I don’t generally recycle old blogs I’ve previously written, but in some cases I will make an exception. Two years ago on Memorial Day I wrote about Capt. Robert M. Losey, the first U.S. serviceman to be killed in World War II—it happened in Norway. The full story can be found here.
Posts tagged Norway
Syttende Mai, or May 17, is Norway’s Constitution Day, and its most important national holiday. Norwegians everywhere celebrate the signing of the Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 1814, by the Norwegian Constituent Assembly in Eidsvoll, Norway. The Norwegian Constitution is now the second oldest in continuous force (after the United States).
I can’t think of a better way to observe the day than to quote Odd Nansen’s own words written 77 years ago:
“Sunday, May 17, 1942
It’s best to forget the 17th of May when you are a Norwegian shut up in a German concentration camp and struggling to make the time vanish, so that it may be the 18th as quickly as possible. So in a way it was no bad thing to have a working day today. But work as I might, and struggle as I might to get the time, the confounded time, to pass, it wasn’t possible to forget that it was May 17th. It was in the air, the clear, fresh spring air blowing from the southwest. The sun shone from early morning; the birds were singing, the birches sprouting so that one could absolutely stand and watch how their pale green tops became denser and more copious hour by hour. They flamed against the dark wood behind, which hasn’t rightly awakened yet.
Southward the landscape opens out; there is no dark, grave forest barrier. The sallows too are beginning to dress for the party, as they stand by the spring becks winding down between the fields toward the sea—far, far out yonder. I truly believe we can make out a streak of that too, a silver streak just under the light blue ridge on the horizon. And the mind goes on to seek the glittering fjord, with its islands one behind another, right out to the last skerries and then still farther out, to the open sea.
And behind rises the blue landscape, up from the ocean and from ridge to ridge with green floes in among them, and with dark and light brown fields like patchwork between the copses and rocky outcrops, and at the back of all, the mountains stand against the spring sky, pale blue with shining flecks of white. It is as though the eye were following the mind upon its free journey. And one sails on along the coast, gazing in rapture at the wonderland within. A rush of warmth goes through one. This is all Norway. . . .
That is the content of the 17th of May; so it has always been, and so it will always be. No one can change it, least of all these Germans, who have no conception of it.
And no one can deprive me of today’s tour of Norway; I’ve been round the whole country and absorbed it with the spring air. I saw it bathed in spring sunshine, beautiful as never before. No, I take it back that one should forget the 17th of May because one’s in a German concentration camp. On the contrary, one should remember it and keep it more intensely and fervently than ever.”
*By email@example.com – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10407995
Joachim Ronneberg, the last surviving member of Operation Gunnerside, the daring raid to destroy the heavy water facility at Vemork, Norway, died on Sunday, October 21. Ronneberg was 99. Obituaries from the New York Times and the BBC, respectively, are here and here.
In 2016 I was asked by The Norwegian American to review The Winter Fortress, the latest in a string of books detailing Operation Gunnerside, written by Neal Bascomb. The complete review is here.
It is worth quoting at length the final two paragraphs of my review:
“The members of Operations Grouse, Freshman, Swallow, and Gunnerside and the team that sunk the ferry on Lake Tinnsjø never really knew why destroying heavy water was so important; they only knew that it had to be destroyed. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the Allies’ own atomic program meant that their feats could not be widely publicized during the war. The members were simply promised: “[Y]our actions will live in history for a hundred years to come.”
It’s a good bet that that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it is now almost 75 years [this was written in 2016] since the Grouse team first landed on the Vidda. They and their compatriots endured ferocious winter weather, near starvation, the constant threat of discovery, and even death, and yet their patriotism, courage, and fortitude in the face of all this still inspires worthy books such as The Winter Fortress. As the official historian of the SOE [Special Operations Executive], M.R.D. Foot, later observed: “If SOE had never done anything else, ‘Gunnerside’ would have given it claim enough on the gratitude of humanity.”
Humanity is indeed grateful, Joachim Ronneberg. You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.
