“From the start, they had known that the odds of their survival were long.”
By Neal Bascomb
AT THE START of World War Two, the Allies and Germans were actively investigating the possibility of building an atomic bomb. Both were assembling the scientists and material they needed to start basic research, and by late 1941, they were essentially at equal places in their advancement toward a weapon unlike any known before in war.
There were two ways to win the race to be the first to obtain it: they could throw every resource into building a bomb, or they could try to hobble their enemy’s atomic attempts. The Allies decided to do both.
In 1942, the Manhattan Project was launched, and a strategy to cripple Nazi research efforts was instituted. The U.S. government made considerable progress in the area of the former; the latter proved a challenge, primarily because the Allies had very little intelligence inside Germany.
However, the British were aware of one place that was essential to the German program: Vemork, Norway.
An industrial plant set in the wilds of Norway, 100 miles west of Oslo, produced heavy water. This rare substance, also known as deuterium oxide, acts as a moderator in a nuclear reactor, helping foster the fissioning of atoms and a chain reaction. If the Germans could run a self-sustaining reactor, they could produce plutonium. With plutonium, the Nazis had a key ingredient for an atomic bomb. Vemork was the only plant in all the world that produced heavy water. With the German occupation of Norway, the facility was in Nazi hands — Berlin ramped up production ten-fold.
The Allies were aware of the increase thanks to Leif Tronstad, a young Norwegian chemistry professor and designer of the innovative heavy water plant. For months, he spied on Germany activity at Vemork, and when the Gestapo learned of his underground work, Tronstad fled Norway. Soon after arriving in England, he found himself at the nexus between joint Allied and Norwegian efforts to sabotage Vemork.
Initially the Americans wanted to destroy the plant using bombers; Tronstad warned against such a plan. To begin with, Vemork was located in a very steep valley that was heavily populated with civilians – collateral damage would be excessive. Furthermore, the plant itself was housed in a huge steel-and-concrete building with the heavy water facility in the basement. It was unlikely that air-dropped bombs would put so much as a dent in production.
Taking Tronstad’s advice, the Allies decided on a combined operations raid to be executed by two teams of British Royal Engineers. The sappers would land in the target area using gliders towed by RAF Halifax bombers. Norwegian commandos would guide the engineers in and lead the attack on Vemork. Bad weather and an inability to locate the landing site turned the glider mission into disaster. The gliders crashed into the mountains that surrounded Vemork, and all the sappers were killed (either on impact or by the Germans). This led to the next mission against Vemork: Operation Gunnerside.
The book The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb is about the Allied campaign to disrupt Nazi heavy water production in Norway. Here is an excerpt:
NAZI-OCCUPIED NORWAY, FEB. 27, 1943 — In a staggered line, the nine saboteurs cut across the mountain slope. Instinct, more than the dim light of the moon, guided the young men. They threaded through the stands of pine and traversed down the sharp, uneven terrain, much of it pocked with empty hollows and thick drifts of snow. Dressed in white camouflage suits over their British army uniforms, the men looked like phantoms haunting the woods. They moved as quietly as ghosts, the silence broken only by the swoosh of their skis and the occasional slap of a pole against an unseen branch. The warm, steady wind that blew through the Vestfjord Valley dampened even these sounds. It was the same wind that would eventually, they hoped, blow their tracks away.
A mile into the trek from their base hut, the woods became too dense and steep for them to continue by any means other than on foot. The young Norwegians unfastened their skis and hoisted them to their shoulders. It was still tough going. Carrying rucksacks filled with 35 pounds of gear, and armed with submachine guns, grenades, pistols, explosives, and knives, they waded, slid, and clambered their way down through the heavy, wet snow. Under the weight of their equipment they occasionally sank to their waists in the drifts. The darkness, thickening when the low clouds hid the moon, didn’t help.
Finally, the forest cleared. The men came onto the road that ran across the northern side of valley toward Lake Møs to the west and the town of Rjukan a few miles to the east. Directly south, an eagle’s swoop over the precipitous Måna River gorge, stood Vemork, their target.
Despite the distance across the gorge and the wind singing in their ears, the commandos could hear the low hum of the hydroelectric plant. The power station and eight-story hydrogen plant in front of it were perched on a ledge overhanging the gorge. From there it was a 600-foot drop to the Måna River, which snaked through the valley below. It was a valley so deep, the sun rarely reached its base.
Had Hitler not invaded Norway, had the Germans not seized control of the plant, Vemork would have been lit up like a beacon. But now, its windows were blacked out to deter nighttime raids by Allied bombers. Three sets of cables stretched across the valley to discourage low-flying air attacks during the day as well.
In dark silhouette, the plant looked an imposing fortress on an icy crag of rock. A single-lane suspension bridge provided the only point of entry for workers and vehicles, and it was closely guarded. Mines were scattered about the surrounding hillsides. Patrols frequently swept the grounds. Searchlights, sirens, machine-gun nests, and a troop barracks were also at the ready.
And now the commandos were going to break into it.
Standing at the edge of the road, they were mesmerized by their first sight of Vemork. They did not need the bright of day to know its legion of defenses. They had studied scores of reconnaissance photographs, read reams of intelligence, memorized blueprints, and practiced setting their explosive charges dozens of times on a dummy model of the target. Each man could navigate every path, corridor, and stairwell of the plant in his mind’s eye.
They were not the first to try to blow up Vemork. Many had already died in the attempt. While war raged across Europe, Russia, North Africa, and in the Pacific, while battalions of tanks, squadrons of bombers, fleets of submarines and destroyers, and millions of soldiers faced off against each other in a global conflict, it was this plant, hidden away deep in the rugged Norwegian wilds, that Allied leaders believed lay on the thin line separating victory and defeat.
For all their intricate knowledge of Vemork, the nine were still not exactly sure how this target could possibly be of such value. They had been told that the plant produced something called heavy water, and that with this mysterious substance the Nazis might be able “to blow up a good part of London.” The saboteurs assumed this was an exaggeration to ensure their full commitment to the job.
And they were committed, no matter the price, which would likely include their own lives. From the start, they had known that the odds of their survival were long. They might get inside the plant and complete their mission, but getting out and away would be another story. If necessary, they would try to fight their way out, but escape was unlikely. Resolved not to be captured alive, each of them carried a cyanide pill encased in rubber, stashed in a lapel or waistband.
There were nerves about the operation, for sure, but a sense of fatalism prevailed. For many months now they had been away from their homes, training, planning and preparing. Now at least they were about to act. If they died, if they “went west,” as many in their special company already had in other operations, so be it. At least they would have had their chance to fight. In a war such as this one, most expected to die, sooner or later.
Back in England, the mastermind of the operation, Leif Tronstad, was awaiting news of the operation. Before the commandos left for their mission, he had promised them that their feats would be remembered for a hundred years. But none of the men were there for history. If you went to the heart of the question, none of them were there for heavy water, or for London. They had seen their country invaded by the Germans, their friends killed and humiliated, their families starved, their rights curtailed. They were there for Norway, for the freedom of its lands and people from Nazi rule.
Their moment now at hand, the saboteurs refastened their skis and started down the road through the darkness.
Excerpted from THE WINTER FORTRESS: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb. Copyright © 2016 by Neal Bascomb. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved
Neal Bascomb is the New York Times bestselling author of the books: Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile, Higher, Nazi Hunters, and Red Mutiny. His most recent title is The Winter Fortress. He lives in Seattle, Washington. You can follow him on Twitter @nealbascomb