Special operations are never as slick as Hollywood suggests, but sometimes—despite huge obstacles and high risks—they work.
“This student gave a remarkably satisfactory performance,” the instructor wrote. “At every point he impressed us by his quick thinking and unfailing attention to detail…. He reacts to a situation very quickly, and has a well-reasoned course of action to meet each emergency.” The student was known as N.7, his instructors were with British intelligence services, and his school was Special Training Center 61 on a manorial estate near Cambridge. His subjects included lock-picking and silent killing. “He is a cool and calculating type, who should give a very good account of himself in a tight corner,” another instructor predicted.
That instructor was right. N.7 would be a very successful graduate. And he would find himself in countless tight corners. His real name was Knut Haugland, a lieutenant in the Norwegian army. His career in the Norwegian resistance—from the days of his training to his narrow escapes from the Gestapo—is extensively described in 102 pages of British intelligence reports, some written by Haugland himself, that were recently declassified. The information adds new details about what has been called the greatest sabotage operation of World War II: the missions to stop Germany’s efforts to build an atomic bomb.
Haugland, who had learned Morse code as a Boy Scout, was a 23-year-old radio operator on a commercial tanker when Germany invaded his homeland in April 1940. He enlisted in the Norwegian army and, during the two-month, British-led attempt to drive out the invaders, he saw combat as a radio officer for an artillery unit. After their defeat, he joined a secret Norwegian military force called the Milorg (short for military organization), which, unlike other underground groups in occupied Europe, had a military rather than a political leadership. Milorg assigned Haugland to a German-controlled radio factory, where, as an experienced radio operator, he was expected to be a skilled saboteur. In August 1941, pro-Nazi “quislings”—named after Germany’s traitorous puppet premier—exposed him. The Gestapo yanked him out of the factory for interrogation, but unable to tie him to specific acts of sabotage, they released him.
Haugland was now a marked man. Milorg operatives hid him until, carrying false identity papers, he slipped across the border to Sweden then few to England. There, he was accepted for training in the Norwegian Independent Company, a unit of Britain’s highly secret Special Operations Executive. SOE had been created by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted to import resistance fighters like Haugland, train them in sabotage, and send them of to “set Europe ablaze.”
While Haugland was winning plaudits for his performance in SOE training centers, British intelligence officials learned that a key element for a potential German atomic bomb—heavy water—was being produced in Norway. The water, derived by an electrolysis process that isolated hydrogen atoms twice the atomic weight of ordinary hydrogen, helps to control the nuclear reactions necessary to produce plutonium, which was critical to bomb production.
The Germans were getting the heavy water from the Norsk Hydro plant, which had used it to make ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer. Enormous amounts of electricity were needed to manufacture heavy water, and the plant’s location was ideal. Perched on a rocky shelf about a hundred feet below the top of a cliff, it drew power from a waterfall that plunged down the cliff, turning the plant’s turbines. The plant happened to be located in a wild area of south-central Norway near Rjukan, Haugland’s hometown.
In the summer of 1941, Milorg agents in the plant reported that production of heavy water was increasing—but not to produce more fertilizer. Word of this change reached Leif Tronstad, a chemist who had helped design the Norsk Hydro plant and had escaped to England to become chief of intelligence for the Norwegian government in exile. Tronstad realized the increased production meant that Germany was on course to develop an atomic bomb. The plant had to be destroyed.
Because of the massive plant’s cliffside location, aerial bombing would probably not be feasible. And in any case, bombing would imperil the people of Rjukan. So Tronstad and the SOE launched an elaborate on-the-ground sabotage plan. After three aborted fights, Haugland and his team of three other Norwegian agents were parachuted into a desolate area several miles from the plant on October 18, 1942. Haugland’s assignment was to set up a complex radio-beam system to guide pilots in what would be Britain’s first operational use of gliders.
