On ice climbing visits to Rjukan (Norway) we are reminded of the town’s place in wartime history. The Heroes of Telemark shares the story.
Norway is a joyful place to visit. The Friendly and welcoming locals, the Scandinavian level of organisation and the beautiful scenery. There are also many great opportunities for all types of action sports. We never tire of visiting this wonderful country. Many of our visits focus 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 original Rjukan guide book after this mysterious substance and climbing ice can certainly feel like you are ascending some heavy force of nature. The term actually links to an ingenious piece of chemistry that became integral to Hitler’s plan for domination. The Americans discovered heavy water in 1933. It involves an electrolysis process which increases the weight of Hydrogen. Heavy water acts as a kind of brake fluid to slow neutron bombardment in atomic fission. This allows fission to proceed more easily. It proved invaluable for experiments aimed at creating an atomic bomb.
During the war the Germans were using the factory at Vermork to produce heavy water and allied scientists feared it could hasten their production of atomic weaponry. Stopping production was essential. The allies hatched plans. What unfolded was one of the wars most daring sabotage operations.
In October 1942 four Norwegians parachuted in west of Rjukan. They took shelter and began collecting intelligence on the heavy water production. The info was fed back to the U.K. A British team of 34 specially trained troops flew in 2 gliders to attack the heavy water plant. Both planes tragically crashed. Many soldiers were killed in the crash and any survivors were executed by the Germans.
The four commandos that had been feeding back intelligence retreated to the remote Hardanger Plateau which sits above Rjukan. The Heroes of Telemark were forced to spend a harsh winter waiting for back up. A support party joined them in February 1943. On the evening of February 27th the commandos descended through extremely challenging terrain to the plant. They sneaked inside and planted timed charges on the vital heavy water cell. They took the Germans completely by surprise.
After the raid the troops retreated on skis to the relative safety of the plateau. One group skied to safety in Sweden and the others stayed nearby. They managed to continue evading the Germans and feeding back information to Allied Command. Paratroopers also destroyed the ferry being used to transport processed water.
The Heroes of Telemark film depicts the raid and a viewing is surely essential for anyone visiting Rjukan. The Germans were able to repair the damaged factory. The Americans sent 140 flying fortresses to bomb the factory and power station. They had tried to avoid this option due to risk to the local population. Future production plans halted but the raid cost the lives of 20 locals. There is a fascinating museum in the valley that makes a great rest day destination.