Endurance against the odds: Halting the atomic bomb

10 Mins read

As the Second World War entered its fourth year in 1942, the Nazi regime was at its peak. Most of Central and Eastern Europe, if not under German occupation, were allied with Nazi Germany or had succumbed to become puppet states.

Behind the front line war efforts, Churchill and the Allies had recently learned of Germany’s increased interest in heavy water. Due to its properties, it was a key ingredient which could help create an atomic bomb.

Germany had ordered the production of heavy water to increase from 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) to 10,000 pounds (4,536 kg) a year. An increase in demand was a concern for the Allies. If Nazi Germany were the first to harness nuclear weaponry then ultimately, they could win the war.

In 1940, an organisation called the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed. The group, alternatively known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ and ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, was formed in order to carry out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance operations behind enemy lines, with individuals having undergone extensive training in the Scottish Highlands.

One branch of the SOE, Company Linge, formed mostly of Norwegians who had fled their German-occupied homeland, were tasked by the British Government’s War Office (now Ministry of Defence) to thwart Germany’s production of heavy water at a hydroelectric power plant in Norway called Vemork, just over a 100 miles (161 km) west of Oslo.

Two operations, Grouse and Gunnerside, would carry out a joint infiltration and sabotage of the power plant in 1943. Their story, one which displayed bravery and endurance against all the odds, is a piece of history which deserves to be retold before it risks fading into further obscurity.

The story of the mission starts with Operation Grouse. Formed of four individuals from Company Linge, they were tasked to recce the surrounding areas of the power plant before a second team would attack it.

After numerous attempts were aborted due to bad weather, the Grouse team was finally inserted into the Norwegian Hardangervidda plateau in October 1942; a large area of barren land disrupted by streams, lakes and clusters of mountains in a location which held a cold all-year-round alpine climate.

The Norwegian Hardangervidda, Europe's largest plateau blanketed by snow

Cross country skiing was used by members of Grouse team to traverse across the Hardangervidda, the largest plateau of its kind in Europe [Gavin Worrell]

Grouse team dropped some distance away from the power plant in order to arouse no suspicion from the occupying German forces. Led by Jens-Anton Poulsson, this team would need to establish a suitable location for communicating with London.

Once contact was made, they were told to make preparations for the arrival of two Halifax bombers towing gliders full of equipment and troops. The operation, codenamed Freshman, would carry 30 British air troops into the Hardangervidda. Once landed, they would be set to launch a full-scale assault on the power plant.

In a report in 1945, Poulsson recalls how his team traversed across the plateau during the bitter Norwegian winter:

“The ground was bad and rugged, the snow heavy and deep. Men who left the ski-tracks sank up to their knees. It was mild weather and clumps of snow stuck to the bottom of our skis. The lakes, marshes and rivers were not properly covered with ice and could only be walked here and there. Our day’s marches were sorrowfully short. We often advanced only a few kilometres a day.”

Travelling across the Hardangervidda day in, day out, was demanding. Carrying loads of up to 30 kg (66 pounds) each, the demands placed upon them were extreme: “We were very tired. I had a throbbing boil on my left hand and had to have my arm in a sling,” Poulsson recalls.

“The hard toil on short rations had sapped our strength. A day’s ration consisted of a quarter-slab of pemmican [a pressed cake of pounded dried meat], one handful of groats [grains], one handful of flour, four biscuits, a little butter, cheese, sugar and chocolate.”

When the Grouse team were ready for the arrival of Freshman, bad weather and poor visibility caused both gliders to crash. The remaining survivors were later discovered by the Gestapo, who were then executed under Hilter’s ‘Commando Order’ – an order to kill any captured enemy special forces on the spot.

A small glider aircraft used in operations during WW2

Freshman was the first British airborne operation of its kind conducted using gliders [Greg Goebel]

Following this, German forces surrounding the power plant were strengthened; additional guards, mines and floodlights.

Radio contact was re-established with London soon after. Poulsson continues: “London’s radio message about the glider disaster was a hard blow. It was sad and bitter, especially as the weather in our part of the country improved during the following days. But we were happy to hear that another attempt would be made in the next moon period.”

Instead of a full scale attack, one which would have been undertaken by Freshman, members of Grouse were told a sabotage attempt would be made on the power plant in good time, codenamed Gunnerside.