“We landed on a large heap of stones,” Haugland later wrote in a report, “and it was a miracle that this did not cost us our lives.” His team went off to search a wide, snow-covered area for parachuted pallets packed with skis, rations, and other survival supplies. Also parachuted in was the equipment for the radio-beam system and for Haugland’s radio station: about 200 pounds of radios, antennas, a hand generator, and batteries, along with the acid and distilled water to maintain them. Some parts were missing or did not work in snow as well as they had at the training center, so after Haugland hastily set up his station to announce a safe landing, he could not produce a signal. He kept tinkering as he and the others struggled through the snow, walking and skiing about 30 miles to the proposed landing site for the gliders—a mountain plateau iced over by a large glacier. Here, they finally made radio contact with England, allowing the next phase of the operation, codenamed Freshman, to begin.
One month later, on the night of November 19, 1942, two Handley-Page Halifax bombers took off from an air base in Scotland and headed for Norway. Each aircraft towed an Airspeed Horsa glider carrying Royal Engineer volunteers trained in sabotage. Special receivers in the bombers were to seek out Haugland’s pulsing beam and guide pilots to the gliders’ landing site.
The pilots were accustomed to night bombing runs over well-mapped cities. But on this fight, looking down, they saw only snow and a layer of fog. Far from the landing site, the tow cable on one glider snapped, probably from the cold. The glider crash-landed on a mountain, while the bomber smashed into another mountain, killing the crew. The second bomber released its glider and returned safely to Scotland. Tat glider, tossed by wind and blinded by fog, also crash-landed.
Haugland and the three others in his team were huddled in a shed awaiting the gliders when they received “the sorrowful news” from England. The Gestapo found survivors of the downed gliders, many of them injured, and tortured them to learn that the mission was aimed at the Norsk Hydro plant. All 23 survivors of the two glider crashes were then murdered by German soldiers acting under Adolf Hitler’s “Commando Order,” which instructed officers to deny prisoner-of-war status to all captured “terror and sabotage troops.” Gestapo agents swept into the mountainous area where Haugland and the others were hidden, launching what he called “an extensive razzia”—an old word for a wild raid. Haugland’s team had to pack up and go far into the Hardanger Vidda, a vast, rolling wilderness plateau above the tree line in a desolate area of the Telemark.
In England, officials began working on a new plan that would be called Operation Gunnerside. Haugland was instructed to stay in touch and keep a watch on movements of Colonel-General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, commander of German military forces in Norway. Knowing that a transmitter was in the area, Gestapo signal hunters set up a direction-finder station that was about 12 miles away from Haugland’s station. “The Germans kept on DF’ing for four months, sometimes using three stations,” according to Haugland. German direction-finder crews were often close enough for him to see them through binoculars. Each time his dots and dashes were transmitted there was a chance that his location would be pinpointed and the Gestapo would pounce. Still, he transmitted as often as three times a day, using fishing rods as antennas.
In those four months spanning 1942–1943, he and the other three agents survived the coldest winter in local memory. They stayed in huts built for summer use, and the interior walls of the huts were covered with ice an inch thick. “I often had to send messages…with mittens on,” Haugland recalled. The erratic rhythm of his mitten messages raised suspicion in England, where SOE operators, sensing an enemy impostor, put him through a series of security queries.
The fugitives moved from hut to hut, leaving no clues that could aid pursuers. When food ran out, they shot reindeer, living on the meat and on lichens scraped from rocks. They buried cylindrical containers of explosives, weapons, and communications gear beneath the snow. One cache was under a path camouflaged by the obvious: footprints from a hut to an outhouse. When the Norwegians fed that hut, Germans occupied it but preferred to use the woods rather than the outhouse and never found the cache. Once, when Haugland had to hastily bury a radio and weapons, he dug beneath a trail made by a reindeer herd. After the burial, the men disguised their human tracks with reindeer prints they made with hooves cut of a carcass. “When we came back five days later,” Haugland wrote, “we had to search for six hours,” because the trail had been covered by new snow.
