Commando Order – Telemark

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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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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