From Neal Bascomb, the author: “From the start, I thought this was a story of action: commandos parachuting into enemy-held territory, a perilous attack on a highly-secured compound. In some ways, a historical version of the kind of operation that Navy SEALS are often heralded for executing. Yes, there are definitely moments of such high drama, but the narrative is much more character focused than I suspected it would be. This is really a tale about how a ragtag group of soldiers survive together in the wild for months at a time. How do they maintain their cohesion and morale? How do they persist in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. It’s a fascinating study of character and teamwork“
You can pre-order “Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb” on Amazon now.
At 8:00 p.m., white camouflage suits covering their British Army uniforms, the nine men skied away from the cabin in silence: R.nneberg, Str.msheim, Idland, Storhaug, Kayser, Paulsson, Helberg, Kjelstrup, and Haukelid. They were armed with five Tommy guns as well as pistols, knives, hand grenades, and chloroform pads. In their rucksacks they carried the explosives for the attack and everything they needed for their retreat into the Vidda: sleeping bags, rations, maps, and other survival gear. Cyanide pills were hidden in their uniforms, to be swallowed in the event of their capture. The men knew all too well what became of those who were brought in for interrogation by the Gestapo.
Helberg led the way down Fj.sbudalen Valley. The moon, hidden by low clouds, shone dimly, and Helberg navigated mostly by memory and a natural feel for the terrain. He kept a steady pace, sweeping around boulders and twisting through the scattering of pine and mountain birch.
The others followed closely behind, the cut of their skis barely a whisper through the snow. R .nneberg had made clear that, no matter what unfolded, no matter whether he or anyone else on the team was killed or wounded, those who were able were to “act on their own initiative to carry out the operation.” Destroying the heavy water plant was paramount. Each man knew what to do once they arrived at the target. They had practiced their SOE training many times on schemes against mock targets. Stop and listen frequently. Take short steps, lifting feet high. Move silently. The covering party — the most heavily armed — went in first. To prevent accidental shots, no guns were to be loaded until necessary. Two demolition teams, two sets of charges. Rendezvous after the sabotage, passwords to be called out. Now their mission was underway. They were finally getting their opportunity to strike a blow against their country’s occupiers, and from everything they had been told, Vemork would be a significant blow.
Roughly a mile from the cabin, the valley became steep and thick with boulders and shrubs. The men unfastened their skis and hoisted them onto their shoulders. They continued on foot. When they were not sinking up to their waists in the snow, they slipped and scrambled to remain upright, their heavy rucksacks and weapons throwing them off balance.
An hour into their descent they reached the M.svann Road. Free of the woods, they saw Vemork, a mere fifteen hundred feet across the gorge were they able to fly. Even at that distance, they could hear the hum of the power station’s generators. After months of thinking about this leviathan, months of examining every facet and corner of it in blueprints and in photos and in their minds’ eyes, there it was. To a man they stood mesmerized by the winter fortress. It was no wonder, Haukelid thought, that the Germans felt they needed only thirty guards on hand to defend it.
Then they were off, back on their skis and heading east along the road to V.er. The mild temperature and the warm wind coming down the valley had turned the surface of the road into a treacherous blend of snow, ice, and slush, and they had to fight to control their skis’ edges. They also needed to keep their eyes peeled for headlights coming up in front or from behind. Rolf S.rlie had told Helberg about recent German troop movement in the area, and there was a chance that the Wehrmacht was still transporting soldiers along this road at night. In spite of the risk of discovery, using the road was considerably easier and faster than attempting the whole distance through the uneven hillside terrain.
They made it to the first sharp turn in the Z-shaped segment of the road without incident. To bypass V.er and avoid spying eyes, Helberg steered them back into the woods. For a spell, they followed the narrow path made for the line of telephone poles that advanced like sentries through the thick woods. Still, they often had to trudge through drifts, sometimes sinking nearly to their armpits in soft, wet snow.
The slope through the trees became an almost sheer drop. Backs flat against the snow, feet acting as brakes, they edged themselves downward. It was so steep that if they bent forward even slightly at the waist, gravity would send them pitching into a head-over-heels tumble certain to take down anyone in their path.
Helberg finally dropped onto the road east of V.er, followed by a few of the others. While they were waiting for the rest of the team, headlights suddenly cut through the darkness. They hurried to hide behind a roadside snowbank as two buses rumbled toward them. Those still sliding down the slope frantically tried to anchor themselves to keep from falling into the road. Two of them narrowly missed landing on the roof of the first bus. But the vehicles, carrying nightshift workers, passed, oblivious to their presence.
Once all the men were on the road, they put on their skis again and traveled east, away from Vemork and toward Rjukan, for about half a mile. When they came alongside an open field, Helberg signaled them to follow him, and they worked their way up seventy-five yards to the power-line track that ran parallel to the road. A short distance down the track, they stopped and unloaded anything they would not need within Vemork into a hastily dug snow depot, including their skis and ski poles. They also stripped off their white camouflage suits — army uniforms were better suited for hiding in the shadows. It was also essential that the sabotage be seen as a British-only military operation to prevent retaliation against the local Norwegian population.
