Monday, 12 April 2010
And so we continue.
The plateau, the Hardangervidda, is 3,500 square miles of bleak wilderness, and over 3000 feet above sea level. The combination of snow and fierce winds can result in it being one of the harshest places on the planet, an unforgiving monster. For the Germans, Hardangervidda was a kind of frozen hell, and they avoided it during the occupation, only venturing into the edge of it. They would not expect anyone to consider approaching the Vemock plant outside the town of Rjukan on skis from the plateau. Due to their upbringing, it seems fair to say only Norwegians might have even thought of such a plan, never mind dare to carry it out.
An advanced party of four set out first, landing by parachute at the edge of the plateau in October 1942. They were to act as a guiding party for the unit of British commandos who would be sent in by glider to blow up the plant. After six exhausting days of skiing, they found an old farm where they could eat their first proper meal. In a lucky twist, they also found a toboggan which one of them recognised as his own, having lost it as a boy....it turned out to be a vital asset to their journey.
Over the next few weeks they advanced towards the plant, enduring unimaginable cold, hunger and exhaustion, but unable to seek sanctuary amongst the scattered population...despite some of the men having grown up nearby, they were certain they would be flushed out by ‘quislings’, the term for those Norwegians who had sided with the Germans after occupation.
Having reached the area, all they could do was wait for ‘Operation Freshman’, the glider-borne attack. The plan was for thirty-four British Royal Engineers of the 1st Airborne Division plus the four-man crew of the two gliders to fight their way into the plant, attack, and escape on foot towards Sweden. One November night, the four Norwegians waited for the gliders, but to no avail. Tragically, both planes had set off from Wick in Scotland only to crash due to bad weather. Those who had survived the crash were captured, tortured and killed by the Gestapo. They were beaten, half-strangled and died a slow and painful death having had air injected into their bloodstreams. After the War, three men were charged with murder by the War Crimes Commission for this incident, two sentenced to death and one given a life sentence.
Meanwhile, the four Norwegians in the Hardangervidda, depressed by the failure of ‘Operation Freshman’, could do nothing but wait for further instruction. Soon it came. Within days, they heard that another attack was to be launched the week before Christmas. A party of Norwegians from the training unit in Scotland would be dropped on the plateau. The initial four were reaching starvation point, having run out of rations. With the Germans having discovered a possible raid on the plant, the four men had to live by their wits to avoid search parties. Moving from one isolated, abandoned hut to the next, they looked for dried fish in the walls of each building in a frenzied search for sustenance. How such desperate men managed not to fight amongst themselves, never mind remain civil in such confined, difficult and dangerous circumstances is anyone’s guess.
The winter was proving to be one of the worst in living memory, and they were now very weak with infection, cold and hunger. But on 23rd December, one of the party, Jens Poullson, spotted a heard of reindeer at the start of the migration season. Despite weeks of starvation, he managed to ski out of their temporary hut, stalk and kill a reindeer. He laughed and wept as he rushed towards the beast he had shot, and in the spirit of the northern hunters, he sat in the snow and drank its warm blood. His strength thus restored, he chopped up the carcass, and took it back to the others, thus saving their lives. They spent Christmas consuming every part of the animal apart from the hooves, the fur and the testicles, particularly relishing the eyelids. But the most significant boost to their systems was the half-chewed moss they found in the stomach, which provided much-needed Vitamin C and carbohydrate.
Due to appalling weather, it was several more weeks before the second party of six could be dropped. When this was finally achieved, and the new-comers found the original four, they were shocked at their almost unrecognisable state....starving, gaunt, almost wild, they barely looked human.
Finally, at the end of February, the raid was carried out, a textbook example of detailed planning and expert execution. The heavy water canisters were destroyed. The plant, an important asset for Norway, remained almost intact, and the saboteurs all escaped. Once again their fortitude was required as they retreated across the Hardangervidda, through life-threatening storms, dodging German search-parties and possible ‘quislings’.
Despite attempts to restart the project, the German effort to produce an atomic weapon had been foiled, thanks to the bravery of these men, their fitness of skis, the ‘good’ Norwegian people who helped them, and the reindeer. Their strength, their skiing power, their understanding of the wilderness, and their survival skills were crucial. It was felt that only Norwegians could have carried out such an operation in such circumstances.
But the most humbling aspect to the whole story is that they had all displayed huge mental and physical powers, risking their lives for months without any idea of why their mission was so important. Hitler wanted to bomb London with an atomic bomb. Such an idea was beyond anyone’s ken at the time, and the saboteurs had no real understanding of it all until after the War was over.
Historians love to kick around with ‘what if’ questions, but in this case, the ‘what if’ is too horrible to contemplate. The story of the Heroes of Telemark remains one of the most outstanding stories of modern warfare, and the modesty with which these men lead the rest of their long lives is a great testament to their character. It’s also no exaggeration to say it’s typically Norwegian.
Posted by Returning Scot at 12:11