World #1 – Norwegian WW2 hero who thwarted Nazis’ nuclear ambitions in daring raid dies at 99

Winston Churchill's secret taskforce deployed during WWII. Joachim Ronneberg, bottom right.

(by Terje Solsvik, Reuters) OSLO, Norway – The leader of a daring World War Two raid to thwart Nazi Germany’s nuclear ambitions has died aged 99, Norwegian government officials said on Sunday.

Joachim Roenneberg, serving behind enemy lines in his native Norway during the German occupation, in 1943 blew up a plant producing heavy water, or D2O, a hydrogen-rich substance that was key to the later development of atomic bombs.

Picked by Britain’s war-time Special Operations Executive to lead the raid when he was only 23 years old, Roenneberg was the youngest member of Operation Gunnerside, which penetrated and destroyed key parts of the heavily guarded Norsk Hydro plant.

The subject of books and documentaries as well as movies and a TV drama series, the attack took place without a single shot fired.

Operation Gunnerside was immortalised in The Heroes of Telemark starring Kirk Douglas.

To Roenneberg’s team, however, the stakes could not have been higher. An earlier raid failed to even reach the site, with dozens of attackers captured and killed, and Gunnerside members later described their own assault as a near-suicide mission.

Parachuting onto a snow-covered mountain plateau, the small group teamed up with a handful of other commando soldiers before skiing to their destination, penetrating the plant on foot and blowing up the heavy water production line.

Describing a pivotal moment, Roenneberg later said he made a last-minute decision to cut the length of his fuse from several minutes to seconds, ensuring the explosion would take place but making it more difficult to escape.

While a manhunt ensued, the group fled hundreds of kilometers across the mountains, with Roenneberg skiing to neighboring Sweden, a neutral country in the war, two weeks later.

While historians doubt that Adolf Hitler’s Germany would have been able to produce a nuclear weapon in time to stave off defeat, they also recognize that the risks were much harder to quantify in 1943.

For the Gunnerside crew, this hardly mattered at the time; only much later did they learn the true purpose of the attack they were asked to carry out.

Born in 1919 in the town of Aalesund, Roenneberg fled to Britain after the German invasion of Norway in 1940, receiving military training before returning home for several missions during the war.

After the 1945 liberation he became a radio reporter but rarely spoke of his wartime achievements. Later in life he gave speeches and lectures well into his nineties, warning against the destructive force of totalitarianism.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Sunday praised Roenneberg for his work both during and after the war.

“He is one of our great heroes,” she told news agency NTB.

Published at Reuters on October 21. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from Reuters.


1. For NORWAY, give the following information:

  1. capital
  2. location/the countries that share its borders
  3. the religious breakdown of the population
  4. the type of government
  5. the chief of state (and head of government if different) If monarch or dictator, since what date has he/she ruled? – include name of heir apparent for monarch
  6. the population

Find the answers at the CIA World FactBook website. For each country, answers can be found under the “Geography” “People” and “Government” headings.

NOTE: Before answering the following questions, read the “Background” below.

2. For NORWAY:
a) list the who, what, where and when of the news item
b) How old was Joachim Roenneberg when he sabotaged the plant?
c) How did the men get to the heavily guarded remote plant?
d) Read the story of Operation Gunnerside under “Background” below. What 2-3 adjectives would you use to describe Joachim Roenneberg and the other men? Explain your answers.


Operation Gunnerside

The raid, which is regarded as one of the most successful acts of sabotage in World War II, was also remarkable for the fact all the team managed to escape by cross country skiing 250 miles into Sweden.

The heavy water, or deuterium oxide, which the Norsk plant produced was essential to the German scientists working on an atomic bomb project and the allies were desperate to destroy it.

But it was no soft target. Perched on an icy ravine, surrounded by machine gun-toting guards and floodlights the plant was virtually impregnable.

An earlier attempt to destroy it had ended in bloody failure when some of gliders carrying the team of 30 Royal Engineers crashed in bad weather.

