Today is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, “Victory in Europe Day,” in 1945. It was a bigger commemoration when I was a boy, when those events were still recent history to all the grownups I knew.
In Norway it’s known as Frigjøringsdag, “Liberation Day.” The bit of newsreel footage I’ve posted above provides one of the more amusing moments of that event. A German commander, Oberst Karsch, marches up to British Air Commander Darrell, a big smile on his face, as if hoping to convince him it’s all been a big misunderstanding and to let bygones be bygones. Darrell is not amused, and appears to defer to his Norwegian colleagues.
It’s an important date. Too bad the Norwegians can’t celebrate it properly under current conditions.
Today is Maundy Thursday in the church calendar. The word “maundy” is related to the Latin root of the word “mandate,” meaning command. It’s a reference to Christ’s words at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give you, to love one another as I have loved you.”
This is a day for Holy Communion in many churches. Most traditional Lutherans aren’t doing the sacrament until the quarantine is over, though. Because we believe actual physical presence is necessary. (My own church is doing virtual communion online, but we’re kind of outlaws.)
April 9 is a sad day in Norwegian history. 80 years ago today, German troops marched into Oslo. They actually expected to be greeted as saviors, protecting the Norwegians from the British, who’d been violating Norwegian neutrality in various ways. The Norwegian government wasn’t quite sure what to do with them at first — after all, Hitler was (for the moment) allied with Stalin, who was a friend and benefactor to Norway’s ruling Labor Party. When the troops marched in, they got a police escort.
However, on that same day, Norwegian troops at Oscarsborg Fortress on the Oslofjord, under the command of Col. Birger Eriksen, fired on a German battleship. The Blucher was a brand-new ship; many of its crew were raw recruits on their first voyage. But among the personnel on board were Gestapo officers and other personnel whose assignment was to capture the Norwegian royal family and government. Because the ship had refused to respond to warning shots, Col. Eriksen determined that whoever they were (he didn’t know at that point), they were hostile and it was his duty to fire on them. His words were, “Either I will be decorated or I will be court-martialled. Fire!” His guns and ammunition were old, but they performed admirably. Both his battery’s shots hit, and the Blucher began burning. Further shots from secondary batteries caused further damage, and the Blucher sank with the loss of 650-800 soldiers and sailors (1,400 survived). The delay caused by the sinking gave the royal family and the government time to escape the city, and ultimately to flee to exile in England.
Aside from Atlantic Crossing, which I’ve told you about, I’ve done some other work having to do with Norway in World War II, which I still can’t tell you about. I hope they’re released eventually. I’m quite proud of them.
Pre-Christian pagans – Greeks and Romans and Nordic peoples, or redskins and Asiatic tribes – have usually conceived of the Golden Age as having been some time in the past. The present was hard, and the future was dark and full of menace. When the Christian Church began to speak and taught that God’s kingdom would come, it was in reality challenging people’s innermost convictions.
Inconstant and fickle as I am, I shall now contradict what I told you yesterday about blogging my way through The Conservative Mind. A small writing job came up which required me to bone up on Sigrid Undset, and I decided I needed to read an Undset book I’ve owned for a while but had not yet read – her 1942 war memoir, Return to the Future.
The original manuscript for Viking Legacy included a short passage from Undset, about the ancient piles of stones in Norway which have been cleared from the fields over the centuries. She declares them Norway’s “proudest monuments of antiquity” (my translation). Sadly, that passage (which I adored) was omitted from the final version. I didn’t realize, until I picked up Return to the Future, that it was the opening paragraph of that work.
In April 1940, as the Germans advanced northward in Norway, author Sigrid Undset left her home in Lillehammer in haste. She and her youngest son, Hans, fled with other refugees up to the coast at Molde, where they turned eastward toward the Swedish border, traveling at times on foot or on skis. It was only after their arrival in Sweden that they learned that her oldest son, Anders, an officer in the Norwegian army, had been killed in action. After a short stayover in Sweden, she and Hans took a Russian plane for a connection to the Trans-Siberian railroad.
