Norsk Hydro’s production of heavy water at Vemork was an important part of the Nazis’ nuclear project during the Second World War. Four military operations were launched against the production.
About a month after the German attack on Norway the Nazis increased the heavy water production. The British intelligence was warned about the increased German interest of heavy water. They feared the Nazis would use the water to develop an atomic bomb.
The alarm set off in autumn 1942 when scientific experiments proved that it was possible to produce plutonium in a reactor with heavy water. The production of heavy water took place in the basement of the hydrogen facility at Vemork.
Sgt. Einar Skinnarland (24-years-old) was sent to Norway in the end of March 1942. His mission was to make contact with Norwegian agents in the Rjukan-area and be the link between the Norwegian resistance group and London. In addition he was to aid the group in future operations.
The first operation against the heavy water production was initiated in the fall of 1942. British soldiers from the Combined Operations were to execute the sabotage mission. The target was to destroy the heavy water facility, the heavy water storage and the Vemork power station.
Grouse was the code name for a party of four soldiers who were dispatched into the mountains in advance of the operation, their job was to clear and prepare a landing strip for the aerial arrival of the British soldiers. Grouse was a part of the Norwegian division Special Operations Executive (SOE) which later came to call themselves by the Norwegian “Kompani Linge”. They landed on the Hardangervidda on October 18th 1942. The group was ordered to not contact Skinnarland.
Grouse was led by 2nd Lt. Jens Anton Poulsson (24) and consisted of three other members: Sgt. Arne Kjelstrup (29), 2nd Lt. Knut Haugland (25) and Sgt. Claus Helberg (23).
Operation Freshman was initiated on the 19th November 1942. The bombers carrying the soldiers left Scotland and headed for the area prepared by Grouse, but they did not receive the signals from the ground and passed the area completely. They were forced to turn around and go home. On their way back to Scotland they encountered problems, and only one bomber returned. The other bomber, as well as both of the gliders, had crashed in western Norway.
This tragedy took the life of 41 soldiers. Half of the soldiers were killed in the crash. Survivors were rounded up by the Nazis and four of these were murdered in a prison in Stavanger, fourteen were shot in a camp by Egersund and five were sent to the Grini camp and later shot.
After the disastrous tragedy London decided that a new group was to join forces with Grouse and carry out the sabotage. The new group received the codename Gunnerside, who also belonged to the SOE. At this point Einar Skinnarland had already joined Grouse on the Hardangervidda.
Gunnerside was led by 2nd Lt. Joachim Rønneberg (23) and consisted of five other members: Sgt. Birger Strømsheim (31), 2nd Lt. Knut Haukelid (31), Sgt. Hans Storhaug (27), Sgt. Fredrik Kayser (24) and 2nd Lt. Kasper Idland (24).
On February 16th 1943 the soldiers from Gunnerside parachuted into the Hardangervidda, but they had landed far away from the planned position. They were close to losing parts of their equipment and were stuck due to weather conditions. Grouse and Gunnerside found each other after one week.
February 27th at 8 p.m. the two groups started towards the heavy water production. The saboteurs decided to cross the gorge rather than make their way across Vemork’s guarded suspension bridge. They followed the railway tracks and waited by the gate until the change of watch by the bridge.
Just over midnight they managed to blow up the heavy water production without being detected. The explosion tore apart the heavy water cells and 500 kilos of heavy water went down the drain.
There were no prisoners, and not a life was lost during the operation. Rønneberg, Strømsheim, Idland, Storhaug and Kayser left the mountains by skis after the mission and made their way to Sweden. The others remained in order to create and build resistance groups in the area.
BOMBING VEMORK AND RJUKAN
The production of heavy water was only incapacitated for a short amount of time and was soon enough back on its feet. The American Forces wanted to convince the allied military leaders to agree that Vemork and its facilities had to be bombed. The Norwegian government in London was neither informed nor consulted regarding this operation.
On the morning of the 16th November 1943 the Americans bombed Vemork and Rjukan. Over 700 five-hundred kilo bombs were dropped over Vemork and over 70 tons worth of bombs were dropped over the factories located in Rjukan.
Only eighteen of these bombs hit the facilities at Vemork. The hydrogen facility and the power station were considerably damaged and about 60 kilos of heavy water was destroyed during the operation, less than a month’s work.
One of the bombs hit a bomb shelter built by Vemork. 22 civilians were killed in the operation and many of these were women and children. In addition six homes were completely destroyed and several others were damaged. The bombing led to strong reactions by the Norwegian government.
SINKING D/F HYDRO
After being bombed, the Nazis decided to move the heavy water production to Germany. The heavy water and the production equipment were to be transported across the lake on the ferry D/F Hydro. This was their last chance to strike, and it was then decided that they had to sink the ferry.
The operation was led by Lt. Knut Haukelid (32) and he brought along Rolf Sørlie (27) and Knut Lier-Hansen (27).
They snuck aboard the ferry on the night of February 20th 1944; to their surprise it was unguarded. They placed the explosive charges and left the scene.
Sunday February 20th. 53 passengers were aboard the ferry, along with wagons filled with barrels of heavy water. The cargo on the ferry equaled approximately 600 kilos of heavy water. The explosive charges went off just before 11 a.m. and fourteen civilian Norwegian citizens and four Nazi soldiers were killed. After the mission Haukelid left for Sweden while the two others remained in the area.
The sinking of the ferry stopped the largest transport of heavy water to reach Germany. However two smaller units of 120 kilos of heavy water arrived in Germany in March. The disassembled heavy water equipment was sent in August 1944.
The sabotage operations at Vemork contributed to stopping heavy water supplies from reaching Germany and cut the Nazis off the required amounts of heavy water they needed in order to develop a nuclear weapon before the end of the war.