From the November 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:
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.
No, not that bomb story. This doesn’t involve the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was successfully exploded (although there is, as we shall see, a tie-in to that matter as well).
No, this story involves the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, otherwise known as Charles Henry George Howard, or Charles Howard for short. Most everyone, however, knew him as Mad Jack or Wild Jack.
Charles quit college at 17 and ran away to sea, sailing around the world and earning tattoos on both arms. [In today’s self-expressive age that doesn’t rate as much, but there were not many members of the peerage in the 1920s sporting such adornments.] Upon his return to Great Britain he was commissioned in the Scots Guards but was soon asked to leave because of his “wild ways.” For a while he tried his hand as a jackaroo on a sheep ranch in Australia, before returning to Great Britain again and earning a degree in chemistry and pharmacology from Edinburgh University.
World War II found the Earl of Suffolk serving as Liaison Officer to the French Ministry of Armaments, posted in Paris. With the imminent fall of France in June 1940, the British were eager to spirit out of the country various assets important to the Allied cause, including important research scientists, diamonds, and most importantly, heavy water in the possession of France’s nuclear scientists.
Heavy water was initially considered crucial in the production of a nuclear chain reaction, and the French scientists’ precious supply had itself been previously spirited out of Norway (the only producer of heavy water) under the Gestapo’s very noses. Possession of the world’s then entire supply of heavy water would allow the Allies to continue their experiments with uranium fission; its loss to the Germans would conversely have sped up their own research program.
And here’s where Mad Jack comes in. He arrived in Bordeaux ahead of the Germans and was given the assignment of safely conveying the heavy water, scientists, and diamonds intact to England. As Richard Ketchum describes it in his book The Borrowed Years 1938-1941: America on the Way to War:
“After a series of misadventures, [Hans] Halban, [Lew] Kowarski, and other colleagues from the Collège de France arrived with their families and the heavy water at Bordeaux, where they boarded the little British coaler SS Broompark and encountered a crew that might have emerged from Central Casting. The man in charge—who knew exactly who the scientists were and what they had brought with them—was the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, a swashbuckling character with a thick mustache . . . wearing hunting boots and swinging a loaded hunting crop. At his side, lighting his cigarettes, was his secretary, Miss Morden; hovering nearby was his chauffer, Fred Hards.”
Hedging his bets, Mad Jack, who stood 6’4”, built a raft which carried the heavy water and diamonds. Were the ship to be attacked and sunk (and another vessel leaving Bordeaux at the same time was in fact sunk), the raft could be cut loose and its precious cargo saved. In any event, the ship, which set sail on June 19, 1940, soon reached Falmouth in one piece. Later that year Halban and Kowarski, with the help of the heavy water, proved a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was possible. Mad Jack was commended in the House of Commons for “a considerable service . . . rendered to the Allied cause.”
[Note to my Norwegian friends: the skipper of the Broompark was Olaf Paulsen, born in Oslo (then Christiana) in 1878. Broompark was torpedoed three months later (September 21, 1940) by German U-48, but Paulsen’s efforts saved the ship, for which he was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the British Government. Broompark (under a different skipper) was again attacked on July 25, 1942, and this time sunk, by U-552. Note to my American friends: U-552 was the same submarine that sunk the USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship lost in World War II (October 31, 1941).]
But Charles was just getting started.
Drawing on his scientific training, he now joined a bomb disposal squad, along with secretary Morden and chauffer Hards—the group now dubbed “the Holy Trinity.” With what Winston Churchill would later describe in his magisterial memoir of the Second World War as “urbane and smiling efficiency,” the Holy Trinity proved their prowess, successfully defusing thirty-four unexploded bombs. Mad Jack would closely examine each bomb, dictating notes all the while to Morden, with Hards standing by to assist, under the theory that others would learn from any mistake he might make, and not repeat it again.
Seventy-seven years ago today (May 12, 1941), on his thirty-fifth try, Charles’s luck ran out.
He had been asked to work on a 500-pound unexploded bomb which contained two separate fuses, a Type 17 and a Type 50. Since intact fuses of these types were needed for instructional purposes for other bomb disposal units, and as these types were in short supply, he began his work on the 12th of May with Morden and Hards standing by.
