The Heroes of Telemark

6th Jan 2018

Heavy Water Barrel

Norway is a joy of a place to visit.  With friendly and welcoming locals, a typically Scandinavian level of organisation, beautiful scenery and many great opportunities for all type of action sports - we never tire of visiting this wonderful country and most of our visits have so far focussed around the beautiful Rjukan valley.  This deep sided cleft with broad swathes of steep rock lies in the shadow of great skiing opportunities and is easily accessible from the U.K.

When you visit Rjukan you also dip into Norway’s industrial and wartime heritage.  The Rjukan valley is home to large Norse Hydro operations and many valley locals work in the industry.  Head back in time to the war years and I suspect the valley would have looked very similar.  Compact and neat houses, the same stunning natural scenery and a large hydro plant and nearby factory that, at the time, was integral to the production of something called heavy water.

Rockfax named their guide book after this mysterious substance and climbing ice often feels like you are ascending some heavy force of nature, but the term is linked to an ingenious piece of chemistry that became integral to Hitler’s plan for domination.  Heavy water was discovered in the USA in 1933 and, to simplify what is probably a complex bit of chemistry, it involves an electrolysis process which increases the weight of Hydrogen. In atomic fission it was found that heavy water acted as a kind of brake fluid which slowed neutron bombardment and thus allowed fission to proceed more easily.  This was invaluable in experiments aimed at creating an atomic bomb.

During the war the Germans were using the factory at Vermork to produce heavy water and the fear of allied scientists was that it could hasten their production of atomic weaponry.  Stopping that production was seen as essential and so plans were hatched for one of the wars most daring sabotage operations.  

In October 1942, four Norwegians parachuted west of Rjukan, took shelter and began collecting intelligence on the heavy water production to feed back to the U.K.  Then in November a British team of 34 specially trained troops were sent in 2 gliders to attack the heavy water plant but, tragically, both planes crashed and most of the soldiers were killed in the crash while any survivors were captured and executed by the Germans.

The four commandos that had been feeding back intelligence retreated to spend a harsh winter living on the nearby barren and remote Hardanger Plateau before a supporting party were sent to join them in February 1943.  On the evening of February 27th the commandos descended through extremely challenging terrain to the plant, sneaked inside and planted timed charges on the vital heavy water cell.  The Germans were taken completely by surprise.

The troops then retreated on skis to the relative safety of the plateau and eventually one group skied to safety in Sweden and the others stayed nearby, evading capture from the Germans, and continually feeding back vital information to Allied Command.  There was even another part of the fascinating story where Norwegian paratroopers also placed charges on the ferry the Germans were using to transport the water.  

They were audacious raids and the story is told graphically in the classic film The Heroes of Telemark and a viewing of that should, I suggest, be essential viewing for anyone visiting Rjukan.  A postscript to the story was that the Germans rebuilt the factory and, to counter this new threat, the Americans sent 140 flying fortresses to bomb the factory and power station.  The Germans were forced to abandon all plans for production but sadly 20 Norwegian lives were lost in the raid.  There is a fascinating museum in the valley that makes a great rest day destination.

Posted by Paul

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