Halifax bomber towing a Horsa Glider.
SF Hydro at the rail dock on Lake Tinnsjo. She would be later sunk by Norwegian operative in order to deny the Germans heavy water from the plant at Vermork.
On 19 November 1942, the British initiated their glider operations with “Freshman,” a mission to destroy the Norsk Hydro Plant at Vermork, eighty miles inland and sixty miles from Oslo. This was a heavy water plant reportedly connected with German research on the atomic bomb. Two Halifaxes, each towing a Horsa, took off from Skiffen in Scotland. Each glider carried fifteen sappers (army engineers)-all volunteers-with Lieutenant G. M. Methuen in command. Two of the pilots, Staff Sergeant M. F. C. Strathdee and Sergeant P. Doig, came from the Glider Pilot Regiment. The other glider pilots were Australian: Pilot Officer Davies and Sergeant Fraser, RAAF. Squadron Leader Wilkinson of the RAF piloted the first tow plane and was accompanied by Group Captain Cooper. A Canadian, Flight Lieutenant Parkinson, piloted the second aircraft.
The small force faced many difficulties. The worst of them was the fact that the Halifax crews had little experience in towing gliders. The Halifaxes were modified for the mission, but their performance was marginal for the job they had to accomplish. The cooling system was inadequate to keep the engines from overheating, as they worked harder than normal while towing gliders. No one was certain that the straining engines could pull the load the 400 miles across the North Sea. The flight over water almost all the way called for pinpoint navigation, so that the two combinations could cross the Norwegian shore almost on target. Plans dictated that once Methuen’s men had destroyed the “heavy water” and the plant, he then had to lead his men through snow-covered mountains to Sweden. The Norwegian underground stood ready with guides for the long and arduous trek.
At 2341 hours, monitors at Skiffen got a faint voice by radio, believed to be Parkinson’s, asking for a course to bring him back to Skiffen. The monitors worked frantically trying to plot his location. By intersection of radio beams, they located Parkinson over the North Sea. Fourteen minutes later, monitors heard a voice grimly stating: “Glider released in sea.” But could it be? A quick calculation on a signal received from Wilkinson showed him to be above the mountains in southern Norway. The mission was in trouble-that much was certain.
The full story did not become known until some years after the war.
Trouble plagued the mission from the start. Weather was thick, although meteorologists promised a clear sky and a moon over the target. Before takeoff, one tug’s wingtip light and both towrope telephones failed. Because the use of radio was frowned upon, a simple code of light signals had to be improvised. By the time they had accommodated to these faults, darkness had fallen. What was worse, a night take-off with full load had not been practiced before. Given the “option to postpone the operation until the next day,” the pilots chose to take off at night and get on with the job. By 1750 hours, Wilkinson’s combination had taken wing into a darkening sky; twenty minutes later, the second followed. Wilkinson chose to fly high, picking his way through broken cloud and reaching Norway at 10,000 feet altitude. Then, just as he needed his Rebecca radio beam system to tie into the Norwegian agents’ Eureka system to direct the airplane to the target, he found the Rebecca did not work. Cooper, doing the navigation, could only rely on maps, but a heavy layer of snow disguised all landmarks.
Wilkinson passed over what might have been the release point. Lacking clear identification, however, he made another circle to find the target. The Norwegian agents in the landing zone had heard the aircraft flying almost directly over them on its first attempt, but they could make no contact since the Rebecca radio beam had failed. By then, he had been flying for five and a half hours and still had 400 miles to go to get back to Skiffen. He flew into thick cloud about 40 miles northwest of Rjukan and could not climb out of it. By this time, there was barely sufficient petrol to get the tug and glider home. Ice began forming on the aircraft and, worse still, on the tow rope. Both tug and glider lost height rapidly. They sank into unbroken cloud and, somewhere in the void above Stavanger, the rope parted. Staff Sergeant Strathee started a descent in zero visibility. Dense cloud turned into swirling snow. It was at this point that the wireless operator had sent out his signal. The aircraft, unable to do any more, just succeeded in returning before its fuel ran out. The glider crash-landed at Fylesdalen, on top of the snow-covered mountains overlooking Lysefjord, killing Methuen, Strathee, Doig and five others and injuring four more severely.
Meanwhile, Parkinson flew low above the sea, trying to keep beneath the clouds until just short of the Norwegian coast. He hoped to encounter the promised clear weather there. Parkinson crossed the coast near Egersund and was heading towards Rjukan when his plane hit a mountain beyond Helleland. Somehow, the tow rope snapped as the plane crashed, but the glider, with little chance for maneuver left, made a heavy landing close by, killing three. German personnel soon captured all survivors. The Gestapo then took over. They poisoned the four injured in the first glider crash while they were in a hospital recovering. On Hitler’s standing orders, the Gestapo then shot the nineteen uninjured men as saboteurs.
Along with this hideous war crime a map was found amongst the wreckage plotting Vermork as the target for the raid, the Germans increased security of the plant immediately.
With the failure of the operation the men of the Grouse team now had to retreat into their mountain hideaway, a small ski cabin high on the plateau north of the plant and exist on meagre rations, even resorting to eating lichen, until further on into the winter a reindeer was spotted and butchered.
