Sunday, 11 April 2010



Unless you already know this story, you will think it unlikely that skiing could save the world. You already know I am a bit of a ski nut, so maybe you think I’m pushing it a bit, over-egging the  pudding, super-gilding the lily. Allow me to tell the tale, and then you can judge.

As I mentioned before, many of the efforts of the Norwegian resistance that took place during the German occupation were remarkable, but perhaps the most famous is the story of the Heroes of Telemark. Hollywood had a bash at telling the story in 1965, and came up with a film that was authentic in some ways, but failed to portray the true nature of the endurance and courage of those involved. (Kirk Douglas did a good job at looking suitably rugged and Norsk, but as a whole, the picture didn’t quite cut the mustard.)

So when I read Ray Mears’s book on the subject, which had been very carefully researched by a team of dedicated experts, I was astounded to discover just what had taken place. It’s a story that every Norwegian school child is aware of, and I hope that continues to be the case. I will attempt to summarize, but really, you need to read the book.

Hitler knew that ‘heavy water’ could offer the key to defeating the Allies. Heavy water was the necessary ingredient for an atomic bomb, and the Germans well understood the technology required to use it. The only heavy water on earth at the time lay within the Norsk Hydro Plant at Vemock, outside the town of Rjukan in the Telemark region (heavy water was being manufactured as a bi-product for fertilizers). The Allies realised the plant must be attacked before the Germans could produce a bomb with which to destroy London and perhaps other British cities. The problem was, how to carry out an attack?

Vemock was situated on a cliff above a steep-sided gorge. It was also at the edge of the Hardangervidda, Europe’s largest high plateau, infamous for its ferocious weather and inhospitable terrain. One single road led into the plant, a narrow entrance with a bridge that spanned part of the gorge, so it was thought the only way to reach the target was by air. A dam lay at the head of the valley, and a plan was proposed to bomb it, thus flooding the valley. But too many innocent Norwegians civilians could die this way, so the air attack option was rejected.

The only alternative was to launch a raid which involved infiltrating the plant itself, a highly risky operation and one that was considered a suicide mission as withdrawal in the circumstances would be almost impossible. Such a raid was inconceivable to the Germans, who felt the plant was all but impenetrable.

Despite the odds, a group was selected for the raid. These guys were seriously tough young Norwegians, ardent patriots who had already risked their lives to escape occupied Norway to Britain. They were recruited into the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, the world’s first secret army, set up shortly after the outbreak of war to disrupt Germany’s efforts though guerrilla tactics and sabotage.

Already practised in the art of outdoor survival, their training took place in the hostile conditions of the Cairngorms and other parts of Scotland. There they honed their skills, keeping their skiing muscles well-tuned, perfecting the art of silent killing, and learning how to use explosives. Several of them were already champion skiers, they were all adept at dealing with snow and cold, and with their knowledge of the Telemark area, they were the only men who could have carried out such a daring and risky exercise.

In 1941 the idea of a bomb being able to destroy a whole city was seen as pure science-fiction....the general public would never have believed such a thing was possible. The fact that these men did not know the true significance to their mission, nor that Churchill or Roosevelt were both anxiously awaiting news of the plant’s destruction, merely illustrates how brave and committed to the cause they all were.

Oh, oh...I’ve used up my words quota for the day, and I can’t tell the whole story in a one go. You’ll have to tune in for part two next time. But having set the scene, I hope you’ll be flexing your muscles and wrapping up in your thermals...the next bit gets very cold and ludicrously uncomfortable.

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