Ten Men And The End Of The Nazi Bomb

I first wrote about this episode three years ago; today is the seventieth anniversary of the Ryukan Raid,  in which ten Norwegian commandos with the British “Special Operations Executive” raided a hydroelectric dam that produced most of the world’s supply of “Heavy Water”, a key component of the process the Nazis were using to try to build an atomic bomb.

It was a good piece, so I’m going to re-run it, with a few suitable revisions.

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I’ll cop to it; after the 2009 “Nobel Peace Prize” award to a president who, as of the award deadline, had done nothing to warrant it, and has done even less since, my self-esteem-respect as an American of Norwegian anscestry has taken a bit of a beating.

But it’s on days like today – the 70th anniversary of the Norwegian raid on the Vemork heavy-water plant at Ryukan, Norway - that I get a bit of that old Norse møjø back.

You may not have heard the story – largely because most American history teachers are illiterate about history, and partly because the font of all historical knowledge for most of them, Hollywood, transformed the event into an Anglo-American triumph (the atrocious Heroes of Telemark).

Like much of what you learn about “history” from Hollywood, it’s BS.

A little scientific and historical background:  nuclear reactors need something to “moderate” their fission reactions – i.e. to keep them under control.  The United States program used a mixture of Cadmium and Graphite.  The Germans, for reasons best explained by a physicist, chose Deuterium Oxide – aka “Heavy Water” – a compound found in infinitesimally tiny quantities in all water.  All you need to do is refine it out of all the regular water.

And in all of Europe in the early 1940s, there was exactly one facility that could refine bulk lots of Deuterium Oxide in the quantities a nuclear weapons program would need; the Vemork plant near the village of Rjukan, Norway.

Vemork in 1940
Vemork

Vemork sat by a hydroelectric dam – so both  water and the electric power needed to find the Heavy Water were available in immense abundance.

The British had wanted to attack the plant ever since they learned of its significance.  The British “Special Operations Executive” – a wartime organization that sat at the intersection of intelligence and special operations, much like “Special Operations Command” in the US does today, and whose American analogue, the “OSS”, became the anscestor of the CIA and US Special Forces - established an agent inside the plant (Einar Skinnarland) who smuggled out blueprints and paved the way.

Einar Skinnarland
Einar Skinnarland

In October of 1942, an SOE reconnaisance team with four more Norwegian operators (Jens Anton Poulsson, Arne Kjelstrup, Knut Haukelid and Claus Helberg), men who’d fled to the UK after the German invasion and undergone commando and intelligence training, were infiltrated into Norway to reconnoiter the area for a followup British commando raid.  The four men were air-dropped into a remote area far from Ryukan, and skied for days through the gathering mountain winter before they could even begin their mission.

A plan came together…

…and then completely unraveled.  The followup British commando raid to attack the plant failed catastrophically, with gliders and tow planes crashing in the snow and all the commandos either dying in the crashes or being caught and executed by the Gestapo, after revealing under torture the target of their raid.  The Germans reinforced Vemork, in case the Brits tried again.

The four-man recon team had to not only survive a mountain winter, but do it with an alerted enemy actively searching for them, and stay on the grid and able to assist the followup mission that had to come.

Later that winter, it fell to them and six more Norwegian commandos to finish the job.

The six reinforcements – Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg, Knut Haukelid, Fredrik Kayser, Kasper Idland, Hans Storhaug and Birger Strømsheim – dropped into Norway, linked up with Poulsson, Kjelstrup, Haugland and Helberg, and carried out the plan.

Bypassing the heavily-guarded bridge that ran 600 feet above the Maan River, the team descended from the plateau above into the river gorge, snuck across the icy stream, up a cable tunnel, and through a window.

Up for a bit of a climb?
Up for a bit of a climb?

They encountered a caretaker – who turned out to be a Norwegian who was happy to help.

The team placed the bombs – which destroyed the entire 1000-pound heavy-water supply – and escaped unscathed.  The Germans dispatched 3,000 troops to try to catch the commandos – but all escaped, with six of them staying in Norway to carry on the battle, and the other five skiing to Sweden to return to the UK to carry on the war.

Most of the team, after the war. Front: Poulsson, commander Leif Tronstad, Rønneberg. (Back) Storhaug, Kayser, Idland, Helberg, Strømsheim.

Being lucky and skillful, they all survived the war.

Being Norwegian, most of them lived long, healthy lives afterwards; all but Idland lived into the 1990′s; Poullson and Knut Haugland in the past few years, Strømsheim just last December.  Haugland was probably best-known to Americans, having participated in Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon Tiki expedition in the late forties. Joachim Rønneberg is still alive.