The trip on the Trans-Siberian forms a large section of the
book, and does not present an appealing picture. Even traveling first class,
they found the accommodations (built under the Czars and badly maintained)
filthy, the food terrible, the compartments stifling (you could not open the
windows because of the soot, which got in anyway), and there was no running
water. What she saw of the country revealed nothing but poverty, filth, and dull,
lifeless faces. In spite of vaunted universal literacy, almost nobody read
anything. The Catholic Undset saw in Russia everything she already suspected
Arriving in Vladivostok, they take a steamer to Japan, and
it’s a whole different world. Though like the rest of the world she is appalled
by reports of Japanese atrocities in China, she can’t help but marvel at the beauty
of the clothing and the architecture, the delicate politeness of the people
(though they insist on ignoring her in favor of Hans, because he’s the male),
and the cleanliness everywhere. Her description of the Japanese leg of her trip
gives her the opportunity to meditate at length on the nature of politics and
power, and how the West has – to some extent – brought the war on itself through
treating non-westerners as if they were as materialistic as we are.
Her voyage ended in the United States, and she crossed our
country by train, finally settling in Brooklyn. But the book ends before her
arrival. One assumes it was brought out fairly quickly, as part of her campaign
to promote the cause of the Norwegian government in exile.
Return to the Future was interesting, both for the first-hand account of Norway under attack, and for Undset’s thoughts about international politics, morality and war. She spends a lot of time on the historical sins of the Germans (she baldly declares Martin Luther a “psychopath,” but I forgive her). The sense of the title, as I understand it, is that the Nazi invasion had plunged Norway back into the dark past, and that in coming to America she was returning to the “future” to which she was accustomed. The implication is that America had an obligation to bring that future back for the victims of the war. I would rate the translation by Henriette C. K. Naeseth as adequate, though I flatter myself that I could have done better.
In 1965, an English/American film called TheHeroes of Telemark was released. It starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian saboteurs attacking the German “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) production facility at Rjukan in Telemark during World War II. Heavy water was a necessary buffering agent in the German program to split the atom, presumably to produce an atomic bomb.
The film took a highly cinematic approach to the story, compressing all the action into a couple weeks and replacing the actual participants with fictionalized and combined characters. It found a mixed response in Norway, where people who’d been through the war complained that it took Kirk Douglas two weeks to do by himself what it took a whole team two years to accomplish in real life.
I kept thinking of that film as I read The Saboteur, Andrew Gross’s similarly (though not so thoroughly) fictionalized account of the same clandestine operations.
Kurt Nordstrum is a Norwegian engineer who leaves his career to join the Resistance – with tragic consequences in his personal life. When an engineer at the Norsk Hydro facility in Rjukan tells him and a comrade that they need to get some microfilm to the English immediately, they hijack a coastal steamer and – just barely – manage to escape to Scotland. Then he and his friend join Company Linge, the Norwegian commando unit, and are eventually airdropped back in Norway. Their mission, from which they do not expect to return alive, is to destroy the Heavy Water production facility. Kurt’s father used to tell him, “A true man goes on until he can go no further… and then he goes twice as far.” And that’s precisely what he and his team will be called on to do before it’s over.
Honestly, I found this a hard book to read, but I’m not sure it’s the book’s fault. I knew this story pretty well already, and so was preparing myself emotionally for the unpleasant parts. Author Gross anticipates those expectations to an extent by making small changes in the story. Kurt Nordstrum (who is essentially standing in for real saboteur Knut Haukelid but has a very different back story), is enabled by his imaginary status to do stuff, and get into dilemmas, that Haukelid never did. I found some of those stuff and dilemmas somewhat implausible, but I can’t deny I was moved by the entirely imaginary heroics at the end.
I was bothered all through by the fictional changes, especially the handling of the characters. Several of the saboteurs here are real people, others are fictional (including an entirely imaginary Norwegian-American). I understand the narrative freedom that gave the author (as mentioned above), but it kind of nagged at me.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the spelling
of Norwegian names and places. It’s pretty hit and miss, but I probably should
be thankful for the effort.
What it comes down to, I guess, is that I can recommend The Saboteur to those who aren’t already familiar with the Heavy Water mission. But after you read it, you’ll want to read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress or something like that to get the actual facts.
A multitude of stories of courage and endurance come out of World War II. Surely one of the most remarkable is that of Jan Baalsrud (pronounced “Yon Bowls-rood”), the subject of the book, The 12th Man by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. (If you see a book called Defiant Courage, it’s the same book. They changed the title to go with the release of a 12th Man movie a couple years back.)
Jan Baalsrud was one of a team of 12 saboteurs who sailed to Norway from Scotland in a fishing boat as part of a “Shetland Bus” operation in 1943. They were to deliver arms, munitions and supplies to the Resistance, and to attack some air bases. Tragically, a missed connection led to their betrayal, and a German patrol ship attacked them. They managed to blow their boat up, but the whole team except for Baalsrud were either killed on the spot or captured, tortured, and executed. Baalsrud himself escaped into the mountains with one foot bare and wounded.
