Just Finished Reading: Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid (FP: 1954)
When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940 a group of students, including the author, raced to the front lines in the hope that they could do something to aid the hard pressed Norwegian armed forces. Having little but hunting rifles and quickly aware that their country was being overrun they had some stark choices to make: Fight and either die or be captured, run and hide hoping that liberation or victory would eventually come or escape to England to keep the fight going from there. If they wanted to fight the occupying army that, it appeared, was their only path. So, as the fighting raged they left their beloved country and headed for England. Years later, after extensive training in sabotage, infiltration and weapons use care of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) training schools the author and several of his University friends return by parachute. Their mission, to provide vital intelligence to Allied forces and to begin training an effective underground organisation that could take control of the country once the Germans began to withdraw and to prevent any last minute destruction of Norwegian infrastructure. As things are being put into place and agents are recruited an urgent message is received from London. As an absolute priority the Heavy Water plant near Telemark must be put out of action immediately no matter the cost. If it was allowed to continue production the possibility of Germany developing the Atomic bomb ahead of the Allies – and winning the war – became a real possibility. After the failure of a Special Forces attack and Allied bombing missions proved just how tough a nut Telemark was to crack only the untested Norwegian resistance stood in the way of possible German domination of the world.
Forming half of the basis for the 1965 movie ‘Heroes of Telemark’ starring Kirk Douglas (the other book being ‘But for These Men’ by John Drummond) this was an interesting little book of a now largely forgotten part of World War 2. Both the Allies and the Axis powers were aware of the destructive capabilities of atomic power and both were determined to get the Bomb first. The odds of the Germans actually getting their first where long – the Allies and especially the Americans having the resources, security and most of the greatest physicists on the planet available – but even the possibility of German nukes gave the Allies serious nightmares. So when it was discovered the Heavy Water, a vital component in the production of usable quantities of enriched Uranium, was being produced at Telemark and being shipped to Germany something really needed to be done about it. Because of the nature of the Heavy Water plant the only option was either a Commando raid (one was tried and failed), bombing (likewise) or Partisan action. With that accomplished the Germans determined that Norway was just too dangerous a place to produce such a vital element for victory and so the equipment and large quantities of Heavy Water would be transhipped to Germany where the project could be completed. Again the Partisans struck sinking the ferry carrying this vital equipment and none of it made it to the Fatherland.
Oddly both elements – so vital to stopping the German nuclear programme becoming a reality – are covered in only a handful of pages. Most of the book, only 160 pages long, in concerned with the training received in England, the difficulty in parachuting back into Norway (as a result of the weather rather than possible enemy action) and the difficult task of surviving the Norwegian winter. It was very much a case of simple survival, as well as not being captured in the repeated sweeps of the area, that constituted victory of a sort. Not only did the Norwegian resistance survive its formative process but it grew and held down a disproportionate number of German soldiers in the process. It’s activities at Telemark and later were its defining successes but the fact that thousands of fighters stepped out of the woods as the Germans left and secured the infrastructure against wanton destruction as they left helped Norway get back on its feet after 1945. An interesting story if a little thin on dramatic detail at times.