Heroes of Telemark 2006

The reality behind the films.

The history

You may or may not remember the 1965 film "The Heroes of Telemark", but I certainly do. I saw it first as a child, and have seen it several times since. If you have not seen it, I recommend you do - this area will seem a whole lot more interesting as a result (although its beauty should be easily enough). I had lived so close to this area for over half a year, but had not realised it. So on one of my visits to Norway, I had to take the opportunity to look at it in person.

The film is based heavily on a true story, but with obvious inaccuracies that I will try to clear up. The first inaccuracy is that it stars annoying dimple-chin Kirk Douglas, who plays an American. Or at least, he is supposed to be Norwegian, but he is the least convincing Norwegian I have ever seen, and is clearly an American, complete with American character traits and accent. Well of course, they save everyone everywhere, right? Wrong. In reality, his character never existed. During the Second World War, the Germans had set up a heavy water refining plant in the hydroelectric power station at Vemork in Telemark. The heavy water was a byproduct of the fertiliser production, which took place using the electricity at the factory. The heavy water was to be used as part of the German atomic bomb production, which the Allied forces mistakenly feared would be ready very soon.

A small Norwegian advance force hid out in the surrounding mountains, waiting for the British teams to arrive. These were flown over, but crashed, and all survivors were captured and executed. The advance force survived on moss, lichen, and a single reindeer, for 4 months through the icy winter. Reinforcements later arrived in the form of several more Norwegians. They crossed the gorge near the factory, went inside, set explosives on the refinery and escaped without any shots being fired (although the film shows otherwise). Several of them then escaped to Sweden.

Six months later, the factory was running again, so the Americans tried bombing it - badly. They did little damage to the plant itself, but succeeded in hitting the nearby Norwegian towns instead. The Germans decided to move production to Germany, and prepared to ship the refined water across the nearby lake, the only real way out of that part of Telemark. The British (or London, strictly speaking) gave the order to sink the ferry, even though it would be used by local Norwegians as well, many of whome would be known personally, even intimately by the resistance.

The ferry was sunk in deep freezing water in the lake, killing the 14 Norwegians who were on board, as well as the 4 German guards. Unlike the story portrayed by the film, the ferry itself was virtually unguarded while it was at the dock, and there was no possible attempt to help save anyone on board. The German atomic program was halted (although after the war, finds showed that they were never even close to completion). The Norwegian resistance involved in the factory sabotage, and sinking the ferry, are regarded as Norwegian heroes, even by the families of those they had been forced to kill.

There had been some speculation that the barrels were simply a decoy. Recent archaeological expeditions recovered some barrels from the floor of the lake, and confirmed that they had indeed contained heavy water.

The visit

We had planned to spend two days here, sleeping outside overnight. But then it rained on the saturday, and we decided it would be better to take a night bus, and see everything in one day (which worked very well, as it turned out). The bus trip was supposed to be a chance to sleep, but annoying and selfish idiots returning from a festival meant that sleep was impossible. Then after leaving my watch on the first bus, I could not sleep on the second one in case I overslept the stop.

The night before had been the Opera work party, which finished at 03:00, and was followed by getting up at 06:00 for the morning bus that we did not use. I slept for another hour on saturday, while Moose slept longer to stave off an impending cold. Oh well, sleep is unimportant.