Military history

5. THE TRAGEDY IN TROMSÖ

EINAR HAD come back that afternoon from a visit to Tromsö. Everyone there had been talking of Toftefjord and its sequel; and although the people were used to brutality, they were aghast at the pitiless drama which had reached its grim climax in their town. In fact, what Einar told Jan that night is a sombre story of inhumanity. It is told here not because there is pleasure in telling it, but because without it the full contrasting picture cannot be drawn of the compassion and kindliness of the people who helped the only survivor; for all of them were familiar with the German technique of occupation and knew quite well what punishment they would suffer if they were caught.

Although Einar, and everyone else in north Norway, knew the outline of the story a day or two after it happened, it was not till the end of the war that its details were discovered. They were given then in evidence in trials in Norwegian courts.

When the shopkeeper made the fateful decision after his sleepless night and telephoned to his friend the official, the official himself was faced with a dilemma. He was a member of the Norwegian Nazi party, whose leader Quisling had been appointed head of the puppet government by the Germans; but this fact did not mean in itself that he had Nazi inclinations. Soon after the occupation of Norway began many people in minor Government posts received a circular letter from the Germans simply saying that unless they joined the party they would be dismissed from office. In the south, a lot of them were able to consult each other when they got this ultimatum, and they agreed to reject it. So many refused to join that they succeeded in calling the Germans’ bluff and retained their offices. But in the scattered districts of the north, where it might be two days’ journey for one of them to visit another, each of them had to face this problem on his own; and a great many of them decided, or persuaded themselves, rightly or wrongly, that if they did sign on as members they would be able to protect the interests of the people, whereas if they refused they would be replaced by a German nominee. The man the shopkeeper knew was one of these.

In any case, Nazi or not, it was certainly his nominal duty, as a Government servant, to report any story so strange as the one which the shopkeeper told him that morning. Perhaps he did it unwillingly. Perhaps he argued that already a dozen people had heard it, and that now the shopkeeper had begun to talk there was nothing to stop him from telling everyone. More over, the shopkeeper had told it to him on the telephone, and most of the telephones there were on party lines. Anyone could listen to interesting conversations, and everyone did. The story was bound to spread, and the Germans were bound to hear it; and then the official himself would be the first to suffer.

At all events, as soon as the shopkeeper had rung off, the official put in a call to Tromsö. With what feelings he did it, nobody but himself will ever know.

First he rang the police station, but it was still early in the morning and the constable on duty wrote down the report and said he would show it to his chief at half-past nine. He also rang a friend of his in Ribbenesöy, to ask him if he had seen any strangers, and if there was really a boat in Toftefjord. This friend had not seen anything himself; but the shopkeeper had just rung him up and told him all about it. Then the official, feeling perhaps that things were moving too quickly for him, put in a call to police headquarters. He was given another rebuff. They told him to take his own boat and go over to Toftefjord to see if the story was true.

This idea did not attract him in the least, so he called his assistant and told him to do it. The assistant went off to borrow a boat from a neighbour, but as he had not had his breakfast he sat down to a cup of coffee with the neighbour before he embarked. In the meantime the official was struck by a better idea, and rang up his friend in Ribbenesöy again and asked him to go overland to see if there was anything in Toftefjord. The friend said he was too old to go climbing at that time in the morning. But he sent a small boy; and some time in the forenoon, unknown to the Brattholm’s crew, the boy peered over the crest of the hills and saw the top of a mast in Toftefjord, and did not dare to go nearer, and ran home to confirm the story.

When he heard this, the official rang the police headquarters again. He could assure them now that the boat had really been seen, and he hoped they agreed that there was no point in his going unarmed to investigate. He thought they should tell the Gestapo. But they rang off without giving him any definite answer; and some time in the morning, he rang the Gestapo himself.

It seems clear when one reads this story, with its incongruous elements of inefficiency and farce, that all the Norwegian police prevaricated on purpose. No doubt they hoped that if they delayed the report for an hour or two it would help the strangers in Toftefjord, whoever they were, to make good their escape. But as the crew of the Brattholm did not know they had been betrayed, this effort to help them was wasted. It is said that at the very moment when the German ship was sighted off Toftefjord two rowing boats were entering the fjord to warn the Brattholm. One of them was probably manned by the two fishermen who were going to hide the cargo, but nobody knows who was in the other one. In any case, they were too late. Both of them stopped when the German ship bore down on them, and the men in them put out lines and pretended to be fishing.

