The Accidental Commando

Birger Strømsheim passed away over the weekend, at age 101.

Birger Edvin Martin Strømsheim was born Oct. 11, 1911, in Alesund, Norway. His parents had a small farm. In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Liv Kristen Oygard; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Aase Liv, died in 1997.

“Birger who?”

Well, if you read this blog, you’ve met Mr. Strømsheim before.  He was one of the commandos who, seventy years ago this February, destroyed the German heavy-water operation in a daring raid on the Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan, Norway.  I won’t rewrite the whole story (’til February, anyway), but here’s the piece I wrote about the raid a couple of years back.

Strømsheim didn’t start out that way, though; he had no military experience.  When Germany occupied Norway, he was working as a contruction contractor; he even found work building barracks for the occupiers, before escaping to Scotland:

 After the Germans took control of Norway in 1940, Mr. Stromsheim and his wife were among many people who left for England. Mr. Stromsheim had not been a soldier in Norway, but he became part of the Special Operations Executive, which the British formed to support and coordinate resistance in the occupied countries of Europe.

The mild-mannered Strømsheim, an expert cross-country skier and hunter, became an explosives expert, and the leader if not commander of the raiding party.  Older than the rest of the team, his calm stoicism (even by Norwegian standards) anchored and centered the rest of the team on the raid.

  He and other members of the mission at Norsk Hydro received medals from several Allied countries. In 1965, Hollywood produced “The Heroes of Telemark,” a film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris that included shootouts, dramatic chases through the snow and love scenes. The soldiers roundly panned the movie as unrealistic.

 “He saw that,” Mr. Stromsheim’s son said. “He didn’t like it. It was too glamorous.”

And totally unbefitting the men who actually did the job.

RIP, Birger Strømsheim.

7 thoughts on “The Accidental Commando

  1. Stromsheim was the lead operative of a mission to stop Hitler’s atomic bomb program at 31 years old. In other accounts of his passing I’ve read, he was referred to as the ‘old man’ as the other operators were mostly ten years his junior.
    My own father was in the Pacific with the Army Air Corp from age 19-23. Young men my fathers age led and crewed bombers, operated landing craft and held other leadership positions during the war where other men’s lives depended on them to make the right decision while taking enormous risks.
    Last week when the NFL was mourning the loss of a homicidal-suicidal KC Chief, a columnist for the KC paper noted that “this kid” (a 26 year old man and father) was a victim of our countries ‘gun culture’. And adult children 26 and younger are added to their parents (and my) health insurance until they can get out of the nest.

  2. It is amazing when you look at photos of, say, infantry platoons, aircraft crews or ships back then. You know the people in the photos are in their late teens and early twenties – but they look so much more *adult* than people the same age today do.

    But then so do photos of soldiers today.

    Still, it’s interesting to remember George H.W. Bush set a record as the US Navy’s youngest aviator – responsible for a crew of two other men, and an expensive plane and a payload of bombs and torpedoes – when he was 18. I can’t imagine that today.

  3. I concur. On my 20th birthday, my Line Chief, a Senior Master Sergeant lifer named Stan Swenson, walked me over to a B-52H model, it’s parts scattered all over the hangar, handed me the forms book and said, “You’ve got two weeks to put this bird back together. Your Team is being assembled and will be here by 1030 hours. Congratulations, Airman! You are now the Crew Chief of U.S. Air Force Aircraft Serial Number 60059! You have earned this position.” I literally dropped on my ass on the hangar floor and contemplated the new responsibilities realizing that every time that plane took off, I would be responsible for the lives of every man on it. UGH!

  4. P.S. my last; It’s still flying out of Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and dropped some of the first bombs during Gulf I.

  5. BH429 – My dad was a ground tech and worked on the B-24’s and B-25’s of the 13th AAF. He died long before ‘The Greatest Generation’ type books came out and it became more common for WWII vets to talk about what they did during the war. He told me that he spent most of the war playing cards and reading books. His unit – I learned through online sources and some information I gathered when my Mom sold their house – saw a lot of action.
    My dad didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body except he could not understand why anyone, especially his own children (native Detroiters’), would buy a Toyota or a Honda or a Datsun. When his Buick blew an engine at 65,000 miles and the dealer told him there was nothing he could do to help because it was out of warranty, he bought an Acura.

  6. Seflores; I still love those old WWII birds! I’ll bet your dad could tell stories about the creativity of his fellow ground crew members in keeping them in action. When I lived in Houston back in the mid 80’s, a co-worker of mine had a friend whose dad owned a construction company. The company plane was a B-25 and I had the privilege of flying in it a couple of times, once in the tail gunner’s spot. Gives one a whole different perspective on flying. Sadly, like many of the awesome machines that won the war with superbly trained operators, too many were scrapped before anyone realized the historical perspective that they would provide our future generations. My aunt was a WOW putting rivets into B-24s. There is only one airworthy model left attached to the Commemorative Air Force.
    Re the Japanese car thing; Remember the line in the movie Tucker where Jeff Bridges who played Preston Tucker made the comment about buying stuff from our enemies, eliciting a laugh from the audience? My dad was a Korean War veteran and their were several of them in my ‘hood where I grew up. They all had the same opinion as your dad and they didn’t even fight the Japanese.

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