In the cat-and-mouse game between Allied and Axis forces, the Germans began to booby-trap their own bombs, adding yet another detonator, hidden out of sight behind the fuse, which would set-off the bomb once the first fuse was withdrawn. It is believed that the bomb in question held just such a booby-trap (most of the evidence having been destroyed). All three members of the Holy Trinity were killed in the resulting explosion, as were eleven others standing nearby.
The twentieth Earl of Suffolk was 35 years-old. He was survived by his Chicago-born ballet dancer wife, Mimi Forde-Pigott, and three sons.
In 1947 a stained-glass window was dedicated in Charles’s honor at the church of St. John the Baptist, Charlton, Wiltshire, where his remains had been buried. On one panel is a poem, written by John Masefield, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, commemorating his death:
“He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing;
He felt the anguish in the hunted thing;
He dared the dangers which beset the guides;
Who lead men to the knowledge nature hides;
Probing and playing with the lightning thus;
He and his faithful friends met their death for us;
The beauty of a splendid man abides.”
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?”
On this date in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving president in U.S history, was buried at Springwood, his family home in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, GA at 3:35 pm. on April 12 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was 63.
Roosevelt, who shook off a debilitating illness which left him at age 39 totally and permanently paralyzed from the waist down, had the burden of guiding the country through two of the most cataclysmic events in its history: the Great Depression and World War II. Through it all the U.S. emerged stronger, more prosperous, and freer, than at any time in its history.
Like Lincoln, Roosevelt died within weeks of realizing the final fruits of the war he had led, with “the unbounded determination of [its] people” since its inception. Like Churchill, his contemporary (whom I have written about here), he was a complex man, whose complexities, accomplishments and contradictions have fascinated and challenged historians and biographers ever since. In all events, historians and political scientists consistently rank Roosevelt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln as the country’s three greatest presidents.
On the centennial of FDR’s birth, George Will wrote:
“Anyone who contemplates this century without shivering probably does not understand what is going on. But Franklin Roosevelt was, an aide said, like the fairy-tale prince who did not know how to shiver. Something was missing in FDR. . . . But what FDR lacked made him great. He lacked the capacity even to imagine that things might end up badly. He had a Christian’s faith that the universe is well constituted and an American’s faith that history is a rising road. . . . Radiating an infectious zest, he did the most important thing a President can do: he gave the nation a hopeful, and hence creative, stance toward the future.”
Roosevelt almost never had a chance to fulfill his historic role. On February 15, 1933, between his first election to the presidency and his inauguration, Roosevelt gave an impromptu speech in Miami, Florida. In the crowd was Giuseppe Zangara, who fired off five shots at the president-elect. FDR was not hit, but Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was standing next to him, was fatally shot, and four other bystanders injured.
Winston Churchill almost met a similar fate as well, when, on December 13, 1931, while visiting New York City, he exited a cab in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and looking left, saw no traffic. He forgot that in America, unlike England, cars drive on the right. He proceeded to step in front of an oncoming car approaching from the right and was hit and dragged several yards. [Churchill later wrote: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.”] He escaped with a serious scalp wound and two cracked ribs.
The great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was fully mindful of these two events when he later observed:
“One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.”
Recently I described the German invasion of Norway, beginning with a famous speech from FDR (here). Norway was immensely grateful for both the inspiration Roosevelt gave to resistance fighters in Norway with his remarks, and for the hospitality the Roosevelt family extended to Crown Princess Märtha (the King’s daughter-in-law) and her family. She and her children (including the current King of Norway, Harald V) initially stayed in the White House upon arriving in the country, and lived out much of the war in nearby Maryland, and where she was a frequent guest at the White House.
After the war, the Norwegian government dedicated a statue to Roosevelt, prominently displayed in Oslo harbor, adjacent to City Hall, close to Akershus Castle and other important landmarks of World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication.
Recently I wrote (here) about the role of Norway’s merchant marine during World War II, and the ill-fated M/T Sydhav, sunk on March 6, 1942, killing 12 of its crew, including Third Mate Magnus Iversen. Iversen was the son of Ole Berner Iversen, a fellow prisoner with Odd Nansen in Grini and Veidal camps. I wrote of the particularly painful way Iversen learned of his son’s death—six months earlier—via an old newspaper circulating in Veidal.