There are those who say, with some factual backing, that the German nuke program could never have caught up with the US program, even without the Vemork raid.

Perhaps.

Thanks to eleven brave underdogs and their mission, patched together against impossible odds, we never needed to even try to imagine what London and Moscow would look like as craters.

PBS’ Nova did an excellent documentary on the Vemork raid and its larger context, the Nazi nuclear weapons program.  It includes  a useful bio page on the whole group of Vemork raiders.  This site also explains the raid, and the science, in excellent detail.

The BBC also did a documentary – some forty years ago, now – on the subject. Hopefully it’ll stay available for a while:

It’s funny; listening to the guys from the raid (when I heard them on a different documentary from about ten years ago, since removed from Youtube), you’d think you were looking at and listening to old Norwegian guys at a Lutheran church lutefisk dinner in Park Rapids – and then you remember these are guys who sailed across the North Sea, went through British commando school, airdropped into Norway, spent a winter in a forester’s cabin living on reindeer meat and moss, and then carried out the kind of raid that ends up in the history books.

Every American schoolchild should be forced to listen to Rønneberg’s send-off at the end of the third installment of the documentary (around the 7:50 mark):

You have to fight for your freedom. And for peace. It’s not something that you have every day; you have to fight for it every day, to keep it.  It’s like a glass boat; it’s easy to break.  It’s easy to lose.

Whenever the Nobel committee embarasses Norway, I remember them, and feel much better, mange takk.

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Nearly everything I needed to write about today’s anniversary, I wrote three years ago – with one exception.

For most of the past 40-50 years, the conventional wisdom was that the Vemork raid, and the equally-daring followup the next year (in which Norwegian resistance fighters and SOE agents sank a ferry boat carrying the little heavy water that’d been salvaged by the Nazis) merely “bounced the rubble” of the German nuke program; that the bravery, endurance and ingenuity of the ten Norwegians was a great human story, but had little to do with affecting the outcome of the war.  The Nazis were never close to having a bomb, says the revisionist history.

The revisionism needs to be revised, though.

Tim Gawne, who’s spent a considerable amount of time researching ORNL’s archives and the Weinberg papers, recently came across a declassified Nov. 8, 1945 memo from Weinberg and L.W. Nordheim, the first physics director at the Oak Ridge lab (then called Clinton Laboratories), to Compton. Weinberg, who later directed ORNL for 18 years, died in 2006.

“We are writing in order to correct what we believe to be a very prevalent misconception concerning the state of the art as known to the Germans in 1945,” Weinberg and Nordheim wrote in the three-page memo, noting they had read a few of the relevant German documents.

There has been a lot written, of course, regarding Germany’s work on the atomic bomb and various analyses. I’m no scholar on the topic, by any stretch, but the Weinberg/Nordheim memo seems to offer a more generous assessment of Germany’s progress than some other post-war reports and subsequent analyses.

They addressed multiple questions in the memo, including a concluding one, “What bearing does this have on the general question of our ‘secrets’?”

Here’s part of their answer:

“On this we can presume to speak only as individuals.

“The general impression from the German reports is that they were on the right track and that their thinking and developments paralleled ours to a surprising extent. The fact that they did not achieve their chain reaction is primarily due to their lack of sufficient amounts of heavy water.

“In one of the reports a vivid description is given of the German efforts in this respect. The heavy water factories in Norway were designed for a capacity of 3-4 tons a year and were successfully operating during part of 1942 and 1943. This capacity would have been sufficient for the construction of a pile (reactor). However, the production was interrupted by sabotage and finally the main factory was destroyed by a bombing attack. Toward the end of 1944 plans were made to initiate production of heavy water in Germany and to use enriched uranium in order to reduce the material requirements.

In other words, the Germans never came close to having the bomb – in large part because due to the Vemork Raid, they could never get a reactor built.

3 thoughts on “Ten Men And The End Of The Nazi Bomb

  1. There is still a lot of controversy about how hard the nazi’s were working to build an A bomb (as opposed to nuclear power plants).
    The German’s had an odd habit of investing large amounts of resources in technically advanced ‘super weapons’ that, even conceptually, probably could not make a major difference in the outcome of a war (more people were killed building V2′s than were killed by them, for example).
    It wasn’t just a WW2, nazi thing. The Paris Gun of WWI was a technological wonder, but the Germa’s would have been better off using the resources required to build and maintain it on standard artillery.

  2. Terry,

    While there is controversy about how close Hitler was to having a bomb, the recent evidence I cited in my addendum to the post indicates the program was nothing to trifle with, and the Vemork raid wasn’t just bouncing the scientific rubble.

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