Military history


EVEN AT the end of March, on the Arctic coast of northern Norway, there is no sign of spring. By then, the polar winter night is over. At midwinter, it has been dark all day; at midsummer, the sun will shine all night; and in between, at the vernal equinox, the days draw out so quickly that each one is noticeably longer than the last. But the whole land is still covered thickly with ice and snow to the very edge of the sea. There is nothing green at all: no flowers or grass, and no buds on the stunted trees. Sometimes there are clear days at that time of year, and then the coast glitters with a blinding brilliance in the sunlight; but more often it is swept by high winds and hidden by frozen mist and driven snow.

It was on that coast, on the 29th of March, 1943, that this story really began. On that day a fishing-boat made landfall there, six days out from the Shetland Islands, with twelve men on board. Its arrival in those distant enemy waters in the third year of the war, within sight of a land which was occupied by the Germans, was the result of a lot of thought and careful preparation; but within a day of its arrival all the plans which had been made were blown to pieces, and everything which happened after that, the tragedies and adventures and self-sacrifice, and the single triumph, was simply a matter of chance; not the outcome of any plan at all, but only of luck, both good and bad, and of courage and faithfulness.

That particular day was sunny, as it happened, and the twelve men watched it dawn with intense excitement. It is always exciting to make the land after a dangerous voyage; the more so when one’s ship approaches the land at night, so that when daylight comes a coast is revealed already close at hand. In that landfall there was an extra excitement for those men, because they were all Norwegians, and most of them were about to see their homeland for the first time since they had been driven out of it by the German invasion nearly three years before. Above all, here was the supreme excitement of playing a dangerous game. Eight of the twelve were the crew of the fishing-boat. They had sailed it safely across a thousand miles of the no-man’s-land of ocean, and had to sail it back when they had landed their passengers and cargo. The other four were soldiers trained in guerrilla warfare. Their journey had two objectives, one general and one particular. In general, they were to establish themselves ashore and spend the summer training the local people in the arts of sabotage; and in particular, in the following autumn they were to attack a great German military airfield called Bardufoss. In the hold of the boat, they had eight tons of explosives, weapons, food and arctic equipment, and three radio transmitters.

As the day dawned, they felt as a gambler might feel if he had staked his whole fortune on a system he believed in; except, of course, that they had staked their lives, which makes a gamble even more exciting. They believed that in a Norwegian fishing-boat they could bluff their way through the German coast defences, and they believed that with their plans and equipment they could live ashore on that barren land in spite of the arctic weather and the German occupation; and on these beliefs their lives depended. If they were wrong, nobody could protect them. They were beyond the range of any help from England. So far, it had all gone well; so far, there was no sign that the Germans were suspicious. But the gleaming mountains which they sighted to the southward, so beautiful and serene in the morning light, were full of menace. Among them the German coast watchers were posted, and soon, in the growing light, they would see the fishing-boat, alone on the glittering sea. That morning would put the first of the theories to the test, and that night or the next would bring the boat and its crew to the climax of the journey: the secret landing.

At that time, in 1943, that remote and thinly populated coast had suddenly had world-wide importance thrust upon it. Normally, in time of peace, there is no more peaceful place than the far north of Norway. For two months every summer there is a tourist season, when foreigners come to see the mountains and the Lapps and the midnight sun; but for the other ten months of the year, the people who live there eke out a humble livelihood by fishing and working small farms along the water’s edge. They are almost cut off from the world outside, by the sea in front of them and the Swedish frontier at their backs, and by bad weather and darkness, and by the vast distance they have to travel to reach the capital of their own country or any other centre of civilization. They live a hard life, but a very placid one. They are not harassed by many of the worries which beset people in cities or in more populous countrysides. They take little account of time.

