I visited Norway last summer and was struck by the unanimous kindness of every single Norwegian I met. It was truly remarkable that every stranger on the street, behind the counter and in the next seat was friendly, helpful and politely deferential to me and my fellow traveling companions. It was amazing. So it was not surprising to me to read a true story about a Norwegian resistance fighter in World War II who was saved from capture and certain death – solely by the kindness of Norwegian strangers.

Norwegian exile Jan Baalsrud volunteered for a military mission in World War II that had only a small chance of success. And all 12 of the men who volunteered with him knew that failure meant a certain death. They were tasked with sailing from northern England to Nazi-occupied Norway to train resistance fighters and stage resistance operations in-country – behind enemy lines. The most challenging and dangerous part of the operation was the landing. Unfortunately, their cover as fishermen was blown and they were ambushed by the Nazis. Jan was the only survivor and his harrowing tale of surviving, foiling the Nazis and crossing to neutral territory in Sweden on foot is the stuff of legends. But, his story is all true.

Despite being shot at and chased by a small army of Nazis, he evaded capture on the coast by enlisting the help of some village children who stumbled onto his worn out body. Amazingly, the children and their family took him in and revived him – much to their own peril. This family was the first of many who risked their lives to save his and to ensure his safe crossing to Sweden. Each of several families would patch him up, stuff provisions in his pockets and send him on his way – until he became incapacitated and had to be carried.

Frostbitten and snowblind by an avalanche, he literally stumbled into a house of Norwegians who happened to be friendly to the resistance movement. This family hid him in a remote cabin and then physically carried him on a gurney up a mountain to be passed off to another group of resistance fighters who lived in the village on the other side of the mountain plateau. Through a variety of circumstances, he was forced to remain on the plateau for more than a month, while the weather improved and an adequate team could be assembled to transport the crippled Jan to Sweden. His stories of self-amputation in order to prevent gangrene from killing him, abating his hunger and warding off severe depression during this period of isolation in the wintry tundra are unfathomable. But, his survival could never have happened without the good Samaritans and Norwegian “neighbors” he encountered on his journey. It reminded me of the Underground Railroad in our own country, although I wonder if the risk to the Railroad hosts was as high as it was during World War II. Resistance fighters who were discovered by the Nazis were swiftly sent to concentration camps, tortured and killed. After meeting so many Norwegians from a variety of backgrounds last summer, I am not surprised by their daring attempt to save him and transport him to safety.

We Die Alone was first published in 1955 by a World War II veteran who ran a spy ring, David Howarth. A prolific writer of more than two dozen books, he died in 1991. The book was reprinted in 1999 with an introduction by Stephen Ambrose, which undoubtedly gave the book a bit more notoriety and reintroduced this unbelievable story of pluck, determination and survival to a new audience. But why isn’t Jan Baalsrud’s survival story more well known?




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  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    Then, last Friday, Rohan and Daddy drove to Drøbak and took the fast ferry out to Oscarsborg Fortress (island) to see the BIG GUNS – massive 11″ Krupp guns – which stopped the attempted German coup de main (to grab the Norwegian king, parliament, and gold) on 9 April 1940, sinking the brand new 14,000 ton German heavy cruiser Bluecher in the process.

    http://www.nasjonalefestningsverk.no/oscarsborg/index_html

    The Germans knew about the guns, but their pre-invasion research only went back to World War I: they didn’t know about the submerged Whitehead torpedo launchers which had been installed in 1912(?). And those ancient torpedoes – which even then looked like Jules Verne museum pieces, and were launched from dead stop on underwater trays – were what undid Bluecher. And just as secretly, those tubes were still at the ready as late as 1993! … for any Sverdlovsk class Soviet cruiser daring to force the Vik.

    I took photos. One of them shows Rohan chucking a rock at one of the guns … which fortunately ignored him. Then there are 3 of our 105mm howitzers elsewhere on the island, as well as some late-1800s looking museum pieces.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    My young wife is Norwegian, our 2 yr old Rohan the Red(-haired) was born in Trondheim, and we have another bonafide Norwegian-American due in September.