The German submarine which torpedoed the Sydhav, U-505, was also ill-starred in many ways. She experienced casualties as well—both self-inflicted and from enemy fire, and suffered an ignominious end.
After an initial shakedown cruise, U-505 engaged in 11 combat patrols. During her career she sank eight ships totaling 44,962 tons. Her most productive patrol was her first, where she sank four ships (including the Sydhav). On her second patrol she sank three, which included a three-masted schooner, and on her third, only one ship, for 7,173 tons.
That same third patrol was cut short when U-505 was surprised on the surface by a patrol aircraft of the Royal Air Force near Trinidad, and severely damaged in a low-level attack—so low that the resulting explosion also destroyed the plane, killing all of its crew. U-505 barely survived the attack and somehow made it back to its home base in Lorient, France.
After six months of repairs, U-505 was again ready for action, but she would never sink another ship in her fighting career. This failure had several causes: sabotage by increasingly restive French workers in Lorient, and improved anti-submarine methods—both tactical (better convoying) and material (more and better ships, planes and technology).
The net result was that U-505 was hunted almost as soon as she left port, and often had to return to Lorient to fix enemy bomb damage or sabotage. This latter included faulty welds, pencil-sized holes drilled in her diesel tanks (which would leave a telltale oil slick in her wake), and other equipment failures.
On her ninth combat patrol, a British destroyer spotted U-505 east of the Azores and initiated a depth-charge attack. During the height of the attack, the sub’s skipper, Captain Peter Zschech, killed himself by a shot to the head in front of his crew. This is the only known instance of a commanding officer committing suicide while in battle.
Her next, and final, patrol began March 6, 1944, exactly two years to the day since the Sydhav had been sunk; perhaps the ghosts of the Sydhav were dogging her path as she set forth. By 1944 the tables had been almost completely turned in the battle for control of the seas. By now, Allied “hunter-killer” task groups prowled the oceans using high-frequency direction finding, and aerial and surface reconnaissance, to locate and destroy U-boats.
One such group, Task Group 22.3, sailed from Norfolk, VA on May 15, 1944. It consisted of an escort carrier (USS Guadalcanal) and five destroyer escorts (Chatelain, Flaherty, Jenks, Pillsbury and Pope), under the overall command of Captain Daniel V. Gallery. It is a measure of the Allies’ complete naval dominance by this time that on June 4, 1944, when TG 22.3 and U-505 collided, the U.S. Navy could devote all of these vessels to search and destroy missions in the Atlantic when the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted—the Normandy landings—was scheduled to occur the same week. [D-Day involved 6,939 ships: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft, 1,736 ancillary craft, and 864 merchant vessels.]
Capt. Gallery’s task group had already sunk two U-boats on a previous deployment, one of which, U-515, was forced to the surface and destroyed with gunfire. The significant effort needed to eventually sink the sub gave Capt. Gallery the idea that it might be possible to board, and capture, a German submarine before she was scuttled or destroyed, and he drew up plans and began training accordingly.
When TG 22.3 picked up U-505 on sonar, the task group immediately went into action with depth charges and hedgehogs. Within minutes the sub was forced to the surface, heavily damaged, and her skipper ordered all to abandon ship. However, her crew failed to take all the measures necessary to quickly scuttle her, and a boarding party from the Pillsbury, led by Lieutenant (j.g.) Albert David, entered the slowly sinking deserted ship, and secured her.
The sub was towed to Bermuda, to be intensively studied by U.S. Navy intelligence and engineering officers. It was the first capture by the Navy of an enemy vessel on the high seas since the War of 1812. The entire capture was filmed, and can be found on YouTube (here).
This feat, however, was not considered an unalloyed success at the time.
One of the most closely guarded secrets of the war was the Allies’ ability to crack the Enigma code, and thereby read Germany’s most important communications. The capture of U-505 included of course its code books, with the latest Enigma settings. If the Germans learned of U-505’s capture, they would be able to deduce that the Allies now had the means of deciphering Enigma, which the Germans had hitherto felt was impregnable. This in turn might lead to the use of an entirely new code. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, even contemplated court-martialing Capt. Gallery for not sinking U-505 instead.
