Remembering Norwegian heroism 75 years on - The Economist
IN A FARMHOUSE a little way from Hardangervidda, a vast and wild plateau in central Norway, five elderly figures are gathered in the kitchen, warmed by a cast-iron stove, their feet in woollen socks. The table is set with coffee mugs, a lit white candle and a large plastic tub of home-made raspberry jam. Grey reindeer skins and tightly woven blankets drape the chairs. On top of the electric oven is a baking tray bearing six trout, each stuffed with spring onion and parsley. It might be any backwoods Norwegian home—except for the second table nearby, on which are placed several maps, black-and-white photos and a Thompson sub-machine gun.
The men have known each other since the early 1960s, when they attended Krigsskolen, Norway’s answer to West Point or Sandhurst. They tumbled out of aircraft as trainee paratroopers together. They learned winter warfare by being dropped on the Vidda and digging snowholes for survival. Each went on to a military career. They drifted apart but then became closer again. Late in life they are deepening their renewed friendships through shared activity. Tonight they are about to set off on an adventure.
Their host is Torger Moeller, a wiry 77-year-old with a white beard who chomps gently on a curved, unlit pipe. He carved much of the house’s furniture himself and fitted the pale pine planks to its walls. A self-taught taxidermist, he stuffed the eagle owl, sparrow hawk and grouse that glower down on his guests. He has the gnarled hands of someone who works outside every day.
Beside him is Tryggve Tellefsen, a watchful man with a wry smile and a check shirt. He reached the rank of major-general, leading international peacekeeping forces in Sinai and Macedonia, before becoming a diplomat and overseeing ground-breaking, if unsuccessful, peace missions in Sri Lanka and the Middle East. He is the mildest-mannered of the talkative group; he leaves tantalising, sometimes deferential, pauses in conversation. Mr Moeller quickly fills the gaps.
At the head of the table sits Anders Mostue, shorter, bespectacled, quick with a toothy grin. He is warmly self-deprecating, and the others happily chip in, mocking him as “only fit for sitting down”: he quit their rigorous infantry life to be a mere pilot of fighter jets and helicopters. Mr Mostue beams at the slur.
Oddmund Hammerstad, an enthusiastic and sturdy man and also the chief organiser of the gang, was Norway’s secretary of state for defence for five years. These days you can often find him at Mr Moeller’s retreat, lugging around lumber as his host finds excuses to build yet more cabins—the total is now up to seven. It is several hours drive from his home in Oslo, but he’s happy to make the trip: “Old buddies, you see.”
The last of the five is Arne Mathiesen, nicknamed “the Moose”. He used to run an NGO that promotes the benefits of skiing; in a snow-covered country that loves sport, this was hardly a chore. Tonight he wears a silk neckerchief imprinted with a finely detailed map—in green, yellow and white—of Hardangervidda. “In case we get lost”, he says.
That is not likely. Mr Moeller, the host, knows the Vidda better than most. He spent many years guiding small groups of tourists to its glacier. He knows the plateau’s natural history, its human history and its prehistory, too. He points out the traces left by stone-age hunters, such as the lines of boulders in and beside rivers that once served as reindeer traps, and the circular ponds in which they kept lowland trout with which to stock the summer lakes. Humans have found ways of hunting and trapping on this often forbidding plateau for perhaps 6,000 years.
More recently they have also learned to fight. As well as guiding tourists, Mr Moeller used to be an instructor for NATO winter-survival courses on the Vidda. He is the only one of the five to have seen battle; a UN mission in the Congo taught him first hand what a Thompson gun could do. During the cold war, he was part of a secret network of “stay behind” armed veterans, men given weapons and orders to mount resistance if Soviet forces ever occupied Norway. He still sleeps with guns close at hand.
A daring raid
But it is an earlier act of resistance against occupation that the men sitting around the table are discussing. The next day they will start retracing a path taken by a group of Norwegian commandos a generation older than them, who, in February 1943, attacked a plant at Vemork, on the southern edge of the plateau. The plant, created to use hydroelectric power to make fertiliser, had developed a rare speciality in the manufacture of deuterium oxide—“heavy water”. In a nuclear reactor, heavy water slows down neutrons, and thus speeds up nuclear reactions. The allies believed Vemork’s heavy water was crucial to Germany’s development of atomic weapons.