    In August 2006, my future wife and I visited the Resistance Museum in Akerhus Fortress on the Oslo seafront.

    http://www.mil.no/felles/nhm/start/eng/

    … as well as the fortress museum itself.

    http://www.nasjonalefestningsverk.no/akershus/index_html

    My wife was desperately homesick back in Macomb IL, so I retired and moved over here in August 2009. Most Norwegians do like Americans – especially after Obama’s election, which was greeted with intense joy and relief in Norway as it was in the rest of the world – and know a considerable amount of English … which has helped. Learning Norwegian is … challenging, but once I do, I should be able to comprehend Danish and Swedish as well.

    Unfortunately, kindness may lead to the Scandinavians’ undoing: they have opened their doors to immigrants, principally from Muslim cultures hostile to their liberal lifestyle (although most of these folks are good people who just want a better life for their families). Sweden has by far the biggest problem, and it’s getting more violent.

    A few months ago, we drove down to Goethenberg, Sweden, to visit the amusement park Liseberg there, and we toured the naval/maritime museum, which features a retired Swedish sub (Nordkapp) and destroyer (Smoaland), both of which were very compact and cramped designs.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    Hello? Moderator? :-)

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    By the way, a Norwegian wargaming friend is thinking about doing a game about Oscarsborg, and an April 1940 expansion is planned for the commercial game PQ-17, designed by Chris Janiec.

    And I’ve designed a cardstock model of the April 1940 Sleipner class Norwegian destroyers, which can be viewed via my webpage.

  • Chuck Hill

    My understanding was that the torpedoes had only recently returned from a rebuild–in Germany.

  • Chuck Hill

    Good explanation of the battle and the fortress here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscarsborg_Fortress

  • Chuck Hill
  • Alexander Martin

    Lou – a handful of American officers and I spent the good part of a month a couple years ago at the Norwegian Winter Warfare Course – aside from our tactical exercises (which were incredible), they took us on a trip up north for a battle study of Narvik…I found Norway to be incredible and inspiring and the people not only kind, but strong and no-nonsense…we all agreed we’d be happy to go into combat with them any day. What a great people and country.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    Chuck, the torpedoes were Whiteheads of Austro-Hungarian! manufacture. They had been used in practice countless times and were well taken care of. There was some question whether they were worn out and would’t work … but of course they did.

    Alexander, my brother in law who is in the reserves over here has his military kit including rifle (without bolt, I believe) at home and at the ready at all times. They NEVER want another 9 April 1940 to happen.

    Good films: Heroes of Telemark, Max Manus (the most famous resistance fighter), and of course The Vikings.

    Good book: Geirr Haarr’s new USNI book about the Apr-Jun 1940 naval war.

    I’ve also been to Marine Museet – the Naval Museum – down in Horten, but just to show my models to the director, Kommandør Kapitein Hans Petter Oset. There is also an excellent SeaFarer’s Museum on the Oslo shorefront, near the Viking Ship Museum.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    Something else I should mention: Although in my personal visits to the Marine Museet and Sea Farers Museum, KomKap Oset and Master Modelmaker Jan Wellen took time to talk with me, those institutions have never replied to my e-mails to them, although the latter have been as informative and helpful to them as anything I was asking in return.

    By contrast, I can remember my trip years ago with my 15 yr old son Robert out to the Naval Historical Center, the Naval Academy Museum, and USNI itself. Dean Allard and John Reilly spent time with us talking about the public education and recruitment benefits of model building and naval wargaming hobbies – they even gave me a copy of the NHC’s operational history of our fast battleships.

    At the USNA Museum, I/we walked right down into the basement and Master Modeler Bob Sumrall’s workshop. At first a little startled when he found us there, Bob became intrigued by my paper/cardstock models and in turn showed us his latest work, especially with resin.

    And at the USNI, someone from the staff patiently listened at length to my recommendations about how someone should produce 1/1200 USN and IJN task force sets … accompanied by simple gaming rules. (Of course, Hasbro has now filled that niche/need/market with its comprehensive, if simplistic, 1:1800 Axis&Allies War At Sea Naval Miniatures models and games.)

    Public servants in America seem to be far more responsive to individual citizens/residents.

  • Old Air Force Sarge

    Splendid story. The Norwegians are an admirable people. Our wing commander at NATO AB Geilenkirchen was a Norwegian colonel, a good man and a fine officer. The Norwegians were good comrades. Good to see a story regarding the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    I forgot another excellent Norwegian film: The Second Lieutenant.