What followed for Grouse team was a long wait in the Hardangervidda. They had not planned to be out this long and having limited supplies in a piercing arctic climate had started to take its toll. “To make matters worse, everybody except myself went sick with fever and pains in the stomach. We were short of food and were obliged to begin eating reindeer moss,” Poulsson recalls.

Fortunately for the members of Grouse team, they soon encountered a herd of reindeer. “A rifle and some cartridges were found. On December 23 the weather cleared and I shot a reindeer. We celebrated a happy Xmas,” Poulsson states. It may have just saved their lives.

[pullquote align=”right”]“We were short of food and were obliged to begin eating reindeer moss.” Jens-Anton Poulsson[/pullquote]It was not until three months later on the night of February 16, 1943, when members of Gunnerside were successfully parachuted in. After days of searching on foot and cross country skiing, they mobilised with members of Grouse team and prepared for the ever important task that rested upon their shoulders, to infiltrate and destroy the heavily-guarded Vemork power plant, and halt any further development of Germany’s nuclear programme.

While today it is evident Germany were not as close to developing an atomic bomb, intelligence at the time obtained by British war cabinet officials suggested otherwise.

Joachim Ronneberg, who led Operation Gunnerside, says he was never exactly told why himself and his team were asked to destroy the power plant. While on their mission, they had no idea that if they were to fail, disastrous consequences could have followed for the Allies war efforts.

Commandos from Operation Gunnerside gathered in London

Joachim Ronneberg (front right) and members of Operation Gunnerside gathered in London before their expedition [Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum]

The American-led effort to develop a completely functional atomic weapon, the Manhattan Project, was the first of its kind to unveil a new type of modern warfare to the world.

In 1945, two nuclear bombs, ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ were deployed against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was then, that the importance of the mission undertaken by Gunnerside and Grouse, was fully realised by Ronneberg.

Infiltrating the plant would not be easy. Surrounded by the Hardangervidda plateau, it was situated at the bottom of a sloped mountainside and surrounded partly by a large gorge. It had limited means of access if any at all.

A building located in a remote Norwegian mountainside during Winter

The power plant was defended by barbed wire, minefields, machine gun posts, alarms, searchlights as well as German guards [Gavin Worrell]

A long bridge leading into Vemork covered in snow

The main entrance into the Vemork hydroelectric power plant was through a suspended bridge across the valley [Gavin Worrell]

The bridge that led directly into the power plant was heavily guarded; taking this route would have been unthinkable. Similarly, the rear mountainside would be an unviable option as it was heavily scattered with mines. Instead, under the cover of night, the commandos undertook a way which was not even considered possible by the occupying forces, who had not thought to guard it at all.

The commandos would cross a frozen river, climb a cliff, an extremely physically demanding task, and enter along an unprotected railway line which sat at the top edge of the gorge. The effort turned out to be a success.

They arrived at the power plant. Intelligence obtained of the power plant’s layout in England enabled the assault team to enter through a known pipe duct. They crawled their way into the factory bypassing the German guards, while the lookout team kept a close observation from afar.

They got to the main reactor hall. Ronneberg and his team, with his mind racing at the chance of being caught in such a pivotal moment, placed down the explosives.

A turbine inside a WW2 hydroelectric power plant

Located in the main reactor hall, the explosives were placed on the turbines containing heavy water. [Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum]

Equipped with a two minute fuse, Ronneberg did not want to risk such a delay. They were shortened to just 30 seconds and when the explosives were lit, that was all the time they would have to get out of there.

Before they left, a Thompson sub-machine gun was left on the ground in order to show British involvement in the sabotage and to avoid reprisals towards local Norwegians who would otherwise be assumed to have been involved.

The commandos, having been successful, fled on skis and regrouped at the nearby town of Rjukan, knowing that around 3,000 German troops were now after them.

Poulsson and the lookout team helped draw German troops away while Ronneberg and the other members decided to ski 250 miles across Norway towards the safety of neutral Sweden. It wasn’t planned, but was vital in order to escape the full force of the German retaliation that was now after them.

In 2018, to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Gunnerside and Grouse’s achievements, writer, filmmaker and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Rob Ferguson, created a documentary, Saboteur Run, as he retraced the journey the commandos from Gunnerside took after sabotaging the power plant.

