Friday, Jul 12, 2024

Sabotaging Hitler’s A-Bomb

In the early hours of April 9, 1940, the German cruiser Admiral Hipper and the four destroyers at its stern cut into the Norwegian fjord at 25 knots. They advanced to the three forts that guarded the capital. The crew were at their battle stations.

When ordered to identify themselves, the captain said that they were the HMS Revenge with orders from the British government to proceed to Trondheim without delay. As the Norwegian patrol pointed the spotlight across the water, it was blinded by the searchlights from the cruiser, which suddenly increased its speed and blew smoke to obscure the view of the Norwegian patrol.

Signals and warning rockets surged and lit up the night sky to alert the Norwegian forts. Orders were given to fire at the invading ships. The inexperienced Norwegian soldiers were too slow to respond. By the time they loaded the ammunition, the Admiral Hipper had already steamed past the first fort. The bugler on the second fort had fallen asleep and failed to sound the alarm. The guards were late to the guns, and when they opened fire, they could not see the target because the searchlights had malfunctioned.

The Admiral Hipper anchored in Trondheim’s harbor at 4:25 a.m. Two infantry companies from the warships were ferried to the shore and spread out into the streets to commence the German invasion of Norway.

Word of the invasion had spread among the students and teachers of the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH), which was just a 20-minute walk from the harbor. The news reached , who rushed to the institute hoping to get more information. From the little information the institute received, several areas in Norway were under siege. Cities including Stavanger, Kristiansand, Narvik and Bergen had already fallen under the hands of the Nazis.

The only thing that had given them hope was the rumor that Oslo was still holding out. Tronstad told everyone in the assembly that he was a reserve officer of the Army Ordnance Corps and had standing orders to head to Oslo if war broke out. He asked others who had military experience to do the same before saying his goodbyes.

Tronstad acknowledged that Norway had limited military and had no chance against the Germans. With a sleeping government, the small country was ill-prepared to mount a defense strategy to ward off the invasion. As a neutral state, Norway was a logical target. Invading Norway was a strategic move because of the country’s long coastline, which could be used as a naval base to control the North Sea. It was just a matter of time before either side acted to bring the small country within their sphere of influence.

As Tronstad moved his family to Oppdal, he learned that Oslo was not as protected as he thought the capital would be. It had already been overrun by German soldiers. King Haakon VII had already fled the city and so did the Norwegian government with him. Germany had gained control of Oslo with little to no resistance from its leaders. Vidkun Quisling of the fascist Nasjonal Samling Party had assumed governmental powers.

A day after the invasion, Curt Brauer, the German minister to Norway, had stated his demands to King Haakon, who, in turn, brought the demands to the attention of Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold. Since King Haakon was a constitutional monarch, it was in his power to decide on the matter, but he made it known that he could not accept Quisling as the new head of government nor would he surrender to the Nazis. He threatened to abdicate if the government would make peace with the Germans.

In a show of true grit and resistance, the government sided with King Haakon. The message was broadcast to the Norwegians over the radio and emboldened Norwegians to fight until the enemies were thrown out of Norway’s shores. Pockets of resistance formed across the country. With British and French reinforcements, the Norwegians stood their ground and put their greatest efforts into two strategic areas: the naval stronghold Narvik and two long valleys between Trondheim and Oslo. They figured that if they could successfully protect these two places, they would still control the heart of Norway.

Tronstad was given the unenviable task of preventing German soldiers from crossing the defensive Norwegian line. He had formed a network of men who were tasked to spy on enemy activity and plow trenches in the snow to prevent German planes from landing.

Over the course of three weeks, the Norwegians fought ferociously, but they were outgunned and outmaneuvered by their German counterparts. The Norwegian troops were steadily pushed back toward Trondheim. When it became apparent that the battle was lost, the British started evacuating. King Haakon and the government were quick to flee and handed Norway to the Nazis.


On November 11, 1940, seven months after the invasion of Norway, Leif Tronstad visited Vemork at the request of his friend, Jomar Brun. Brun needed help in improving the hydrogen plant. But more than that, he wanted to know Tronstad’s insight into the sudden interest of the Germans in heavy water. The deliveries of heavy water to Berlin were increasing at a rapid pace, enough for Brun to suspect that something was up. The German general who placed an order for the heavy water was quiet about its intended use.

The upgrades and improvements suggested by Tronstad would enable the Vemork plant to supply five times more than its previous production level. It meant supplying the Germans with 1.5 kilograms of heavy water per day. While Tronstad and Brun were pleased with the improvements, they were curious what heavy water is being used for. Tronstad initially dismissed the idea that the Germans were using it for military purposes. He didn’t see how the Germans would use such substance to develop poison gas, which was the Germans’ preferred weapon of mass destruction. Despite not knowing the reason, Tronstad decided that if the Nazis were highly interested in the substance, it was worth looking into.