But when the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, the thousand miles of Atlantic seaboard which fell into their hands was the greatest strategical asset which they won; and when Russia entered the war, the far northernmost end of the coast became even more important, and even more valuable to Germany. The allied convoys to the Russian arctic ports, Archangel and Murmansk, had to pass through the narrow strip of open sea between the north of Norway and the arctic ice; and it was from north Norway that the Germans attacked them with success which had sometimes been overwhelming. Bardufoss was the base for their air attacks and their reconnaissance, and the coast itself provided a refuge for submarines and a safe passage from German harbours all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as the Germans had installed themselves on the northern coast, their position was impregnable. It was a thousand miles from the nearest allied base, and the country could not have been better for defence. A screen of islands twenty miles wide protects it from the sea, and among the islands are innumerable sounds through which defending forces could maneuver by sea in safety. The mainland itself is divided by a series of great fjords, with mountainous tongues of land between them. Beyond the heads of the fjords is a high plateau, uninhabited and mostly unsurveyed, snow-covered for nine months of the year; and across the plateau, marked by a cairn here and there among its deserted hills, is the frontier of Sweden, which was a neutral country then, entirely surrounded by others under German occupation. To attack the Germans in arctic Norway with any normal military force was quite impossible. Every island and every fjord could have become a fortress; and if the Germans had ever found themselves hard pressed in northern Norway, they could have reinforced their position by occupying Sweden, which would not have been to the advantage of the Allies.

In these circumstances, the voyage which had come to its end on the March morning had a possible importance out of all proportion to the size of the expedition. Great hopes of its outcome were held in London. Only four men were to be landed, but they were quite capable, with a little luck, of putting the air base at Bardufoss out of action long enough for a convoy to have a chance of getting through undetected; and the time was also ripe for the training of local people. The great majority of Norwegians up there would have gladly taken some positive action against the Germans, and would have done it long before if they had had any weapons and any instructions on how to set about it. Once the training was started, it would grow like a snowball.

The only reason why nothing of the kind had been done in Norway before was that it was so difficult to get there. Small parties of men on skis could get over the mountains across the border from Sweden, and a radio transmitter had been taken in that way and was installed in the town of Tromsö. But a saboteur’s equipment was much too bulky and heavy to carry across the mountains, or to smuggle past the Swedes. The only way to take it was by sea.

By that time, a great many landings had been made in the southern part of Norway by fishing-boats fitted with hidden armament, which sailed from a base in Shetland, and the resistance movement down there was well supplied and flourishing. But none of these boats, up till then, had tackled such a long and risky journey as the one to the north of Norway. The boat which had just accomplished it had come from the Shetland base. Its name was the Brattholm. It was 75 feet long, and had a single-cylinder engine which gave it a speed of eight knots. Its appearance had been carefully preserved, so that it looked like any Norwegian fishing-boat, and it had false registration numbers painted on its bows. But it was armed with seven machine-guns hidden on mountings on deck, and each of its passengers had his own spare machine-gun stowed somewhere where he could get it in a hurry.

The date when it sailed from Shetland, in the third week in March, had been a compromise which was not entirely satisfactory for anybody. The skipper and crew of the boat had to make up their minds between sailing in the depth of winter, when they would have the cover of the arctic night but would also have to weather the arctic storms, or in the late spring or early autumn, when the weather would probably be rather more moderate but the German defences, and their air patrols in particular, would have the advantage of daylight. On the whole, from the skipper’s point of view, it would have been better to go earlier than March, because his boat was sound and fit to stand up to any weather. But the passengers also had to be considered. If they had been landed in the worst of winter weather they might not have been able to keep themselves alive after they got ashore.

But still, the choice of March had been justified in so far as the voyage had been a success. The weather had not been bad. The little boat had felt very conspicuous to the people on board it as it slowly steamed northwards day after day, but it had only been sighted once, by a German aircraft about three hundred miles from land; and this aircraft, which was probably on a weather reconnaissance flight and not really concerned with stray fishing-boats, had only circled round and then flown away.

So it seemed that whatever happened when they were sighted from the shore, at least the shore defences could not have been warned about them, and would have no reason to guess that the humble boat they saw in front of them had crossed a thousand miles of the Atlantic. But it still remained to be seen whether the coast watchers would be deceived by Brattholm’s innocent appearance. It had worked often enough farther south, but on a new bit of coast there was always the risk of infringing some local fishing regulation and so giving the game away. For all that the crew or the passengers knew, they might be pretending to fish in the middle of a minefield, or an artillery range, or some other kind of forbidden area, because nobody had been able to tell them before they left Shetland exactly where these kinds of defences were.

