Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Vintage WWII

It is somewhat cold here in the mountains of Virginia (compared to the 70s last week) and that makes me think of the North, which makes me think about Scandinavia, which makes me think about Norway, which makes me think about my favorite WWII story that took place there. Now you know how I pick a topic.

There are so many, seemingly endless, riveting stories out of that war that it is hard to pick one. But this one was fascinating enough that some have called it the most successful mission of the war, and Kirk Douglas starred in a not very accurate version of it in 1965 called The Heroes of Telemark . There have also been several books, including one by participant, Knut Haukelik (Skiis against the Atom), . For a more unbiased account you can try Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy by Peter Dahl, and Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Program by Thomas Gallagher. My favorite modern non-fiction book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes also covers it briefly, but well. There have been a few documentaries too, including a 1948 Norwegian one featuring some of the saboteurs, which I have not seen and probably would not understand. You'll see why below that it has attracted so much attention.

The Nazis had conquered Norway back in Spring, 1940, long before the United States entered the war. Initially, it was just one more European country under German domination. However, once the race to develop the atomic bomb began, it became of strategic importance. A plant producing what is called heavy water, or deuterium, was located in Vemork in the South of that country. Deuterium was critical to the development of the atomic bomb. Basically, it moderates the atomic reaction allowing a controlled chain reaction to occur. It is probably toxic to humans (they have done mice studies only). There are only a few places where it was produced (still too). Thus, to deprive the Nazis of this specialized water became an important objective.

The plant, sometimes called the Rjukan-Vemork complex, was located in a ravine surrounded by a wild mountain area known as the Hardanger Vidda. There was one bridge to the plant which crossed a ravine about 600 feet high. It was, however, also connected to the outside world by a little used rail station, which would prove important.

The first effort, Operation Grouse/Freshman, went not so good, or, as we Norwegian say - "Ikke så fint". Four Norwegian commandos trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) were parachuted into the area on October 19, 1942. This was the Grouse team. Although, of course, they were dropped off course, and got lost, they finally arrived at their hiding spot and made contact by radio with the code words "three pink elephants". A month after their drop, two RAF bombers towed gliders with 17 men each, which were to land on a nearby frozen lake. The first bomber crashed into a mountain killing everyone aboard. Although the glider broke free, it also crashed, injuring many of the men aboard. The second tug determined to return to base, but, unfortunately, the tow cable broke and the second glider also crashed. When you read enough WWII material, you realize that before all of the successes, there were too many adventures that resulted in tragedy like this one, often much worse.

There were fourteen Survivors who were picked up by the Gestapo, tortured and executed, all in one day. Efficiency. This was done upon orders by Hitler for any allied commandos (out of uniform). This itself is of some interest if you take a look at my earlier post, The Nazi Invasion of Long Island (1/24/07), and see the handwringing that went on when we caught German Saboteurs in America. Same result, we executed them, but a legal process was required. This still has ramifications today when we catch purported terrorists in America.

The four man Norwegian team, however, was barely surviving on mountain plant life (i.e., reindeer moss, a type of lichen). The head of intelligence for British air services, R. V. Jones, called the decision to send in another team one of his toughest decisions. Although they knew that the Germans were now alerted and would take precautions, the importance of the operation ruled out greater caution.

They were much more successful with Operation Gunnerside, parachuting in six more Norwegian commandos in mid-February, who were hooked up with and re-supplied the Grouse team, now dubbed Swallow. They wore British uniforms (which, they probably hoped would keep them from being summarily executed as spies) under their jump suits and along with food and weapons carried skiis, a radio and enough plastic explosives to blow each of the electrolysis cells that produced the heavy water.

One of the newly arrived group went on to do reconnaisance and reported back that not only had minefields been laid on approaches to the plant, but that there were armed guards on the bridge. There were also search lights in use and machine guns at the ready. However, the good news was that, probably due to overconfidence based on the plants location in a secure location (or perhaps dubiousness as to its importance) there were only about 15 guards on duty.

On the 27th of that same month, they mounted their raid. Despite the increase in security, the commandos had one distinct advantage. The designer of the plant was now heading the intelligence/sabotage wing of the refugee Norwegian High Commandback in England and was able to give detailed information as to how to sneak in.

One man stayed behind with the radio and nine set out to destroy the plant capacity. Five of them carried Tommy guns. They all had at least a pistol, knife and grenade. They also each carried a cyanide pill which they promised to use before capture and interrogation.

Naturally, they had to avoid the guarded bridge, so they descended down to the river, crossed it and then ascended to the shelf upon which the plant lay. Everything went perfectly for them. The searchlights were off, it was a moonless night and the wind prevented noise from warning the defenders. They entered the plant through the railroad opening, had a snack and waited until the sentries had changed and relaxed.

A little before midnight they cut through a thin metal fence and split into two teams, one to cover, and one to do the demolition. The team watching the barracks covered the wooden barracks and waited for the blast. Finding the doors locked, the demolition team entered the plant through a cable intake the designer of the plant had advised them about, and which two of them crawled through.

Boom. The charges went off as planned. Outside, however, the noise was greatly reduced and there was initially very little investigation. The one German guard who came to check, noted that the doors were locked and apparently thought snow from the shelf above them had fallen and set off a mine. The commandos all escaped, partly by skiing, partly by descending and then ascending the mountain again. They left a British weapon behind so that the locals would not be blamed. They had made their escape before sirens were set off.

The German general in charge of Norway, Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, probably prevented the workers at the site from torture after they were taken to be interrogated by the Gestapo. He chewed out the Germans guarding the plant, but praised the mission with admiration, calling it the best coup he had ever seen. The official German report from the site attributed it to three armed men, likely British. Leaving behind the gun worked.