To protect the secret regarding Enigma, the capture of the sub was never publicized, U-505’s crew was interned in a separate camp, their existence was never acknowledged, and they were denied access to the Red Cross. To further confuse the enemy, U-505 was painted to look like a U.S. submarine, and christened USS Nemo. The German Navy ultimately concluded that U-505 had been lost at sea, and the crew’s families were notified that they were dead.
With the secret of Enigma still safe, Capt. Gallery, rather than facing a court-martial, was instead awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Lt. David, who had led the boarding party, received the Medal of Honor—the only Atlantic sailor to receive such a distinction during World War II. Unfortunately, Lt. David did not live long enough for the medal to be presented to him. He suffered a heart attack fifteen months after his heroic action, and died on September 17, 1945, age 43. TG 22.3 received a Presidential Unit Citation.
But the saga of U-505 was not yet over.
After the war, with no further use for the sub, the Navy decided to use U-505 for target practice. Daniel Gallery, now a rear admiral, suggested instead that Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) might be interested in it. Established by Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald (an early co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company), MSI was indeed interested. Private subscriptions paid for towing and installation of the boat. On September 25, 1954, she was officially donated to the City of Chicago and dedicated as a permanent exhibit.
In 1989 U-505 was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Even enemy submarines sometimes have second acts.
It amazes me that, after years of immersion in the field of World War II and the Holocaust, I can still discover works of which I was totally unaware. I had one such experience recently. While reading The Borrowed Years 1938—1941: America on the Way to War by Richard Ketchum (an excellent book, by the way) I learned of a short story titled “Address Unknown.” Written by Katherine Kressmann Taylor in September 1938, the story first appeared (appropriately enough) in the magazine Story. It created a literary sensation; never in the magazine’s seven-year history had any story generated so much comment. It was reprinted in the January 1939 issue of Reader’s Digest, and then reprinted in book form the same year, where it sold 50,000 copies. Soon it was on the Reichskommissar’s list of banned books.
The story is told entirely through the exchange of 19 letters between close friends and business partners Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse, and covers 16 tumultuous months, from late 1932 to early 1934. You can read it in less than an hour. Its very brevity adds to its impact.
In the first letter (dated November 12, 1932), Max, who is Jewish, writes to Martin, who is not. Martin has just relocated to Munich, Germany, the country of origin for both men. Once an impecunious artist, Martin has become sufficiently successful through their jointly owned art gallery in San Francisco that he can return to his homeland with his wife and three boys, leaving Max behind to run the Schulse-Eisenstein Galleries.
Writing the day after the 14th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, Max rejoices about the “long way we have travelled, as peoples, from that bitterness,” as well as the fact that the “democratic Germany” to which Martin returns has been purged of “Prussian arrogance and militarism.”
On a personal note, Max reveals he has just heard from his younger sister, Griselle (living in nearby Vienna), an aspiring actress who, we learn, once had a torrid love affair with Martin. Does Max have Martin’s permission to notify Griselle that Martin is back in Germany?
Martin’s reply (December 10, 1932) depicts a poor and downtrodden Germany—so poor that Martin is able to purchase a 30-room house on 10 acres and employ 10 servants. Martin comments on the political turmoil prevailing in the country, even under the presidency of Paul von Hindenburg, a fine liberal that Martin much admires.
As for Griselle, by all means give her Martin’s address, so she can know a home for her is close at hand. After all, “for Griselle I keep a tenderness that will last long.”
By January 21, 1933, Max waxes lovingly about his deep friendship with Martin, but inquires, with concern, about “this Adolf Hitler” who is rising toward power.
Over the course of the next few months, Max expresses growing concern about conditions in Germany, while Martin, who initially expressed ambivalence toward Hitler, becomes increasingly dogmatic in his replies. At first, he expresses distaste for the Jew-baiting he sees, but calls it the “little surface scum when a big movement boils up.” By July, Martin is explaining that scapegoating Jews “does not happen without a reason,” and further asks Martin to stop writing to his home address. Under the strict censorship rules, correspondence with a Jew is anathema to a Nazi official, which Martin has become. Better to write, if at all, in care of the bank where Martin works.
