October 24, 2018

"The Norwegian saboteurs skied across the Telemark pine forest in winter whites, phantom apparitions gliding over moonlit snow."

"They halted at a steep river gorge and gazed down at a humming hydroelectric power plant where Nazi scientists had developed a mysterious, top-secret project. Lt. Joachim Ronneberg, the 23-year-old resistance fighter in command, and his eight comrades — all carrying cyanide capsules to swallow if captured — had been told by British intelligence only that the plant was distilling something called heavy water, and that it was vital to Hitler’s war effort.Hours later, in one of the most celebrated commando raids of World War II, Lieutenant Ronneberg and his demolition team sneaked past guards and a barracks full of German troops, stole into the plant, set explosive charges and blew up Hitler’s hopes for a critical ingredient to create the first atomic bomb.... They skied by night, rested by day and reached the gorge late on the night of Feb. 27, 1943.... The power plant was perched on a ledge halfway up the far slope...."

From "Joachim Ronneberg, Leader of Raid That Thwarted a Nazi Atomic Bomb, Dies at 99" (NYT).

Is there a better story in the history of skiing?

If you're thinking, I'd like to see this in a movie, no you wouldn't. Here's how it looked in the movies...



... and I consider that a fantastic argument for why writing — like the quote in the post title — is superior to cinema. Movies do excel at confronting you with giant, beautiful faces. Mesmerizing... and ludicrous.

47 comments:

chillblaine said...

I cannot recommend, "Heroes of Telemark," highly enough. It appealed to me on a level of fraternity, as these two skilled men, operating behind enemy lines, put aside their love rivalry and got a complex job done, all while under fire. Really glad that these people and their stories are getting love.

Roughcoat said...

There were giants in the earth in those days . . . mighty men that were of old, men of renown.

rhhardin said...

The cutting Edge (1992) was good for ice skating. A romcom a little out of formula as to who apologizes. No Germans. A Russian though.

Jake said...

This was made into a TV mini series. Netflix had it. Called The Heavy Water War. Decent. Band of Brothers-ish.

Amexpat said...

"Heroes of Telemark" is Hollywood's version, with all that entails. There's a Norwegian-French film from 1948 that's much more accurate. They used many of the actual saboteurs in the film.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Swallow:_The_Battle_for_Heavy_Water

David Begley said...

Disagree with Althouse here. The movie based on “The Plague of Dreamlessness” will be better than the novel.

ceowens said...

Simo Hayha, who the Russians called "White Death", may have used skis.

rhhardin said...

There are no great WWII roller skate movies.

Larry J said...

I've studied WWII history for almost 50 years. Men like the ones in this story amaze me with their courage. They knew quite well what would happen to them if they were captured but they did it anyway.

Seth Mitchell said...

“He told The Times that it was “quite incredible” that their real identities had been concealed and that painful memories of collaboration with the Nazis by Norway’s wartime leader Vidkun Quisling still hampered a clear and full historical reckoning.”

Anne, doesn’t this post merit creation of a new “Quisling” tag? There are bound to be future posts appropriate for its use.

Ann Althouse said...

"Disagree with Althouse here. The movie based on “The Plague of Dreamlessness” will be better than the novel."

I didn't say all books are better than the movies based on them. There are many mediocre books and many great movies. The possibilities are endless. I think "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a better movie than the book. Ditto "The Shining."

But that's a separate issue from what I'm talking about, which is a true historical event and the problem of how to communicate it to people. I think writing is better than filming. Certainly, a bad book could be written and would be worse than the best movie. But the raw potential is greater with writing and the limitations of movies are more of a problem.

I don't know much about "The Plague of Dreamlessness," but I see that it is fiction. Great movies can be made from fiction that isn't really that good.

Freder Frederson said...

Just to set the record straight, and not to belittle the bravery of these men (and also to draw the derision of Michael K, who will resort to insults rather than challenge my facts).

Heisenberg (who led the Nazi nuclear weapons program) never even got close to succeeding. He never even managed to build a reactor. After the war he claimed that he deliberately dragged his feet because he didn't want Hitler to have the bomb. But the program was underfunded and couldn't have succeeded even if they got the science right. There was nowhere (like Oak Ridge and Hanford) where they could have produced the highly enriched uranium and plutonium necessary.

tim in vermont said...

It's like a non absurd Bond movie. Fate of the world genuinely at stake, the skis...

Phil 3:14 said...

Speaking of Quisling, I thought “The King’s Choice” was a decent movie regarding the German invasion of Norway. Little known history in America.

tim in vermont said...

Great movies can be made from fiction that isn't really that good.

Last of the Mohicans. If Cooper came back from the grave and watched it, my bet is that he would say "Yeah. That's what I meant."

Phil 3:14 said...

And of course “Occupied” is an interesting take on a near future world where the US retreats from the world stage.

gilbar said...