Seventy-seven years ago last Thursday (August 23, 1941), Per Birkevold, Hjalmar Svae and Bjorn Fraser began their ill-fated quest to steal a German boat and escape from Norway to England. I have written about this episode in prior blogs (here and here). I also wrote about the amazing coincidence of meeting Hjalmar Svae’s niece, Siri Svae Fenson, and Bjorn Fraser’s daughter, Helene Sobol, within days of each other (here).
Well, there’s yet more to the story. After the war Svae ran a dancing school in Oslo, named, appropriately enough, Svae’s Dancing School. Turns out that Helene Sobol, Fraser’s daughter, attended the very same dancing school. Here’s a photo of Helene, age around 9, with her younger sister Jane, all dressed up in their finest ball dresses.
What you cannot tell from the photo is that the two dresses shown were made by Helene’s father out of parachute silk! When Fraser’s death sentence was commuted, he volunteered to work in the prison tailor shop, where he learned—apparently quite well—his tailoring skills. Siri Svae Fenson, Svae’s niece, remembers visiting her uncle’s dancing school as a child, and may even have unknowingly crossed paths with young Helene many years ago.
And wait, there’s still yet another interesting connection. As mentioned in my earlier blog, Bjorn Fraser went on to a very successful career in the Norwegian Air Force. In the early 1960s he commanded the Sola Air Base near Stavanger. There he was visited, in 1964, by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, who was in the country to receive the Order of St. Olav, the only German ever to be so honored for her wartime heroics. Zassenhaus, in her capacity as a “chaperone/watchdog,” accompanied clergy from the Seamen’s Church who were allowed to visit Norwegian prisoners. While supposedly keeping an eye on the clergy, she was actually secretly smuggling food and vitamins into the prisoners, and keeping track of their exact location, allowing them to rescued in the “White Buses” operation at the end of the war. Ten years later (1974) Hiltgunt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work by the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting). I have written about Zassenhaus at more length here.
In the above photo from the 1964 visit, Fraser stands to the far right; Zassenhaus stands next to him (his right, our left); Helene is the young woman in the white dress (fifth from the left); her mother is standing directly in front of her (to our right).
Thanks to Helene Sobol for the photos, and the additional insights. Are there still more connections out there?? Stay tuned.
When we last left Norway in 1940 (here), it was reeling from an invasion by German forces which began on April 9, 1940.
The Germans had achieved complete surprise, and quickly seized key ports and airports. Practically the only thing that went well for the defenders was the sinking of the German heavy cruiser Blücher, which was steaming up the Oslo Fjord on the morning of April 9 when well-placed artillery and torpedo fire from Oscarsborg Fortress sank her. The mission of the Blücher had been to seize the capital, Oslo, and the ship’s destruction gave the King, government officials, the Parliament (Storting) and, crucially, Norway’s gold supply (23 tons worth), enough time to flee Oslo by train.
Initially German officials, led by envoy Curt Bräuer, tried to negotiate with King Haakon VII, to convince him that resistance was futile, and that it was in Norway’s interest to capitulate—much like what had occurred in Denmark, where the king and government capitulated without almost a shot being fired. By April 10, however, the 67 year-old King, with the support of his government, rejected any surrender, and elected to fight on:
“In this most difficult time that my people and my country find themselves in . . . I ask all Norwegian women and men to do all they can to save freedom and independence for our dear fatherland. God preserve Norway.”
From then on, the mission of German forces was to capture or kill Haakon, and he was hunted through the interior of Norway, always staying one step ahead of his pursuers.
By late April, the King elected to move to Molde, Norway, a small seaport town, but with a large and busy harbor, to set up his government until Trondheim was recaptured. [By this time, British, French and Polish forces had landed in Norway to help drive the invaders out. The King—and almost all Norwegians—were confident they would succeed. Instead, the outgunned and outmanned Allies failed miserably and eventually withdrew.] The King arrived in Molde on April 23—seventy-eight years ago tonight.