The first raid on the site, in November 1942, had been a disaster. Operation Freshman involved British commandos landing gliders close to the plant. The gliders went off course and crashed. The survivors were captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo: 38 were killed in all. In the 1943 assault which the veterans are commemorating—codenamed Gunnerside—Norwegian commandos parachuted in well away from the target, from where they were to cross the Vidda undetected, join forces with a smaller group, codenamed Grouse, which had acted as scouts for the ill-fated Freshman, and mount the attack.
As officer cadets at Krigsskolen the veterans had heard lectures from the Gunnerside commandos. Some then served under them. They liked to discuss whether they, too, would have been as brave, had they ever been deployed in similar fashion. “These young men were the same age [in 1943] we were when at cadet school”, says Mr Moeller. In the 1970s, when Mr Hammerstad and Mr Moeller were still in the army, they spent time with Jens Poulsson, one of the commandos. His stories of winter survival under reindeer pelts captivated them. Mr Moeller recalls that “he really was tough, a man of the mountain”. It is hard to imagine him capable of a greater compliment.
The veterans’ journey across the Vidda will honour the commandos’ memories, as well as bringing back those of their own youth—of that which was taken and that which abides. Leaning back from the kitchen table, his pipe, Tommy gun and Colt pistol his props, Mr Moeller sets out his plans for the trip. At dawn they will drive half-an-hour between high snow banks out to the Vidda proper. “Then we march on skis from the northern edge.” The men have been training throughout the winter months, skiing with 15kg backpacks. They will be taking clothes, water and food. “I’ve not carried a backpack like this for 50 years,” says the Moose. “I feel a mixture of excitement and a little nervous.”
As the evening ends, the men retire to billets around the house—except for Mr Mostue, who is banished to an unheated log cabin on account of his snoring. Before going to bed, Mr Moeller takes a dark-framed, black-and-white photo from the wall of his living room. It shows his grandfather, a railway conductor who “helped resistance men and a few Jewish people” escape the occupation, Mr Moeller says. “He lent them his spare uniform so they could go by train to Sweden…but the Gestapo caught him.” He spent years suffering near-starvation in a labour camp close to Berlin and died not long after liberation. Mr Moeller wants to mark his bravery.
The next morning, under scudding clouds, the veterans prepare to head south across the Vidda. The group has decided against Mr Moeller’s proposal that they don white camouflage and carry heavy wartime weapons as if in a re-enactment. Instead they wear sun goggles, highly visible red coats and colourful woollen hats. They carry mobile phones and a satellite-based alarm system, they spray skis with the latest wax.
A frisson of anticipation is evident. The men compare their mountain knives and backpacks. Mr Mostue’s bag is oddly heavy and the veterans take turns lifting it. He later admits he had stashed two bottles of aquavit in it as personal “fuel”. Mr Mathiesen clips on military-issue, steel-edged white skis and laments his sleep was broken by a stress-induced nightmare. Mika, Mr Moeller’s dog, bounds ahead of them into the white. Mr Mathiesen is not so care-free. “We are on the edge of our comfort zone here.”
He is proven right. The veterans ski for an average of seven hours a day for four days. They cover 20km a day, resting by night in isolated cabins. They pull a sledge with some supplies. It is an arduous regime, and Major-General Tellefsen suffers, falling behind. He is about to sink into the snow when two others grab him. Reluctant, tight-lipped, he admits he has chest pains and nausea. A park ranger is called and extracts him on a snowmobile.
