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Ancestral search leads to Telemark

Mon, Nov 3rd, 2003
Posted in Norwegian Ancestry

The old hydroelectric power station in Vemork is the site of the Norwegian Industrial Worker Museum today. The hydrogen heavy water factory, which has been torn down, was seven stories tall and located in front of the museum.

Sabotage, heavy water, and atom bomb are words one would normally not expect to encounter when merely trying to locate ancestral farms in Norway. Knowing only that the two farms were located in the area of Tinn i Telemark, my family and I set our course west from Oslo for the town of Rjukan, renowned for its death-defying cliffs and deep gorges. History was coming to life beneath our feet as we learned about one of the most daring sabotage acts of World War II, which not only prevented Nazi Germany from carrying out their atomic agenda, but also put Rjukan on the world map.

Town of Rjukan

Rjukan itself is located at the very bottom of the narrow Vestfjord valley, surrounded by steep cliffs that lead up to the Hardangervidda (Hardanger mountain plateau), the largest mountain plateau in Europe. Towering majestically above the town of Rjukan, at a height of 6,178 feet, is Gaustatoppen, one of the most beautiful mountains in Norway. On a clear day, one can see one sixth of Norway, all the way south to the coast and east to Sweden.

Norway was still a poor country around 1900, with farming and fishing the primary means of subsistence. Up to 1905, there were still only about 50 farm families or 350 people that lived around Rjukans isolated farming valley.

Engineer Sam Eyde, 1866-1940, whom Rjukans main street was named after, sought to improve agriculture by finding a way of extracting nitrogen from the air in order to make artificial fertilizers. Together with physicist Kristian Birkeland, 1867-1917, they developed the electric arc furnace for making mineral fertilizer and founded Norsk Hydro in 1905.

The mighty Rjukan waterfall, with a sheer drop of 341 feet, is located on the west side of Rjukan, in Vemork. With a never ending supply of water flowing from the Hardangervidda down into the Vestfjord valley, the waterfall provided Sam Eyde the basis for building the largest hydroelectric power station in the world, in 1911. Laying the highly visible water pipes on the mountainside was a great feat of engineering. With the industrialization of the peasant society, the Rjukan population in only ten years swelled to over 10,000.


Krossobanen, northern Europes first cable car, was built in 1928 as a gift to the Rjukan townspeople from Norsk Hydro. Rjukans mountainsides are so sheer that the town didnt see the sun for a few months during the winter, so the cable car allowed the inhabitants to raise high enough out of the deep gorge to see the sun during the winter months. This past summer as the cable car carried us to a point 2,907 feet above sea level, we could see for ourselves the heavy mountain shadows in the Vestfjord valley below.

Heavy water (D2O)

A separate hydrogen factory was built near the hydroelectric power station at Vemork, in 1928. The hydrogen was used to produce artificial fertilizer, with a bi-product of this process being heavy water. In December 1934, Norsk Hydro began producing high concentrations of heavy water (deuterium oxide) at the Vemork hydrogen factory in Rjukan.

Visiting the old hydroelectric power station in Vemork, site of the Norwegian Industrial Worker Museum, we learned the difference between regular water (H2O) and heavy water (D2O). Heavy water is water in which both hydrogen atoms have been replaced with deuterium, increasing the weight and making heavy water about 10% heavier than regular water.

Albert Einstein, whose theories were crucial to the exploitation of nuclear energy, warned President Roosevelt in 1939 of the danger of a German atomic bomb. When Nazi Germany attacked Norway on April 9, 1940, it soon became clear that the Germans were interested in heavy water to control nuclear fission. In simple language, the heavy water would be used as brake fluid.

Deeply embedded in the gorge, the hydrogen factory was kept under maximum security by the Germans. Production was increased in 1942, due to Vemork being the only facility in the world capable of producing the quantities of heavy water they needed.

Assault preparation

London, England and Washington, D.C. were aware that heavy water had something to do with Hitlers threat of a secret weapon. It was decided to sabotage the heavy water unit at the Vemork hydrogen factory, to prevent usage by the Nazis.

The allies figured the Germans would not expect a sabotage attack, since Vemork was so well protected by nature. The heavy water factory, built on a broad shelf of rock over 1,000 feet above the river Mna, sat on the mountainside like an eagles nest. The only routes to the factory were the railroad track or across the heavily guarded 75 foot long suspension bridge, with the 276 foot ravine below.

The first lone Norwegian parachutist was dropped above the Hardandervidda on March 28, 1942 and was followed on October 19, 1942 by four Norwegians just west of Rjukan. Code named Grouse, their mission was to collect intelligence on heavy water production, maintain radio contact with the Allied Command in London, and prepare the ground for the sabotage operation.

The struggle to destroy the heavy water produced in Vemork took more than two years and involved four assaults, but prevented Nazi Germany from developing the atom bomb.

British commando soldiers

On November 19, 1942, the first assault on the heavy water factory, code named Freshman, ended in total tragedy. Two planes from the 1st airborne division each towed a glider all the way from England to the Norway, where they ran into a dreadful snowstorm.

On board the gliders were a total of thirty-four specially trained British commando soldiers. One plane with the glider still attached, crashed into a mountain killing all aboard. The second glider was released, but some of the commandos were killed during the landing and others were captured and shot by the Germans the following day.

The glider disasters forced the still intact Norwegian Grouse group, renamed Swallow, to withdraw into the heart of the Hardangervidda 3,937 feet above sea level. They survived several winter months by hunting and eating the stomach contents of wild reindeer.

