Showing posts with label British SOE. Show all posts
Showing posts with label British SOE. Show all posts

14 November 2018

Telemark


David Edgerley Gates

I've always had a soft spot for the 1965 war thriller Heroes of Telemark. Directed by Anthony Mann, first off, not to mention I'm a longtime Kirk Douglas fan, it's one of those outnumbered-commandoes-attack-Nazi-stronghold yarns, better than Where Eagles Dare, not quite in the same league as Guns of Navarone.

Telemark is based on a true story, and although they take more than a few liberties, it's reasonably accurate. I was in fact reading The Saboteur, an Andrew Gross novel about the Norsk Hydro raid, exact in its details, when news came that the last surviving Norwegian veteran of the attack had just died. Joachim Rønneberg lived to be 99.

The thing about the Norsk Hydro raid, the real story, is that the fictions actually fall a little short. There's a lack of contrivance, and you have to dramatize a story that's more about endurance and less about blowing shit up. You might even play down how high the stakes were.

In late 1942, there were two trains running. In the U.S., the Manhattan Project, and in the UK, what was known as the Tube Alloys program. What nobody on the Allied teams knew was how far along the Germans were, specifically Werner Heisenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Absent hard intelligence, it was thought better safe than sorry, and senior Brit spooks at the Special Operations Executive began mapping out sabotage missions to damage the Uranverein, Nazi atomic weapons research.

In the occupied territories of the Reich, the Norsk Hydro generating plant at Vemork, in Telemark, was the most reliable producer of deuterium oxide, also called 'heavy water,' an essential component in nuclear fission. German experiments relied on heavy water, and Norsk Hydro became a primary target for SOE.

Access was the main issue. The plant was in a gorge, and a night bombing raid was discussed. If the Lancasters could navigate accurately in the dark, could they pinpoint the ordnance and destroy the target? Odds against. The only thing they could be sure of was heavy collateral casualties among Norwegian civilians.

It had to be boots on the ground. SOE mounted Operation Grouse in October 1942. They parachuted in an advance party, local Norwegians, to scout the terrain and set up the approach. A month later, they sent in a combat group to rendezvous with Grouse. Everything went wrong. The two gliders crashed, the men who weren't killed were captured by the Germans, and then executed. The four-man Grouse team hid out on the Hardanger plateau, scrubbing lichen off the rocks to eat. They were holed up for three months.

The follow-up mission was launched in February, 1943. Six more Norwegian commandoes dropped onto the Hardanger and made contact with Grouse. Because of the failed attack the previous November, the Germans knew Vemork was a target. But the garrison was small. It was the geography that protected Norsk Hydro. The river valley narrowed at the Rjukan Falls, and the slopes were near-vertical. The mountains are high enough to block out the sunlight from September to March. The plant was built on a rocky shelf 1,000 feet above the river. Security checkpoints had been established further up, overlooking the plant, and on the bridge across the gorge. The commando team made their assault from below, climbing out of the steep ravine in the icy darkness.

They got inside, they wired the explosives, they blew the containment vessels to smithereens. Then they got out. Amazingly, they all escaped, with upwards of 3,000 troops out beating the bushes for them. A couple made it to Oslo, a couple stayed behind. Rønneberg and four others skiied to Sweden. Skiied. 400 kilometers. The wartime German commander, von Falkenhorst, later called it the "best coup" he'd ever seen.

There's a postscript, in that the Germans reestablished heavy water production not long after, but after daylight bombing raids, decided to ship the inventory they had by ferry and rail back to Germany. Norwegian saboteurs sank the ferry as it crossed Lake Tinn, and German atom research sank with it.

Did the Telemark raid change the outcome of the war? In all honesty, no. There was nothing remotely analogous to the Manhattan Project in the German war effort. Albert Speer, the armaments minister, was never convinced it was a workable goal. There's a whole other story, of course, about Heisenberg in Berlin, but we'll save that for another time.

Meanwhile, let's raise a glass to Joachim Rønneberg, and the memory of men and women like him. We honor the debt we owe them. We hope we deserve the world they gave us.  