Six of the commandos left the country but some remained behind. Good thing. By April, the plant was up and running again, although not full capacity. This time the allies bombed the hell out of it during a lunch break (trying to keep from killing the Norwegian staff if possible) Although most of the 140 B-17s which got through the German flak missed their target, and all the main target, enough hit to cause some damage, but it only shut the plant down for at least a while.

The Nazis eventually decided to ship the critical parts to Germany in 1944. Only Knut Haukelid of the commandos had remainded, other than the radio man, and the task fell to him to destroy the shipment of heavy water to Germany with a new team he had to assemble from local talent.

Although Haukelid was living in Norway at the time of the German invasion and had spent most of his life there, he was actually born in Flatbush, New York, with a twin sister in 1911 and went to Massachusetts State College. Thus, he was in his young 30s when called to duty. His sister, Sigrid Gurie became a movie star during the war years, her best known film being Algiers.

First, Haukelid met with the plant's chief engineer, Alf Larsen, at night and worked out a plan. Larsen had himself been trying to secretly aid information getting out to the allies, and was not onsite when the initial raid was made the previous year, but rushed there in his wood burning car. From Larsen, Haukelid learned that the heavy water would be transferred in drums marked potash-lye by train down to a ferry at Lake Tinnsjo, then across the lake, to another train to the coast, and thereafter by ship to Germany.

The transport engineer, who also cooperated, was able to arrange that the shipment was made on a Sunday. By leaving the train alone, and attacking the ferry, they would minimize Norwegian deaths, although there was no way to prevent some aboard the ferry from dying. Sunday would be the day of least local traffic and was the best they could do.

Still, the engineers were dubious that an atomic explosion was possible or, if it was, that the Germans were anywhere near accomplishing it (wrong on the first count and right on the second). They believed that there would be German reprisals on the locals and they naturally doubted the demolition was worth it. Nevertheless, when they radioed London they were told it was necessary to go ahead.

Haukelid learned which ferry would be used to transport the material and took it himself, disguised as a working man (with a hidden sten gun, just in case). He needed to time just when the ferry would be crossing deep water so that it could not be beached and the product recovered. Using alarm clocks, detonators picked up by a local contact and the plastic explosives he had received from the British, he made a test run of the device up near his mountain cabin. He and a team member, Rolf Sorlie, had actually fallen a sleep in Haukelid's mountain cabin when it went off. They jumped up and grabbed their guns before realizing what had happened.

The night before the ferry was to leave, Haukelid, Larsen (the engineer) and three other local men including Sorlie and a driver took off in the driver's car after some trouble starting it. Eventually, they decided to take the driver home and not involve him. Larsen intended to escape Norway to avoid capture and had his valuables with him. Earlier that night he had met a musician who was going to be on the ferry the next day. He was not able to dissuade him from going.

The team came prepared with sten guns, grenades and pistols as well as the explosives. Larsen was left at the car with a pistol and told to escape if they did not return. Haukelid snuck on board and was surprised that there was no guard. He overheard what he thought was a party and a poker game. Sorlie and the other local man, Lier-Hansen, who actually had a pass to go where he pleased, came aboard with him. They snuck down to the lower level where they intended to leave the timed explosives in a 12 foot loop pattern on the lowest level to blow a big hole. Unfortunately, they ran into the watchman, Berg. But, more fortunately, Lier-Hansen knew him from a sport's club, and, in fact, had been told by another local that he could be trusted.

They told Berg that they needed to hide something from the Gestapo. Although nervous, Berg was very sympathetic with that and indicated that this was not the first time he had helped out with something like this. While Lier-Hansen chatted with the watchman Haukelid and another local slipped below, which was covered in a foot of water and set the device. Haukelid did the last work himself as alarm clock devices were quite dangerous to set, there being less than a third of an inch between the hammer and the contact plate they had substituted for alarm bells. He finished at 4 a.m. The timer was set for 10:45 a.m., about forty five minutes after the ferry would leave, and when he expected it to be over deep water.

The local chatting with the watchman advised him that they had to leave to collect their belongings and would be back. Haukelid had to make one of those decisions that must take immeasurable moral courage. He did not warn the watchman, but thanked him and left him to his fate.

Having left the ferry, they dumped the car and Haukelid and Larsen made their escape to Sweden. Sorlie took a report to be given to the radioman for London. Lier-Hansen stayed to watch events and then returned to his job at the plant. The transport engineer who had arranged for the Sunday delivery arranged to have his healthy appendix taken out that same week end, giving him an absolute alibi.

The explosives went off on time. Of the fifty three aboard, I have read different accounts for how many died, but most often twenty six, although not the musician. He and his violin escaped. The freight cars containing the heavy water rolled overboard and sunk.

Haukelid lived until 1994 (his sister died of an embolism in 1969 -- he suffered an embolism soon after but survived). After the war he formally joined the Norwegian military and died a lieutenant General, much honored in both Norway and America.

Whether these thrilling operations really helped stopped the German bomb is still debated. Unbeknownst to Haukelid, there was a second team of saboteurs and then bombers ready if he failed. There are some who believe the shipment of heavy water would have made no difference, that it wasn't rich enough in heavy water to have been useful, and, others who believe that the Germans had shipped regular water when they learned of the mission (disproven by recovery of some of the barrels) or that the Germans had sufficient heavy water stocks in Germany. I can't decide that. All I said I would do was to give you my favorite World War II story. And now my job is done.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:22 PM

    Can this really be your favorite WWII story? I like the one that starts, "Three nazis and a jew were sitting around at Auschwitz one day and...."


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .