Operation Gunnerside has been the subject of several books and at least one movie, but still remains relatively unknown, perhaps because the special operators who carried out the successful mission(s) were British-trained Norwegians fighting on their home ground.
Hopefully Neal Bascomb’s excellent The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, will redress this injustice, because the feats of these Norwegian special operators arguably kept Nazi Germany from building an atomic bomb. While there have been contentions that Werner Heisenberg deliberately sabotaged the German atomic bomb program (said contentions originating in large part with Heisenberg himself), and that the program stood little chance of succeeding, this book casts new doubt on those claims. Progress was being made, if slowly, and success was certainly a possibility, had Operation Gunnerside not put the necessary supply of heavy water out of reach of the Germans.
While the men and women involved in resisting the German occupation and particularly those who carried out the operations themselves aren’t glorified, their achievements in the face of immense challenges are nevertheless astonishing.
Veteran author Bascomb has very obviously done extensive research into his subject, and his skill as a writer is such that his descriptions of everything from the commandos’ gear, to a typical Norwegian hunting cabin, to the process of making heavy water create a clear and fascinating picture for the reader.
Bascomb humanizes the people who carried out a mission now seven decades removed from us, and in conveying their humanity to the reader, makes their struggles all the more amazing. Likewise the weather and forbidding terrain, in their neutral lethality, are described in terms that sometimes make them seem like menacing characters in themselves.
With all these elements taken together, this work of non-fiction reads like a novel, and a particularly gripping one, keeping the reader on the edge of his or her seat until the final pages. But the consequences of failure or capture were very real and very final for anyone in the resistance caught by the Nazi occupiers. Bascomb doesn’t flinch from describing some of the tortures endured by captured commandos, nor does he leave out the brutality of the Nazi occupation, or the details of the reprisals and summary executions carried out by the Germans against combatant and civilian alike.
While the men and women involved in resisting the German occupation and particularly those who carried out the operations themselves aren’t glorified, their achievements in the face of immense challenges are nevertheless astonishing. I won’t spoil the book for readers who have yet to read The Winter Fortress, but I promise you that you will shake your head in disbelief and admiration for the endurance and accomplishments of the heroes described within its pages.