Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Telemark heroes

In one of the most daring raids of the Second World War, Jens-Anton Poulsson, who died last month aged 91, led a team that sabotaged Hitler's heavy-water plant in the Norwegian Telemark region.

The Germans were believed to be developing heavy water (water with a raised concentration of deuterium, essential for the manufacture of plutonium) for an atomic bomb at the Vermork site, 50 miles west of Oslo. In October 1942 Poulsson, along with three others, were dropped by parachute onto the Hardanger Vidda plateau to prepare the operational base for an attack on the plant. However, the expedition nearly ended in disaster when three weeks later two gliders, each carrying nine engineer commandos, both crashed. One team was wiped out, while the second nine survived, only to be captured and shot by the Germans.

Poulsson and his men, including Knut Haughland who died in December 2009, were left on the mountain. They ended up spending three months in a trappers hut, food ran low, and only through great ingenuity did they manage to survive. Eventually a new team led by Joachim R√łnneberg met up with the original saboteurs and working together, they carried out the destruction of the heavy water plant with ruthless efficiency.

The raid has inspired a number of films including the (not entirely accurate) The Heroes of Telemark (1965), starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, as well a number of books. The latest to be published is Mission Telemark by Amanda Mitchison, a children's novel based around the real events. In the story, four teenagers, trained by the British Army Special Operations Executive (SOE), are sent into Norway to sabotage the heavy-water plant. It's a gripping, well-paced adventure that keeps to the spirit of the actual Telemark operation. The book also includes lots of useful survival tips such as how to skin a rabbit, or avoid frostbite, and is even a touch gruesome in parts.

So how did I come to be reading a children's story instead of something like Poulsson's Tungtvanns Sabotasjen? Well, my 10-year-old daughter has just read, and re-read, the book and as it was lying around the house I just couldn't resist it picking it up.

Back to more factual accounts of the wartime raid, and it's worth listening to this BBC Radio 4 documentary or watching Ray Mears's The Real Heroes of Telemark.


  1. This story is centered on Vermork in the Rjukan valley which, as it happens, has since become a paradise for ice climbers having fantastic ice falls, predictable conditions and a long season. The guidebook to the area, which is a British Norwegian collaboration, is appropriately called Heavy Water!

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