A new book tells the story of the daring ten-man attack on the Nazi’s nuclear program – a Mission Impossible-style night-time assault involving skiing commandos and a 600-foot vertical climb to sabotage an isolated Norwegian industrial facility.
Damien Lewis, the author of Hunting Hitler's Nukes tells Kathryn Ryan the attack was against the most heavily defended industrial facility in Western Europe, and earned grudging respect from the German military brass.
Uranium and 'heavy water' are key to producing nuclear weapons, and Lewis says Germany secured access to both when it took over Czechoslovakia and Norway at the beginning of World War II.
At the time in the conflict the Allies believed that they were two years behind the Nazi’s nuclear programme, technologically and in their access raw materials.
“It was a very very worrying proposition. It’s something that we don’t really appreciate, that [in the] early stages of the war this was the biggest worry of Churchill and Roosevelt, by far,” he says.
Churchill and Roosevelt decided their biggest priority was to disrupt the German nuclear effort wherever they could and special commandos from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and the free European states were tasked with sabotage.
Later, Norwegian and British special forces undertook a series of daring missions in the mountains of German-controlled Norway to stop the production of 'heavy water' at the isolated Vermork plant.
In the first attempt, 35 young British commandos in wooden gliders were towed by bombers over the mountains of Norway in winter. However, the hemp ropes froze and snapped and the gliders crash landed, killing some, with the rest being captured and tortured.
“It was close to crazy, it was acknowledged to be a suicide mission, and those … men... all lost their lives, even before the sabotage attempt was even underway.”
The next attempt was a ten-man Norwegian team, all on skis, who had to be able to survive for weeks in the wilderness by hunting reindeer, and who could blend into the local population.
Unfortunately, because they had captured the men in the previous attempt, the Germans now knew the Allies had their sights set on sabotaging the plant, and had massively increased the plants defences with minefields, guard dogs, electrified wire, and machine gun posts.
The Allies were also up against hundreds of German guards.
“They were taking on a mission impossible,” he says.
The plant was perched above a gorge with a 600-foot drop to the river below. The obvious place to attack was a full-frontal assault via a suspension bridge. But one of the team, who was from the area, managed to climb down the gorge and cross over the frozen river.
“And he looks up at the far side, and he can see the [a] … stunted tree growing out of cracks in the rock and he thinks to himself ‘if trees can grow there, man can climb it’.”
The Germans presumed that it was impossible to attack from below, and so when the team scaled the gorge, they entered the facility through a back gate, needing to just bolt-cut one chain.
Now inside the plant they circled until they found a cable-duct which they crawled inside, captured one guard, and then placed plastic explosives around the 18 vats where the heavy water was being distilled.
The plan initially was to have 120 seconds fuses, but the commander decided to change to 30 seconds, just enough time to get out the door, if they were lucky.
Just as they were about to light them they heard footsteps on the stairs – another guard, who they also captured.
They then light the fuses and told the guards to run, but to keep their mouths open otherwise the explosion would blow their eardrums out.
The blast successfully disabled the plant and the action was given grudging respect by the Germans, with one General describing it as the “the finest act of British sabotage of the war”, Lewis says.