The people of Tromsö knew nothing of the fight till the German ship got back there. Then they saw prisoners being landed, and men carried ashore on stretchers. Within a few hours, the story was whispered throughout the town, and some hundreds of citizens were in fear of their safety.

Tromsö claims to be the biggest town in the Arctic, and it is the metropolis of an enormous area; but for all that, it is not very big: about the size of an average English market town. It is so far from other towns that it is more than usually self-contained. It would be an exaggeration to say that everyone knows everyone else; but certainly everyone knows its more prominent people. Its interests are fishing and whaling and arctic furs, and the general business of a small seaport. During the occupation, its modest and peaceful affairs were swamped by the demands of a German headquarters, and its society was riven by the chasms of political beliefs. It had its few traitors, despised and ostracised by everybody else; and it had a new form of society, in which money counted for very little, united by an implacable loathing of Germans which was never experienced in England or America.

By the time that the Brattholm landed, the town had already organised itself to combat the effects of the occupation as well as it could. Active opposition had been out of the question without direct help from England; there were probably more Germans than Norwegians in north Norway. But some things could be done, and at least preparations could be made for the end of the occupation. Eight of the leading citizens had combined to build up an organisation to collect intelligence and make plans to administer the town and the surrounding country on the day of the Germans’ defeat. They expected this day from season to season throughout the five years; each Christmas they believed it would come in the spring, and each spring they looked forward to the autumn. They had sent messengers to Sweden and got into touch with the free Norwegian embassy in Stockholm, and through Stockholm with their government in London. They had been sent a radio transmitter and it was installed in the loft of the state hospital in the town.

Apart from sending a radio message from time to time when the Germans did anything which seemed of particular interest, perhaps the most important thing which an organisation of this sort could do was to befriend people who got into serious trouble. Many men who would have opposed the Germans when they found they had a chance, or when a decision was forced upon them, had had to give in, in the early days, for fear of what would happen to their wives and children if they were arrested. It strengthened their will to resist if they knew there was somebody who would see that their families did not starve if they themselves were imprisoned or banished to Germany. The organisation in Tromsö had this matter extremely well arranged. It could call on funds from all the rich people and business houses in the town. The family of a man who suffered at the hands of the Germans was cared for without any question. When the crisis of the capture of Brattholm broke upon them, they were actually disbursing £2000 a week in secret to widows and orphans and the dependents of local men who had been arrested by the Germans or forced to flee the country.

It was never intended that the sabotage organisation which the Brattholm party was to found should have any connection with this existing spontaneous intelligence and relief organisation. The two things were always kept separate in Norway, so that if one was broken open, the Germans could not necessarily penetrate the other. But the names of the two men in Tromsö which had been given to Eskeland and his party as their principal contacts were Thor Knudesn and Kaare Moursund. These men had been chosen, without their knowledge, merely because they were known to be patriotic; but they were actually two of the eight leaders of the Tromsö organisation.

As soon as Jan heard from Einar in Bjorneskar that some of his companions were alive and in the Gestapo’s hands, he knew that Knudsen and Moursund ought to be warned. He could not possibly go into Tromsö himself without any papers, so he asked Einar if he would do it for him. Einar agreed; but whether he ever went there is not known. If he did, he would have been too late; because both men had already been arrested.

These two arrests set Tromsö in a ferment of excitement and apprehension. Both the men were well-known in the town. Knudsen was the managing editor of one of the two local papers, and Moursund the office manager of the coastal shipping line. Knudsen was the actual man who distributed money for the organisation in secret charities. Several of his colleagues in the newspaper office were involved in his illegal activities, notably the editor, whose name is Sverre Larsen, and the owner, Larsen’s father, whom the Germans had already dismissed from his own paper for his views. The arrests were totally unexpected. No one believed that Knudsen or Moursund had known the Brattholm was coming, but it seemed only too clear that the Brattholm’s men had known these two names and were then, at that very moment, under Gestapo pressure. How many other names did they know? Would Knudsen and Moursund be put to torture? There was not a man in Tromsö that night with any pretentions to patriotism who did not know that his own hour might be at hand. Those who were closest to the two arrested men went home to prepare their own wives for a parting which it was useless to pretend would not be final, and to prepare themselves for the sudden imperious hammering on the door, and for the crippling pain which had to be borne in silence.