FF says, about Werner: "He never even managed to build a reactor"
pretty hard, in the 1940's, to build a reactor without Heavy Water

Hagar said...

"They set fuses on 30-second timers, ignited them with matches and fled."
Right.

Rønneberg, or somebody with the group, wrote a book about how it all went down without the journalistic schmarm and inaccurate reporting. I do not know if it has been translated into English.

tim in vermont said...

I think that Heisenberg made an honest error, and because he got the assumptions wrong, the idea of producing enough plutonium to make a bomb seemed fantastically out of reach so why bother trying? Instead of the needed quantity being on the order of the size of a grapefruit, it looked like it would have been so large and weighed so much that it would have been impossible to not only produce the plutonium, but deliver the bomb. I don't pretend to know more about it than a comment by a physics prof in college who, when teaching us the math, pointed out the error in an aside. So if you know the details and the timing of which came first, the decision not to enrich uranium, or the math error, I defer to you.

tim in vermont said...

The other little factoid I know about it was the report that when the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came, an American officer who was debriefing German atomic scientists was in the room when those scientists heard the news, and there were some looks between them that he interpreted as "Oh shit."

Dave Begley said...

Ann:

You should read "The Plague of Dreamlessness." It is a very good novel and much of it is set in Omaha circa 1968. Quick read. A friend of mine wrote it.

Michael K said...

I'm honored to be living in Field Marshal Freder's head.

Bay Area Guy said...

Exciting story! If Hitler gets the A Bomb before we do, a lotta world history is changed, probably for the worse.

Curious George said...

"Michael K said...
I'm honored to be living in Field Marshal Freder's head."

Are you sure? You do know his head is up his ass, right?

Marc said...

I thought the on-Netflix version of the story was pretty decent-- "Saboteurs" or "Heavy Water War". Television series from Norway.

Hagar said...

I think Norsk Hydro began as a subsidiary of Alcoa. In the beginning of the 20th century Alcoa mined bauxite somewhere in the Caribbean and shipped it to the southwest coast of Norway where conditions were favorable for developing high pressure hydro power to generate electricity to process the ore into aluminum and then things kind of grew from there.

There just is not a corner of the world where you will not find American business has interests.

Sorry about that, Cookie and Freder!

JPS said...

Freder Frederson, 7:22:

"After the war [Heisenberg] claimed that he deliberately dragged his feet because he didn't want Hitler to have the bomb."

Thank you for pointing out the self-serving origin of this claim. I think a lot of people want to believe that such a brilliant man couldn't possibly have been working for the Nazis in good faith. Well, Heisenberg was that brilliant, and he was genuinely trying to deliver.

"But the program was underfunded and couldn't have succeeded even if they got the science right."

It is true that the Nazis invested nothing like the resources we put into the Manhattan project. But remember, it is possible to make a reactor with heavy water as a moderator, instead of the graphite we used, and to get plutonium from it. We had some trouble getting enough graphite in enough purity; heavy water looked promising, you can distill it until it's as pure as you like - and basically the world's supply of it fell into German hands when Norway fell to them.

So no, they never got that close. I continue to believe they might have gotten quite close, and Heisenberg might have achieved results warranting a great investment of resources, if a bunch of never-surrendered Norwegian Army guys hadn't kept sending large quantities of heavy water down the drain, or into heavy steam, or into the bottom of a very cold lake.

Also we had very little way of knowing how close they were or weren't, though the story in The Catcher Was a Spy - that OSS had infiltrated a physics-literate operative into a Heisenberg lecture in Switzerland, pistol in pocket, with orders to shoot him dead, mid-lecture, if he used certain keywords suggesting he was on track; or to damn well leave him alone if he used certain keywords suggesting he was not - is amusing if true. I'd like it to be, but I have doubts.

Michael K said...

Also we had very little way of knowing how close they were or weren't,

This is, of course, the reason why it was attacked.

Only dullards assume that what we know now was what we knew then.

Hagar said...

Incidentally, I have a very vivid flash memory - though I do not know if it is false or not - of looking up when being ferried across the southern end of Mjøsa where the RR bridge had been blown up and seeing a large fleet of silvery aircraft against the blue sky, and the only thing that could have been is when the Americans tried to bomb the Rjukan power station out of existence with a daylight raid with Flying Fortresses.

Darrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darrell said...

Our program very nearly failed, too. In about early 1945 they discovered that the design they were working on would most likely self-detonate due to the impurities in the fissionable materials they were producing at the TVA. The No. 2 knew about the problem but didn't tell anybody--he thought he could come up with a fix. He committed suicide when another scientist made the same calculations. Luckily, we had six scientists working a parallel program that involved implosion--something the British had determined was impossible to achieve. The contamination didn't matter as much there. At the last minute, the team managed to get implosion to work.

Hagar said...

