Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. - Wilfred Owen
Dedicated to the 42 men who gave their life on this mission.
They had no idea why, but in early 1941 the Norwegian Resistance was asked to report on the production of heavy water, at the In Vemork Norsk Hydro near Rjukan. In early June 1942 reports showed a marked increase of heavy water being stockpiled at the plant. The Resistance was asked to immediately start planning for the destruction of the plant.
1942 the atomic bomb was very much on Churchill’s mind. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was or why it was important, he just knew they were spending a lot of money on it. Now there was a report that the Germans might be doing the same. He needed answers and he knew where to get them.
Frederick Alexander Lindemann - Churchill’s chief science advisor was ushered into Churchill’s office.
“Sit down Fredrick . . . Tell me again about this atomic bomb. And, don’t say super weapon, every scientist in the country seems to have one of those.” Churchill had his usual - don’t get me any bull shit look.
“Yes Prime Minister.” They might have been on a first name basis outside the office - but here it was always formal.
“Consider a single bomb dropped on London - everything out as far as Kensington was completely destroyed and out as far as Hammersmith in flames.”
Churchill’s scowl had returned. He was used to bad news, this was something he understood.
“Tell me about heavy water”
“Prime Minister - heavy water occurs naturally, it is chemically identical to regular water except instead of two hydrogen atoms it has two deuterium atoms.” Churchill was chomping on his cigar - not a good sign. ‘Get to the point’ “Heavy water is critical to the research into an atomic bomb. However, it is extremely difficult to build an atomic bomb using heavy water.”
Churchill waited for the ‘but’ - there was always a ‘but’.
“But, if they continue their research they will find that graphite can be substituted for heavy water to make a simple atomic bomb and a by-product of their nuclear reactors, an artificial element called plutonium, can be used to make an even more powerful bomb.”
“Time and money Prime Minister. We know what has to be done, we are working on how to do it. Getting the equipment and material is costly.”
“They are well behind us in research. But they are spending vast amounts of money to catch up.”
With a wave of the hand Lindemann was dismissed.
Churchill was used to signing memos that would send men to almost certain death, but it didn’t mean he enjoyed it.
Memo to Field Marshal Alan Brooke: “The heavy water plant at Vemork Norsk Hydro and any existing stockpiles of heavy water must be destroyed. AT ALL COSTS”
On 19 October 1942 four Norwegians, Jens-Anton Poulsson, Arne Kjelstrup, Knut Haugland, and Claus Helberg were parachuted into Fjarifet on the Hardangervidda wilderness. In spite of being dropped into the wrong location and dodging German patrols, they crossed the mountainous terrain to Møsvatn in two weeks. They had picked a landing zone for the gliders on a frozen lake and would set up the transponder that would guide the planes to the site.
On the morning of November 19, 1942 the forty eight men of Operation Freshman were told they would be leaving that evening. Even the months of training in demolition and arctic survival had been classified as ‘Top Secret’. The men had been told to grow long hair and shave their moustaches. Having learned some basic Norwegian expressions - they knew where they were going. They didn’t know why this mission was so important - they only knew it must be critical.
Two Handley Page Halifax bombers would each act as a tow plane for a Horsa glider. Each glider would carry eighteen commandos and all the equipment necessary to complete the mission.
Special Operations Executive (SOE) expected at least one of the gliders to make it safely to the landing site.
The seven man air crews along with the two pilots of the gliders checked over the planes and gliders. The pilots, navigators and leaders of the two commando squads got their final briefing on the target area and weather conditions, which weren’t good. Fighting headwinds and pulling the fully loaded gliders they should be over the drop zone in just over three hours.
A mixture of bravado and anticipation fueled the day for the remaining thirty four men. Some tried to get some rest, others kicked around the soccer ball. At one time or another, most wrote their ‘final letter home’. Letters to be held by the chaplain to be sent if they were dead.