Meanwhile, the shopkeeper and the official were called to town and courteously fêted by the Germans. Neither of these somewhat simple men was any match for the questioning at which the Gestapo were so remarkably skillful whether they used torture or threats or flattery. It is very unlikely that they hid anything which they knew, whether they wanted to or not. They were thanked by the Germans, and congratulated on their excellent work, and rewarded with money and food and cigarettes and two dozen bottles of brandy. It may be supposed that there in the town they first felt the depth of the wrath of their neighbours against them. The gifts of the Germans perhaps had a bitter taste.

The next people to be arrested were, unexpectedly, the two fishermen who had promised to hide the cargo. Nobody ever discovered who had given their names to the Germans. The shopkeeper denied it. There is a possibility that the names were extracted from the crew, or that the two men were caught and questioned when they were rowing into Toftefjord, and gave themselves away. It was hard that these men were taken, because they did not even know that the cargo had come from England.

The state of tension in Tromsö did not last very much longer. While it lasted, it was in all truth hardly bearable, and it could not have been sustained for very long. During the day after the first arrests, the men who had every reason to expect to be among the next to go went on with their business as usual, because to have done anything else would have focused suspicion on themselves. The newspaper had to be written and printed, to take a single example. But it was hardly possible for them to give the appearance of normal living, or to keep their thoughts or their eyes away from the shuttered windows of the great grey Gestapo building in the middle of the town, where they knew their own names might be shouted aloud when agony went at last beyond endurance.

On the third day the news became known that the Brattholm men were dead and Knudsen and Moursund deported. It seems callous to say that the news of these deaths was heard with relief, and it is true that the thought of the barbarous deeds which had been done in their town shocked the townspeople profoundly; but the men themselves could only have wished that their end would come quickly.

Exactly what was done with them did not become known till after the war was over, when their bodies were exhumed for Christian burial and their executioners were put on trial.

Of the twelve men of the expedition, Jan had escaped, and one man had been killed in the fight in Toftefjord. The other ten were all brought to Tromsö alive, although several of them were wounded. Eight of them were shot chained together on the outskirts of the town, and thrown into a common grave. The other two were tortured to the point of death and then put in the Catholic hospital, where they died.

The details of these executions are known, but they are not a thing to be written or read about. Two men were selected for torture in the hope that they would talk; but the shooting of the other eight was accompanied by acts of ferocity which were absolutely aimless. Countries which are civilised and yet have recourse to execution have evolved the convention of the firing-squad and the one or two blank rounds. This protects the conscience of people whose duty compels them to act as executioners. The method the Germans used in Tromsö was the very opposite of this. Yet it was done in strictest secrecy. There was no question of making use of cruelty as a deterrent to other people. It can only have been done as it was for one possible reason: to amuse the executioners. The Germans made it an orgy of hideous delight.

It is not known whether one of the men who were tortured gave Knudsen’s and Moursund’s names to the torturers. It would not be surprising if they did, and no one would have the right to blame them. But it is equally possible that the activities of these two men were already known to the Germans, and that they were arrested on mere suspicion of complicity in the Brattholm affair. Both of them died in concentration camps in Germany, and so did the two fishermen Andreasson and Kristiansen.

So when the shopkeeper played for safety, and the official did what he afterwards claimed was his duty, their actions cost fifteen lives. Yet it is not for an Englishman, who has never lived under the rule of the Germans, to pass judgment on what they did. Their own countrymen judged them hardly. In a few moments of panic, they both threw away their peace of mind for ever. For the rest of the war, their lives were made a misery by their neighbours, and after it ended, the shopkeeper was sentenced by a Norwegian court to eight years’ hard labour, and the official to fourteen.

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