Norwegian resistance


On February 16, 1943, a new group of Norwegian resistance saboteurs was dropped by parachute into a blizzard on the Hardangervidda, thirty miles from their intended dropping zone. After a strenuous trek on skies they joined the Swallow group, making a total of eleven men. A second assault, code named operation Gunnerside, was carried out by nine of the saboteurs, while the two wireless operators stayed in the mountains. All of them had been specially trained in England.

To defend Vemork, the Germans had placed machine guns and searchlights on top of the heavy water factory. Lights illuminated the power station and the hydrogen factory. Floodlights were even placed on the pipelines. To provide protection from an aerial attack, anti-aircraft guns were installed and wires were stretched across the Vestfjord valley from mountain to mountain.

In one of the most heroic sabotage acts of World War II, at one hour before midnight on February 27, 1943, the nine Norwegians rappelled down the sheer sides of the canyon to Vemork and crossed the ice-choked river at the bottom of the gorge. From there they edged up the rock face on the opposite side. They emerged by the unguarded railway track leading to the hydrogen factory, avoiding the minefields laid by the Germans and the highly protected suspension bridge.

In the wee hours of February 28, the explosive charges set by the resistance fighters destroyed the bulk of the vital containers of heavy water. The German guards hardly grasped that there had been an explosion, due to the powerful drone of the generators.

The Norwegian had already crossed the Mna River when they heard the air-raid sirens sound. The Germans moving about with their electric torches soon discovered the saboteurs line of retreat. To avoid capture, the resistance fighters climbed the narrow mountain route passing back and forth under Krossobanen, the cable car lift. The men reached the safety of the Hardangervidda, only to be greeted by a violent westerly gale.

The Norwegians, said to be born with skies on their feet, had skiing abilities far superior to the German guards. Half of the group skied to Sweden to safety. The other half of the saboteurs not only skillfully avoided capture by the more than 15,000 Germans and aircraft in their sweep of the Hardangervidda, but also maintained their radio contact with the United Kingdom.

American bombing raid

During the next six months, the heavy water factory was rebuilt and production restarted. A third assault was made on November 16, 1943, when 143 United States Flying Fortresses swooped in over the Rjukan valley and dropped 711 bombs, each weighing 500 pounds. Three bombs hit the pipelines, four hit the hydroelectric power station, two hit the hydrogen factory where the heavy water was produced, one hit the suspension bridge, and one hit a Norwegian bomb shelter. Twenty-two Norwegians, mostly women and children, were killed by the bombs. Twenty-one of them had been in the bomb shelter.

Fortunately, valves at the top of the reservoir stopped the devastating flow of water. The high concentration of heavy water under seven stories of concrete was undamaged. The attack, however, convinced the Germans to abandon any further production at Vemork.

Sinking of the ferry

A couple of months later, the remaining group of Norwegian saboteurs discovered that the Germans planned to ship the entire semi-finished heavy water product from Vemork to Germany. That quantity far exceeded what had been destroyed earlier. Orders for a fourth assault came by radio from London. The plan was to destroy the heavy water during transit before it reached the ocean voyage.

Obviously afraid of an attack, Rjukan was packed with Germans troops and there were more Germans than Norwegian in the Vestfjord valley. Intelligence reports revealed to the Norwegian resistance fighters that the weakest link in the transport of the heavy water was the journey by ferry over Lake Tinnsj. The third deepest lake in all of Europe, it is 1509 feet at its deepest point.

The Germans had failed to place a guard at the D/F Hydro railway ferry that was to be used the following day for heavy water transportation on Lake Tinnsj. The Norwegians were able to sneak aboard the ferry and place the charge using two alarm clocks and a detonating mechanism. On Sunday February 20, 1944, an explosion in the bow sank the ferry in the deepest part of the lake, destroying all the remaining heavy water.

The resistance fighters were unable to warn the unsuspecting ferry passengers, for fear the Germans would become suspicious. Fourteen Norwegian civilians perished along side the German guards. With ruthless logic, daring, and endurance, the last chapter in the battle for heavy water in Norway had finally ended, preventing Hitler from carrying out his atomic project.

As we stood on the Vemork suspension bridge, it seemed almost surreal that only sixty years earlier, events that unfolded in this remote Vestfjord valley, changed the outcome of the Second World War.

Family farms

My teenage sons, Alex and Ben, discovered genealogy research quite intriguing when both of our ancestral farms, Ben Vestre and Steinsrud under Dale, were found to have been located on the main street in Rjukan, Sam Eydesgate, named after engineer Sam Eyde.

Ben Vestre, currently the center of Rjukan, was owned by our ancestors for four generations back to the 1600s. On the east end of Rjukan was Steinsrud under Dale where my great-great-great-grandfather, Tov Torgrimsson, was born in 1799. It was Tovs son, Gullik Tovsson (Thompson), born in Kjosa, Imingen i Numedal that immigrated in 1876 to Black Hammer in Houston County, MN and later to Simley Springs in the Big Woods of Fillmore County, MN.

For further information

Visit my son Alexs newly designed website from B i Telemark, Norway at http://students.luther.edu/~huntal01/

Read Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid, available at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, IA.

Watch Heroes of Telemark (Hollywood version) filmed on location in Vemork and Rjukan in 1965.

Deb Nelson Gourley, who was raised in Amherst, is writing a book about her Norwegian heritage. You can visit the authors Norwegian Ancestry Series at www.fillmorecountyjournal.com for all of her stories. She can be contacted at gourleyd@sbtek.net

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