“My documentary was using the basis of recreating that route, while also exploring the bravery of those individuals and looking a bit more deeper about what enabled them to complete their mission,” he says.

A poster for a Saboteur Run featuring a close up of half of Rob's face and his cold-weather clothing

Saboteur Run is available on Prime Video [Rob Ferguson]

The journey both teams took to infiltrate the plant involved the ascent of a cliff where at worst one slip could prove fatal, and at a minimum could reveal their location to German guards. Undertaken at a time which involved sub-zero temperatures and darkness, it required mental and physical endurance in abundance.

With experience as a former ex-serviceman, Rob sympathises with situations that they would have been in: “Just speaking from personal experience: hypothermia, fatigue and malnutrition. This is just really from experience of operations I have been on in the past including training and active service ops.

“The mental trauma and the mental fortitude that you need to be able to get through that is variable. You can take somebody and put them into a similar situation the day after they have completed something miraculous and they will fail,” he adds.

With experience on long endurance expeditions, as well as the route he retraced in his documentary, Rob describes a grieving process that at times you would have to mentally endure. One which is no doubt similar to the process the members of Gunnerside and Grouse would likely have encountered.

A low-angle shot of Rob hiking the Gunnerside escape trail.

Rob carried a load of 27kg as well as camera equipment during his solo repeat of the Gunnerside team’s escape [Rob Ferguson]

“You can go through a grieving process. An emotional rollercoaster of acceptance and normality but then you can go into mania. You can get a bit manic, which is dangerous because then you can make decisions which are a bit rash. You can exhaust energy that isn’t maybe best practice for where you are.

“You can descend into anger and depression, crying, and all the way back up again. This roller coaster of emotions can extend over days, but I’ve actually been in situations where you can get it every 15 minutes.

“The backstop that is drilled into you in within the military is sometimes the only difference between what would stop you running off into the cold and taking your jacket off. Making a bad decision and going ‘I give up. Here come the Germans, they’ll treat me okay’, or maybe staying the course and making a better decision.”

Engraved in Norwegian culture is a celebration of the outdoors known as ‘Friluftsliv’ which translates as ‘open-air living’. This embrace of the outdoors by Norwegians would have been rooted within the Norwegian commandos.

“You look at Scandinavia as a whole and their resistance to the occupying forces, there is a very different ethic to maybe what you find within other countries. They were very much a pain in the arse,” says Rob.

“The way they would consider physical hardship and the cold is actually something that is more of a welcome, rather seeing it as a challenge. ‘I’m going out and I’m skiing, it’s going to be -20°. Who cares, let’s go’.”

Rob’s documentary also celebrates the collectiveness of Norway as a whole and their overall resistance to the occupying forces. During Germany’s occupation, Norwegian workers were forced to continue to produce Norwegian Krag–Jørgensen bolt-action rifles for the German forces. But the rifles were intentionally built to poor quality and at a slow pace by the workers. Parts were substandard or missed out, and were of little to no use to the German forces as a result.

[pullquote align=”right”]“The bravery the saboteurs had was echoed through the whole of the country to varying degrees.”[/pullquote]

“The Germans ordered about 15,000 of these rifles. I think about by the end of the war, they had made 5,000, and half of them had broken because they would just intentionally screw the weapons up. If I could screw you over and slow you down, whatever the risk to me, I will do my bit to make life hard for you,” Rob says.

“The bravery the saboteurs had was echoed through the whole of the country to varying degrees. And to no lesser degree because the risk was the same. I think a lot of these things although done by the few, are supported by the many. If you don’t have the support of the many, then the few can’t succeed.”

Through his work in photography, editorial and film, Rob was offered the opportunity by the Royal Geographical Society to become a fellow, where he focuses on human geography, the spiritual experiences of being in the outdoors as well as recalling stories from the places he has visited.

Joachim Ronneberg, the last surviving member of Operation Gunnerside, passed away shortly before the release of Rob’s documentary in 2018. The story of the commandos is one that certainly will not be forgotten.



Follow Rob Ferguson’s work and adventures here.

Featured image courtesy of Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum.

Edited by Flavia Wright & Kesia Evans.

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