For Brun’s part, he agreed to keep doing his job and make further improvements to raise the level of production. It was the only way he would be informed about new developments regarding heavy water as they related to German’s secret plans. Brun agreed to alert Tronstad if something significant came up.

While Tronstad waited for updates from Brun, he resumed his teaching and further studies at NTH. More than that, though, he focused his energy on the underground resistance. He worked closely with several groups of university students who were keen on toppling the German rule in Norway. The students were making moves in a non-violent manner. Some of them published newspapers while others had connections with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). With the help of the foreign intelligence agency, the students, under the codename Skylark B, sent coded wireless radio transmission to London informing the British about the German troop movements and naval activity.

The Mailman

The students referred to Tronstad as “The Mailman.” With his industrial connections, Tronstad was able to unearth information on how Norwegian firms were helping the Germans. It turned out that Norsk Hydro was just one of the firms that had connections to the Germans. The resistance continued their efforts, but they feared that the Germans were closing in on them.

In March 1941, German officials had once again visited the Vemork and placed an order for heavy water, but they wanted the substance in its nine-stage cascade before the high-concentration stage. They upped their order to 1,500 kilograms of heavy water per year. Furthermore, the German officials demanded that the plant be kept in perfect running condition and they personally held Brun responsible for such a task.

Meanwhile, the SIS wanted more information about Vemork’s heavy water. Tronstad collected the information and the Skylark B transmitted them to London, but the Germans were able to track down Skylark B and got hold of the transmission. They apprehended and tortured a student. The student’s confession led to more arrests. It jeopardized the entire operation of Skylark B.

While the Germans sought out other members of Skylark B, Brun came to the city to inform Tronstad that the Germans wanted to increase the production of heavy water to 5,000 kilograms per year, a substantial increase that would require massive improvements in the plant. Tronstad was convinced that the British had to be informed right away. With Skylark B temporarily out of commission, Tronstad decided to go the traditional route by hiring a courier who planned to escape to Scotland by boat. Tronstad gave the courier the precise details about Vemork and its production capacity, which the courier wrote down on a cigarette paper.

Two weeks later, the Gestapo had practically broken through Trondheim’s resistance. Students who wanted to secure Skylark B’s radio equipment were arrested. Worse, the courier was apprehended even before he could leave Trondheim. The upside was that he was able to swallow the evidence before he was hauled away.

One arrested student feared that he might divulge information under duress, so he passed a message to a friend through the barred windows of the prison. It said that “the Mailman” must disappear fast.

Tronstad received the message and he, his wife, Bassa, and their children immediately boarded the train headed for Oslo. Tronstad feared that the Gestapo might be waiting for him at the platform. It was only when the train started to move that Tronstad felt he and his family were safe for the time being.

When they arrived in Oslo, they took another train to Sanvika, where Bassa and children would stay with Tronstad’s mother. It was with a heavy heart that he had to leave his family, but he felt that he had no choice. He told them that he was headed for Notodden, but he actually headed back to Oslo, where he collected fake identity papers.

Before he got to work, he wrote a letter to Bassa telling her that the preferential treatment given to professors and staff who were allied to the Germans made his stay in the university numbered. He made it appear that he had already moved to Sweden. The letter was just a ruse to provide his wife with cover in the event that the Gestapo apprehended and interrogated her.

London Alliance

Tronstad set foot in London a month after he left Norway. The SIS had arranged for his board and lodging. As he walked the streets of London, the city was already a war zone from Hitler’s “Blitz,” the constant daily bombing that ripped apart buildings and houses. The attacks did not discriminate. They killed anyone in the way—men, women, children. Those who survived were left wounded and without a place to stay.

The devastation was heartbreaking for Tronstad. He had read about the destruction of the city, but seeing it was much worse than he had imagined.

Tronstad met with Commander Welsh, head of the Norwegian branch of SIS as well as the man in charge of Skylark B. Welsh had organized Tronstad’s trip to London. He learned about the Nazi atomic program through his informant in Germany. He also had the inside track on Britain’s efforts to develop an atom bomb.

Tronstad had been upfront with Welsh from the start and he divulged the developments in Vemork. Although no concrete steps were set, Tronstad found himself getting more involved in the resistance. The first six weeks in London were spent meeting with the members of the British scientific community. Tronstad had reunited with old colleagues and forged new connections. The meetings and discussions dispelled all the doubts they had about Germany’s atomic research program. It was evident that Germany was using heavy water to build a bomb. The only thing they had to figure out was how close Germany was to actually building one.