On the evening of the 16 February 1943 a further six men were dropped on the plateau to supplement the Grouse team, known as Operation Gunnerside, these men were also Norwegian nationals who had been trained by SOE and the Commandos. Bringing with them much needed supplies and sabotage equipment the night of 27/28 February was chosen for the attack. Due to the discovery of the documents amongst the Freshman raid German security had been substantially raised, especially the bridge linking to the plant. It was decided that the team would descend into the valley and climb the opposite side then follow a rail line into the plant. Thanks to intelligence gleaned from workers inside the plant the men were able to gain access to the plant without alerting the German guards. However a caretaker was disturbed but he was happy to let the men continue their sabotage mission. Charges were placed and a British sub-machine gun was purposely left behind to show that it had been a Commando raid and therefore reduce local reprisals.
The men escaped without discovery and the machinery and stocks of heavy water were destroyed. Four of the raiding party decided to stay in the area to monitor the German response and act accordingly whilst two men moved to Oslo to continue work with the Norwegian underground, whilst the rest headed east to neutral Sweden.
Within two months the plant had been restored to full capability and this was relayed to SOE back in Britain. The chance of another raids success was minimal now that the Germans had increased the protection of the plant, but by early 1943 the USAAF had started to arrive in numbers in Britain, so a daylight raid, carried out by over 140 bombers was flown in November when the weather permitted a reasonable chance of target acquisition. However many of the bombs fell without result and the machinery itself was easily protected by the heavy concrete construction of the plant. However this caused the Germans to fear further raids and decided to transfer what stocks of heavy water they had produced and the machinery to a safer location in Germany. In order to transfer the remaining heavy water to the coast for transport to Germany it first had to travel a short distance from the plant to Mael. Here it would be loaded on to the steam ferry SF Hydro. Four men of the Norwegian resistance decided to sabotage the vessel whilst it was over the deepest part of lake Tinnsjo and deny the Germans the heavy water. The Germans decided to move the stock on a Sunday, lucky for the saboteurs as this would reduce any Norwegians travelling on the Hydro too.
The men snuck aboard the ferry on the evening of Saturday 19 February 1944 and proceeded to place an explosive charge in the bows of the ship. With the timers set the men withdrew.
The ferry left the station on time and by 10.30 am it was over the required area and the explosives blew as hoped. The ship started to list almost immediately, with those on deck managing to clamber aboard lifeboats or stumble over the side, however eighteen people were killed, including three Norwegian passengers, seven crew and eight German guards. The rest were picked up by locals using nearby boats to drag them out of the freezing water. The Hydro itself sank to below 400 metres, well beyond salvageable depth. The German Atomic programme, although never advanced, had taken a massive blow and would never recover.
Elsewhere in Norway, particularly in the south and especially in and around Oslo, there quickly formed a strong resistance movement, the men and women of the country having a strong patriotic streak and being disappointed by how quickly their country had fallen to the Nazi oppressor joined in droves. With the leaders of what became known as ‘Milorg’ making contact with the government in exile, based in London, the resistance grew and grew.
At first underground papers were the only course of action these groups could take, counteracting the strong bias of the local press and the propaganda that abound through all sources of media. Nearly 300 such papers were founded but would only appear at random intervals as the men and women of the publications played a cat-and-mouse game with the Gestapo and their Norwegian counterparts.
To assist the Norwegian underground the SOE set up what would become known as the Shetland Bus. This was a group of Norwegian trawlers that were tasked with infiltrating and bringing back agents from occupied Norway. Using fishing trawlers they were ideally camouflaged and only lightly armed. They still ran the risk of having to cross the North sea at night, in winter under the constant threat of discovery, however they were extremely successful right up to the end of the war.
Armed resistance and sabotage in Norway itself posed other problems, with any act of sabotage usually met with harsh reprisals by the occupies. However, members of the Norwegian Independent Company No. 1 were highly successful, notably Max Manus, a veteran who had fought in the Finnish campaign of 1939–40. Having seen his country capitulate to the Germans in 1940 he actively worked in underground propaganda. He was then caught and injured trying to escape custody. He then dramatically escaped the hospital he was being treated in and arrived in Scotland for Commando training following an epic journey through Sweden, Soviet Russia, Africa and eventually to Canada.
Following training he was dropped into Norway along with a friend Gregors Gram. They were tasked with attacking shipping in Oslo harbour using Limpet mines, a small explosive charge, attached below the waterline of a ship by magnets.
The first raid was carried out on the evening of 28 April 1943, where they successfully sunk two transports and damaged a third.
In January the following year the decision was made to attack the large troop carrier Donau. This vessel had previously been used to transport Norwegian Jews to Germany where they were then sent onto concentration camps. This time canoes could not be used to approach the ship at night as security was high by the wharf. However, with great audacity Manus and his companion, Roy Nielson, entered the docks dressed as workmen. Whilst a colleague distracted the gate guards the two men were only given a cursory security check and proceeded to a small area beneath a lift where an insider had left a dinghy. The men took off their boiler suits to reveal full British uniform, so if they were captured reprisals would be reduced to the local populace. The explosives were placed and the men withdrew without any attention. At ten o’clock that evening the charges blew, and although the captain of the Donau tried to beach her, she was lost.