Then followed months of working his way eastward toward the Swedish border through some of the roughest terrain in the world. He endured an avalanche, starvation, frostbite, gangrene (he amputated his own toes) and snow blindness. He received help and supplies from scattered farms along the way, but when he finally came to the great mountains around Manndalen he was unable to go further under his own power. He then became dependent on a team of Resistance sympathizers in the area who – in spite of killing weather and repeated missed appointments – refused to let this brave man die.
It’s a harrowing, almost unbelievable story. It was first publicized (I believe) by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Later he devoted a whole book, We Die Alone, to the tale.
Unfortunately (the authors report) Howarth didn’t get the
whole story. Apparently, the Norwegians he interviewed were suspicious of him,
and did not tell him everything they knew. Authors Scott and Haug spent five
years interviewing surviving participants and combing the records, in order to
provide what they believe to be an accurate account.
Sadly, their book isn’t very well written. Ms. Scott and Dr. Haug describe themselves as co-authors, but to me The 12th Man reads exactly like a bad translation (and I know bad translations). The phrasing is consistently Norwegian (hence awkward in English), the word choice poor. I wish I could say otherwise, but the book needed a good editor badly. I’m not quite satisfied with a few passages in Viking Legacy, but I felt better after reading this.
But if you can deal with the clumsy writing, it’s one heck
of a story. Cautions for intense situations.
‘That’s why the trade has a reputation for being a bit more easy-going than the proper navy. You’ll have heard it and you’ll hear it again. But only from those that don’t understand. There isn’t less discipline in the trade, Mr. Gilmour. If anything, the discipline here is the hardest of all. Self-discipline….’
I don’t generally read novels about World War II, but Gone To Sea In a Bucket by David Black starts in Norway, and so I noticed it. Not a bad book, either.
It opens during the Battle of Narvik, in 1940. Sub
Lieutenant Harry Gilmour is experiencing his first naval battle, but it’s not
much of an experience. Guided by aerial spotters, the ship he’s on is lobbing
cannon shells over the mountains from one fjord to another. They can’t even see
Harry Gilmour is making a poor start to his naval career. He
was brought in as part of a Navy program to increase the officer pool, outside
traditional training sources. But that doesn’t make him welcome to the “old navy”
hands. Harry’s not quite their sort.
But a compassionate senior officer intervenes. He informs Harry of openings in the submarine service (known to its members as “the trade”). It’s a different world there. The small crews and tight spaces make traditional navy discipline and separation of ranks impossible. Submarine service is dauntingly dangerous and physically demanding, but it gives Harry the best possible opportunity to develop his personal qualities – he discovers he’s hard-working, brave, and fiercely loyal. His service will bring him near death, and take his “boat” into a secret mission to the edge of the world.
I was not much impressed at the start of Gone To Sea In a Bucket. I thought the writing muddy and wordy, and I caught some grammar lapses. But it grew on me as I read. Once I got used to the author’s style it seemed to get better and better, until I found myself admiring various passages.
I also liked the treatment of the characters. Author Black
likes to give us a bad first impression of a character, and then gradually
reveal his or her story until we come to admire – or at least sympathize with –
The Harry Gilmour series seems to be sort of a modern
Horatio Hornblower saga. I probably won’t be continuing with it, because I find
submarine stories kind of… claustrophobic. But if this is your kind of epic, I
would recommend it. Minor cautions for language and intense violence.
I mentioned earlier that I’ll be participating in the dedication of a war memorial at Fort Snelling Cemetery in Minneapolis this Saturday, May 25. The event will be in honor of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) of which I’ve written several times before. I actually have no personal connection to the unit, except for ethnicity and historical interest. But they’ve invited me to give the invocation, and I will be doing that. In Viking costume.
To see a local TV report on the event and on the unit itself, follow this link.
In 1944: Left to Right: Crown Prince Olav, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, Eleanor Roosevelt, Crown Princess Martha, and Thomas J. Watson.
I don’t know how many readers of this blog are not also my friends on Facebook. If you’re one of those, you’ve gotten this news already. But if you’re not, I now have clearance to tell you about one of the translation projects I’ve been working on. It’s a miniseries called Atlantic Crossing, and shooting begins in December. Here’s a fresh article from Variety, announcing the casting of Kyle MacLachlan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The story is about the Norwegian royal family during World War II, focusing primarily on Crown Princess Martha, who was married to the future King Olav V of Norway, and mother to the current king, Harald.
