At 3:00 A.M. on November 16, 1943, when the duty sergeant roused pilot Owen Roane from his bed, Station 139, the massive U.S. airbase by the North Sea coast, was already alive with the preparations for an impending mission. Orders from the Eighth Air Force command, over a hundred miles to the southwest, had come into the base by Teletype, identifying the target, the weather prospects, the force needed, and the plan of attack. The operations officer, Major John “Jack” Kidd, and his staff had been working since the field order arrived. They determined bomb tonnages, fuel loads, routes, zero hour for launch, and which groups and squadrons would participate in the assault.
While First Lieutenant Roane shaved his boyish, bright-eyed face — the better to improve the fit of his oxygen mask — armament crews were at the bomb dump, loading their trailers with explosives weighing a thousand pounds each. At the same time, fuel tankers rumbled across the tarmac to fill a row of B-17 bombers, while mechanics checked out the engines and bomb bays. At the mess hall, the cooks and kitchen staff were preparing the morning’s pancakes, powdered eggs, and oatmeal. And at the Group Operations buildings, maps and photographs of the target were being assembled for the crews.
Dressed for the minus-thirty-degree temperatures at high altitude (wool underwear, two pairs of wool socks, a wool sweater, a brown leather jacket lined with sheep’s wool, and heavy trousers), Roane crossed the cold, fog-ridden airfield and gathered with the other pilots and aircrews in the huge Nissen hut used for briefings. A curtain covered the map showing their route and target. Once the doors were closed, Major Kidd, the operations officer, stood up in front of them, and a duty clerk pulled aside the curtain. They were headed to Norway, to a place called Rjukan.
Given the distance and the short November day, they would need to depart soon after 6:00 a.m. The target was Vemork, a power station and hydrogen plant, where the Germans made some “special explosive.” To limit civilian casualties, they would hit the site during the lunch hour. Major Kidd did not expect much enemy resistance, either from antiaircraft batteries or from fighter planes, and called the attack nothing more than a “milk run.” It was never said, but Roane was left with the decided impression that this Vemork place was a priority target.
Although Roane had just celebrated his twenty-second birthday, he was something of an “old-timer” — only two missions away from joining the “Lucky Bastards Club.” Membership was earned by beating the odds and making it through a twenty-five-mission tour alive. Nicknamed the Cowboy, with the hat to match, Roane was from Valley View, Texas, population 640, a town north of Dallas and little more than a dirt strip bordered by a few buildings. Roane was one of nine children (eight of them boys). His family owned a small farm, growing cotton, wheat, and corn, and his father also herded cattle on a nearby ranch. Owen loved to help when he escaped from school each day. On graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps, his aim being to become a mechanic. A few plane rides later, he was hooked and enrolled in flight school. Soon he was assigned to fly the B-17. The four-engine, long-range bomber had an arsenal of machine guns and could take punch after punch and still deliver its bomb load — over ninety-six hundred pounds. Crewed by ten men, the B-17 was known as the Flying Fortress and was a giant in the sky.
In June 1943, after ten months of flight training, Roane arrived in Britain, where he was assigned to the One Hundredth Bombardment Group. Over the coming months, they would earn their own sobriquet: the Bloody Hundredth. They hit submarine bases, airfields, and factories across occupied Europe and far into Germany. Over that time, Roane saw B-17s that were flying next to him end their war, either shredded by enemy fighters, exploding midair, barreling down into the sea, banking sharply into the ground, or simply falling helplessly from the sky, their engines dead, their pilot and crew parachuting out over enemy territory.
The average lifespan in the Eighth Air Force was eleven missions; his fellow crewmen, many of them friends, were killed or went missing at a sobering rate. With equal measures of luck and skill, Roane always made it back. On one mission to Stuttgart, a fire raging across his wing and hounded by Messerschmitt fighters, Roane sent his plane into a spinning nosedive at three hundred miles per hour to extinguish the flames and throw off the enemy. Over Bremen and Schweinfurt, he waded through storms of flak, hell-bent on dropping his bombs on the target. In August 1943, after a run against a Messerschmitt factory, he was forced to land his plane, riddled with 212 bullet and flak holes, in North Africa. While there, he adopted a twenty-five-pound black donkey he named Mo, short for Mohammed. Mo came back to Britain with him, spending the flight hooked up to an oxygen mask in the radio room, covered with a sheepskin jacket. Approaching base, Roane messaged the control tower: “I’m coming in with a frozen ass.”