By September 1933, Max, “of necessity” sends a brief message to Martin at work. It concerns Griselle. She has joined a theater company in Berlin, oblivious to the danger, and Max is worried about her safety—will Martin watch out for her? No response.
When Griselle subsequently disappears, Max becomes desperate and writes again—can Martin try to find and help his old lover?
Martin finally responds—prefacing his reply with a “Heil Hitler.” He informs Max that Griselle is dead. She came to Martin’s home with stormtroopers at her heels, and Martin turned her away. He simply could not “risk being arrested for harboring a Jew and . . . los[ing] all I have built up here.”
Hearing the news, what can Max do now? He is thousands of miles away, a Jew, and his erstwhile best friend will never face justice in a Germany awash in anti-Semitism and besotted with a fanatical leader. (Martin has since had a fourth child, a boy naturally named Adolf).
But Max does have one way to exact revenge and achieve justice. Less than a month after Martin’s startling revelation of the depths of his heartlessness, Max begins to pepper Martin with letters—now written to his home address. These letters are sprinkled with overt references to “the Fleishmans,” “Uncle Solomon,” and “Aunt Rheba,” implications that they share a Jewish grandmother, as well as cryptic instructions to prepare “the following reproductions: Van Gogh 15 by 103, red; Poussin 20 by 90, blue and yellow; Vermeer 11 by 33, red and blue.”
Martin responds—once—in desperation, in a letter smuggled out of Germany with an American acquaintance, begging Max to stop. The authorities want to know what “the code” means. Martin is losing his job, his son is no longer welcome in the boys’ corps, his wife is snubbed on the street. Won’t Max have pity, and stop?
Yet Max persists, and his final letter (March 3, 1934), which ends with the injunction that the “God of Moses be at your right hand,” is soon returned by the German postal authorities with a simple stamp, in bold Gothic letters: Adressat Unbekannt [Addressee Unknown].
The back story to Address Unknown is almost as interesting as the book. Katherine Kressmann was born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon. She later married Elliott Taylor, worked as an advertising copywriter and wrote for literary journals in her spare time. The inspiration for Address Unknown came from two sources, according to her son. Shortly before the war some “cultivated, intellectual, warmhearted German friends” of Taylor’s returned to Germany after living in the U.S. Within a short time, they became devoted Nazis, “refused to listen to the slightest criticism of Hitler,” and during a return visit to the U.S. turned their backs on an old, dear friend of theirs who happened to be Jewish.
More importantly, around the same time Elliott noticed a small news article about some American students studying in Germany. Their fraternity brothers thought it would be funny to write them letters poking fun at Hitler. They wrote back: “’Stop it. We’re in danger. These people don’t fool around. You could murder one of the Nazis by writing letters to him.’” Katherine took the idea of a letter as a weapon, and wrote Address Unknown. Interestingly, the editor at Story magazine thought the tale was “’too strong to appear under the name of a woman,’” and shortened her byline to the more neutral sounding “Kressmann Taylor,” the pen name she used for the rest of her life.
In 1944 Columbia Pictures turned Address Unknown into a movie directed by William Menzies (of Gone With the Wind fame), which received two Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Music Score). But, much like From Day to Day, her story fell into obscurity following World War II.
After the war Taylor continued to write, and taught journalism and creative writing at Gettysburg College for almost 20 years (where she was the first woman to earn tenure). To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, Story Press reissued the book once again in 1995. Address Unknown has since been translated into 20 languages and has been a bestseller in Israel and France (where it sold 600,000 copies). A BBC radio dramatization is available on YouTube (here).
Katherine Kressmann Taylor died in July 1996, age 93, almost sixty years after the publication of her short story; long enough to see it recognized the world over as a classic.
[For reasons that I have been unable to uncover, the title of the story and the book was Address Unknown, rather than Addressee Unknown, which is the correct translation of Adressat Unbekannt.]
Do you know what happened seventy-six years ago today (March 6, 1942)?
I didn’t think so.
After all, it was not one of those iconic dates associated with World War II: December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor); June 6, 1944 (D-Day); February 23, 1945 (Flag raising on Iwo Jima); August 6 and 9, 1945 (Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki); May 8, 1945 (V-E Day); August 15, 1945 (V-J Day).