The two planes left RAF Skitten, Killimster in Scotland at 18:50 hours
Only the steady drone of the four Rolls-Royce Merlin X engines powering the Halifax tow plane could be heard inside the glider. The bravado of earlier in the day had gone. Sitting in two rows facing each other, each man was contemplating the mission. Inside their vest pockets six morphine pills that could be used to ease pain, or end a life.
In the lead glider, Lieutenant Alex Charles Allen wondered about himself and the fourteen men under his command. All picked from the volunteers in the 9th Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers and 261st Field Park Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers, they, like him, had never seen action. His orders were to take no prisoners and to leave any injured men behind. He worried that he couldn’t carry out those orders.
He needn’t have worried.
Neither of the planes could get a response from the short range transponder system, called Rebbeca/Eureka. Flying at night in poor weather, the pilot of Allen’s tow plane, tried circling the area trying to trigger a response from the transponder.
Lieutenant Allen kept checking his watch. At 22:30 he did a check of the men and equipment. At 23:00 he started to worry - something was wrong. At 23:45 the glider pilot came on the intercom to say they were heading back to Scotland. A feeling of relief and regret went through the plane. All wondering on the fate of the second glider.
On the tow plane, with no response and running low on fuel the decision was made to return to Skitten. As the plane started back toward Scotland, ice started building up on the wings of the plane and the glider as well as on the tow rope, causing the tow rope to snap. Thinking they were over the North Sea, at 23:55 the pilot radioed "Glider in the sea", hoping the navy could make the rescue.
He was wrong, they were still over land.
The glider pilots fought the controls trying to get the glider out of its steep dive. Crashing the glider near the Lysefjord Fjord.
Miraculously, the glider had remained more or less intact. The equipment, loaded towards the front of the glider, had flown forward and was now where the pilots should have been.
Lieutenant Allen was sitting toward the front, his head was hanging at an odd angle. Lance Corporal (L/Cpl) Jackson, sitting near the rear of the glider, could see Allen was dead. Sapper (private) Walsh, sitting next to him and sapper’s Bonner, Blackburn and Walsh, sitting opposite seemed uninjured. The rest of the men were either dead or injured.
As his head cleared, L/Cpl Jackson was surprised to find he was the highest ranking person able to take command.
“OK let's get the injured out of their seats and to the back of the glider. I’m going outside to try and see where we are.”
Jackson scrambled over the equipment working his way out of the wreckage. As emerged from the plane he was surprised to see two men approaching the downed glider. Not knowing who they were, he brought his gun to bear on the men. They immediately put up their hands.
Thorvald Fylgjedalen and Jonas Haaheller were local farmers who had heard the glider crash. Through pointing and the little Norwegian Jackson could understand, they indicated they would help with the injured. Soon, other villagers arrived to help - all risking their lives should the Germans find them helping the British soldiers.
By the next morning, only nine of the seventeen men on the glider were still alive.
Jackson and the four other uninjured men planned on making their way to the Swedish border. The villagers soon convinced them that the plan was impossible. They would have to cross the entire width of Norway in the middle of winter - an impossible task.
While they were trying to come up with a viable alternative a German patrol arrived. The four injured men were taken to a hospital, the rest were taken to Grini Prison Camp.
Grini Prison Camp
Grini Prison Camp had been set up to house dissident Norwegians; captured Soviet prisoners were later sent to the camp.
The British prisoners were housed in a hastily converted storage shed at the rear of the compound. On their arrival on November 21th, they were stripped of their uniforms and given civilian clothes. Since then, the only time they were allowed out of the shed was to visit the privy, ten metres from the back of the shed.
On December 14th, Able Seaman Evans, who had been captured in a separate operation, had joined the group.
Hunger, cold, isolation and boredom were taking their toll on all the men. L/Cpl Jackson in particular was feeling the pressure. In spite of the fact he wasn’t an officer, as the highest rank in the group, the German guards would only talk to him.
18 January, 1943
Having trouble sleeping, at 4:00am, L/Cpl Jackson decided he needed to clear his head.
A walk to the privy was in order.
The German guard barely looked up as Jackson made his way out. The walk out had done nothing to improve his thoughts:
‘Is this how I am going to spend the next weeks, months, years - how long will this all last?’
