Editor’s note: Arland Fiske passed away June 16, but as a tribute to him, The Pilot-Independent will continue to print his column for the next couple of months.
The drive west from Oslo through Drammen, Kongsberg and Notodden is a delight to the eyes. As the mountains grow more beautiful, the terrain becomes more rugged. Thirty-five miles north of the main highway is Rjukan (ROO-kaan), one of the most important Allied targets during World War II.
On the evening of Feb. 27, 1943, nine Norwegians, led by Knut Haukelid and trained in Great Britain by the SOE (Special Operations Executive), climbed down a steep and icy mountainside, crossed a river and climbed up another mountain to a heavily guarded factory that produced “heavy water.” They eluded the guards, broke into the factory, poured out the water and planted explosives. They fled unseen. A massive search by 3,000 soldiers could not find them.
What was it all about? “Heavy water,” or “deuterium oxide,” looks and tastes like other water, but it isn’t. It was produced at the Norsk Hydro plant under Nazi supervision for building atomic bombs for Hitler. Rjukan was his only source for this rare liquid.
In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt that such a weapon was possible. In June 1942, Churchill visited Roosevelt. Rjukan was much on his mind. He knew the danger if Hitler should get such a weapon.
Four months later, a bomber took off from Scotland with highly trained Norwegian saboteurs. The Hardanger Plateau below was an unfriendly place to drop by parachute. One of these young men was Knut Haugland, an expert wireless operator. To see this peaceful looking man today, you would never guess that he had been on that death-defying mission.
Rjukan is located in a valley only 300 yards wide. The defenses seemed impregnable. However, a patriotic Norwegian scientist was in charge of the plant. It was fortunate too that Prof. Leif Tronstad of Trondheim had fled to England. He had designed the factory and was able to build a mock-up of it so that the saboteurs knew their way around in it even if blindfolded. Microphotographs were smuggled in toothpaste tubes into Sweden and flown to London.
The nine men who made the journey had suffered intensely for months on the cold, barren and windy plateau. Their food supplies had not lasted long enough. Reinforcements towed in by gliders had perished. When they killed a reindeer, they ate “the whole thing.”
By fall, the plant had been rebuilt and Hitler’s timetable was back on schedule. A British air raid did little damage but killed 21 Norwegians. In February 1944, large shipload of heavy water was ready to send to Germany. A ferryboat was to carry it over Lake Tinnsjo and out to sea. Saboteurs led by Haukelid and dressed as workmen, planted explosives on board the boat.
At the deep end of the lake, an explosion rocked the belly of the ship. In four minutes it was gone. Hitler did not get his bomb.
The mountains around Rjukan are quiet today. But the valleys are alive with the memories of those days. If you ever visit Oslo, take a trip to Rjukan and see it for yourself. It’s a part of the Scandinavian heritage.
Next time: “Viking Burial Customs”