monopoly it had had for centuries. The town was officially founded in 1816 as a commercial centre for the local fishing activities in the area, thus replacing Bergen (to read more about how this change came about, read the Ørnes history section). Even though Bergen lost, the new city did not grow as anticipated because many of the Lofoten fishermen continued sailing to Bergen to sell their catch, as was tradition. After the founding of Bodø, a prolonged period of inactivity set in. The population in 1824 was only 210, and it was said that you could stand in the middle of the city without knowing it due to the rural conditions. Thirty years later, the population had only risen by 18.
The Bodø Affair
Bodø quickly became famous for the ‘Bodø Affair’, involving the now Sweden-Norway and the United Kingdom. The events took place between 1818 and 1821 and began when the illegal trading activities of an English company in Bodø were exposed. The Norwegians had seized a large amount of illegal cargo belonging to the British company and arrested one of its owners, who later escaped. The Stockholm foreign ministry, which handled Norway’s foreign affairs at the time, seemed unreasonably favourable to the British side, thereby angering the Norwegians and causing them to become more nationalistic. In 1821, compensation was paid to the British company, angering the Norwegians further. While the event is of minor importance in itself, the incident led to a lasting distrust among Norwegians of the Swedish foreign ministry.
In 1864, there was a very good herring season that led to an upswing in the fortunes of the town. Enormous quantities of herring were caught and by 1884 the population had increased to 2,685. In the mid 1880s, the herring once again disappeared, and now Bodø had to adjust to life without herring.
Bodø Church was built in 1888 and in 1894 the town became a parish. Schools were built as well as a steamship quay in 1904. The Hurtigruten began calling at Bodø in the early 20th century, becoming hugely important to life in the community as it wasn’t until the 1930s that Bodø became accessible by road, though that road had to close in winter until as recently as the 1980s.
In 1919, the largest North Norwegian treasure from the Viking Age was founded outside Bodø. It consisted of silver jewellery, coins and other pieces of silver and is believed to date back to the latter half of the 10th century. There are two theories as to how it got here: the first is that the wealthy person who owned it hid it before going on a trade expedition, and the second is that it was a Sami offering to the gods as the way it was bundled up corresponds to traditional Sami methods. However, it’s unknown how the Sami would get something so valuable. Who knows, perhaps it was Raud’s and Olav never got to it?
The Interwar Period
The interwar period, like many other parts of the world, was characterised by economic setbacks. The situation in Bodø fared better than other parts of Norway as the industry was aimed at a local market and therefore less dependent on the world economy. The brewing ban of 1919 created major financial problems for the northern fishermen, as the exporting nations with wine were the largest importers of Norwegian seafood. Their reaction with high tariffs on Norwegian produced food stopped fishing exports until 1926 when the ban was lifted.
After five years of misery, Bodø was met with new establishments in the late 1920s. Nordlandhospital was built, and the city’s first radio started. In 1923 the Norwegian Parliament decided to connect Bodø to Trondheim via the Nordlandsbanen, and Hurtigruten got a permanent stop in the city.
World War II
Bodø was initially of little interest to the Germans when they invaded and occupied Norway on the 9th of April. The town was hit by some airstrikes, but these were modest compared to other places and mostly harmless. Nevertheless, a local evacuation committee was established and Bodø prepared for the chance of war. Curtains were hung in the windows of homes at night, sandbags were placed in front of basement windows, and the police and fire departments were reinforced. Most residents evacuated the area.
In May, the Germans had not yet bothered to occupy Bodø. However, the British Royal Air Force was building an airport southeast of the city, and it was completed on the 26th of May. They didn’t get to use the airport; only a day later the main attack the locals were anticipating came.
On the 27th of May 1940, most of Bodø was destroyed by German air raids. The raids started with 15 Luftwaffe planes targeting the Red Cross-branded hospital, and all 141 patients were evacuated. Despite damage, the hospital was not destroyed. Another 15 planes joined the air raids and Bodø was quickly set on fire. In two and a half hours, fewer than 200 houses were left standing and of the 6,000 residents, 3,500 were left homeless. Fortunately, most of the inhabitants had left Bodø just a week before because the Germans had bombed the bank building. 99% of the people in Bodø during the attack survived.
