The Heroes of Telemark

The Heroes of Telemark

The Norwegian Resistance efforts to sabotage Nazi production of the atomic bomb is a tale of bravery and remarkable survival skills. Red more about the heroes of Telemark.

When Germany invaded Norway on 9th April 1940, the Norwegian defense forces were no match for Hitler’s army and the country was quickly occupied. The Norwegian royal family took refuge in London from where King Haakon directed operations by Norwegian underground to obstruct in any way they could their unwanted Nazi occupiers.

The sabotage of the heavy water plant
The most celebrated act of resistance in Norway during World War II was the sabotage of the Vemork heavy water plant at Rjukan, in Telemark, in February 1943 – successful production of heavy water in the plant could conceivably have aided German development of an atomic bomb. No visitor to Rjukan, dwarfed and darkened by mountains all round, could fail to be awed by the audacity of the saboteurs. Their heroic exploits were made into a Hollywodd film in 1965, The Heroes of Telemark.

The Heroes of Telemark
The Saboteur Trail. Photo: Visit Telemark

Related: The Norwegian Attack on Heavy Water

The operation was originally planned for a joint force of Norwegian volunteers and British commandos in two towed gliders. It ended disastrously when both gliders and one of the aircraft towing them crashed in bad weather and the survivors were tortured and executed by the Gestapo.

“Gunnerside” and “Swallow”
The next attempt was an all-Norwegian affair. “Gunnerside” was the code name for six men who had been trained in England. They parachuted onto a frozen lake where they joined up with “Swallow”, an advanced party who had been on the ground since the first failed operation, subsisting for almost four winter months on moss, lichen and a single reindeer. The men skied to the ridge above Rjukan for the perilous descent, up to their waists in snow.

The Heroes of Telemark
Kirk Douglas played a saboteur in the 1965 film “The Heroes of Telemark”

Related: Norwegian Hydro Plant On the World Heritage List

Just after midnight, the covering party took up positions while the six-man demolition team cut a chain on the gates and crept forward to the basement of the concrete building where the most vital equipment and the heavy water storage tanks were located. The team broke in, surprising a solitary Norwegian guard who agreed to lead them to vital components, laid their charges and began a rapid withdrawal.

The Heroes of Telemark
From Vemork Museum. Photo: Visit Telemark

A lively time for one of the saboteurs
They had only gone a few yards when there was, what members later variously described as “a cataclysmic explosion” and a “tiny insignificant pop”.

Of the 10 saboteurs, six reached Sweden after a 400 km (250 miles) journey on skis in indescribably difficult conditions; the other four remained in Norway. Of the Swallow party, Claus Helberg had the liveliest time. He was chased through the mountains by German soldiers, but escaped. Then he fell over a cliff and broke an arm. The next day he walked into a German patrol but had a good enough story to be taken to a hotel to await treatment.

The Heroes of Telemark
Resistance soldier Claus Helberg.

Related: The Beautiful Rural Telemark Region in Norway

The Heroes of Telemark
Most of the hotel guests (but not the injured Norwegian) were turned out of their rooms to make way for Reichskommissar Joseph Terboven (the Nazi who ruled Norway). Later he was bundled along with the remaining guests “into a bus and sent off to the Grini occupation camp”. Helberg jumped from the bus. Later, he turned up in Britain, reporting for further duties.

Visit the Vemork Power Plant

The Heroes of Telemark, written by Tor Kjolberg