I think NYT got the sequence of events wrong too. Iirc, the Brits went first with a detachment of commandos ferried across to Norway in gliders towed behind bombers. They crashed up on Hardangervidda, and German ski troops went up there and killed them all.
Then the Americans tried with a high-level daytime bombing raid which had very little effect, since Rjukan lies in a very narrow mountain valley and the bombs mostly just hit the mountain sides around the pipelines. The manufacturing facilities and heavy water storage also were tunneled far into the mountain and virtually impregnable, so the NYT got that wrong too.
So the attempt to do it on foot with sabotage was the last hope and not given much chance of success, but it worked.
Then the very last thing was sabotaging the transfer of the stored heavy water to Germany by sinking the ferry carrying it across Lake ?, which is another terrific story in itself.

Rick Turley said...

JPS said:

"...that OSS had infiltrated a physics-literate operative into a Heisenberg lecture in Switzerland, pistol in pocket, with orders to shoot him dead, mid-lecture, if he used certain keywords suggesting he was on track; or to damn well leave him alone if he used certain keywords suggesting he was not - is amusing if true. I'd like it to be, but I have doubts."

That would be Moe Berg, the former baseball catcher. Fascinating character.

MadisonMan said...

The part I like in the story is that the leader really didn't talk about it for years. Humility? Just Doing Duty Syndrome? But then he realized he was part of history and should tell the story.

Big Mike said...

I think NYT got the sequence of events wrong too.

@Hagar, I'm just totally stunned.

Big Mike said...

@Michael K., see, there you go at 8:37 with a snarky, ad hominem attack. Just point out to Freder that there was no way to know, during the4 war, what we learned about Heisenberg's efforts after the war. Things we did know during the war included (1) that Heisenberg was a genius (contemporary writings indicate that at least some of the scientists at Los Alamos regarded Heisenberg by himself as being at least the equivalent of the scientific leadership of the Manhattan Project), (2) that Hitler was obsessed with super weapons and willing to throw huge quantities of resources at them (including jet fighters and V2 rockets), and (3) the atom bomb was a super weapon against which jet fighters and long range rockets were small change.

Seeing Red said...

My husband and I watched something with USA skiers and who was left from WWII skiers. The 10th Mountaineers? They put the young guys thru their paces I think with the old ski equipment and the backpacks they carried. It was fascinating and tough. The young guys learned a lot.

Seeing Red said...

There’s some toxic masculinity right there and that’s ok with me.

JPS said...

Hagar:

"Then the very last thing was sabotaging the transfer of the stored heavy water to Germany by sinking the ferry carrying it across Lake ?, which is another terrific story in itself."

Lake Tinnsja. I remember watching a documentary that interviewed some of the surviving saboteurs on that one. The commando said he felt terrible for the civilians on the vessel, his countrymen, but there was no way to warn them. Said if our own families had been on board, we couldn't have warned them without tipping the Germans off.

And thank you for your fascinating comments on this.

tim in vermont said...

That would be Moe Berg, the former baseball catcher. Fascinating character.

So he laid aside the tools of ignorance.

WhoKnew said...

Bay Area Guy : "Exciting story! If Hitler gets the A Bomb before we do, a lotta world history is changed, probably for the worse. " That's the alternative history premise (or at least part of it) of "The Man in the High Castle" on Amazon Prime. I think it's an excellent series.

Michael K said...

Blogger Big Mike said...
@Michael K., see, there you go at 8:37 with a snarky, ad hominem attack.


I know. I'm so ashamed.

Poor Freder comes here with his pearls of wisdom and I am just not able to appreciate them.

Michael K said...

In about early 1945 they discovered that the design they were working on would most likely self-detonate due to the impurities in the fissionable materials they were producing at the TVA.

That comment got me interested in the Physics of the story but I don't know if my Physics memories are up to this book, which looks the best of them.
I'm still thinking about it. I was an engineer a long time ago. Even before medical school.

tim in vermont said...

I thought that the premise of The Man in the High Castle was that Trump was Hitler.

tim in vermont said...

Since the Nazis believed plutonium to be a dead end, it is little wonder that they didn't pursue it is all that I am saying.

DavidD said...

Wasn’t there a Hogan’s Heroes episode where they helped the Resistance to blow a railway bridge and send a load of heavy water into the river?

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Per Wikipedia, Chicago Pile 3, a heavy water moderated reactor at the future Argonne National Laboratory, achieved criticality 15 May 1944 and was active until 1954.

Per James Mahafey, "Atomic Accidents", the Canadians were actively trying to build a reactor using graphite for moderation. The US group told them it had already been done, and suggested they try the heavy water route. ZEEP (Zero Energy Experimental Pile) went critical on 5 Sept 1945 at Chalk River, Ontario. The Canadians did well as world specialists in heavy water reactors.

The Germans did have some heavy water. As Mahafey notes, Heisenberg was great with quantum theory, but not much as an experimentalist. Fermi OTOH was strong in that area.