No, March 6, 1942 was just another typical day in the war. Which is to say it was intense, bloody, and widespread. Germany and Russia were locked in mortal combat on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Java Sea had just concluded (on March 1, 1942), a major U.S. naval defeat. The first deportation train from Paris to Auschwitz was being readied for departure (March 11, 1942). The Japanese were days away from capturing Rangoon, Burma (March 8). On March 6 alone, twenty-three ships of all nations were sunk, scuttled, mined, bombed, or collided. Several ships were torpedoed by enemy submarines, off the coasts of Bermuda, Iceland, and Delaware.
One such ship was the M/T (Motor Tanker) Sydhav. It had departed Curaçao on February 17, and was heading to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a major port city on Africa’s west coast, with 11,400 tons of oil, where it expected to meet up with a convoy for the journey north.
The Sydhav had been part of Norway’s merchant marine fleet. Comprising 1,300 vessels totaling more than 4.4 million gross tons and manned by 30,000 seamen, Norway’s merchant fleet was the world’s fourth largest, and most modern, at the start of the war. Like most of that fleet, the Sydhav was at sea when Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. Also, like most of the fleet, it ignored German calls to head for Norway, or other German-occupied ports, and instead placed itself at the service of the Allies. At one point the Norwegian fleet was transporting nearly 60% of Britain’s oil and half of its foodstuffs. One British official observed, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that the fleet was worth more to England “than an army of a million men.”
The Sydhav never reached Freetown. On the morning of March 6, it was spotted by U-505, a recently commissioned German submarine operating as a lone wolf on its first combat patrol off Africa’s west coast.
Struck by two torpedoes, Sydhav exploded and sank within three minutes. A crewmember aboard U-505, Hans Goebeler, who emigrated to the U.S. after the war, later published a memoir of his wartime experiences in Steel Boat, Iron Hearts: A U-Boat Crewman’s Life Aboard U-505. Here is how he described the attack:
“A sharp explosion was followed immediately by a deafening roar. A moment later, a gigantic shock wave hit us, knocking us off our feet and rocking the boat like a baby’s cradle. Huge waves blocked the periscope’s vision for almost two minutes.
“When the periscope view finally cleared, all that could be seen was an enormous plume of white smoke. The tanker, which had evidently been loaded with gasoline, had exploded like a bomb when the torpedoes hit. Inside the sub we could still hear low, rumbling explosions several minutes after the first detonation.”
The Sydhav’s crew had no chance to lower any lifeboats, and jumped into the water to save themselves, where they were pulled under by the ship’s suction. Twenty crewmembers surfaced; eleven did not, including Captain Nils Helgesen, First Mate Hans Hansen, and Third Mate Magnus Iversen.
News of the sinking of a small oil tanker traveled slowly in wartime Europe. A maritime hearing was held a month later in London, but such events were not highly publicized, both for reasons of morale and wartime security. Nonetheless, the sinking was eventually reported in Norwegian newspapers. Not surprisingly, those held in Nazi custody were even slower to receive any such information. But eventually even they did, too.
Here is part of Odd Nansen’s diary entry for Saturday, September 19, 1942, over six months after the event:
“Newspapers arrived [in camp] as well. Old indeed, but with one or two things of interest in them. When the food was consumed and the hut cleaned up for the evening, the chaps sat on, full, lazy, and contented, reading the newspapers round the tables. As we’re sitting like that, [Andreas] Onstad shoves his paper across to [Ole] Iver[sen], our waiter, and asks him: Isn’t that somebody you know?
“And he points to an item about seamen from Haugesund who have lost their lives while sailing for the Allies. That was how Iver learned that his son was dead. Among the lost was his name, Magnus Iversen, mate, aged twenty-five. Poor Iver. And he took it fearfully hard. He just went and lay down on his bed, lay and shook with sobs.”
Before the war ended, 706 Norwegian ships would be lost, representing almost half the nation’s total tonnage at the beginning of 1940.
“Forty thousand sailing Norsemen,
One and all they chose the battle,
Homelessness and lonely ocean,
Chose to die from horrid gangrene
Or in flames on burning tankers,
Chose to drift on slender raft boards
Thousands of miles from help and care—
Deathless honor shall be theirs.”