Operations Grouse, Freshman & Gunnerside...
Updated: 5 days ago
Heroes of Telemark: An Expedition of Remembrance by Alix MacKay November 9th, 2022
In March of this year, I joined 11 fellow military wives to become the first female team in the world to retrace one of the most important special forces missions in history: the Heroes of Telemark. The expedition took us 100km across Norway’s Hardanger plateau – one of the most inhospitable environments on earth – in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius carrying over 300kg of kit between us on cross country skis (and snowshoes for me having broken my elbow two days earlier in training).
This was an expedition of Remembrance for the men who, in the winter of 1941-42, carried out a mission that changed the course of history.
Hitler’s invasion of Norway in 1940 saw him acquire a hydro electric power plant deep in the Norwegian mountains in a small town called Rjukan. He took control of Norway and the power plant because he knew something very significant was being produced as a by-product in the plant: deuterium oxide, also known as heavy water. Deuterium is the rare form of hydrogen that
contains an extra neutron making it slightly heavier than normal hydrogen. And that extra neutron in heavy water can be used to make plutonium from uranium, putting Hitler months, perhaps years, ahead of the allies in the race to make an atomic bomb.
…the Professor in charge of the plant turned out to be one of the bravest men in Norwegian history. Professor Tronstad understood why the Nazis were demanding that his team scale the production of the heavy water so when his attempts to limit the yield were noticed, he knew there was only one thing left to do: inform the allies.
To the extreme danger of himself and his family, he secretly escaped Norway one weekend under the story of a long weekend in the mountains, travelled to Britain where he made contact with senior officers, informed them of the situation and managed to return to work the following week his family, friends, colleagues and Nazi occupiers none the wiser. His brave efforts were worth it; the intelligence reached Churchill and the planning to destroy Hitler’s heavy water production began.
The problem was the location of the power plant. Located on what is essentially a large rock at the face of a mountain reached only by a narrow suspension bridge, it was impossible to reach by land vehicles.
But the height of it meant that the Nazi guards would see a plane from miles away and have plenty of time to get ready to fire it down. Not only that but the power plant is located in the middle of a small town so an attack from the air would almost certainly lead to civilian casualties or worse. None of the plans on the table were ideal but a decision was made to launch a glider mission where two gliders carrying two large groups of British forces could land silently in the vicinity and ambush the Nazis. The mission was named Operation Freshman and for it they needed a reconnaissance operation to identify the ideal landing spot and they knew exactly where to find the men for that.
During the Nazi occupation of Norway, hundreds of brave resistant citizens escaped their country to Britain to join the ally forces and fight the Nazis – often via small boats across the North Sea to Scotland. In fact, so many Norwegians took this treacherous route it became known as The Shetland Bus. Here, they joined a controversial division created by Churchill during the war: the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE were trained for informant and sabotage missions back in their own countries and the Norwegian companies of the SOE trained in the part of the UK that provided the hardest terrain and harshest climate to train the best soldiers: the Highlands of Scotland. Four Norwegian SOEs who were training in the Cairngorms around the SOE headquarters at Glenmore Lodge were selected for the three-week recce. They were Jans Anton Poulsson, Claus Helberg, Knut Haugland and Arne Kjelstrop and their operation was code named Grouse.
In October 1942, unaware of the exact reason for their mission, Grouse were parachuted into Norway with the task of finding a suitable landing strip and radioing information about the Nazi guard of the power plant. However, without the use of computers available today, and with no guiding lights from the inland rural regions, the pilot made the drop somewhat off course - 100km in fact, deep on the Hardanger plateau. Astonishingly, one of the members of Grouse recognised the area from family trips into the mountain range and knew the way to Rjukan.
Over the next two weeks Grouse made their way across the Hardanger plateau sheltering in small huts, using the skis and living off the ration packs that they had managed to find after the parachute drop. They found a lookout high above the power station and an ideal landing place for the gliders of Operation Freshman and radioed the information back to Britain.
The night of the glider flights was decided, and Grouse waited. They waited long into the night unaware that both gliders had crash landed, their crew either perished or captured and then killed by Nazi soldiers.
None of the 41 RAF pilots and commandos of Operation Freshman survived.
When Grouse received the news they were devastated. From a hut deep in the Hardanger plateau, they awaited further instructions – still unaware of the importance of the mission.
It was decided that the only course of action left was to send in a further group of Norwegian SOE agents to break into the powerplant and destroy the supplies of heavy water by hand; a sabotage mission. A sabotage mission that, given Nazi stronghold and isolated location of the power plant on the rock face, was sure to be a suicide mission.
The attack party were, again, chosen from the Norwegian SOE training camp in the Cairngorms and the men selected were code named Operation Gunnerside.
The plan was to parachute them onto the Hardanger plateau where they would meet up with Grouse and plan the attack. The drop had to happen at night to avoid being spotted by the Nazis and, to have a fighting chance of being dropped in the right place and meeting up with Grouse on this vast expanse of wilderness, they needed as much moonlight as possible. This gave only a 48 hour window in the month of November.
Meanwhile, Grouse were laying low on the Hardanger plateau with the climate getting colder and their two weeks of rations getting lower.
Gunnerside didn’t get parachuted in in November because the weather was so bad it made visibility too poor.
So, Grouse waited for the December full moon.
And then the January full moon.
And finally, in February of 1942, after four gruelling winter months in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world, the emaciated men of Grouse were joined by Gunnerside – miraculously finding each other on the Hardangervidda. Grouse and Gunnerside put the final touches to the attack plan into place and set off towards the hideout looking over the town of Rjukan and the power plant itself.
At midnight on February 28th, the attack party made its way down from the mountain plateau on skis, down into the ravine over which the suspension bridge hung, back up the rock face to the power station unseen by the Nazi soldiers guarding the bridge, located the window closets to the room storing the heavy water, broke in through the glass, restrained the one member of staff who caught them breaking into the room, (apologised for breaking his glasses), made their way down to the supply of heavy water, fixed the explosives to the tanks, gave themselves 30 seconds on the detonator to get out, escaped out of the building, back down the ravine and up the otherside without being seen by any Nazi soldiers.
And, the whole time, the men of Grouse and Gunnerside didn’t know what they were destroying and the importance of their mission.
This is the journey we retraced as a group of military wives, from the DZ (drop zone), 100km to the hydroelectric power plant in Rjuken. The plant is now a museum where we had the honour of laying our poppies in Remembrance of Operation Freshman as well as laying a poppy at the memorial for the bravery of Professor Tronstad.
As a team of military wives, brought together and led by Forces Wives Challenge, we completed our expedition of Remembrance in March 2022 and became the first female team in the world to pay tribute to the Heroes of Telemark in this way.
by Alix Mackay