Marvelous Man Monday

Since the President of this country continues to lean into his Nazi ways, let’s talk about a man who worked to STOP NAZIS. Last week, World War II hero Joachim Rønneberg passed away at age 99. Joachim and his fellow compatriots totally f*cked the Nazis and this is, in my not so humble opinion, one of the greatest stories in history.

Joachim was born in Ålesund, Norway in 1919. In 1940, Germany invaded Norway and occupied his country.

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In 1941, at age 21, Joachim escaped to Scotland with eight friends. He joined the Norwegian-exile special forces and received military training while in the UK. By 1942, the British knew that Germany was working in Norway to develop a nuclear weapon. Norsk Hydro in Vermork, Norway was the first plant capable of producing heavy water. Deuterium Oxide or “heavy water” is a type of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. This isotope was needed to moderate the energy of neutrons so that the chain reactions could be controlled and create a greater source of power.

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In October 1942, the British began operations to destroy Norsk Hydro. They knew an air attack would likely be unsuccessful due to the extra reinforcement of the basement holding the heavy water. They also did not want to cause unnecessary casualties to the Norwegians working there. The British decided they would have to sabotage the plant from the ground. They commenced Operation Grouse where they dropped local Norwegian commandos into the surrounding area to act as an advance force.

The second wave was Operation Freshman where British engineers would be delivered via military glider. This was a disaster. Two bombers each towed a glider which carried two pilots and 15 engineers. One plane crashed in the mountains, and while the glider managed to crash land, several more men were killed upon impact. The second plane encountered bad weather which caused the tow rope to break on the second glider. Several crew members were killed in the landing. The Norwegians were unable to get to the crash site in time, and the survivors were captured by the Gestapo and eventually executed. In all, 41 men died in the operation.

The Norwegian Grouse team on the ground was still functional, so the British planned a second operation with them. Joachim had been promoted to First Lieutenant, and was charged with selecting and training a six-man team to join the operation. Operation Gunnerside began on the night of Feb. 16, 1943 when Joachim’s team combined with the Grouse members to parachute into the Telemark area.

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Progress was quickly halted after they had to spend a week in a cabin due to a blizzard. Once the weather cleared, they moved out. One man was designated to go on his own and maintain radio contact with London while the other nine headed for the plant with rations, explosives, and a pair of metal shears that Joachim had purchased in London. They skied in the dead of night in white snowsuits to the edge of the gorge which was a sheer drop to the Måna River 600 feet below. The plant was located on a ledge on the opposite side. There was a guarded suspension bridge leading to the front of the plant. The back held a railway line and barracks with guards and a wire fence.

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Joachim and his friends had NO PLAN. No plan!! They were “just hoping for the best.” It should be noted that Joachim was only 23. Part of me thinks “whoa that is way too young for this kind of nonsense,” but the other part of me thinks maybe 23 is the perfect age for believing you can actually be successful in this kind of situation. I know men in their 30s who cannot even manage their basic needs like cooking for themselves and doing their laundry.

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Back to the story. The men watched the guards change for hours, then moved 75 yards upstream where the DESCENDED INTO THE GORGE. They did not even have climbing gear. They clung to shrubs and branches to try and break their falls. They just FELL DOWN THE GORGE. Crazy kids! They then crossed the river on an ice bridge (NOPE) and trudged up the other side of the gorge through waist-deep snow.

The men had memorized the blueprints for the plant and had practiced setting their explosive charges on dummy targets. Despite their understanding of the mission, they did not realize the true value of the target. They were told that the plant manufactured heavy water and that it could be used to make bombs “to blow up a good part of London,” but several believed this was an exaggeration to ensure they took the assignment seriously. The men knew that they would likely not make it out of the plant, and each carried a cyanide pill in case they were captured alive.

Five men concealed themselves behind storage sheds to fire upon guards if necessary. Joachim and three others broke through a gate with the shears and made it into the compound. The exterior doors were all locked, but Frederick Kayser and Joachim squeezed through a small duct and were lucky enough to land right in the heavy-water production center. They found the area unguarded with only a single worker at a desk (who they silenced by holding him at gunpoint).

Joachim began attaching the explosives to the water tanks before two others finally joined them after having successfully broken in through windows. The men set fuses on 30 second timers (STRESS), lit them, and then ran for it. As they ran across the compound, they heard the sound of explosions and sirens starting to wail. By the time the Germans were out of their barracks, the men were out of sight.

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The Germans sent 2,800 soldiers to find the men. By sunrise, Joachim and his team were well into their 280-mile trek to Sweden. Amazingly, all of the men escaped alive without firing a single shot. They successfully destroyed the cylinders which emptied 1,100 pounds of heavy water down the drain.

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It took the Germans months to rebuild and restore production, but the plant was hit again by Allied bombers that November. Hitler ordered the project be moved to Germany, but the ferry carrying the last of the heavy water was hit and sunk by the resistance in 1944. This ended Germany’s hope of an atomic weapon. There is debate among historians as to whether or not Hitler would have actually been successful in developing nuclear weapons, but most agree that scientific error and the Norwegian saboteurs caused the certain failure of the project.

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Joachim continued leading other attacks on German supply lines and served through the end of the war. King Haakon VII honored him with Norway’s highest decoration for valor, the War Cross With Sword. He was also awarded with the Distinguished Service Order from Britain, the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre from France, and the Medal of Freedom with silver palm from the United States (known today as the Presidential Medal of Freedom).

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Post-war, Joachim worked as a journalist and program director at NRK public broadcasting network in Norway. He retired in 1988. He married Liv Folda in 1949 and had three children. He was involved in war information work and lectured around the country, but particularly loved sharing his stories with schoolchildren. In April 2013, Joachim was presented with a Union Jack during a London ceremony to commemorate 70 years since their mission. In 2014, a statue was unveiled in Ålesund to commemorate his service.

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In 2015, Norway ran the miniseries “The Heavy Water War” about the men involved in thwarting the Nazis at Norsk Hydro. Joachim was glad that the series introduced younger generations to their wartime history, but was annoyed that the names of the men who ran the plant were changed. The men had collaborated with the Nazis, and Joachim believe that their real identities should not be concealed as it prevented a full reckoning of their actions. AGREED.

Joachim passed on October 21, 2018 after 99 years incredible years of life.

Joachim Rønneberg, age 93, led the famous sabotage action in Telemark during World War II. He was hailed once again by modern-day special forces, 70 years after Rønneberg and his team became national and international heroes. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Additional reading:

I have not read this, but it looks good: “The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb“

“Joachim Ronneberg, Leader of Raid That Thwarted a Nazi Atomic Bomb, Dies at 99“

“Joachim Ronneberg, saboteur who crippled Nazi atomic bomb project, dies at 99“

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