The Anniversary of Operation Gunnerside

The night of February 27/28 2013 is the 70th anniversary of the successful raid on the Nazi heavy water production facility near Rjukan, Norway, known in its final culminating phase as Operation Gunnerside. The precision strike on the only heavy water facility under the Third Reich’s control effectively set Hitler’s quest for an atomic bomb back a year, forcing Nazi scientists to ski a huge penalty loop in a race with the Allies, to borrow an appropriate biathlon analogy. A follow-on operation put the last nail in the lid of the coffin of the Germans’ heavy water production capability. The story has been told in several books– I’ll list some below– and a few documentaries you can find on YouTube. (I understand Hollywood made a film of it, but apparently ruined the story. I haven’t seen it.)

Allied scientists, thanks to information from fugitive Norwegians and contacts on the inside of the plant, had long apprehended the danger of allowing the Third Reich to achieve a breakthrough in atomic research. The consequences of failing to do so were obvious and terrifying to those who understood the full issue. The long pole in the tent of atomic research at this point in history was access to large supplies of heavy water. A hydro-electric plant in occupied Norway was the only facility under German control that had the capacity to produce heavy water in the quantities needed. Gunnerside (and its sequel) was the final, successful evolution in a string of other moves by the Allies to destroy this capacity.

This story fired my imagination when I was an adolescent, having bought the Bantam paperback edition of “Assault in Norway” and reading it from cover to cover, more than once. Over the last few years I’ve acquired and read other books on the operation that offered more detail and background. I recommend “Blood and Water“, “Skis Against the Atom“, and “The Real Heroes of Telemark“. See also the interview with Joachim Ronneberg, leader of the assault party .

I won’t recount the entire narrative, which of course is better told in the books I listed, but I will highlight some features of the operation that I think are of interest to the SurvivalBlog community. The first of course, is survival itself; winter conditions in that part of Norway demanded extraordinary, near super-human, feats of strength and endurance. The months between the failure of the more conventional glider-borne operation, “Freshman,” and the execution of the Gunnerside raid were particularly exacting for the four men of the advance party. They endured record vicious weather, near-starvation and debilitating illnesses. The other six, who did not share in all of those privations, nevertheless faced a terrible storm right after they arrived (and before they made contact with the advance party), had to tackle the difficult and dangerous approach to the target and subsequent withdrawal, and then an epic ski-borne escape to Sweden. Some of the other major points I have consistently drawn out of my Gunnerside readings are these:

– Physical and psychological fitness

– Outdoor skills and having the right gear

– OPSEC and self-discipline
– Ugly truths about an occupying power and their Quisling allies

– Unwavering patriotism, dedication to the cause, and faith in ultimate victory

I hope this letter does some small justice to an epic, stirring story, and highlights a handful of important lessons for us. I deliberately left out a more detailed discussion, hoping instead that people will go seek out the lessons for themselves. The men of the Gunnerside mission, and indeed all Norway, learned their lessons the hard way. We are being offered the same for a mere pittance. Perhaps we should read and heed.
By the way, the larger story of the occupation of Norway and the growth of the resistance movement brings up an interesting what-if, and an object lesson. What if the Norwegians, nationally and individually, had apprehended the danger of Nazi Germany as accurately as the Swiss did, and prepared accordingly? Norway’s geography certainly presents strong natural defenses and lends itself to the concept of a national redoubt. An armed, prepared Norway would have presented a much more difficult target for the Germans, and any territory that fell to them would have been organized for resistance. Also, a free or partially-free Norway would have safeguarded the approaches from the US and the UK to the ice-free ports of the Soviet Union, and offered an existing, if secondary, land front with Nazi Germany. Norway was ill-prepared, and paid the price for it. – J.P.P.