At the tense moment of the dawn, all the four passengers were on deck. Wars often bring together people of very different character, and these four were as varied in experience and background as any four Norwegians could have been. Their leader was a man in his middle forties called Sigurd Eskeland. As a young man, he had emigrated to South America, and he had spent most of his adult life in the back of beyond in Argentina running a fur farm. On the day when he heard on the radio that Norway had been invaded, he got on his horse and left his farm in the hands of his partner, and rode to the nearest town to volunteer by cable for the air force. The air force turned him down on account of his age, but he worked his way to England and joined the army instead. He got into the Commandos, and then transferred to the Linge Company, which was the name of the military unit which trained agents and saboteurs for landing in occupied Norway. Long ago, before he went abroad, he had been a postal inspector in north Norway, so that he remembered something about the district he had been assigned to.

The other three men were very much younger. There was a radio operator called Salvesen, who was a member of a well-known shipping family. He had been a first mate in the Merchant Navy when Norway came into the war; but after a time that defensive job had begun to bore him, and when he heard of the Linge Company he volunteered to join it as an agent.

The other two were specialists in small arms and explosives, and they were close friends who had been through a lot of queer experiences together. Both of them were twenty-six years old. One was called Per Blindheim. He was the son of a master baker in Alesund on the west coast of Norway, and is in his youth he served his time on the bread round. Superficially, he was a gay and very handsome young man in the Viking tradition, tall and fair and blue-eyed; but hidden beneath his boyish appearance and behaviour, he had a most compelling sense of justice. When the Russians attacked Finland, it seemed to him so wrong that he threw up his job and left the home to join the Finnish army. When the World War began and his own country was invaded, he hurried back and fought against the Germans; and when the battle for Norway was lost, he set off for England to begin it all over again, escaping from the Germans by way of Russia, the country against which he had fought a few months before.

The other one of this pair of friends, and the fourth of the land party, was Jan Baalsrud. To look at, Jan was a contrast to Per; he had dark hair and grey-blue eyes, and was of a smaller build altogether. But he had the same youthful quality, combined with the same hidden serious turn of mind; a depth of feeling which neither of those two would show to strangers, but one which all four of the men must have needed to carry them through the hardships of their training and bring them to where they were.

Jan had been apprenticed to his father, who was an instrument maker in Oslo, and had only just started his career when the invasion came. He had fought in the army, and escaped to Sweden when there was no chance to fight any more. By then he had discovered a taste for adventure, and he volunteered as a courier between Stockholm and Oslo, and began to travel to and fro between neutral Sweden and occupied Norway, in the service of the escape organisation which the Norwegians had founded. Luckily for him, he was caught and arrested by the Swedes before he was caught by the Germans. They sentenced him to five months’ imprisonment, but after he had served three months of his sentence he was let out and given a fortnight to leave the country.

This was easier ordered than done; but he got a Russian visa and flew to Moscow, where he landed inauspiciously among Russian celebrations of German victories. However, the Russians treated him well and sent him down to Odessa on the Black Sea; and it was while he was waiting there for a ship that he first met Per Blindheim, who was on the same errand. The two travelled together to England by way of Bulgaria, Egypt, Aden, Bombay, South Africa, America and Newfoundland. When they got to London, the first of the sights that they went to see was Piccadilly Circus; and while they were standing looking rather glumly at this symbol of their journey’s end, and wondering what was going to happen next, Jan saw in the crowd an English officer he had known in Stockholm. This man recruited them both forthwith for the Linge Company, and there they found a job which fulfilled all their hopes of adventure.

These, then, were the four men who stood on the deck that March morning at the climax of a year of preparation. They had trained together in the highlands of Scotland, doing forced marches of thirty and forty miles with packs across the mountains, living out in the snow, studying weapons and underground organisation, doing their quota of parachute jumps, and learning to draw and cock an automatic and score six hits on a half-man-sized target at five yards, all in a space of three seconds; finally learning all the vulnerable points of airfields; and incidentally, enjoying themselves tremendously. They were tough and healthy, and elated at the imminence of danger; and very confident of being able to look after themselves, whatever the dawn might bring.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!