A few months ago, I found an old paperback book called Skis Against the Atom by Captain Knut Haukelid (London: William Kimber and Company, 1954) and bought it. As a lifelong skier with a father who served in the original US ski troops, the 10th Mountain Division, in WWII, I felt that I had to pick it up. It is the memoir of a Norwegian soldier who fled Norway to England when the Germans occupied his country and then returned after training to commit sabotage and organize the resistance in his home country, far behind enemy lines. Captain Haukelid was one of the soldiers who committed what some call the most successful act of sabotage in WWII: they blew up the heavy water manufacturing facility in Vemork near the Rjukan Falls in the Telemark region and, later, destroyed the store of heavy water that it had produced while it was en route to Germany. This small group stopped the Nazis from building an atomic bomb.
The 60 MW Vemork hydroelectric power station was built by Norsk Hydro in 1934, the first commercial plant capable of producing heavy water, a byproduct of fertilizer production. Just before the German invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, the Deuxième Bureau (French military intelligence) removed the store of heavy water from the plant with the permission of Norsk Hydro. Eventually, the heavy water was transported to England.
As the Allies knew that the Germans were still producing heavy water at Vemork, they were anxious to stop the process and eliminate their capacity to produce the components of a possible atomic weapon. The first attempt met with disaster. On November 19, 1942 the British launched a glider attack on Rjukan with two gliders and two tow planes, 34 men in all. Both gliders and one of the two planes crashed in bad weather with 9 killed on impact in one glider, 3 in another. The other 22 soldiers were captured by the Nazis and shot, after being tortured.
The second attempt occurred on the night of February 27-28, 1943 and was a successful commando raid on the electrolysis plant at Vemork. Two parties of Norwegian soldiers, 10 men in all, trained as commandos and saboteurs, had been parachuted into Norway and hid in the Hardanger Vidda region in hunting cabins, living off the land in the dead of winter. They skied to the plant and entered from the unprotected rear of the complex, descending into a ravine, fording an icy river, and climbing a steep hill until they reached a railway track that led straight into the plant. They met no guards or sentries and entered the main basement through a cable tunnel. Inside the plant, they encountered the Norwegian caretaker who cooperated with them, the only person they encountered on the raid. They placed explosive charges on the heavy water electrolysis chambers, lit a long fuse, and escaped, leaving a British Sten submachine gun behind to fool the Nazis into thinking the sabotage was done by British forces and not by the local resistance, an attempt to avoid reprisals. All the heavy water produced during the German occupation, over 1,100 pounds, was destroyed along with equipment critical to the operation of the electrolysis chambers. There were no casualties. Although the Nazis mobilized 3000 soldiers to search the area, all of the saboteurs escaped, with five of them skiing 400 kilometers to Sweden and two traveling to Oslo to assist the Milorg, the Norwegian underground military operation.
However, by April the plant was operational again and the US Army Air Force began a series of raids on Vemork. In November, the plant was attacked by a massed daylight bombing raid of 143 B-17 heavy bombers which dropped 711 bombs, at least 600 of which missed the plant. Twenty two “mostly women and children” died when one bomb hit a shelter. There was minimal damage to the plant and it continued to produce heavy water. [In everything I have read about air warfare, bombing has never been anything that could be described as “surgical” and the effects on civilian populations have not been demoralization but more determination to fight against an enemy that would target non-combats. If we recognize the courage of the people of England during the Battle of Britain and the V-2 raids, why do we think the Germans or the Vietnamese or anyone else would be so different?] Because of the bombing campaign, the Nazis decided to to abandon the plant and move the remaining stock of heavy water and critical components back to Germany in 1944.
Captain Haukelid, who was still active in the area, learned of the Nazi plans and was ordered to destroy the shipment. He decided to sabotage the ferry carrying the cargo across Lake Tinnsjö and on Sunday, February 20 1944, a day purposefully chosen to minimize civilian casualties, he and his team blew up the ferry. A secondary commando party was waiting in Heröya if he failed and submarines were stationed in the Skagerrak as a further fail safe. Eighteen people were killed on the ferry, twenty-nine survived. The dead included 8 German soldiers, the crew of 7, and 3 passengers. "Some of the Norwegian rescuers felt that the Germans should not be saved, but this attitude did not prevail and four German soldiers were saved."
The destruction of the Nazi heavy water capability cost the lives of 34 British commandos, 22 Norwegian women and children in Vemork, and 18 people on the Tinnsjö ferry. Whether they knew it or not, these 74 people were casualties in the first nuclear war. Looking back from this distance, I was surprised that such an important victory cost so few lives, even though each one of them was an incalculable loss.
In his memoir, Captain Knut Haukelid wrote about a failed attempt to shoot a reindeer for food in deep winter: "Hunting is like war in that there is only one standard of success. Either one wins the war or one loses it. Either one gets the meat or one doesn’t.” These heroes of Telemark won their war.