Your correspondent takes a less strenuous route, travelling by snow scooter to their midway point, a cabin called Jansbu. His guide is a ranger on the plateau, Lars Inge Enerstvedt, a jovial, white-bearded giant who resembles Father Christmas. He has a flock of sheep which grazes the edge of the Vidda as his father’s did before them. Over a lengthy meal of chewy boiled lamb with sharp tyttebaer (lingonberry) jam, sweet elk-heart jerky, aquavit and beer, he talks with awe of the predators the flock faced; the lynx which prowls woods of birch and pine in the valleys on the plateau’s edge; higher up the wolverine, a remarkable navigator and killer. “The best will kill 200 sheep in a summer,” he says matter-of-factly. They are protected, but only up to a point. Scientists on the Vidda are trying to extract DNA from samples of wolverine scat in an effort to identify the most murderous individuals for culling.
Evidence of another hunter is easy to spot. Just after dawn, in the driver’s seat of a roaring snow scooter, Mr Enerstvedt points out black cliffs on the plateau. These are streaked white with eagle droppings. Eagles can bring down large prey. He describes tracking a reindeer—a young, adult female—after a bird swooped onto its back: “first one eye had been pecked out, then the other, then there was a long trail of blood in the snow, then it was over.”
The Vidda is treeless, vast—some 9,000 square kilometres (3,500 square miles)—and high, mostly at around 1,300 metres (4,000 feet). When the wind howls temperatures can feel far colder than -30°C (-22°F) shown on a thermometer. It can also feel bleak, and empty. “There is only wilderness…it is the largest, loneliest and wildest mountain area in northern Europe”, wrote Knut Haukelid, one of the commandos who hid on it in 1943. He recalled “naked mountains” where gales thrashed for days, pinning him and his comrades in remote huts or buried in snow-holes.
It is a wilderness, but not a wasteland. It is marked with evidence of rich stories and of human and animal activity. Mr Enerstvedt speaks of divine spiritual power in the space—it can be profoundly moving to spend time there. He refers to a pair of black boulders near the eastern edge of the plateau as “holy rocks”, important to indigenous Sami, a nomadic people now mostly found in northern Norway. He also talks of a “long worm” lurking in one lake, a cousin of the Loch Ness monster. He says a mountain on the hillier western part of the plateau is sacred and should not be walked upon.
Fridtjof Nansen and his fellow explorer Roald Amundsen trained on the plateau in preparation for polar expeditions more than a century ago. In the 1940s the occupying Germans struggled to tame parts of it. They talked of building an airstrip high on the Hardanger glacier from which to launch glider-bombers towards Britain. One of their bulldozers is said to lie up there in a glacial crevasse.
Deep in the wilderness
At Jansbu, a remote, red-painted cabin by a frozen lake, your correspondent prepares a welcome for the veterans by digging out packed ice and snow from the door, lighting a wood-burning stove and melting snow for drinking water. Pairs of ptarmigan hidden among low rocks nearby bark at him all the while.
Pencil drawings of trout adorn the hut’s planked walls, as do portraits of Amundsen and Nansen. The snow that surrounds it is hard and dusty early in the morning. Beneath a crust of ice, however, it is more yielding, with the texture of fresh bread. As the day warms, the brittle surface thins and cracks, exposing wet mush underneath. In the hours that pass that afternoon, evidence of visitors appears: footprints in the snow of hare, shrews and an Arctic fox.
The veterans arrive triumphant in bright afternoon sunshine, two days into their trek. Glowing with satisfaction, they slump inside the cabin and devour calorie-rich meals of fried meat, rice, vegetable stew, burgers, bread and coffee. They pass around slabs of milky chocolate. Aquavit flows. Mr Moeller and Mr Hammerstad again debate details of the saboteurs’ attack. They take turns to inspect diaries in the cabin dating back long before the war. These record names of visitors and the size of fish they caught. The Gunnerside commandos did not sign in. The veterans do.