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Thirteen days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States found itself gearing up for war. Norwegian soldier Knut Haukelid, along with the other recruits, boarded a train to Scotland as he waited for directives. Haukelid was born in Brooklyn, New York to Norwegian parents who immigrated to the United States. When the Germans took over Norway, he became part of the underground resistance.

Haukelid received word of his mother’s and wife’s arrest, which prompted his return to Oslo. However, the crackdown on underground resistance groups was in full swing, which made it impossible to continue resistance activity. The only option was to go to Britain. His handler, Eric Welsh, wanted him to return to Norway as a spy, but Haukelid had other things in his mind. He wanted military training so that he would be better equipped to fight in the actual war. To him, it was the only way to free Norway from the tight grip of the Nazis.

Haukelid was sent to the Norwegian Independent Company No. 1, a small band of soldiers that would be sent behind enemy lines. Although the specifics of their mission were not immediately made clear, Haukelid was all in. The training was intense and went beyond the standard military training. The men were trained to shoot at targets without the use of sights, using only their instincts and knowledge of the surroundings. They practiced close-quarter firing and close combat fighting.

Their training was not only about physical conditioning, but also about learning to blow up railroad cars and demolish buildings and infrastructures. They learned to craft different incendiary devices and charges. They could decode messages in Morse and could follow a route by memory alone. They learned to move undetected and they acquired the skill to take down enemies without a weapon.

The commanders were always observing them, even in pubs and public places. That way, they knew who drank too much, talked too much, or conducted himself in an unacceptable manner. The training was merciless and the recruits were constantly being challenged and tested in staged raids that took hours to complete. Among the recruits, Haukelid stood out. His superiors knew he would do well in special missions.

Before the training ended, Haukelid discovered that the small Norwegian company he was assigned to was part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British organization founded in 1940 to “set Europe ablaze” with its commando missions against Nazi Germany. The SOE was also known as “the ministry of ungentlemanly warfare.” With any luck, Haukelid would be using his newfound skills to wreak ungentlemanly havoc on the Germans in the near future.

British Retreat

While Haukelid continued his training, the British launched two major air, land, and sea operations, one in Lofoten Islands in northern Norway and another against a pair of coastal towns in Western Norway. The combined operations were meant to weaken the German hold on the coastline and prevent German access to fish oil, which they use to make explosives.

The British destroyers bombarded the areas and leveled the German troop barracks. The Royal Air Force dropped smoke bombs to blind the German soldiers who were defending the stronghold. With poor visibility, they were no match for the 600 British forces who launched a beachhead assault. The British forces, which included 77 soldiers from the Norwegian Independent Company, captured the German garrisons and several Nazi officials.

Local Norwegians were informed that the British would stay in the area. However, after re-evaluating the situation, the British commander called for an immediate retreat. This left the local population vulnerable for the inevitable German reprisals. The angry local residents cursed at the British contingent and the Norwegian commandos as they departed.

The British retreat from Lofoten was a huge embarrassment and the furor it caused added more complications to the British operations. What was even more appalling was that the British did not inform the exiled Norwegian government about the disastrous operations that left the locals in grave danger. Many Norwegian soldiers threatened to mutiny unless their missions were aligned with the aims of the Norwegian leadership. Some actually did mutiny. Those who did so felt that they were treated less than soldiers and were considered a gang of bandits. The mutiny was subdued and the mutineers were disciplined and sent away.

Haukelid, for his part, decided to wait and see how the situation would unfold. He was happy to be in the company of fellow Norwegians who had risked their lives to come to Britain and train to fight the Nazis.

Without missions, the company was sidelined for an extended period of time. But when visitors from London showed up, the company had to show off their shooting skills and raiding techniques. The guests of honor were Norwegian defense minister in exile Oscar Torp and Major General Colin Gubbins, who was second in command of the SOE. They made it clear that Norway’s aim was twofold: First, to build up Milorg, the resistance movement, in anticipation of a future Allied invasion of Norway, and second, to weaken Germany’s military and economy by performing raids and sabotage operations.

Torp promised that the Independent Company, which had been renamed Kompani Linge, would be under the Army command and no operation would be given the go-ahead without the consent of Norway. Lieutenant Colonel John Wilson was introduced as the new chief of the SEO Norwegian section and Captain Leif Tronstad was tasked to oversee Kompani Linge’s training, planning, and execution of operations.

Everything was in place to conduct one of the most daring and dangerous commando raids in World War II history.

To be continued…




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