Meanwhile, at an SOE training center in Scotland, Operation Gunnerside was going forward. As an extreme security measure, all regular trainees at the center had been removed without explanation and replaced with just six volunteers from the Norwegian army who had made their way to England. The Norwegians were given standard commando training— and something more. They were shown a model of the Norsk Hydro plant, especially the basement with its 18 stainless steel containers. They were to make a night parachute jump, join up with an advance party, break into the plant, attach plastic explosives to the containers, and get out before the explosives blew. They did not know what was in the containers, but they were told that their mission was vital to winning the war.
Terse SOE messages to Haugland gave his station a different code name, Swallow, and advised him that his team would be part of a new operation that was about to start. For nearly three months his half-starved team listened for an airdrop signal from an aircraft. Finally, on the night of February 17, 1943, the six Gunnerside parachutists jumped from a Halifax bomber and landed in a snowstorm about 19 miles from where the Swallow team waited. Dragging two toboggans loaded with weapons, explosives, and other supplies, the parachutists struggled through the snow. Luckily they found a hut, where they sheltered through five days of storm. Because their equipment did not include a radio, neither the SOE nor Haugland’s team knew whether the Gunnerside six were still alive.
When the storm ended, the men set out and managed to link up with Haugland’s group. The 10 men now prepared for their next move: a ski run to two huts near Rjukan, an area Haugland had known since childhood. Nearby was the plant, a seven-story concrete structure occupying that rock ledge beneath the cliff. There were three ways in: Cross directly to the plant on a bridge spanning a river gorge, with German sentries at both ends. Climb down a mined and well-guarded slope covered with huge sluice pipes carrying water to the plant’s turbines. Or choose the slope opposite the plant, which meant climbing down to the bottom of the cliff, crossing the ice-choked river, then climbing up to the plant. They chose the third route.
On the night of February 26, under a waning moon, nine of the men set out, leaving Haugland behind to radio news of success or failure. At the top of the chosen slope, the men hid their skis and the white camouflage smocks they had worn over their British Army uniforms. Unaware of the Commando Order, they believed that if captured they would be treated as prisoners of war.
The nine men successfully clambered down the cliff and up again, the sounds of their movements masked by the hum of giant turbines in the blacked-out plant. One of them ran forward to cut the chain lock on a rear gate. Once inside the plant compound, the group split up. Five men stayed on guard; two men carrying sacks of plastic explosives crawled into a cable tunnel that led to the basement and found the heavy-water containers exactly where they had been in the model they had studied; two men broke a basement window to enter the building.
While one Gunnerside saboteur held a startled elderly Norwegian watchman at gunpoint, the other three men in the plant went down the row of the 18 tall cylinders, wrapped sausage-shaped charges around them, and attached fuses. A second Norwegian civilian entered. He and the captured watchman were told to flee as soon as the saboteurs had left through a basement door.
The Gunnerside team was about 60 feet away from the building when they heard the explosion, a thudding sound, muffed by thick concrete walls. It was not unlike the usual plant noises. Unchallenged by German guards, all 10 of the saboteurs retraced their route and escaped.
Under orders from England relayed by Haugland, five of the Gunnerside group skied of toward the Swedish border, about 200 miles away. They made it and eventually reached England. Haugland and the rest stayed behind, maintaining their network while thousands of Gestapo agents and Wehrmacht troops searched for the Norsk Hydro saboteurs.
Haugland kept reporting on German troop movements until July of that year, when, stricken with peritonitis, he went to Oslo for treatment. While there, he met with Milorg officers and learned their communications needs. Still ailing, he traveled across the North Sea to Scotland on a “Shetland bus,” one of the disguised fishing boats used to ferry Allied operatives covertly between Norway and the Shetland Islands.
