The Allied success in World War II is greatly owed to small, clandestine resistance groups sent into occupied territory to perform some of the most important missions in human history.
One particular squad, made up of highly-trained Norwegian resistance fighters, was single-handedly responsible for sabotaging the Nazi’s attempts to build nuclear weaponry.
This group of fearless men was led by Joachim Rønneberg. The Norwegian saboteur, hailed a hero by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, has died at age 99.
Jeg har i dag fått beskjeden om at krigshelten Joachim Rønneberg er død, 99 år gammel. Han var en av våre fremste…
Rønneberg was just 23-years-old when he parachuted with his crack team onto a snowy mountain range in Norway. Their target was the Vemork hydroelectric power plant, where the Germans were storing deuterium oxide, a rare fluid essential in the creation of an atomic bomb.
At the time and for some years afterwards, Rønneberg said that he and his team didn’t realise the importance of the mission. He told the BBC in 2013 that they only knew it was “crucial to destroy tanks of liquid at the plant”.
It wasn’t until after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that the penny dropped.
“Because then we knew that what we had done had been of great importance. But not until then,” he said.
The operation, code-named ‘Gunnerside’, was one that had significant importance to Rønneberg personally. He was one of many that had fled Norway after Germany invaded in April of 1940, and wasn’t going to sit and watch quietly as the Nazis took his homeland.
Determined to make a difference, he flew to Britain and trained with the U.K.’s Special Operations Executive. After months of training, he was ready to do his part to fight the Axis powers.
The operation to sabotage the plant was an exceedingly dangerous one, with a low change of survival. After landing on the side of a snowy mountain, the group had to ski and climb their way to the plant, avoiding enemy troops along the way.
Speaking of his squad mates, Rønneberg said:
“I couldn’t have a better party to follow me. We were a gang of friends doing a job together.”
The gang escaped with a bit of luck and a helluva lot of skill. After they infiltrated the site and planted the explosives, they were left with only 30 seconds to vacate the premises.
Understandably, Rønneberg said that this one was of the more nerve-racking moments of the mission. The could have been discovered, or the bomb could have blown, at any moment. They left the plant and scrambled to climb the mountainside nearby.
“We heard a tiny, insignificant pop…it was almost an anticlimax,” Rønneberg told the Associated Press.
Seeing that they hadn’t been expected to survive, the return journey was a bit of a mess. They had been given the vague instruction to head to Sweden, with no way of doing so. They decided to make their way on skis.
After two weeks of avoiding German troops and 250 miles of travel, they finally arrived in Sweden.
Rønneberg said that it was “the best skiing weekend I ever had.”
The mission had long-lasting effects on the Nazi’s attempts to build a nuclear bomb. It also allowed the Allies extra time to send in other sabotage missions, further crippling Germany’s hold on Norway.
The team’s brave mission hasn’t gone totally unnoticed. Rønneberg and his commandos were the inspiration for the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, and The Heavy Water War, a recent six-part series produced by Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
After the war Rønneberg became a popular journalist well-known for his public addresses emphasising the need to continue the fight for freedom and peace.
I guess that’s how we can keep the memory of heroes like Rønneberg alive — by respecting their sacrifice and continuing the fight for peace in any way that we can.