Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"He, however, refused to call himself a hero, saying: 'I never use that word about myself or my friends. We just did a job.'"

Knut Haugland's obituary is more action-packed than most spy novels you'll read. Here's a little bit:

He was selected by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train with three others for Operation Grouse, the raid on a hydroelectric power station near his hometown where the Allies suspected that heavy water, a key component in the atomic weapons process, was being produced in order to build a Nazi atom bomb.

He parachuted with three others onto the Hardangervidda plateau on October 18 1942. But a planned rendezvous with British engineers never materialised after the Britons' gliders crashed and the survivors were tortured and executed.

As a result the Germans were alerted to Allied interest in heavy water production, but Haugland was ordered to wait on Hardangervidda, where his team subsisted on moss and lichen and, just in time for Christmas, a wandering reindeer. In sub-zero temperatures he kept in contact with the British using a radio to which he improvised spares using a stolen fishing rod and an old car battery. Every night at 1am he would make contact, often unable to control the chattering of his teeth, using the password "three pink elephants".

It was February 1943 before Operation Gunnerside (named after a grouse moor owned by Sir Charles Hambro, head of SOE) was mounted. Six Norwegian commandos were dropped by parachute, and after a few days' search, met up with Haugland for a new assault on the hydroelectric plant.

The heavily defended plant was now surrounded by mines and floodlights and accessible only across a single-span bridge over a deep ravine. The Norwegians climbed down the ravine, waded an icy river and climbed a steep hill where they followed a narrow-gauge railway and entered the plant by a cable tunnel and through a window. In the ensuing sabotage hundreds of kilograms of heavy water was destroyed. Though 3,000 German soldiers searched for the saboteurs, all escaped. The Nazi heavy water project never recovered.

Oh, and then there's the part where Thor Heyerdahl asks him to be a crewman on the Kon-Tiki.

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