Those who escaped were captured by the Gestapo, tortured and then executed.

For the second attempt the Special Operations Executive gambled on a small six-man squad, all Norwegian, who would parachute in.

After intensive training using a mocked up model of the basement of the plant painstakingly recreated at the explosives base in Brickendonbury, Hertfordshire the team were ready for action.

They were issued thick nordic-style woollen jumpers and brilliant white camouflage smocks to protect themselves from the elements.

The plan was for them to meet up with four members of the previous mission’s advance team who had manged to survive a harsh winter living in an abandoned cabin and eating lichens and moss scraped off rocks.

Mr Stormsheim would play a vital role. An explosives expert, he was known for having a cool head – something that would prove invaluable if things didn’t go to plan.

And of course they didn’t.

Operation Gunnerside began in ernest on February 17 1943 and got off to a disastrous start when bad weather resulted in the team landing some 18 miles form the planned drop zone.

They were forced to spend five days struggling through fierce snow storms before finally linking up with their compatriots.

By February 27th the team had regrouped and was ready to launch their assault.

The Norsk plant was connected by a bridge stretching over the steep ravine so to avoid the German guards the commandos opted to climb down one side of the ravine, wade across the icy river Maan and scramble up the other side.

They would then follow a railway track that led all the way into the plant, get inside through a door which a plantworker was supposed to leave open, set their charges and escape.

Leaving their radio operator at the top of the ravine in case anything went wrong, the rest of the party struggled for hours through thick snow to make it to the river before beginning the arduous task of climbing up the other side.

Exhausted and soaking wet they eventually scrambled to the top and broke into the grounds of the facility using a pair of bolt cutters.

When they arrived at the basement door which was supposed to have been left open they were devastated to find it still locked.

They split up into two parties Stromsheim and Kasper Idland found a window at the back of the basement and took the risk of smashing their way in.

Meanwhile the other party, led by the 23-year-old commander Joachim Ronneberg, managed to crawl through a cable duct before taking a Norweigan plant worker by suprise.

Ronneberg heard Stromsheim smashing the window as he began to lay charges and when Stromsheim and Idland entered the room they were nearly shot by their own colleagues who had mistaken them for guards.

Stromsheim then placed the remaining charges while Ronneberg set the fuses. Fearing the Germans could discover them at any moment they used 30 second fuses instead to the planned two minute ones.

The team dashed outside the plant as the charges went off with a dull thud. Mercifully the guards were not alert.

The mission had been a stunning success and around 1000lbs of heavy water – so vital to Hitler’s dreams of world domination – was washed away.

Now there was just the small matter of escape.

The commandos managed to make it all the down the ravine and back up the other side before the Germans were alerted, but now a chase was on.

Stromsheim and his comrades ploughed on into a snowstorm, using their wooden cross country skis to make the epic 250 mile journey into neutral Sweden.

‘They didn’t reckon that they would get out alive,’ Mr. Stromsheim’s son, also named Birger, recalled. ‘They weren’t sure of that. They were scared in some ways, but there was no panic.’

Back in Britain the the SOE chiefs were delighted at their success – and heralded the mission as the most successful act of sabotage of the Second World War.

The Nazis were forced to relocate their heavy water project and move their remaining supplies of the essential ingredient Potassium Oxide. But the ferry they used to move it was subsequently sunk by a Norweigan resistance.

In his report the mission’s commander Joachim Ronneberg described Stromsheim as ‘beyond doubt the best member of the party’.

For his part in the mission, Stromsheim was awarded the British Military Medal and the Norweigan St Olav medal, the US medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre.

His escapades were later given the Hollywood treatment in the 1965 film Heroes of the Telemark starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris.

Mr Stromsheim and his wife were among the many Norwegians who fled to England when the Nazis occupied their country in 1940.

Although he had never been a soldier he became part of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which had been set up to coordinate resistance in occupied Europe.  (from an Oct. 21 story by Rod Ardehali at the UK Daily Mail)

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