28 March 2018

The Man with the Iron Heart


David Edgerley Gates

Reinhard Heydrich was an SS-Obergruppenfuhrer, commander of the Reich Central Security Office (which controlled the Gestapo, the SD, and the criminal police); a presiding architect of the Holocaust, with authority over the Endlosung, or Final Solution, responsible for Kristallnacht, the Nacht und Nebel - Night and Fog - operation, and the Einsatzgruppen, special auxiliaries that followed regular Army units into Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, executing Jews and other political undesirables; and appointed Deputy Protector of Bohemia, military proconsul of Czechoslovakia, in September of 1941. Late that year, the Czech exile government in London mounted an operation to assassinate him. It had all the earmarks of a suicide mission.

Hitler himself called Heydrich the Man with the Iron Heart. He'd been sent to Prague because the Skoda works were important to the German war effort, and the Czechs needed to feel the crack of the whip. Heydrich considered them vermin. He had 92 people executed in his first three days. Over the next six months, 5,000 arrests.

British SOE train the commando team in Scotland, and insert them by paradrop. Making contact with what's left of the Czech resistance, the two team leaders, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, are persuaded the best solution to target is to ambush him on his way to work. They post a lookout along the route he travels, and lie in wait for him at a hairpin curve, on the road to the Troja bridge. Heydrich travels in an open car, a Mercedes convertible. It's a display of contempt, the Germans in complete control, the Czechs captive and demoralized. The car slows. Gabcik steps into the street. He's got a Sten gun. It fires from an open breech. The weapon fails to feed and jams. Gabcik is left standing there with his pants down. Then, unbelievably, instead of ordering his driver to put the pedal to the metal, Heydrich orders him to stop. Heydrich stands up in the back of the car, and pulls his Luger. Kubis, behind him, has an anti-tank grenade hidden in a briefcase, and he heaves it at the Mercedes.

(This was the No. 73 grenade, modified for weight, the bottom two-thirds removed, light enough to be thrown, but still able to damage an armor-plated vehicle. In training, Gabcik and Kubis both had trouble with it.)

The device detonates at the right rear quarter of the Mercedes - not inside it, but close enough to punch Heydrich with metal fragments and shredded upholstery. He staggers out of the car. The two Czechs try to shoot him with their own pistols and miss. Heydrich returns fire. Gabcik and Kubis take off in opposite directions, thinking the attack's a failure. Heydrich starts to chase them, and then collapses from internal hemorrhaging.

They got him pretty good. Severe injuries to his diaphragm and spleen, collapsed left lung, fractured rib. Surgeons labored over him, and the prognosis was hopeful. A week later, Heydrich was sitting up in bed for lunch, and then suddenly went into shock. Apparently, septicemia caught up with him. He died the next day.

Reprisals were brutal and immediate. Cooked intelligence from the Gestapo led to the village of Lidice. All the males over the age of 15 were shot, the women and children sent to the death camps. The town was burned and then bulldozed. In the smaller village of Lekazy they simply shot everybody, men and women alike. The actual pursuit of Gabcik and Kubis and the people who'd helped them hit a wall, until a guy on one of the other sabotage teams ratted them out for the Judas money.

The seven of them were holed up in the Orthodox cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius. It took the SS two hours to smoke them out, with 750 men. Fourteen dead, twenty-one wounded. None of the Czechs let themselves be taken alive. They knew too many names.

As always, you want to ask whether the blood price was worth it. Heydrich was a reptile, better off dead. But it's estimated as many as 1300 people were murdered in direct retaliation. Also, it appears that the schedule agreed to at the Wannsee Conference was accelerated after Heydrich's death, implementing the extermination camps, as distinct from slave labor. Then again, how many people might Heydrich have eliminated, if left alive? He was an effective coordinator of terror logistics. And efficiency in this, as in other things, solidified his power base. He could have made the trains run even faster.

One last thing, a net gain. Heydrich was the most senior Nazi targeted in an operation under SOE discipline. (Or any other clandestine service, either. Wilhelm Kube,  the generalkommissar of Minsk, had a bomb go off underneath him on NKVD instructions, but Kube was small potatoes compared to Heydrich.) Yes, they were Czech partisans, although they jumped out of an RAF Halifax bomber, so in that sense it was deniable. In fact, SOE didn't want to deny it. Just because they never tried for Hitler doesn't mean it was never discussed. The killing of Heydrich was an object lesson.