After the German invasion, Crown Prince Olav and his father, King Haakon, fled into exile in England. Martha took the children to neutral Sweden, her native country, where her uncle was king. But the machinations of the Nazis there led her to make the “Atlantic crossing” to the U.S. There she was welcomed by President Roosevelt, already a friend. Roosevelt enjoyed her company very much – which gave her the opportunity influence him to assist the Allies while the U.S. was still neutral. Much of the drama of the series involves the way Martha, a shy woman, moved out of her “comfort zone” to champion the Allied cause.
The issue that will probably raise the most public interest, though, is the question of Martha’s exact relationship with FDR. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage was well known to have been in name only, and Franklin loved the company of women. There are many rumors about affairs, and Martha is the subject of some of them. Continue reading Watch for ‘Atlantic Crossing’→
Today is a grim anniversary. It was on April 9, 1940, that Operation Weserübung (the Weser Exercise) was implemented by the German army against Norway and Denmark. There was resistance, some of it heroic, but it was no contest in the long run. For the rest of the war, Norway and Denmark would be occupied territory.
If you see the movie The King’s Choice, which I reviewed a few days back, you’ll get the gist of the story of how the government and the royal family fled Oslo and eventually went into exile. One element of the movie that hasn’t aroused much notice is the general fecklessness of the parliamentary leaders in response to the attack. There’s no surprise there; we don’t often look to politicians for valor and sacrifice. But there’s another element, not suggested in the film.
The parliamentary leaders weren’t entirely sure Hitler was the enemy.
The Norwegian government in the spring of 1940 was led by the Labor (Arbeider) Party. The Labor Party was by and large a wholly owned subsidiary of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, which had been bankrolling it for years. Labor leaders in those days didn’t go to the loo without checking with their Russian handlers first.
During spring of 1940, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, making Hitler and Stalin allies. So when the Germans marched in, the Labor leaders were inclined to greet them as friends. The only thing that prevented them from enthusiastically joining in the “Heil!” salutes was the Germans’ incredibly ham-handed conduct.
It wouldn’t be until June 1941 that Hitler would break the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa against Russian possessions. At that point Labor became solidly anti-Nazi, going carefully into denial about their earlier collaborationist sentiments. And so it remains, even unto this day.
I think I first heard of the World War II Norwegian Resistance sabotage at Vemork and Rjukan when the Kirk Douglas movie, The Heroes of Telemark, came out in 1965. I didn’t see the movie then, but I read reviews and articles in the paper. I finally saw the movie in college. I think I realized even then that it probably bore as much resemblance to real events as a Lego figure bears to a real person.
Later I read accounts in books, and saw a TV documentary (which stated, somewhat snarkily, at the end that recently discovered documents proved that it was all unnecessary, as the Germans never intended to build an atom bomb at all. This was a premature and exaggerated claim). Then there was the Norwegian/British miniseries, “The Heavy Water War,” which was more authentic than the movie, but also highly fictionalized.
I think I’ve got the genuine story, within reasonable tolerances, now that I’ve read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress.
The Norsk Hydro hydroelectric plant at Vemork, Telemark had a small, profitable, almost exclusive sideline manufacturing deuterium – “heavy water” – an ingredient in fertilizers. That operation became the focus of international intrigue when German scientists chose deuterium as a moderating agent in their atomic experiments – which did indeed have the goal of producing a super-bomb, though of course not every Nazi in the government supported the project. When the Norwegian Resistance, after the Occupation, discovered the Germans’ intentions for the stuff, they alerted British Intelligence, and halting heavy water production became a prime war objective.
The story of how a small group of Norwegian commandos, supplemented by an ill-starred company of British Army saboteurs, endured police searches, betrayals, horrific winter weather, separation from their families, and plain bad luck to carry out two highly successful sabotage operations forms the story of The Winter Fortress. The characters (particularly commander Leif Trondstad, Joaquin Rønneberg, and Knut Haukelid) come to life, and the times and circumstances are vividly painted. A lot of painstaking research went into this book, and it was not wasted. The story is exciting, and poignant, and often tragic.
Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.
For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.
The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.
I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.
Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.
Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.
It was quite a weekend. By an old bachelor’s standards, anyway. I take some pride in having got through it with my natural force unabated.
Saturday was the big event at Camp Ripley (believe it or not), Little Falls, Minn., for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the US Army’s Norwegian “foreign legion” in World War II. The festivities actually began the day before and continued through the evening, but I was only there Saturday afternoon. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t invited to do more; I was. But I had to get home and unload my car for the following day’s exertions.)