At 10:00 p.m. they made their final checks. R.nneberg and Str.msheim each had a rucksack with a set of explosives, detonators, and fuses, either one capable of destroying the high-concentration plant. The covering party carried Tommy guns, pistols, spare magazines, and hand grenades. Kjelstrup had the added burden of a pair of heavy shears to cut through any locks that stood in their way. “All right, let’s go,” R.nneberg said.
Helberg guided them down from the power line, across the road, and into the gorge. They hung onto shrubs and branches as they descended to the M.na River. Time and time again they lost their footing, creating small slides of snow that advanced ahead of them. Then they were at the bottom of the Vestfjord Valley. The wind continued to blow, and melting snow dripped down the rocks on either side of the gorge. There was a danger that the thaw had caused the waters of the river to rise, sweeping away any ice bridges they were planning to use to cross the river. They trekked along the riverbank, seeking a still-frozen section. The cliffs of the gorge soared upward on either side of them.
After a few minutes, they found an ice bridge that looked like it might hold their weight. Helberg went first, quickly stepping across. In single file, the others followed. The bridge did not break, but they knew that it might well be gone when they made it back — if they made it back.
Now Helberg searched for the slot in the gorge he had seen on his scouting mission earlier that day, for the place he suspected they could climb. He felt no relief when he found it: this mountainside, over six hundred feet to the railway line, was even steeper than the slope they had just descended, and even though a few brave trees clung to clefts of the rock, the ascent looked all but unassailable in the dark, without ropes and pitons. This was the approach they had chosen, and there was no turning back now. R.nneberg gave the signal with his hand. Up.
Each man took his own silent path up the rock wall, guiding his hands and feet into holds, feeling his way along. Water trickled down the cliff, and they often slipped on patches of ice and encrusted snow. On some stretches, the ascent was more like a scramble, where they grabbed tree trunks and rock outcrops, just to gain a fast few feet. On other stretches, they dug their fingers and toes into crevices and inched their bodies sideways, pressing tightly to the gorge wall to avoid the wind that gusted around them, always reaching higher. Sweat soaked their clothes as they forced themselves up from ledge to ledge. Now and again they rested, flexing numb fingers, rubbing cramped muscles, waiting for pulses to calm, before venturing up again.
A quarter of the way up, Idland was trying to pull himself higher when the fingers of his left hand slipped off a rock handhold. His breath caught in his chest, and he searched frantically for some crevice or spur of rock to grab hold of but found nothing but slick, wet stone on which he was unable to gain purchase. He pressed himself close to the wall, made sure his feet were secure, then switched hands on the piece of rock. His rucksack and Tommy gun suddenly felt very heavy. With his right hand, he stretched out, running his fingers across the wall in every direction, hoping, needing to find something to grab. There was nothing.
To extend his reach, he moved his body in a slow but widening arc, like a pendulum, from side to side. At last the tips of the fingers of his right hand brushed up against what felt like a clump of roots. With the grip on his left hand weakening, he had to act quickly — and boldly — or he was lost. After a few short breaths, he started the pendulum swing again.
Then, when he had the momentum, he forced himself to do the most unnatural thing in the world: he let go. In the same instant, he stretched out to snag the roots with his right hand. There was a moment when his hands were empty, when he was sure he was going to pitch backward into the gorge. Then his fingers tightened around the roots. They held — long enough for his left hand to grab another hold. He hugged the wall, a swell of wind coursing around him. Then he continued up.
A half hour into their climb, more than three hundred feet up and the railway line still out of sight, they were all starting to weary. Their fingers hurt. Their toes were numb. Their limbs ached. They had skied and trekked for miles through rough, snowbound terrain before even reaching the base of the gorge. Now they were climbing a steep mountain gorge in the pitch dark with heavy, awkwardly balanced rucksacks on their backs. Any missed hold or slipped foot could mean a fatal fall.
When training in the mountains of Scotland, they had been taught never to look down when they were climbing for fear of losing their nerve. But one or two of them did look down the way they had come. The gorge seemed like terrible jaws, ready to devour them. The sight froze them until the sounds of the efforts of their mates broke through their momentary terror. Shaking it off, they continued. No matter what individual battles they had to fight on the wall, they were not alone. If one of the men found an easy path, the others followed as best as they could. When one of them sank into a pocket of snow, needing a good shove from behind to get moving again, he didn’t need to wait long. Or if someone was searching fruitlessly for a secure hold, help came quickly, either in the form of advice about a possible foothold or a hand stretched out from above.
At last, a few minutes past 11:00 p.m., the first man scrambled up the final bit of scree to the railway line. The others followed — dazed, exhausted, relieved to be at the top. For a spell, nobody spoke. They rested on the tracks and looked to the fortress at the end of the line.