At 5:00 a.m. Roane made his way onto the hardstand to check out his plane. Circling it, he inspected everything from the tires and the fuel vents to the propellers and wing-deicing boots. The ground-crew chief advised that the plane had been loaded with six-thousand-pound bombs and an overload of high-octane gas, bringing its total weight to sixty-five thousand pounds (twelve thousand pounds over its rated maximum). Takeoff in the dark through a low cloud ceiling would be a neat trick.
“Ready to go,” Roane told the ground chief, then he headed to the food wagon, where he milled around with his men and had some tea, then a last cigarette.
They were joined by Major John Bennett, their new squadron commander. The hard-nosed thirty-six-year-old was coming along on the mission aboard Roane’s plane, the Bigassbird II.
After checking the safety straps on each other’s Mae West life preservers and parachutes, the ten-member crew entered the plane through the rear fuselage and took their positions. Two of the crew, the flight engineer and the radio operator, were a little more tense than usual, it being their twenty-fifth mission — a sortie infamous for bringing bad luck. Roane ran through his checklist again, and on seeing a green flare fire into the morning sky, started the engines. Their roar coursed throughout the plane, turning any conversation not conducted via the interphone into a shouting match. The ground crew removed the wheel chocks, and Roane taxied the plane onto the runway. All about him, lights flashed, brakes whined, and the air reverberated with the growl of engines.
A minute behind schedule, Bigassbird II was in position for takeoff. Roane released the brakes and headed down the runway. Three thousand feet down the pavement, the throttles at maximum power, Roane lifted the plane into the dark sky at 120 miles per hour and retracted the wheels.
Almost immediately the plane was shrouded in clouds. Departures were spaced out every thirty seconds, but if the plane ahead had engine trouble or if its pilot misdirected his course, the plane behind could find itself flying straight into it, and the crew wouldn’t know a thing about it until it was too late.
At three thousand feet, they emerged from the clouds. A half-moon hung overhead. To assemble with the twenty other B-17s in his group, Roane made a wide left-hand circle around Station 139. He kept his eyes peeled on the swirling beehive of planes in the sky, both to prevent a midair collision with the other planes stacked at various altitudes and also to spot the colored flares corresponding to his own formation.
Three hundred and eighty-eight B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators from three divisions of the Eighth Air Force were headed to Norway that morning. Roughly half of them were set on Vemork; the others were assigned to destroy an airfield just north of Oslo and mining operations in Knaben.
After some time spent circling, Roane rendezvoused with the other planes in the One Hundredth. Since Bennett was onboard, Bigassbird II was the lead in the group. There was a fair bit of mayhem, pilots barking into their radios as B-17s and B-24s scrambled to find their places in the moonlight. Once they were all together, Roane told his crew to “go on oxygen” and climbed to an altitude of fourteen thousand feet for the journey across the North Sea. The armada expected limited fighters, and so did not assemble in combat wings but rather hung together in groups of about twenty planes.
They crossed the North Sea on a northeastern course at a steady cruising speed of 150 miles per hour. The sun rose over the horizon to their right, illuminating a mesmerizing view: drifts of feathered clouds hanging below them, pure blue skies above, and hundreds of bombers surrounding them. The cockpit heater kept Roane and Bennett toasty warm.
When they neared the coast, Roane and his crew donned their flak jackets and steel helmets. They would have to lower to twelve thousand feet to drop their bombs, and given that Vemork was three thousand feet above sea level, the difference would put them at a prime distance for antiaircraft fire.
When they sighted Norway, Roane checked his watch and found that they were twenty-two minutes ahead of schedule. The first bombs were not supposed to be dropped until 11:45, when the plant’s workers would be eating lunch in the basement-level canteens. They had a choice: drop the bombs early and risk more civilian casualties, or make a 360-degree turn at the coast to delay the run, which would give the Germans time to muster a defense.
“Make a large circle over the North Sea,” Bennett decided.