Close to Jansbu they had passed the spot where the parachuting commandos came to ground 75 years earlier. Mr Hammerstad had telephoned a radio station in western Norway to deliver commemorative greetings from the wilderness to Joachim Ronneberg, the last-surviving saboteur. The veterans have a great admiration for Mr Ronneberg. He had been a pacifist before the war, but after the invasion of Norway he fled to Britain and volunteered to fight. He had been a boy scout leader—a big plus for a commando, says Mr Moeller—and could navigate well in the wild. He was also very calm. Some of the other saboteurs were eager to shoot the guards on the bridge which led to the heavy-water plant and willing to kill a Norwegian hunter they met on the plateau lest he report on them. Each time Mr Ronneberg, commander of the Gunnerside group despite his youth, ordered them not to kill. He died this year at the age of 99, not long after the old friends retraced his journey.
After a night at Jansbu, the veterans left for two more days on skis, but not on the route they had intended. Sudden springtime warmth—one of the untoward weather events to which Mr Enerstvedt says the plateau is increasingly prone as the climate changes—had spoiled the conditions on the saboteurs’ route south. Instead they re-crossed the northern end of the Vidda, postponing the second part of the traverse.
The saboteurs had skied the rest of the way over the plateau to Rjukan. It is a handsome town at the bottom of a valley so steep that sunshine does not reach it in winter. An adjustable mirror on the edge of the plateau directs a beam of light to the town centre each afternoon. An old cable-car whisks sun-starved residents up to a café on the edge of the Vidda.
Seven kilometres away the power station at Vemork remains. Once the largest in the world, it looks like a fortress wedged into a cliff. The plant that produced the heavy water was just beside it. In 1943 both were reached by a suspension bridge across a gorge and a rock-strewn river. This was the bridge where Mr Ronneberg spared the guards and thus preserved the element of surprise. Instead, nine men clambered down the steep gorge in waist-deep snow, across the river and up the cliff on the other side. They evaded the mine field that informers from the factory had told them about and avoided the 30 guards and their dogs. Mr Ronneberg and another man squeezed through a narrow cable vent into one of the plant’s cellars; two others joined them by breaking a window. The explosives they placed destroyed a precious stock of 500 litres of heavy water and damaged the nine machines used to produce it.
The sound of the explosions was muffled by heavy snow. The guards, once alerted, bungled their first response, failing to turn on searchlights. The attackers climbed back up to the Vidda, where they were met by a savage storm. Most of the men, led by Mr Ronneberg, managed to ski to safety in Sweden. The leader of German forces in Norway, General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, declared the attack to have been “the most perfect commando operation” he had ever seen. He overruled plans to shoot ten locals in retaliation—a response the commandos had feared, and which had weighed heavily on them.
Today the plant is a museum. In 2017 its cellar was excavated. Clambering inside on ice-covered concrete, water dropping from the walls, the smashed ceiling lit by torches, it is easy to imagine the midnight attack. On the walls are marks and words left by plant workers in the early 1940s. It will be opened to the public next year.
The forgotten mission
How significant was their attack? The operation raised the status of Norwegian commandos and boosted morale among allied special forces. The wider consequence was less clear. The German atomic-weapons programme, it turned out, was not as advanced as the allies feared. “In retrospect we know that Hitler was not focused on an atomic bomb”, says Mr Hammerstad. However, Germany still moved to replenish heavy-water stocks and rebuild the plant’s machinery. Mr Ronneberg offered to lead a second mission. America carried out aerial bombing instead. It killed 23 civilians but failed to damage the plant.
In 1944 the occupiers decided to move all the heavy water to Germany, which meant shipping it across nearby Lake Tinn by ferry. Knut Haukelid, a commando who had stayed in the region, struck again, placing explosives in the hull of the ferry, sending the precious barrels of heavy water to the lake’s unreachable depths along with 14 Norwegians and four Germans.
Beside the lake a stone memorial marks the sinking. Waterfalls tumble from cliffs nearby. Tufts of mist float over dark green pine trees. It is a forlorn and beautiful place, but one that feels far from the white windswept Vidda above, home to eagles, reindeer and the memories of soldiers and friends. Up there, in the spring of 2019, the veterans will again don goggles and clip on skis. They will return to the hut at Jansbu before skiing south for several days to finish their journey. Once more they will leave their marks on the snow, hear the ptarmigan bark, relish old friendships and recall those who went before.