Less than three months later, in the fall of 1943, Haugland was again parachuted into Norway, this time to an area near Kongsberg, about 60 miles southeast of Rjukan. He was to set up a radio network that could communicate directly with not only the SOE but also Milorg headquarters in Norway. He was meeting with a Milorg member in Kongsberg when a Gestapo squad swooped into the house. The prisoners were held until the arrival of SS Obersturmführer Siegfried Wolfgang Fehmer, head of the Gestapo in Norway. Fehmer was notorious for torturing prisoners, often siccing his German shepherd on them (he was eventually executed for war crimes in 1948). Fehmer took charge of Haugland.
Ordering Haugland to don his rucksack, which contained some of his incriminating equipment, Fehmer directed four Gestapo troopers—two in front of the prisoner, two with pistols to his back—to escort Haugland out of the house for questioning, torture, and execution. A newly declassified document tells what happened next: “On emerging into the dark he descended the first three steps, and then leapt sideways down the other seven, knocking his knee on an iron railing and falling into the snow of the roadway. The Germans fired from the steps. Tree shots hit the rucksack, which he threw of as he got out of range. After evading foot and motor patrols, once by hiding down a manhole, he got clean away.”
Undaunted by the subsequent manhunt, Haugland continued to train telegraphers and set up a network of radio stations in Norway, which often sent warnings of Gestapo raids and kept watch on Fehmer.
At the Norsk Hydro plant, heavy-water production was soon resumed after the Gunnerside sabotage and continued even after a U.S. bombing raid, in November 1943, which killed many people in the area. The bombs destroyed buildings but did little damage to the heavy-water machinery deep in the plant. But the bombing and the probability of more sabotage led German officials to ship a supply of heavy water to safer laboratories in Germany. On the first leg of the journey, the large drums filled with heavy water were loaded onto rail cars that transported them to the shore of nearby Lake Tinnsjø, where they were placed aboard a train ferry.
The SOE, through Milorg, learned of the transfer and dispatched Kurt Haukelid, a Gunnerside saboteur still in Norway, to stop it. With the aid of a Norwegian crewman, Haukelid and two other saboteurs boarded the ferry. They planted plastic explosives in the bow bilges with a timer set for the following morning, when the ferry would be over the deepest part of the lake. Then they slipped back ashore. The explosion on February 20, 1944, sank the ship and killed 18 people, including nine German soldiers.
Infuriated by the sinking, Fehmer intensified the Gestapo search for Milorg operatives. From his headquarters in Oslo, he sent out radio direction-finder crews. One reported locating a Haugland transmitter in a most unlikely place: the chimney of the Oslo Maternity Hospital. Convinced that he had finally trapped Haugland, Fehmer surrounded the hospital with about a hundred men and stood in the middle of the courtyard, waiting for Haugland to be brought to him, dead or alive. Several Gestapo troopers entered the hospital and ran up the stairs. Haugland, crouched in a dark corner of the attic, dashed past the Germans, then shot and killed two more as they were coming up the stairs. A declassified British intelligence report describes what happened next: “He made his way down to the cellars where he encountered four more Germans; one he killed, another he fired at, and the other two fed.” A fifth appeared. Haugland “shot him at 30 yards with the last shot in his magazine. He put in a fresh magazine as he emerged from the cellar.” Under fire from still more pursuers, Haugland scaled a nine-foot, barbed-wire fence and dropped 15 feet onto a roadway. To quickly change his appearance, he took of his overalls and “walked leisurely about the streets” until a Milorg colleague picked him up and drove him away. Without disclosing any details, the intelligence report says Haugland was then “evacuated” through Sweden.
Allied intelligence officials believed that Operation Gunnerside and the sinking of the ferry had effectively ended the threat of a German atomic bomb. In fact, nuclear reactor research continued. After the war, Allied analysts concluded that the scientists needed more than heavy water: They needed Adolf Hitler to make the creation of an atomic bomb a major project. And that never happened.
Thomas B. Allen, a former National Geographic writer and editor, is author of many books on American history, including Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s Civil War (2011).
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.