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.