THE year was 1943. The tide of the war had turned against Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had sunk his hopes for victory into a swath of secret projects. One of them was a nuclear bomb.
But Norwegian Joachim Roenneberg ended that.
The war hero died in his native Norway yesterday, aged 99.
His memory is being feted by the world.
He was a young soldier fighting in Norway’s resistance in 1943 when Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) approached him to lead Operation Gunnerside.
It was a mission to sabotage a vital component of the Norsk Hydro plant. It was being used to produce material for eventual use in a Nazi nuclear bomb.
“Roenneberg is probably the last of the best known resistance fighters to pass away,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said overnight. “He is one of our great heroes.”
Roenneberg had fled Norway as German invasion forces swept through the country in 1940. But he quickly joined Norwegian resistance forces undergoing training in Britain.
That training came to a head in February 1943, when he was secretly returned to his homeland as the head of a special forces unit.
His “courage contributed to what has been referred to as the most successful sabotage campaign,” Prime Minister Solberg said.
The Norsky Hydro facility was the only place in the world producing large quantities of heavy water (D2O) – a hydrogen enriched substance key in the development of nuclear weapons.
The Nazis knew this. So they were buisily securing a supply for themselves.
Roenneberg, then 23, was tapped by the SOE — Britain’s wartime intelligence gathering and sabotage unit — to destroy key parts of the heavily guarded plant in southern Norway in February 1943.
The odds were not good. An earlier attempt to do the same thing had failed to even get within sight of the plant, and dozens of Norwegian resistance fighters had been captured or killed.
The six men of Roenneberg’s commando team parachuted into a remote mountain plateau. They then joined up with members of the resistance before skiing to within sight of the facility.
None of them knew why they had to attack the remote industrial plant.
But they knew they must succeed.
The commandos edged forward, on foot and wriggling through the undergrowth and snow.
Unnoticed, the team successfully attached explosive charges at vulnerable points in the heavy water production plant.
Again unnoticed, all managed to slip back into the countryside before the charges detonated.
The operation — during which not a single shot was fired — has been recounted in books, documentaries, films and TV series — including the 1965 Kirk Douglas movie The Heroes of Telemark.
Nazi Germany was infuriated.
Some 3000 soldiers were committed to a massive manhunt. For two weeks Ronneberg and his commandos played an unnerving game of cat-and-mouse, eventually skiing hundreds of kilometres across the mountains to safety into neutral Sweden.
The raid was one of the most successful of the war.
While historians have cast doubt on Nazi Germany’s ability to produce nuclear weapons — even with a heavy water supply — this was not known at the time. The race to prevent it acquiring the technology was seen as one of the most urgent missions of the war.
Roenneberg remained silent about his pivotal role until the late 1970s. Fearing totalitarianism and fascism was once again on the rise, he began speaking publicly about what drove him to undertake such a desperate high-stakes mission.
Originally published as This man saved us from a Nazi nuke