Saturday afternoon was the public event. Besides us Vikings, there was an informational booth explaining about the unit’s history. There was also a small encampment of World War II reenactors:
[A photo belongs here, but our account doesn’t seem to allow posting from Photobucket anymore.]
Last week I was contacted on Facebook by a fellow who’s involved in a Viking commemoration a tad different from the kind I’m used to. But I was honored to be asked to assist him, and I want to publicize his effort. He’s the president of a group devoted to memorializing a remarkable World War II US Army unit.
The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, was organized in 1942 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Its purpose was (originally) a specific, specialized one (that’s what the word “Separate” means). It was intended for the invasion of Norway – an option for the European invasion that remained under consideration long into the war. The bulk of its manpower came from Norwegian merchant sailors who’d been stranded overseas by the German invasion in 1940, plus Norwegian-American young men, many of whom had grown up speaking Norwegian. They trained for mountain warfare in Colorado, and later as commandos in Scotland.
As it worked out, of course, the invasion happened in Normandy. The 99th participated in that action and its aftermath, and fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally they were sent to Norway after the surrender, in order to help establish order and evacuate the German occupation troops in an orderly manner.
There’s going to be a special commemoration event on Saturday, August 12, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve been asked to be there in Viking costume (just to confuse the visitors, I imagine) and I may bring some other Vikings along. If you’re interested in the event, let me know in comments, or just watch this space. I’ll be keeping you posted.
In 1965 a film was made in Britain about the WWII Norwegian Resistance sabotage of the German heavy water project at Rjukan, Norway. It was called Heroes of Telemark, it starred Kirk Douglas, and it was essentially an upbeat and rather frivolous production. Norwegians complained that, in the movie, Kirk personally achieved in about two weeks what it took a whole unit of real saboteurs two years to do.
The 2015 Norwegian/Danish/English production, The Heavy Water War, available for streaming on Netflix, hews closer to the facts. It is artistically superior and far darker.
We follow the main character, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner; in this production, unlike the Douglas movie, the characters go under their real names, except for several fictionalized characters), a Norwegian scientist who escapes to England and joins the British-trained saboteur company there. Leif becomes their leader and gets emotionally involved with British intelligence officer Julie Smith (Anna Freil; a fictional character), but not so far as to actually commit adultery (they’re both married). We follow Leif and his company through the disastrous initial glider operation meant to destroy the Rjukan plant. Then follows the famous raid, where they succeed in blowing up the equipment, housed in the cellar of the factory. And after that, the hard decision to blow up the passenger ferry carrying the remaining heavy water out of the country, at the cost of civilian lives.
But there are actually three main threads in the narrative. We follow the manager of the heavy water plant (another fictionalized character) as he self-justifies his collaboration, and his troubled wife, who diverts her fears by mothering the daughter of her house maid. We also follow scientist Werner Heisenberg in Germany, singlemindedly focused on the scientific aspects of the atomic bomb project, refusing to think in moral categories. Each of these characters is treated as a full, complex human being. The viewer is left to make judgments.
My complaints are few. I wish the actors had looked more like the people they portray. The producers made the decision to suggest strongly that the explosion of the ferry was probably unnecessary (this, I believe, is a matter of dispute among historians).
The Heavy Water War is challenging, and sometimes tragic, but definitely worth watching. Recommended, for grownups.
There was big news in the world of C. S. Lewis studies today.Christianity Today released an article by Harry Lee Poe about the discovery of a previously unknown recording of a radio talk by C. S. Lewis. Not a talk for the BBC, but for Iceland, on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so to speak:
Until now, the general public and the world of scholarship had no idea that C. S. Lewis began his wartime service by undertaking a mission for MI6. Long before James Bond, Lewis rendered service to this clandestine branch of British Intelligence, which was so secret for so long that few people knew of its existence, and few of those knew its actual name. Alternatively known as Military Intelligence, the Secret Service, and MI6, its actual name may be the Secret Intelligence Service. Ian Fleming gave the head of this spy network the code name of M, but in real life he is simply known as the Chief. When Lewis came on board at the beginning of World War II, it was still a fledgling group of amateurs desperately working to save their island home from disaster.
The story is interesting, not only for the revelation of Lewis’ work for British Intelligence, but because it involves one of his all too rare explications of his passion for Norse literature and myth.
I think the title’s a bit misleading, since Jack Lewis was nothing like a spy, but the story’s a big deal nonetheless. Kudos to Harry Lee Poe for his discovery.