Commando Order – Telemark

Jens-Anton Poulsson, a Rjukan native, wanted a mission—and if his commanders would not give him one, he would come up with his own. He had nearly circumnavigated the globe to come to Britain to join Kompani Linge, and since his arrival in Britain in October 1941 he had heard a lot of plans but seen no execution. His best prospect had been to lead one of the six teams in Operation Clairvoyant, his task specifically to guide nighttime bombers toward the Vemork power station by setting out lights in the Vestfjord Valley. But then that operation was abandoned and, as he wrote in his diary, “the greatest opportunity of my whole life” slipped away.

Thus in late February 1942 Poulsson traveled down from Scotland to pitch his bosses in London a new plan. Meeting with a member of Colonel Wilson’s staff, Poulsson proposed the idea of a small team that would organize resistance cells around Telemark and prepare to sabotage railway lines. He drafted the details in a report, then returned to Scotland while the plan was considered.

Weeks passed and no answer came. He was sent on a training scheme to attack an airport. Then in early April he got orders to go to STS 31, the “finishing school” at Beaulieu, a forested estate in southern England. Over the next three weeks, he received training in espionage and living an underground life. He learned how to develop a cover (“Your story will be mainly true”); shadow a target; recruit informants (“A few drinks may be helpful”); build up an underground cell; establish a covert headquarters; and thwart counterespionage efforts, including losing a tail (“Lead him through a long deserted street and then plunge into a crowd”), staying alert (“A familiar voice or face suggests an agent is being followed”), and manufacturing a good alibi. His instructors taught him how to surveil a target, to merge into the background on a street, to burgle a house, to open handcuffs, to read a room for a quick escape. He became skilled in leaving hidden messages, in microphotographs, ciphers, and invisible inks. It was all very different from the kind of warfare he’d imagined.

He studied the enemy, everything from its organizations, uniforms, and regulations to its detective measures, wireless-interception abilities, and interrogation techniques. If he was ever to find himself under questioning, his lecturers said, “Create the impression of an averagely stupid, honest citizen.” The school’s commander, Major Woolrych, told his students, “Remember: the best agents are never caught. But some agents . . . they are inclined to relax their precautions. That is the moment to beware of. Never relax. Never fool yourself by thinking the enemy are asleep. They may be watching you all the time, so watch your step.”

Poulsson graduated from STS 31 with a somewhat mixed instructor report: “Much more intelligent than he would appear at first sight as he has a very retiring disposition. He has, however, a thorough understanding of the work . . . Could make a good second-in-command.” Even though he was tall—six two—with a mop of curly dark hair, a lean face, and bright blue eyes, Poulsson was a retreating presence in a crowded room. He preferred to remain at the back, clouded in pipe smoke. “A good second-in-command” was, however, far from the truth.

Poulsson had been born in Rjukan, where it was said that one was raised in either sun or shadow. Norsk Hydro’s top brass lived in grand houses on the sunny northern hillside of the Vestfjord Valley, while the rank and file found themselves living deep below, down by the river. As Jens-Anton’s father was a chief engineer at Norsk Hydro in town, he grew up in the light. His family had a storied history—nobility, ship captains, high-ranking army officers, English knights—and owned almost ten thousand acres of land in the Vidda, including an island on Lake Møs.

Named after his father and grandfather, Jens-Anton was the sixth of seven children. He had blond curls and the habit of smoothing them down with one hand, and he was shy in company, his nose usually pressed into his sketchbook or an adventure tale. He devoured stories of war, polar expeditions, and survival in the wild, but although he was a strong reader, he didn’t much care for school. His interests lay in the outdoors. Poulsson received a shotgun for his eleventh birthday and soon after killed his first grouse. With his best friend and neighbor, Claus Helberg, he spent his early teens wandering the Vidda, skiing, fishing, hunting, and hiking. A quiet, calm authority, Poulsson was the unspoken leader of his group of friends.

He never doubted what he wanted to be in the future: a military officer. A straight arrow, he liked rules and regimens. At his school in Rjukan, there were two classes of children his age, one wild and unruly, the other well-behaved. Wanting to tame the former, the principal moved Poulsson and Helberg into the disruptive classroom, and within a few months discipline had been restored. At fifteen, Poulsson spent a summer at a military camp. He was given his own Krag-Jørgensen carbine and learned to march in step. At twenty he joined the Army’s Second Division NCO school. He was there when the Germans invaded. Within five days his battalion, which was deployed solely in a defensive position, surrendered and retreated to Sweden. “The saddest day of my life,” Poulsson wrote. They hadn’t even put up a fight.