I have previously written about my friend, Siri Svae Fenson (here), whose uncle, Hjalmar Svae, attempted to escape to England during the war, was captured and sentenced to death, only to make a daring escape from prison, and ultimately to freedom in Sweden, and later England and Canada.
Well, the Svae saga is not quite over yet.
While in Molde, King Haakon stayed at a villa on the outskirts of town called Glomstuen. Glomstuen was the home of Jacob Preuthun (the regional forest director), and his wife, Mathilde Petersen. Mathilde Petersen, it turns out, was Siri Fenson’s great-aunt.
By April 25th, German intelligence was aware of Haakon’s presence in Molde, and began an unrelenting bombing campaign targeting the city. As Tim Greve, the King’s biographer, notes in Haakon VII of Norway: “Undoubtedly the object was to kill the King, the Crown Prince and as many of the [government] ministers as possible.” [Incidentally, Tim Greve was Odd Nansen’s son-in-law, and the late husband of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve.]
The idea of the royal party dashing from Glomstuen into the adjacent snow-covered forest to escape the near constant German raids wreaking destruction on Molde is more than a bit ironic, inasmuch as Kaiser Wilhelm himself had visited Molde each summer prior to World War I, where he was a guest at none other than Glomstuen!
The picture shown at the top of this blog, of the King consulting with his son beside a large birch tree—one of the most iconic pictures of Norway during the invasion—was taken at Glomstuen. There is a plaque nearby commemorating this famous scene.
Although Glomstuen itself was never hit, by April 28 Molde was practically in ruins, and it was clear that Haakon would have to leave. The following day the British cruiser HMS Glasgow, with an escort of two destroyers, arrived in port to transport the King, Crown Prince, cabinet members, and gold supply to Tromsø, 600 miles farther north. “By nightfall Molde was a roaring bonfire,” writes historians Hans Christian Adamson and Per Klem in Blood on the Midnight Sun. The royal party and the government made good their escape. But by then Molde, a quaint, idyllic town whose lush gardens and parks had earned it the nickname The Town of Roses, was almost 70% destroyed.
Siri Fenson’s mother relates one particularly comic episode in what was an otherwise bleak time in Norway’s history. One day, the air raid sirens sounded just as a fish gratin had been placed in the oven at Glomstuen. The cook, named Kristine, was out of action, having broken her leg in an earlier sprint to the woods. So, Mathilde, fearing for the fate of the untended fish gratin, left her hiding place, dodged the attacks, dashed back into the house and rescued the savory dish.
After the war, Mathilde was invited to an audience at the royal castle in Oslo. There, King Haakon, after having just lived five years in exile in England, posed a question which apparently had haunted him all that time: “Tell me, Mrs. Preuthun—how did you manage to save the fish gratin?”
“If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 16, 1942*
In the pre-dawn hours of April 9, 1940, German naval, air and airborne forces invaded Norway. In a well-coordinated attack, the Germans seized airports (including Fornebu, outside Oslo, where Odd Nansen had been designing air terminals) and attacked all major seaports along Norway’s coast.
Norway was woefully unprepared. Neutral during World War I, Norway expected to maintain its neutrality during World War II as well, a neutrality which obviated, in its eyes, the need for significant armed forces. Moreover, what little navy, army and air force Norway possessed had suffered through years of austerity and neglect brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Hitler, anxious to deny Norway’s ports to the British (whom Hitler suspected might be planning their own invasion) and determined to assure access to Sweden’s iron ore (which could only reach Germany through the Norwegian port of Narvik in the winter, when all Swedish harbors were ice-bound), Hitler authorized preliminary planning for Operation Weserübung in December 1939.
Luckily, the Royal Family and members of Norway’s parliament (the Storting) fled Oslo ahead of advancing German forces, but this left a leadership vacuum just when the surprised, shocked and confused populace needed guidance the most. Vidkun Quisling, a traitor, attempted to seize the reins of power, and in a radio broadcast attempted to cancel all mobilization orders, and observed that resistance was futile.