When the bombers came around again, the Germans were ready for them. Two coastal patrol boats fitted with antiaircraft guns fired away. One B-17 went down. The rest of the bombers continued through the flak, most of it meager and inaccurate. Then German fighter planes scrambled into the sky, Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. They attacked sporadically but were too few in number and the Flying Fortresses too well armed with machine guns for them to press the attack home. A B-17 in another group was hit. Its crew parachuted out, then the unpiloted plane performed a series of sharp turns, whipstalls, and corkscrews before slamming into the sea. Still, there was nothing the enemy could do to stop the force of bombers.
Having survived missions over Germany where hundreds of fighters attacked for hours on end and where the Eighth Air Force lost sixty bombers in a single day, Roane was aware that this journey to Norway remained very much a milk run. As they crossed the coastline, the temperature in the cockpit registering minus-forty-five degrees, he peered down on a monotonous landscape of snowbound mountains, steep canyons, and frozen lakes. The view felt ominous. The navigator, Captain Joseph “Bubbles” Payne, had few landmarks — cities, rail lines, or roads — to guide him to the target. Nonetheless, he charted a true course to Vemork.
The Ninety-Fifth Bomb Group was ahead of the One Hundredth on the approach. Roane had to descend slightly to get out of their contrails, and Bigassbird II rocked and shuddered in the prop wash. Minutes later, the bomb bay doors opened. At twelve thousand feet, free of the turbulence at last, the crew readied to drop their load. Some low clouds hung in the sky ahead, but they would not interfere with an accurate run. In total, 176 Flying Fortresses and Liberators soared on toward Vemork.
On a farm west of Vemork, Einar Skinnarland had just finished transmitting a message to London by wireless. While he waited in the barn for a return message to come through, he heard a distant rumble. Stepping outside, he found Haukelid staring up into the sky. Far above, an endless parade of bombers was heading east, and neither German fighters nor antiaircraft guns harried their course. The two men could only guess at their target. There was a good chance it was the power station and hydrogen plant at Vemork. The bombers made for an awesome sight.
At 11:33 a.m., air-raid sirens blared throughout Vemork. Transport manager Kjell Nielsen ran down the steps of the hydrogen plant to the basement shelter. Only months before, he had been working at Herøya, in magnesium production, when American bombers had attacked. At that time, Nielsen had been supplying intelligence and photographs of the industrial site to the resistance — and, by extension, the Norwegian high command.
Down in the shelter, the chief engineer, Fredriksen, received a phone call from the operator at Våer, the hamlet across the bridge. She reported twenty aircraft above the valley, then another fifty, then cried out, “There are even more planes!” Fredriksen had no doubt as to their purpose.
The panicked families of the workers and engineers who lived on the Vemork side of Vestfjord Valley were shepherded into the air-raid shelter near their homes. The concrete structure, built above ground, was to be used as a garage when the war was over. Considering the limited protection it provided its occupants, it would have been better had this already been the case.
Down in Rjukan, citizen volunteers directed the townspeople into a range of structures prepared for such an assault. At the local school, teachers hurried some sixty pupils into a tubular concrete shelter, which had a layer of sand on the floor. Four Germans who were living on the first floor of the school building joined them. They all heard the thunder of airplanes overhead. Fearing what was to come, one of the teachers ventured outside. Seeing the formation of bombers directly overhead, he shouted, “We’re in the center of the circle! Run to your homes!” The schoolchildren dashed from the shelter and scattered in all directions.
The Ninety-Fifth, the lead group in the attack, swept directly over Vemork and held on to its bombs. Roane figured their crews could not see the plant through the bank of low clouds hanging over the target area. No doubt they would come around for a second pass. He wanted Bigassbird II to win bragging rights for the One Hundredth by being the first to hit the target. Whether they did or not would be down to the skills of his bombardier, Captain Robert Peel, who was now in charge of the plane’s flight controls.
At 11:43 Peel spotted the plant through a slight break in the cloud cover. The Germans had started to generate smoke screens over the valley, but they were not enough to obscure the target. “Bombs away,” Peel called, releasing his ordnance. With the sudden loss of weight, Bigassbird II bucked upward in the sky. Peel watched his four thousand-pound “eggs” strike the target. The concussion rocked the plane as it continued on a straight course for ten seconds, giving the Fortresses behind time to release their loads along the line.