After a long billet in Sweden, he returned to Norway and holed up outside Rjukan for several months, bristling to do something. Unable to obtain passage to Britain by boat, he skied back to neutral Sweden, and from there he journeyed around the world. In Turkey he witnessed “mud and stone huts and beaten oilcans for roofs.” In Cairo he found “flies and street vendors the biggest plagues.” On heavy seas to Bombay, he experienced “stomach aches and head aches.” In India, the camp was “populated by large amount of lice, not nice bedfellows.” Still, it was an adventure, and an eye-opening one for a young man who had never before traveled outside his homeland. During the six-month journey, he worried at times if he had what it took to be a good soldier. One night he wrote in his diary, “One never knows one’s own reactions the first time one comes under fire.”

After concluding his spy training, Poulsson returned to STS 26 and learned that his proposal to build up resistance cells around Rjukan had been accepted. At last, he would find out what kind of soldier he was. Operation Grouse was due to depart in a few weeks, Poulsson at its head. He and his team were to survive the harshest of winter conditions out in the wild, like the alpine bird for which their mission was named, while waiting for the green light for operations.

One unlucky delay followed another, and soon the long Norwegian summer days made the launch of the mission too dangerous. Parachute drops into Norway were limited to a very narrow window. For half the year, there was too much light at night for planes to cross over the countryside unseen by the Germans. For the other half, particularly during the long winter, drops needed to occur around the full moon, when the darkness was cut by just enough natural light that pilots could navigate by landmarks—and parachutists could spot a safe place to land.

With the operation now delayed until at least late September, Poulsson wondered whether he might be better off rejoining the regular army. Others in the company, like Knut Haukelid, felt the same, even though the Norwegian Army soldiers who had made it to Britain were similarly frustrated with inaction. Reassured by their Kompani Linge commanders that they would soon get their chance, they remained.

In the meantime, Poulsson finalized his small team: Arne Kjelstrup, a short, broad-chested plumber born but not raised in Rjukan, who carried a bullet in his hip from fighting the Germans during the invasion. He had accompanied Poulsson on his round-the-world journey to join Kompani Linge. Knut Haugland was a slightly built twenty-four-year-old with a thick shock of fair hair and a thin, boyish face that belied his exacting intelligence. A carpenter’s son from Rjukan, he had become a first-class radio operator. And Knut Haukelid, whom Poulsson often went out stag hunting with in the Highlands, knew what it took to survive and operate in the Vidda.

While waiting for their orders to come through, Haukelid stumbled and shot himself in the foot during a training exercise in the countryside. Doctors told the crestfallen commando he would not be “fit for duty” until at least October. Poulsson quickly decided on his replacement: Claus Helberg, his childhood friend. Now leaner, taller, and fitter than most, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Helberg had found his own way to Britain in the early spring to join Kompani Linge. He would need parachute training, Poulsson knew, but there was time for that.

Throughout August, Poulsson and the others prepared for their operation, gathering enough supplies to fill eight tubular containers, which would be dropped with them. The inventory list was two pages long, supplies weighing almost seven hundred pounds: ski gear, boots, gaiters, windbreakers, woolen undergarments, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, tools, cigarettes, candles, tents, kerosene, rucksacks, maps, frostbite ointment, a wireless set and two six-volt rechargeable batteries to power it, guns, ammo, and food. No one was more exacting in his requirements than radioman Knut Haugland. Often to the rankling of the British quartermasters, he specified the exact type of batteries and other radio equipment needed for the operation. That was his way.

On August 29, a hot, sultry day interspersed with thunderstorms, Poulsson traveled to London to meet with Colonel Wilson and Leif Tronstad at Chiltern Court to finalize their plans. The Grouse team would drop near Lake Langesjå, ten miles north-northwest of Rjukan, with Einar Skinnarland on the ground to guide the plane in. Haugland knew Skinnarland well from the local Rjukan resistance, and all of the team were well acquainted with the Skinnarland family. (Einar’s brother Torstein was a ski-jumping legend in town.) If for any reason it was not possible for Skinnarland to act as guide, they would blind drop and head to Lake Møs on their own. Wilson and Tronstad laid out their operating instructions, the focus on forming “small independent groups” to prepare for operations against future targets. These included German communications, bridges, and roads. Vemork was not mentioned. As far as Poulsson knew, this target was no longer on the table since the shutdown of Clairvoyant.

Two days later, the Grouse team left for STS 61 at Gaynes Hall, near Tempsford airport outside Cambridge. The distinguished mansion had once been the home of Oliver Cromwell, but now served as the SOE launch point for foreign agents headed overseas. The Grouse team would continue to train here, and wait.

That same day, August 31, Leif Tronstad sat in a smoke-filled room on Old Queen Street, the Tube Alloys headquarters, and raised the prospect of Grouse leading an attack on Vemork. Seated around the table with him were Colonel Robert Neville, the chief planner of Combined Operations, Wallace Akers, and Akers’s former ICI assistant, Michael Perrin, a key member now of the British atomic program.

