Thursday, 11 November 2010


This is the first time in four years that I have been in Scotland for Armistice Day, and indeed for Remembrance Sunday. The last three were all marked in Norway.

We stood on frosty, hard ground in the graveyard of the local church , blinking into the winter sun on a startlingly beautiful morning. Below us, chill mist rose slowly from the airfield where, sixty years before, German troops had parachuted into Norway at the start of the Norwegian Occupation. As we stood there, we watched the comings and goings of the modern airport as it is now, all of which seemed a testament to the fight for freedom that had been played out on this very soil. It was a most poignant place to mark Remembrance Sunday.

There are no Commonwealth cemeteries in Norway. Those who died are buried in civilian cemeteries and churchyards in the campaign areas throughout the country. During WW11, throughout the German Occupation, the war graves were cared for by the people of Norway. Nowadays the Norwegian national authorities take great care of them. Almost 1000 British and Commonwealth men are buried in 74 cemeteries and churchyards, casualties of the allied Norwegian campaign in 1940, and of the naval, air and special operations conducted throughout WW11.

There are so many extraordinary stories concerning these men, but I will concentrate on one in particular as it is local to the area in which we marked Remembrance Day. Several months ago, I wrote about the Heroes of Telemark. But there is a prelude to that extraordinary story. Operation Freshman was launched in 1942 by the newly formed airborne forces to attack the heavy water plant at Rjukan in the Telemark region. Launched from an airfield in Wick, Scotland, it involved two Halifax towing aircraft and two Horsa gliders. Due to bad weather and icing problems, one of the gliders crashed in the Lysefjord mountains , while the other glider and its Halifax towing aircraft crashed near Helleland. Those men that were not killed in the crash were captured by German forces, handed over to the Gestapo, tortured and executed.

To stand in a place where one knew that such atrocities had occurred just seven decades before was overwhelming. The snow-covered mountains were still there in the distance, the sea over which aircraft had flown was just behind us, the air was as cold as ever. As the names of those buried there were read out, as the British Consul, the Mayor, and Senior British and Canadian Officers laid wreaths, and as a trumpet blasted the Last Post out across the hillside, you cannot imagine how the events of seventy years ago suddenly felt like yesterday.

Here in our village, we have a First World War grave in our local cemetery, a young man who died aged 20 at the very end of WW1 in 1918. I pointed it out to one of my children just the other day, and she remarked how strange it was that so many war graves were spread across the world in so many different places. But this young man's grave is every bit as poignant as those in official war cemeteries and small, local churchyards wherever they may be. Throughout Scotland, throughout the UK, we have grown up listening to those lists of names being read out each year, and in the act of Remembrance, it seems that our understanding of peace, and what it costs, grows each time. Wherever they may be buried, we will remember them.

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