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Published: August 3rd 2015
Vemork Power Station where the heavy water factory was located
"The heroes of Telemark" is a film based on a true story about how a group of Norwegians managed to prevent the Nazi regime in Germany to get access to heavy water which the Nazis needed in their atomic bomb program
The heroes of Telemark
This blog entry is named "The heroes of Telemark" after a British film from 1965. The film is based on a true story about how a group of Norwegians managed to prevent the Nazi regime in Germany to get access to heavy water which the Nazis needed in their atomic bomb program. In early July I, Ake, went to Norway for a few days because I wanted to visit the site where the heavy water was produced and, thanks to the Norwegian sabotage team, and eventually destroyed.
In 1911 the Vemork Power Plant was finished and started to produce electric power. This power-plant was then the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. The water for the power plant was taken from a dam further upstream and brought to the turbines in Vemork through pipes. One of the purposes of the power plant was to supply a fertiliser factory with power. One of the by-products when they produce fertilizer with the technique they used in that factory is water, water with a higher concentration of deuterium, also known as heavy water, than your average water.
Heavy water is
Most of the events told in this blog entry originally took place in Telemark District in Norway
chemically not different from any other water. It differs only in that hydrogen atoms in the water has one extra neutron. That makes the molecules a little heavy, hence the name heavy water. In fact, there is a small amount of heavy water present in any water in the world. About one water molecule out of 5,000 or so is naturally heavy water. The water from the fertilizer factory has a higher concentration, somewhat like one water molecule out of 2,000, and that makes a slight difference if you want to extract heavy water.
So the factory next to the Vemork Power station produced fertilizer and as a by-product there is water with a higher than usual concentration of heavy water. In the 1930-ies they began making use of this water. They collected this and began extracting the heavy water. From what I understand it was then not any big business. There was very little demand for heavy water in the world. Mainly it was used in research and then only in small quantities. The heavy water factory in Vemork was actually the world leading producer of heavy water. But the market was small and they produced
Unit for extraction of heavy water
One of the by-products when they produce fertilizer with the technique they used in the Vemork factory is water, water with a higher concentration of deuterium, also known as heavy water, than your average water.
more heavy water than they could sell. What they in the 1930-ies had no idea of was that market for heavy water was about to explode, pun intended.
In the end of 1930-ies and early 1940-ies this changed. Research had shown that it was possible to build atomic bombs. Nazi-Germany wanted to have this new kind of weapon so they started a research program with the purpose of developing the technique to build atomic bombs. To build an atomic bomb you need fissile material. Either you can use Plutonium (isotope Pu-239 to be precise) or Uranium (isotope U-235 if you want to know). They are both quite difficult to get your hands on. I am not going to go into how you do that. But one technique involves a nuclear reactor and you can use heavy water as a moderator in such a reactor. I have no idea of why heavy water is better than ordinary water, but apparently it is.
So heavy water is not used in an actual atomic bomb but is useful in production of fissile material which in turn is used in atomic bombs.
So heavy water
A glass of water in Vemork Power Station
In fact, there is a small amount of heavy water present in any water in the world. About one water molecule out of 5,000 or so is naturally heavy water. So you might say that there is heavy water in the glass on the table.
is produced in relatively large quantities in only one place, Vemork in Norway, and Nazi-Germany needed large quantities of heavy water to their atomic bomb program. Before World War II the heavy water plant in Vemork produced more than they could sell so they had quite a lot of heavy water in their storage. Nazi-Germany simply tried to buy this through the open market. French military intelligence learned of this attempt to acquire heavy water and realized the importance of it. They stepped in and bought the entire stock themselves. Nazi-Germany's first attempt to acquire heavy water had been stopped.
In 1940 Nazi-Germany invaded Norway. Now they were in control of the world's largest production facility of heavy water. All they had to do was to crank up the production to full throttle and ship it all down to the research facilities in Germany. What could go wrong? The answer: Norwegian resistance men trained in survival under harsh conditions can, from a Nazi perspective, make a lot of things go wrong.
British intelligence knew of the heavy water production in Norway and knew that Germany had an atomic bomb program. They didn't have much
Vemork Power Station
Vemork Power Station as it looks today
detailed information about the program, they didn't know if they were close to develop a bomb or not, but they decided to prevent the Germans from getting the much needed heavy water. They decided to prevent it at all costs.
In October 1942 a team of Norwegian resistance men were dropped in parachutes over Telemark mountains. Their mission was to reach the Vemork Power Station and determine if it was possible to sabotage the production of heavy water. They reported back that it was difficult but possible.
In November 1942 a British sabotage team was sent to Norway. Their mission was to go in and destroy the factory and all the heavy water that had been produced so far. However, they ran into bad weather when they flew in over Norway and three out of the four aircrafts used in the transport crashed. The few survivors were tortured, interrogated and later executed by the Germans.
This was a disaster in many ways:
• The original plan to sabotage the plant had to be aborted since they now had no sabotage team
• The Germans now knew of the plans
Vemork Power Station in the 30-ies or 40-ies
Vemork Power Station in the 1930-ies or 1940-ies. In front of the power station is the fertilizer factory and the heavy water plant.
to sabotage the Vemork station
• The first team of Norwegians were now on their own in the highlands of Telemark in the middle of the winter
I can't even imagine how you can survive in Telemark Mountains in the winter. I was there in the beginning of July and in some places there was still more than two meters of snow. I would within 24 hours die from cold, starvation, dehydration and lack of coffee. I mean, each one of these would kill me separately and the combination of the four would only quicken up things a little bit. The Norwegians didn't die. They went into hiding in Telemark. They had a small hut they could take shelter in so they had four walls and a roof at least. But still, I don't want to know how rough that winter was for them.