Squadron after squadron followed. Over the next twenty minutes, the planes, with names like Hang the Expense, Raunchy Wolf, and Slow Joe, poured destruction down onto the plant. Those who had missed their drops on the first pass circled back to try again through a haze of contrails and billowing smoke. There was occasional gunfire from the ground. It made little more impression than the few fighter planes that continued to nip at the edges of the armada.
In total, 711 explosions ripped across Vemork and the surrounding area. Some bombs fell in the valley and woods, causing no harm. Others struck the penstocks, severing nine pipelines and spewing tons of water down the hillside. The suspension bridge was torn in half and hung over the southern cliffside. Three direct hits on the power station ripped away part of its roof, destroying two of the generators and damaging others. Bombs sheared off the top two floors on the western corner of the hydrogen plant. Several houses at Vemork and Våer were leveled, and the homes not eviscerated by explosion were destroyed by flying stones and splinters and by the fires that followed. Flames — red, green, and orange — rose throughout the area.
Just as the main body of bombers banked away from the hydrogen plant, a pack of twenty-nine B-24 Liberators flew down the Vestfjord Valley. The pack had been assigned to the bomb run outside Oslo, but they found their target covered in clouds and so had come the hundred miles to Vemork. At 12:03 p.m., these B-24s mistook the nitrate plant in Rjukan for the target and released their five-hundred-pound bombs. Most of the cluster hit the plant, bringing down a pair of brick towers and demolishing a number of small buildings. Some of them struck the town’s populated center, a few hundred yards away.
Roane and the others directed their bombers back toward the Norwegian coast at twelve thousand feet, Roane one run closer to joining the Lucky Bastards Club. As they made their way safely home, the residents and workers of Vemork and Rjukan were emerging from hiding to reckon with what they had left behind.
“My God, what’s happened to my family?” One engineer, covered in concrete dust, gave voice to everyone’s fears as he stepped toward the door of the hydrogen-plant shelter. Nielsen tried to calm the man next to him, who was frantic about whether his wife and children had reached the air-raid shelter in time.
A former member of the Norwegian Red Cross, Nielsen had cared for wounded soldiers during the Finnish war against Russia. Now he headed straight to the shelter to see if anybody there needed his help. The air-raid sirens were still wailing, and all of Vemork was choked with smoke. People ran through the rubble putting out fires and carrying the wounded out of buildings on the verge of collapse. Some workers managed to shut down the flow of water from the penstocks and also closed off the valves to the severed hydrogen and oxygen pipes that ran across the valley. Screams and moans sounded from every direction.
There were no survivors at the Vemork air-raid shelter. There was nobody in need of Nielsen’s help. Where it had stood there were two craters, the result of two direct hits from the bombers. The concrete walls and roof had been pulverized, and the sixteen people who had huddled inside were dead: eleven women, two children, three men. Their bodies were all but irrecoverable: an arm, a head devoid of its features, a dismembered torso. Flesh and bone littered the broken concrete and twisted steel bars in gruesome chunks. Fathers, husbands, and friends knelt down in the open holes, their cries joining together into a macabre song of grief.
In Rjukan, four miles away, plumes of heavy dark smoke filled the sky. The nitrate plant and a number of houses were in ruins. As fate would have it, the teachers and students who ran from the bunker during the attack had saved themselves. The shelter had been leveled, just like the one at Vemork. When the smoldering fires had been put out and the wounded treated, the dead were counted: in total, twenty-one Norwegians had lost their lives.
SS officer Muggenthaler took cover in Rjukan during the bombing, but still received lacerations to his face from flying debris. In his first dispatches to Oslo and Berlin, he painted a stark portrait of the devastation he had witnessed in the attack and its aftermath. At Vemork, there was much that needed urgent repair: the pipelines, the suspension bridge, and the generators, as well as the equipment and the hydrogen plant. But after he and others carefully surveyed the site, investigations revealed that the “SH-200 high-concentration plant” was undamaged. Only a brief period of time and a limited amount of material would be needed to get things running again. In summary, the bombing run was a lot of storm and fury for what was, in effect, a limited blow to the German war machine.