A new documentary – Hardangerfolk, premiering today at Cumbria’s Kendal Mountain Festival – delves inside Operation Gunnerside (Picture: Scotia Film)
In February 1943, a team of saboteurs set off on a top secret mission to destroy a Nazi plant in occupied Norway – and Hitler’s hopes of getting his hands on an atomic weapon.
As well as the equipment and explosives needed to carry out their task, each member also carried a suicide capsule knowing capture by the Germans would see them tortured and put to death.
That was the grim fate which befell a squad of British counterparts, whose attempt at the same quest only months earlier ended in disaster.
A new documentary – Hardangerfolk, premiering today at Cumbria’s Kendal Mountain Festival – delves inside Operation Gunnerside in a way no other retelling has ever managed.
Focusing on an honorary expedition that marked the 80th anniversary earlier this year, the film features never-before-told stories of the daring raid and original footage of those involved.
Director Gregor D Sinclair joined former SAS and US commandos to retrace the team’s footsteps across the treacherous Norwegian terrain and shed new light on the mission.
‘It was a pivotal moment of the war,’ he said. ‘Many consider it to be one of the most successful and heroic acts of sabotage of the entire conflict.’
When the Nazis conquered Norway in 1940, they seized control of Europe’s only plant capable of developing deuterium oxide – also known as ‘heavy water’ – in Vemork, 100 miles west of Oslo.
‘Heavy water’ looks, feels and tastes exactly like ordinary water but is much denser, making it an effective neutron moderator in nuclear reactions.
Alarm bells sounded among the Allies when Norwegian resistance fighters tipped off the British that the Germans had ordered production of heavy water at the plant to be ramped up – a sure sign they were hoping to build an atomic bomb.
The Vemork plant was compared to a Bond villain’s lair (Picture: Scotia Film)
The team had to navigate hundreds of miles of snow-covered terrain (Picture: Scotia Film)
Several carried explosives among their kit (Picture: Scotia Film)
Plans immediately got underway to decommission the facility for good and prevent the Nazis creating any for themselves.
It could not be bombed due to the immense risks to civilians living in the nearby town of Rjukan, as well as the fact their target was buried deep in the bowels of the huge fortress.
Instead, Operations Grouse and Freshman were launched in the autumn and winter of 1942, overseen by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – Britain’s wartime intelligence gathering and sabotage unit, otherwise referred to as the ‘ministry of ungentlemanly warfare’.
The first phase, Grouse, comprised an advanced force of SOE-trained Norwegians being parachuted in, with the second, Freshman, commencing once they had taken up their positions.
That was meant to see two teams of British engineers airlifted in by military glider to strike the plant. However, tragedy struck when each of the gliders crashed before they could land.
The Gestapo reached the survivors before their counterparts on the Grouse team could and each was executed.
What appeared to be a near impossible mission now became even harder when the Nazis – now wise to the plot – reinforced security with floodlights, mines, razor wire and more armed guards.
But the Allies had one last ace in the pack. A mole inside the plant had managed to smuggle out and send them vital intel, including the exact location of the heavy water stores and how to reach it.
Director Gregor D Sinclair (Picture: Scotia Film)
In preparation for the mission, the Gunnerside team headed to the Scottish Highlands for gruelling training in guerrilla warfare and extreme survival tactics under the British Forces.
They were parachuted in on February 16 and after meeting up with the Grouse team on the ground, made their way to Vemork 11 days later.
Sinclair filmed the international team of military veterans and Norwegian wilderness experts as they followed the original 373-mile route through the barren, blizzard-ravaged wilderness of the Hardangervidda – Europe’s highest plateau – in Norway’s southern Telemark region.
‘We wanted to pay homage to the heroism and skill of these incredible resistance fighters, who risked everything to prevent a catastrophic nuclear war,’ he said.
‘At a time when war and oppression are once again gripping Europe, this inspirational story is more relevant than it has ever been.’
To make matters worse, the team faced 60mph gales and temperatures which regularly plummeted below -30C.
The crew ‘wanted to pay homage to the heroism and skill of these incredible resistance fighters’ (Picture: Scotia Film)
Sinclair filmed the international team of military veterans and Norwegian wilderness experts as they followed the original 373-mile route (Picture: Scotia Film)
‘It was coldest winter the saboteurs had ever encountered,’ Sinclair said. ‘What they must have gone through just to survive – let alone complete such a daring mission – almost defies description.’
Matt Smith, a former SAS communicator and founder of SOE Expeditions, which organised the trip, said: ‘It was an incredible experience.
‘To be able to walk in these heroes’ footsteps was a great honour. They stopped Hitler developing an atomic bomb, saving thousands of lives in the process.
‘They accomplished extraordinary feats of endurance and stamina, which, ultimately, stopped Germany from producing nuclear weaponry.
‘By recreating this story, we wanted to give the audience a real taste of what these soldiers had to endure to achieve their goal and ensure the memory of these man lives on for many years to come.
‘It was an immense challenge to take on, but it is something that will stay with me forever.’
The saboteurs – dubbed the Heroes of Telemark – skied across the vast ice plateaus, were forced to eat moss to survive and stayed in old hunting lodges during the 11-day trek before evading German troops, landmines and floodlights to reach their target.
‘I have never in my life seen a building as imposing and terrifying as the plant at Vemork,’ Sinclair said.
‘It truly looks like the base of a villain from a Bond film.’
The mission is regarded as ‘a pivotal moment in the war’ (Picture: Scotia Film)
The saboteurs – dubbed the Heroes of Telemark – skied across the vast ice plateaus (Picture: Scotia Film)
When the Gunnerside team finally reached the plant, they descended a 1,500ft gorge, crossed an icy river before following a railway line leading straight into the site.
Using the highly-detailed maps smuggled out by their inside man, the commandos slipped inside the plant and planted their explosives on the electrolysis chambers without encountering a single guard.
The fuses had originally been set for two minutes, but one of the team took the risky decision to shorten them to a mere 30 seconds so they would be able to see whether they’d been successful.
Fortunately they were, and the sheer scale of the plant muffled the blast to such an extent that the team was able to escape undetected.
Before fleeing, they left a British Tommy submachine gun behind in a bid to spare the locals from any Nazi reprisal attacks.
The Germans dispatched 3,000 troops to catch the saboteurs, but their efforts proved fruitless.
With hindsight we now know the Nazis were never close to developing a nuclear bomb in time to influence the outcome of the war – but the fear they could was only too real at the time.
So much so that plans were later put in place to blow up a ferry carrying a leftover consignment of ‘heavy water’ back to Germany, killing a number of civilians on board.
Rather than focusing on the military aspects, Sinclair said he wanted to examine the human elements of the Gunnerside team’s ordeal.
‘This documentary looks more closely at the thoughts and feelings of the team – their changing emotional state, and what kept them mentally motivated to continue,’ he said.
‘It examines the role of growing up in the mountains had on their skills and experience, and what physically one must go through to navigate in this landscape.’
Despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, they all escaped unharmed. Not a single shot was fired.
‘The story of the attack – and the Norwegian Resistance generally – shows how fragile a thing liberty is, and how communities of ordinary people must be ready to stand their ground and never succumb to occupation,’ Sinclair went on.
‘As a pacifist and passionate environmentalist, there was something wonderfully poetic about the story of 11 people from the mountains of rural Norway triumphing over the military-industrial machine using only their courage and their survival skills – all without firing a single shot in anger.’
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