In 1940, the situation was looking dim for the British. After the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk they were left alone to defend their island against the Nazi onslaught.
Winston Churchill knew he needed to strike back, but large military operations were out of the question at the time so he made another proposal to his staff.
Small units that “must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.”
One of those operations was Operation Musketoon: the raid against the German-held Glomfjord power plant in Norway, between 11–21 September 1942.
Tasked with the execution of the raid were ten men from the Second Commando and two men from the Norwegian Independent Company 1.
They were Captain Graeme Black, from Ontario in Canada as the CO. His second in command was Captain Joseph Houghton. NCOs Company Sergeant Major Miller Smith, Lance Sergeant Richard O’Brien, Lance Bombardier William Chudley and privates John Fairclough, Cyril Abram, Eric Curtis, Reginald Makeham and Fred Trigg. The two Norwegians were Erling Djupdraet and Sverre Granlund.
At first the idea was for the force to be extracted by a Short Sunderland flying boat but it was scrapped due to dangers for the aircraft. Instead, when the mission was completed, they were ordered to hike to neutral Sweden.
For that reason, each man was given a silk map of Norway and Sweden, a rice paper map of Russia, and Norwegian Kroner notes. They also carried two compasses (one sewn into each collar tab) and a hacksaw blade.
For their transportation to the target area a French submarine, Junon, was used. The fact that the sub silhouette had similarities with that of a U-boat was considered advantageous for its use in the operation.
On September 11th, 1942 the submarine with its commando passengers left the Scottish Orkney islands and begun its journey towards the Glomfjord.
The submarine entered the Bjaerangsfjord just south of Glomfjord on September 15th.
The plan was for the commandos to disembark there and egress towards the target from the south. The CO of the operation Captain Black believed that an assault from the west was exactly what the Germans would expect and avoided that course of action.
The submarine waited until nightfall to surface, so the commandos would use their dinghys to reach the shore.
The raiding force reached the shore safely and hid their boats.
Moving away from the landing area, they had a couple of hours to rest.
Early in the morning, Captain Houghton and one of the Norwegians, Granlund, went off on a reconnaissance of the area and upon their return the small force trekked towards the mountains and started to ascend the mountain between them and the Glomfjord power plant.
At one point they had to climb a vertical rock face near the summit, where the climbing expertise of one member of the team helped them overcome the obstacle.
The commandos were unaware that they came very close to being discovered, when a German topographic party that was in the area, and their commander Lieutenant Wilhelm Dehne, spotted figures above Glomfjord. Fortunately, the distance didn’t allow them to distinguish the figures.
Resting in their hide for the next day, the attackers went over the plan. They left at 2000 on September 17th to begin their attack. Fears of being discovered from a small boat on the fjord lead them to cancel that plan and judging that returning to their previous hideout would entrail risk of detection they remained in place waiting.
Running low on supplies, Captain Black decided that they could not postpone the attack any longer and the plan was a go for the night of 19th to 20th of September.
The commando force was divided in two smaller groups. One was led by Captain Black, with the objective of attacking the plant itself, and the other consisting of Lance Sergeant O’Brien, Lance Bombardier Chudley and Private Curtis, targeted two high pressure water pipes above the plant.
The group led by O’Brien reached its objective without problems and placed the explosives on the pipes. Their orders were to wait for the explosives on the plant to go off before activating the 30-minute pencil fuse of their explosives.
The Captain Black’s group arrived at the back of the power plant where they gained entrance to the generator hall. Two were posted as sentries outside and the rest entered.
The commandos were undetected. They were presented with an image of calmness inside the plant, with the German guards making their rounds and leaving the control room of the plant with only a Norwegian engineer remaining.
The fact that the Germans were not aware of the commando presence didn’t make their mission easy. Present in the factory were Norwegian staff working and sleeping in rooms above the main floor of the plant; their extraction was of importance.
Sergeant Smith and Private Fairclough were ordered to plant their explosives amongst the machinery in the power house and the rest of the team worked on evacuating the Norwegian civilians.
They were gathered up and told to leave through a tunnel over a mile long that was the only land route between the station and the nearby villages.
On their approach to the tunnel, a German guard was killed by Granlund and another German ran to raise the alarm.
Smoke bombs were placed in the tunnel to delay German reinforcements.
Explosions rocked the plant and that was the signal for the team above in the water pipes to ignite their pencil fuses and to get the hell out.
Both teams left the area before the German reinforcements arrived.
But that was just the beginning. The extraction proved to be more difficult than the operation itself.
Granlund had split from the main force trying to locate a footbridge that would allow them to escape.
He found a mountain hut with three occupants that gave him some directions and drew an impromptu map.
Unable to find the bridge in the dark, he returned to the hut at the same time with Captain Houghton and Djupdraet. All three entered the hut but came upon a nasty surprise: two Germans were questioning the occupants if they had seen British soldiers. To their advantage, the Germans were relaxed and in the ensuing fight one was killed and the other injured, but Djupdraet was also severely injured by a bayonet.
The rest of the force arrived in the hut and decided that they could not carry Djupdraet with them; his wound was too severe, they gave him first aid and left him with the hopes that the Germans would prove humane.
The remaining commandos now split into two groups to evade the German search parties and move up the mountain.
One group, consisting of Lance Sergeant O’Brien, Corporal Granlund, and Privates Fairclough and Trigg, went north around the mountains.
The second group, with Captains Black and Houghton, CSM Smith, Lance Bombardier Chudley, and Privates Curtis, Abram and Makeham, took the southern route.
The first group was lucky and reached Sweden without any further incident.
The group that took the southern route stumbled upon the Germans. In the ensuing firefight, Captain Houghton was injured in the arm. Pressured by a superior force they were forced to surrender.
Djupdraet died of his wounds three days later, while Captains Black and Houghton, CSM Smith, Lance Bombardier Chudley, and Privates Curtis, Abram and Makeham, were transported to Colditz Castle where Black made contact with Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce, despite German attempts for their isolation, and gave him the names of the prisoners and their mission. Bruce would later escape the castle and pass that information to Mi5.
On October 13th, 1942 they were transported from Colditz and taken to the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RHSA) headquarters in Berlin. where they were interrogated by Obergruppenführer Heinrich Müller.
They remained in Berlin until October 22nd, when they were taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The next day they were shot in the back of the head and their bodies were cremated, being the first victims of Hitler’s commando order.
Upon their return to England, Lance Sergeant Richard O’Brien was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Privates Trigg and Fairclough were both awarded the Military Medal.
After the war, on November 15th, 1945, Captain Black was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Captain Joseph Houghton the Military Cross.
Of the four survivors, Corporal Granlund was killed in February 1943, when the Norwegian submarine Uredd sank off the Norwegian coast. Private Trigg was killed in Italy and is buried at the Cassino memorial.
Lance Sergeant O’Brien and Private Fairclough survived the war.
The raid was considered a success as the plant was out-of-order for the remainder of the war.
It is always interesting to go back to those days and not only recount those brave men’s amazing achievements, but also see how the concentrated knowledge and sound tactics we have today was born.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.