On the 1st of June, the first German forces entered the city. 28 German soldiers entered on bikes and cycled around the ruins. All British and Norwegian forces, 4,000 of them, had been evacuated so no fighting took place. Eventually, there were even more Germans in Bodø – 6,000 in total. On top of that, they brought 6,000 prisoners and forced labourers to rebuild. In just a few months Bodø’s population had grown from 6,000 to 18,000.
Due to the lack of housing, the Swedish government helped built 107 apartments in the winter of 1941. They were prefabricated buildings donated by the Swedish Red Cross and were built closely together in a street pattern. They are still in Bodø and are still referred to as “Svenskbyen” (The Swedish Town).
Bodø was the setting of Operation Leader, a successful air attack conducted by the United States Navy against German shipping in the area; Bodø was being used by the Germans as one of their most important shipping ports. The raid was successfully executed by aircraft flying from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, which was attached to the British Home Fleet. The spot had been determined by decoding German radio signals and reports from Norwegian Secret Intelligence Service agents; two Norwegian planes flew with the Americans to predive advice on the local geography. The American planes located German and Norwegian ships in the area, and it’s believed they destroyed five and damaged seven. Two German aircraft were shot down as well. Three American aircraft were destroyed in combat and another crashed while landing. The attack was the first in two years that the Allied aircraft targeted the Germans in Northern Norway, and it took the Germans by surprise.
During the war, the Germans had built several prison camps in the area. At Langstanda, which at the time was a fish distribution facility, the Germans built a prison camp for PoWs from Ukraine as forced labour. A large number of them died due to the inhumane conditions, and there were two incidents reported where ten prisoners had to dig their own graves before they were shot and buried. Another well-known camp was at Rønvikleira, where Soviet PoWs worked at a brick factory that became a major source of income for the Germans during the war period. Between 40,000 and 50,000 bricks were produced a week.
When Norway was liberated on the 8th of May 1945, Bodø got to work designing a new town.
Compared to many other places in Norway, Bodø did not allow for temporary structures before the new development plans were completed. Because of this, Bodø has one of Norway’s best-planned town layouts. Most of the reconstruction work was completed by the end of the 1940s. A new airport opened in 1952, Bodø Cathedral was consecrated in 1957 and the railway station opened in 1962.
The Airport, the Military and the Cold War
Bodø Airport was not just reconstructed as a civilian airport; it is Northern Norway’s Defence Command. It is Norway’s largest airbase, housing the 132nd Air Wing with 331 and 332 squadron, a search and rescue squadron operating Westland Sea King Mk, 43B helicopters and several support units.
During the Cold War, Bodø had a special position in the conflict between the east and the west. In 1949, NATO was founded with Norway as one of the founding members. At the time, Norway was the only NATO country with a USSR border. The western powers, largely the U.S, invested large sums of money in infrastructure and military installations in Northern Norway, especially since large parts of the country were still in ruins from the war. Bodø became Norway’s air defence capital, and at the same time was one of NATO’s most important bases throughout the Cold War. By building a military station at Bodø, the Americans had as many bases as possible close to Soviet borders. Also, Soviet aircraft on their way from Moscow to New York or Washington would more or less have to pass over the Bodø Peninsula. Bodø Airport made the headlines in 1960 when an American spy plane, U-2, was shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot was taken prisoner. The plane was on its way from Pakistan to Bodø. While no major events took place in Bodø, the airport secured its position as an important airbase for NATO. Several European countries have used Bodø Airport as a base for their operational training and attend the annual ‘Cold Response’ organised by Norway. Cold Response is a series of Norwegian exercises that take place during the harsh winter months. The first exercise took place in 2006 and around 11,000 soldiers from 11 countries participated. The airport is now also home to Bodin Leir, a RNoAF recruit school including the Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System personnel.
The civilian part of Bodø Airport is the operational base for Widerøe, one of Europe’s largest regional airlines. From Bodø there are direct connections via Widerøe to Bergen, Brønnøysund, Narvik, Sandnessjøen and Svolvaer. Another operator connects Bodø to the remote Lofoten island of Røst and a helicopter connects Bodø to the other remote island of Vaeroy. There are frequent flights with SAS and Norwegian from Bodø to Oslo, Trondheim and Tromsø. During the summer months, there are direct flights from Bodø to the Canary Islands and popular Mediterranean towns. 1.5 million passengers pass through Bodø every year.