In February 1943 the British sent a new group of saboteurs, all Norwegians, into Norway. They met up with the previous group and started preparations for mounting an attack on the heavy water plant.
Behind the Vemork Power Plant there is a high and steep mountain.
In October 1942 a team of Norwegian resistance men were dropped in parachutes over Telemark mountains. In July there is still snow there...
In front of the power plant there is a deep very steep canyon. The only way to reach the station and the heavy water factory was via a heavily guarded bridge. The only possible way to get into the power station was to go via the canyon. How you go about to first climb down and then up high steep canyon walls covered with snow and ice in freezing temperatures in the middle of the night with trigger happy Germans all around you is beyond my comprehension. But that is what they did. They cut open a fence, walked into the factory, placed explosives at the production units and in the storage, lit the fuse and walked out of the building. It reminds me a little about Lord of the Rings - "You don't just walk into Mordor!". Well, I guess that is just what these Norwegians did.
Does this story this far sounds more like fiction than something out of real life? It is a true story and it is not over yet.
The explosives went off and the mission was then officially a success. Nazi-Germany's second attempt to acquire heavy water had
This is Telemark highlands in summer
The first team of Norwegians were now on their own in the highlands of Telemark in the middle of the winter. I can't even imagine how you can survive in Telemark Mountains in the winter
been stopped. However, although the explosions were smaller than you probably think the Germans heard them and knew that there were intruders in the area. The Norwegians hurried back the way they came, they managed to climb down into the canyon and up the other side without being detected. They all got away unharmed. That is even more incomprehensible than how they managed to survive four months in Telemark highlands in the winter without coffee.
In Vemork Power Station there is today a museum covering the history of the place before, during and after the second world war. In that museum I read an interview they made with one of the saboteurs. He explained that the night they mounted the attack at the station many things worked to their advantage. One of these things was the condition of the snow. It was hard like concrete and you could walk on it without leaving a trace. This rarely happens, but that night it was like that. The Germans couldn't see and footprints and simply had no idea where they went. That's in combination with the winter night being very long and dark is how they got away.
The small hut (it has been tranferred from its original position to Vemork)
They had a small hut they could take shelter in so they had four walls and a roof at least. But still, I don't want to know how rough that winter was for them.
Nazi-Germany still didn't have any heavy water. But they still had a factory where they could produce heavy water. They rebuilt the production unit and started producing heavy water again. To stop the production the British now began bombing the factory. They area is difficult to bomb since the power plant and the factory is located in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains. The British managed to get a few hits and although they didn't stop the production they made it more difficult. Eventually the difficulties of keeping the production of heavy water going in Norway became too large. In 1944 they decided to disassemble the heavy water production unit, take all the produced heavy water and bring it all down to Germany. Remember, all water contains a small percentage of heavy water. You don't have to be in Telemark in Norway to produce it. You can produce heavy water in Berlin if you like. It only goes a little quicker if you use the water coming from the fertilizer factory in Vemork.
So the Germans now has some heavy water, the amount they have managed to produce after the sabotage in 1943, and they
The only way to reach the station and the heavy water factory was via a heavily guarded bridge.
are about to ship it to Germany. The war is not over yet although the tide has by now definitely turned in favour of the British. Still the British don't want to see the Germans getting their hands on any heavy water. If the Nazi-Germany manage to produce one atomic bomb and drop that on London it could turn the war around. The British orders the shipment to be stopped at all costs.
They transported the heavy water from Vemork to Lake Tinnsjo by rail. At Mael train station the railway cars were brought onboard the rail ferry SF Hydro. One of the saboteurs from the mission at Vemork managed to sneak onboard the ferry, place explosives there and sneak out again. The device was set to explode when the ferry was on the lake with the hope that she would sink in deep water. It succeeded and SF Hydro today rests at the bottom of Lake Tinnsjo. Nazi-Germany's third attempt to acquire heavy water had been stopped.
I have rarely heard a story of heroism like the one I just told. I know I am not very good at telling stories. If you
In front of the power plant there is a deep very steep canyon
want to read more about the sabotage of heavy water production you can do that on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_heavy_water_sabotage). There are also books and documentaries about these events and of course the abovementioned film. But those might not be so easy to find.
So, what would have happened if they allies had not stopped the Germans from getting access to heavy water? Would the Germans have managed to build their own bomb? The answer is actually no. They would have come closer than they eventually did but they would not have been able to get a functional atomic bomb before the end of the war.
I hope I managed to at least tell the story good enough to make you understand why I wanted to see these places with my own eyes. If I didn't manage to tell the story good enough for you to get the greatness of the deeds the Heroes of Telemark did during World War II then I can only hope that you have enough patience with me to return and read the next blog I have on my trip in Norway. There is one more blog entry from Norway coming
Memorial over people killed in the British bombings of Vemork
They rebuilt the production unit and started producing heavy water again. To stop the production the British began bombing the factory. They area is difficult to bomb since the power plant and the factory is located in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains.
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