When Lord Louis Mountbatten took over Combined Operations in October 1941, the command he inherited, charged with missions that brought together naval, air, and land forces, was in a state of shambles. And indeed, since then the operations of the forty-two-year-old royal-blooded British naval hero had, at best, a checkered record. Stories of the disastrous mid-August beachhead assault at Dieppe were only just beginning to recede from newspaper headlines.

Since Churchill’s return from America, the War Cabinet had tasked Mountbatten with investigating a possible operation targeting Vemork. Neville, his chief planner and a Royal Marine, looked like he could take on the task single-handedly.

The four men considered several potential courses of action to stop the production of heavy water at Vemork: (1) an attack from within by Norsk Hydro men, (2) infiltration by Poulsson and his team, (3) a six-man SOE attack party to blow up the pipelines (mirroring an early Clairvoyant plan), (4) a Combined Operations raid of between twenty-five and fifty men to destroy the pipelines and the plant, and (5) an RAF bombing.

Tronstad argued against an air attack: with all the hydrogen and ammonia produced in the area, the town of Rjukan might be wiped out in a devastating explosion, and it was unlikely any bombs would penetrate deep enough into the plant to destroy the high-concentration stages located in the basement. As for recruiting saboteurs who already worked at the plant—an inside job—he did not believe they could find enough trustworthy people at Vemork to pull it off. Instead, Tronstad wanted his Grouse team at the forefront of a direct attack. They knew the area, and according to the most recent intelligence, there was only limited security at the plant. With an additional six-man sabotage team to carry out the demolition, the group would have good odds of success.

Neville was unsure—German defenses might be stronger than reported. He favored British sappers (combat engineers) executing the attack, with the Grouse team acting as guides. Fifty soldiers could overcome any resistance, and with their strength in numbers, they could perform a larger attack on the plant, making certain it was removed as a threat. The trouble would be getting the men out and away from Norway. Neville recognized that this challenge made the sappers very likely a “suicide squad.”

The four men knew Mountbatten would make the final decision, but it looked like the Grouse team would indeed have a role to play in the Vemork plan.

Tronstad was desperate to be part of any operation on the ground as well. Yes, he was contributing to the war effort. He had his own intelligence network. He recruited Norwegian scientists to aid the British defense industry. He advised on potential chemical attacks. He helped steer the strategy, training, and operation of Kompani Linge. But at times he felt like he was fighting a paper war, of reports and conferences. He wanted away from this “abnormal life.” He felt that others were suffering the burdens of the conflict while he remained in London. Many of his close friends were dead; the Gestapo had evicted his family from their home and hounded his wife for information on his whereabouts. Brun and Skinnarland were risking their lives every day spying for his country. Tronstad wanted to do the same.

After celebrating his thirty-ninth birthday that March, he had quit smoking and begun exercising diligently. In June, he went through parachute training at STS 51. Each evening, he tried to get in a “little commando work” in the expansive park, Hampstead Heath, near his house.

Believing himself prepared for any mission, he pitched to Major General Gubbins, the SOE chief, his own involvement in Grouse. But Gubbins told Tronstad that his place was in London. The Allies could not risk losing his insight and leadership. Coming to an uneasy peace with staying behind, Tronstad threw himself into his Kompani Linge command.

His resolve was strengthened by the news out of his homeland. Across Norway, average citizens were actively resisting the Germans any way they could. Earlier in the year, teachers had gone on strike, refusing Nazi demands to teach the new order to their pupils. Terboven had ordered the arrest of the most recalcitrant teachers—five hundred in number—sending them to a concentration camp in the Arctic seaport of Kirkenes. The journey took sixteen days, the prisoners crowded inside the cargo hold of an old wooden steamer, with little food or water and no toilets. They were forced to work twelve hours a day on the docks, alongside Soviet prisoners of war, and were ill fed, poorly housed, and beaten on a whim. Some died. Others went mad. Still, they resisted.

“War makes the mind very hard,” Tronstad wrote in his diary, thinking of the latest news of their hardship. “Becoming a sensitive person again will not be easy.”

Throughout September, as Knut Haukelid watched the rains sweeping across Scotland and nursed his injured foot, he wished passionately that he had been able to join the Grouse team. From the team’s letters, however, it sounded like they were as stuck as he was. In one, headed “Somewhere in England,” Poulsson wrote, “If you think we have left, then you are damned wrong . . . A week’s waiting for fine weather which never comes. Otherwise it is all right here—the house full of FANYs [field army nurses].” Then, on September 9, “There is a red light today and we hope for the best. We are now ready to start.”