He stopped on the way back. The northern lights were dancing across the sky, the distant mountains silhouetted against the sky, black and foreboding.
‘This could be such a magical place. Sandra would love it.’
The thought of his wife, two months pregnant when they started the mission, was like a splash of cold water in the face. Once more, her last words cut through him
“Why? Why did you have to volunteer?”
A question he left unanswered, because he didn’t know how to answer it.
‘I’m no hero. It is just something I know I have to do.’
By 8:00am the men were all up and waiting for breakfast. The breakfast was late - not an unusual occurrence.
The door suddenly flew open. SS Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) Möller stepped in waving his Luger. There had been early morning inspections before by their Wehrmacht (German Army) guards. That a SS officer was now in charge was an ominous turn of events. It could only mean one of two things torture or death.
“Raus. Raus. Alle rause!”
Two SS-Schüze (privates) were waiting outside pushing the men into a rough line with L/Cpl Jackson at the head and Able Seaman Evans at the tail.
The Untersturmführer stood inches away from L/Cpl Jackson. If everything went well he expected a promotion.
“März!” he bellowed, using his pistol to point toward the gate.
L/Cpl Jackson didn’t move.
‘OK mate, I know what you are here for. . . You may have taken our uniforms, but we are British soldiers and you are going to show us some respect.’
“März!”, the German was glaring at him. Not used to having to repeat an order.
‘OK, here we go’, L/Cpl Jackson came to attention, matching the German’s glare.
“Squad . . . Fall In!”
Jackson wasn’t sure how the men would react. As Lance Corporal, he was only marginally higher in rank than the others. He was also the youngest in the group. In the two months they had been in the camp he hadn’t given an order, he just passed on what the German guards had told him.
The men looked surprised - this was a far cry from a parade square. However, seeing L/Cpl Jackson at attention toe-to-toe with the Untersturmführer, they quickly formed a parade line on his right, tallest to shortest. Able Seaman Evans anchored the other end of the line.
The sight of an SS officer was not lost on them either.
Waiting for the men to get into a line - “Right DRESS!”
Heads snapped to the right, looking at the man beside them. Except for Jackson, the right anchor, left arms came up to set the distance between the men.
Jackson looked down the line as the men shuffled into place.
‘This is going better than I expected’
Waiting until there was no more movement:
The line stood at attention facing the shed. Untersturmführer Möller had taken a step back. If he was impressed he wasn’t showing it. He had, however, holstered his pistol and was just pointing toward the gate.
The Norwegian prisoners were coming out of their barracks to see what was going on. The guards were ordering them to get back inside - but nobody was listening.
Someone in the squad started whistling the Colonel Bogey March and the rest of the squad quickly picked it up. There were some cheers from the Norwegian prisoners. The German guards had stopped trying to get the prisoners back into the barracks and were watching as the British soldiers marched by.
As they got closer to the Norwegians, Blackburn stopped whistling and started singing the words the British soldiers had set to the tune:
“Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is rather sim'lar,
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.”
The Norwegians that could understand English were rolled over with laughter. The others, sensing the situation, started cheering and applauding. Lagerkommandant Zeidler came out of his office. Shook his head ‘Dummkopf’ and went back inside.
After leaving the camp the soldiers were led down a narrow path into the Trandum Forest:
Lance Corporal Wallis M. Jackson - age 21
Sapper Frank Bonner- age 25
Sapper John W. Walsh- age 21
Sapper James F. Blackburn- age 28
Sapper Thomas W. White- age 23.
Able Seaman Robert Paul Evans
Were executed by firing squad and buried in a shallow grave.
- The first tow plane made it safely back to Scotland
- The injured men from the first glider were taken to hospital were they were murdered
- The second tow plane released its glider moments before crashing into a mountain killing everyone onboard
- The second glider also crashed. The eleven survivors were quickly captured and executed.
- A Norwegian team was parachuted into the area in February 1943 and completed the mission.
- In August. under the Quebec Agreement, Britain, Canada and the United States agreed to pool their research.