Nevertheless, within a few days the Norwegian Army—really a militia of citizen-soldiers—rallied and put up stiff resistance as German forces moved inland. Though a country of less than three million, Norway ultimately held out longer than France, Poland, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark before capitulating on June 10, 1940.
Thereafter, as in most occupied countries, some people chose to collaborate, joining the fascist Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) party in hopes of preferment or better jobs. Many joined in, or stood by, when the Norwegian police rounded up the country’s Jews in the fall of 1942. [It should be said that at this early stage of the war, the designs of the Nazis were not as apparent as they would become by 1943 and 1944. As Odd Nansen’s friend, Sigrid Helliesen Lund—herself recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations—related: “[P]eople forget that many others were also in danger then, for whom transport to safety seemed even more urgent. It would have been critical for members of the resistance, if they had been captured. Many Jews were seized only because they were Jews, not because they had been involved in the opposition movement. At that time, we didn’t realize what was likely to happen to the Jews after they were taken. The pretty word was ‘internment.’”]
Many, on the other hand, fought back. Thousands of young men tried to escape to England (a crime punishable by death) to join the armed forces. Many manned the fishing smacks and small boats used to ferry men out of Norway, and resistance forces and equipment into Norway—a link that was to be immortalized thereafter as “the Shetland Bus.” Many created underground newspapers dedicated to bringing outside news from the BBC to the country’s inhabitants. Many joined resistance networks.
I have previously described the incredible sacrifice of Norway’s merchant sailors (here). I have written (here) about Hjalmar Svae, who stole a German boat to escape to Britain, only to have the engine quit within miles England’s coast. When the current carried him back to occupied Denmark he was seized and condemned to death (which he avoided by escaping from jail). I have also written about Jens Christian Beck (here), who similarly escaped the clutches of the Gestapo, later trained with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), only to drown on his first parachute jump when, weighed down with equipment, he was mistakenly dropped over a deep lake in the mountains of Norway on October 10, 1943. In From Day to Day I describe the British raid on the Lofoten Islands in March 1941, and quote “a contemporary who wrote that the decision of three hundred young people to follow the British ‘after only a few minutes in which to make their decision tell[s] more about the fighting spirit of the Norwegian youth than any words can do.’”
Perhaps the final word on the Norway’s contribution to World War II can be attributed to someone who saw and trained many young men from many different Allied nations. Major George T. Rheam, described as “the founder of industrial sabotage,” ran Brickendonbury Manor, in Herfordshire, England, also known as SOE Station XVII, where the SOE taught its sabotage techniques to operatives and resistance fighters from every Allied nation. [It was Rheam who trained Joachim Rønnenberg’s team for their mission to destroy the heavy water plant at Vemork, but that is another story for another time.]
M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the SOE, described Rheam as “a large man with a large mind,” who did not suffer fools gladly. While his students might think him dour, behind his “stiffish manner” lay a keen sense of humor and an intense sympathy for the European exiles with whom he often worked.
“Of these,” Foot writes, “he once said in retrospect, he thought on the whole the Norwegians impressed him the most, for bravery, for readiness to run risks, and for steadiness in facing the dangers of sabotage.”
Not a bad tribute to the 40,000 Norwegians who, like Odd Nansen, were imprisoned during the war, to the 28,000 who escaped Norway and enlisted in the Allied military services, to the over 10,000 who died, either in the conflict, the resistance, or in prison, and to the countless others who suffered or risked their lives during the occupation.
[*Remarks delivered at the handover ceremony of the HNoMS King Haakon VII, gifted by the U.S. to Norway at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16, 1942. During her war service King Haakon VII sailed 85,000 nautical miles and escorted 79 convoys without mishap. On June 26, 1945 King Haakon VII successfully berthed in home waters in Kristiansand for the first time. In 2005, His Majesty King Harald V of Norway visited the Washington Navy Yard to view events including a reenactment of President Roosevelt’s “Look to Norway” speech, honoring the United States and Norway’s long-term alliance. The ceremony marked the centenary of diplomatic relations between Norway and the United States since Norway’s independence in 1905.]