Haukelid awaited word that they had dropped safely. Once they connected with Tronstad by wireless and were securely in place in Telemark, the plan was for him to join them with another Linge member. If only for that damn foot . . .

At the end of September, another letter arrived. “Of course we came back. Motor trouble.” The following day brought yet another note from the Grouse team. “Another unsuccessful attempt. Fog in the North Sea. Devil take the lot! But tails up.”

Then silence. Nothing. Surely they were gone now, landed in the Vidda, without him.

General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of German military forces in occupied Norway, strode through Vemork’s grounds on October 1, impressed by its natural defenses but conscious that they were insufficient to protect the plant from British bandits. There needed to be floodlights, more guards, more patrols, barracks for his troops, potentially an antiaircraft battery. Mines must be laid in the surrounding hillsides and alongside the penstocks running down into the power station. The fences around the grounds had to be raised and topped with rings of barbed wire. The narrow bridge leading to the plant required a reinforced gate.

With a face that looked like it had been chipped from stone, Falkenhorst was a soldier of the old school. He came from a noble German family, had fought in World War I, and won several promotions before his country again found itself embroiled in war. During the advance on Poland, he shone. When Hitler needed a commander to take Norway, Falkenhorst was recommended, in part because of his brief stint in Finland in 1918.

The Führer had given him only a few hours to return with a plan. Falkenhorst, who knew little of Norway, sketched out the attack based in part on what he learned from a Baedeker travel guide found at a local bookshop. His success with the invasion had not brought another command in the continuing German advance. Instead he found himself stuck in Norway, guarding the country like a common sentry. He kept himself on decent terms with Terboven and the SS but savored none of their brutality in keeping the occupied country in check. However, there was no doubt that if given an order from Hitler, he would follow it, no matter what.

After his inspection of Vemork was complete, Falkenhorst gathered its directors, engineers, workers, and guards. He explained that only eleven days before, the power station at Glomfjord had been blown up in a British commando raid, halting the aluminum works that depended on it. Grabbing one of the guards from behind, Falkenhorst demonstrated to his audience how fast and ruthless these commandos could be in an attack. He warned that they might arrive in town as ordinary passengers on the train or bus but that they would come “equipped with automatic weapons with silencers, chloroform, hand grenades, and knuckle-dusters.” Vemork, he concluded, must be prepared.

The price of failure—or for those who aided a sabotage operation—was soon after made clear. On October 5 men in British uniform raided an iron-ore mine outside Trondheim with what German intelligence believed was clear help from the Norwegian resistance (in fact, it was an operation concocted by Tronstad and executed by Kompani Linge). The next day, the city woke up to find posters declaring a state of emergency; the Reichskommissar Terboven arrived by overnight train, accompanied by SS Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Fehlis and scores of his Gestapo. After the RAF’s bombing of their Victoria Terrasse headquarters two weeks before, the SS was eager for blood.

In the town square, Terboven gave a speech. “I have sincerely, and in good faith, had this country and its people’s best interests at heart . . . I have waited magnanimously, and for a long time, but I have now realized that I am forced to take severe measures. When we National Socialists first realize that we have to intervene, we do not follow the democratic method, hanging the little fish, while the big ones swim away. Instead we get hold of big ones, those who want to remain in the background . . . This evening, the population will be made aware of this principle.” Terboven and the SS picked out ten prominent local citizens—a lawyer, newspaper editor, theater director, bank manager, and shipbroker among them—“to atone for several sabotage acts.” Later, Fehlis’s execution squad shot them in the back of the head.

The Swedish border was effectively closed, and Fehlis led an exhaustive hunt for resistance members—indeed, for anyone holding contraband (radios, arms, or large sums of money). His troops searched tens of thousands of people, vehicles, houses, and farms. In the end, they arrested ninety-one individuals as well as every male Jew over fifteen years of age. Some of these prisoners were executed as well.

Terboven intensified efforts to prevent any future raids and to break the will of the Norwegian people. New border regulations, ration cards, and travel permits were instituted. The list of violations punishable by death now included providing shelter to enemies of the state and attempting to leave the country. Across Norway, thousands were arrested, often indiscriminately. Prison transports to Germany increased. Informants were pressed for names of those in the resistance. Torture intensified. If a known resistance member couldn’t be found, the Gestapo took his or her parents or siblings instead.

In mid-October Hitler delivered a secret order, the Kommandobefehl, to his generals across Europe, including Falkenhorst, to further punish the Allies for their commando attacks: “Henceforth all enemy troops encountered in so-called commando raids in Europe or in Africa, are to be annihilated to the last man. This is to be carried out whether they be soldiers in uniform, or demolition groups, armed or unarmed; and whether in combat or seeking to escape . . . If such men appear to be about to surrender, no quarter should be given to them—on general principle.” The order clearly violated the written and unwritten codes of war.

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