    It is based on fact – about a retiree who donned his 1900 era uniform and reported for duty, the moment he heard the Germans had invaded. The second lieutenant rank had been ended in the Norwegian Army by 1940.

    Ridiculed for his age and museum-like rank and attire, they didn’t know what to do with him. However, by his instinctive and long-exercized leadership, he led a hastily organized regiment (in the Telemark area, I believe) and inflicted some nasty little defeats on Wehrmacht units venturing there before the Norwegian Army’s 1940 surrender in Norway.

    For Dr. Bill Combs’ Nazi Germany course at Western Ill. Univ. in Macomb, I once wrote a report about Scandinavian neutrality and occupation. It turns out that the Swedes (to their credit) had tried to get the Danes and Norwegians to unite with them in a Scandinavian defensive alliance, but the latter trusted in neutrality and not them … with the tragic historical result.

  • Chuck Hill

    I know the Swedes sent some aircraft into Finland after the Soviets invaded. Not sure they did any fighting.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_Volunteer_Corps_(Winter_War)

    The Swedes were in a VERY dangerous/difficult position between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, especially after the fall of Denmark and Norway.

    Sometime after 1940, the Germans were verging on invading Sweden, but the Swedish Army did an incredible, Miracle of the Marne type redeployment described in Carl Van Horn’s book, Soldiering for Peace.

    Remember that as late as September 1943, the Germans were able to exert enough local air(, land, and sea) superiority to retake Leros in the Aegean and capture over 3,000 British and 8,000 Allied Italian troops – and Sweden was similarly surrounded on all sides. Half the Allied fighter aircraft engaged were lost, and the situation became hopeless after we withdrew our American fighters from the battle.

    To Sweden’s lasting dishonor, though, it later turned over to the Soviets Axis troops who had crossed its border and been interned. From Wiki:

    “In January 1946, Sweden handed over 146 Baltic and 2,364 German soldiers who had been interned in Swedish prison camps to the Soviet Union. At least seven of the internees committed suicide during the process.[citation needed]

    In 1970, film director Johan Bergenstråhle made a documentary, Baltutlämningen (English title: A Baltic Tragedy), about the Latvian soldiers who were given to the Soviets to be sentenced to hard labor in prison camps.”

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    I should have mentioned that there is a very nice account of USS Ranger’s Bombing 4′s 1943 raid on German shipping in the northern Norwegian port of Bodø.

    http://www.airgroup4.com/norway.htm

    You need to click on the photo links to see most of the photos.

    And on the Wikipedia page for Ranger is a photo of a monument which I think is in Norway to the pilot and crewman who died in the raid.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Memorial_pilots_from_USS_Ranger_in_Fagervika.JPG

    A Norwegian officer was in one of the planes and helped to differentiate German targets from Norwegian facilities, which is why Americans are well liked there and Ranger veterans were so well received during a visit a while ago. (The Germans bombed Bodø ruthlessly in 1940.)

  • Lou Coatney

    Moderator,

    Why was my submission about USS Ranger’s Bombing 4′s raid on Bodø not posted?

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    Thanks, Moderator.

    I might add that I was talking with an Oslo University student on my way to the subway, this evening, after a wargame club get-together during which he had far exceeded the Red Army’s Nov42-Jun43 historical performance, after I foolishly lost 2 panzer armies trying to save 6th Army in Stalingrad.

    He told me that one reason the German naval invasion was as successful as it was was that there was very unusual FOG in most of Norway’s ports on 9 April 1940. For example, Trondheim’s shore defenses were almost as strong as Oslo’s, but all they could do was fire into the dense fog at the sound of ships passing in the fjord. Oslo and one other port didn’t have fog and did repulse the German naval forces. At the other port, though, the Germans tried entering a second time – this time flying the French flag, which confused the Norwegians … he said.

  • http://www.coatneyhistory.com Lou Coatney

    Coming back to Oslo on the train today, we passed through the railroad tunnels at Donbås. It was at the mouth of one of these tunnels that the first U.S. military casualty of World War 2 occurred: West Point graduate and Oslo embassy military attache Robert Losey, who had ventured forward to see Luftwaffe bombing techniques.

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