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The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb

The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb

4.3 3
by Neal Bascomb

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From the award-winning and best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann and THe Perfect Mile, an epic adventure and spy story about what many consider the greatest act of sabotage of World War II, based on a trove of exciting new research

It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to build an atomic bomb. They have the


From the award-winning and best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann and THe Perfect Mile, an epic adventure and spy story about what many consider the greatest act of sabotage of World War II, based on a trove of exciting new research

It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to build an atomic bomb. They have the physicists. They have the will. What they don’t have is enough “heavy water," an essential ingredient for their nuclear designs. For two years, the Nazis have occupied Norway, and with it the Vemork hydroelectric plant, a massive industrial complex nestled on a precipice of a gorge. Vemork is the world’s sole supplier of heavy water, and under the threat of death, its engineers pushed production into overtime. 
For the Allies, Vemork must be destroyed. But how would they reach the castle fortress high in a mountainous valley? The answer became the most dramatic commando raid of the war. The British Special Operations Executive together a brilliant scientist and eleven refugee Norwegian commandos, who, with little more than parachutes, skis, and Tommy Guns, would destroy Hitler’s nuclear ambitions and help end the reign of the Third Reich.  
Based on exhaustive research and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, The Winter Fortress is a compulsively readable narrative about a group of young men who endured soul-crushing setbacks and Gestapo hunts and survived in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth to save the world from destruction. 

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bascomb (The Nazi Hunters), a WWII historian and former journalist, thrillingly recounts the commando effort to destroy the Norwegian Vemork hydroelectric plant that was the source of heavy water, a necessary requirement for the Nazi Germany’s atomic bomb program. The book chronicles four major attacks: an unsuccessful British commando raid, a successful Norwegian commando raid, a U.S. Air Force bombing attack, and the final efforts to demolish the remaining heavy water supplies. Bascomb’s novelistic depiction focuses on the efforts of the Norwegian commandos and resistance fighters, who braved the threat of Gestapo torture and execution while showcasing the skiing and wilderness skills that helped them survive and operate in the arctic conditions of Norwegian winter. He contextualizes events by explaining the importance of heavy water to nuclear fission and reminding readers that the extent of the Nazi nuclear program was unknown at the time. Bascomb’s meticulous research draws on U.S., British, German, and Norwegian archives, as well as interviews with surviving veterans. Much of the information Bascomb shares has been detailed elsewhere, but this is still a fascinating read about how a small group of Norwegians refused to submit to the brutal occupation of their country and contributed significantly to Allied victory. (May)
Library Journal
At the outbreak of World War II, both the Allies and Axis powers were involved in building an atomic weapon. For the Germans, a key ingredient in their research was heavy water (or deuterium oxide), which was essential for creating a nuclear reaction; Norway possessed a significant heavy water manufacturing plant at Vemork. By spring 1940, the Nazis had taken control of Norway and the Vemork plant. Between 1940 and 1943, British Special Forces, working with underground Norwegian fighters, established a small group of saboteurs, who snuck into the Vemork facility in February 1943 and set off explosives to help wreck its operations. Bascomb, who has also crafted a well-regarded history of the capture of Adolf Eichmann, Hunting Eichmann, has plumbed numerous archives and secondary sources, as well as interviewed the families of the men who took enormous risks to limit German bomb-making capabilities during the conflict. VERDICT This well-told and deeply researched account sheds light on an aspect of World War II that is little known or remembered, creating a valuable history that will be beneficial for most collections.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-02-10
An exciting, thorough account of how Norwegian resistance, with help from the British, scuttled Nazi attempts to build an atomic program. The steady focus of this suspenseful work of research by accomplished nonfiction author Bascomb (The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts, 2011, etc.) is Vemork, a Norwegian hydroelectric plant on the Mana River. The author weaves together several strands regarding this top-secret 1943 Norwegian-British mission to dismantle the part of the Vemork power station that was producing heavy water, a severely condensed substance that the Nazi physicists were beginning to understand might help lead to the production of an atomic bomb. Soon after the invasion of Norway by the Nazis in April 1940, Norwegian scientist and professor of atomic chemistry Leif Tronstad, a fervent patriot, caught on to the Germans' sudden interest in increasing the production of heavy water. Working through the British Secret Intelligence Service, Tronstad was able to direct the commando operation on Vemork from the safe resistance headquarters in London. Bascomb's intricate story involves two teams of commandos organized under Britain's Special Operations Executive, both of which dropped into Norway in late 1942: the Grouse team, led by Jens-Anton Poulsson, would act as the advance unit, carrying radios and support, and the Gunnerside team of saboteurs, led by Joachim Rønneberg, would infiltrate the plant at night and perform the delicate demolition before escaping on skis through the snowy valley. Bascomb carefully examines the significance of the plant in the entire scheme of Allied victory as well as the perilous fates of the men and their families. Ultimately, he asks, "if the Germans had fashioned a self-sustaining reactor with heavy water, what then?" Featuring excellent characterization and exquisite detail concerning a theater of the war (Norway) not well-mined, this will make a terrific addition to World War II collections.
From the Publisher

“Weaving together his typically intense research and a riveting narrative, Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress is a spellbinding piece of historical writing.” —Martin Dugard, author of Into Africa and coauthor of the Killing series
“Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress is a riveting, high-action World War II thriller with nothing less than the fate of planet Earth on the line. Just imagine the horror if Hitler had gotten the atomic bomb? Writing with great verve and historical acumen, Bascomb hits the mark of excellence. Highly recommended!” —Douglas Brinkley, New York Times best-selling author of The Great Deluge and Cronkite
“What would have happened if Hitler had managed to develop nuclear weapons? In The Winter Fortress, Neal Bascomb brilliantly tells the extraordinary true story of arguably the most important and daring commando raid of World War II: how an amazing band of men on skis made sure Hitler never got to drop the ultimate bomb.” —Alex Kershaw, New York Times best-selling author of The Longest Winter  
“Brilliantly written, The Winter Fortress cinematically captures a commando team’s efforts to destroy one of the most important secret facilities of World War II. Bascomb’s riveting prose puts the reader into one of the more daring missions of the war and the Allies’ efforts to sabotage a crucial aspect of Germany’s nuclear program. An excellent read.” —Patrick K. O’Donnell, best-selling author of First Seals and Washington’s Immortals
“This well-told and deeply researched account sheds light on an aspect of World War II that is little known or remembered, creating a valuable history that will be beneficial for most collections.” —Library Journal​
“An exciting, thorough account . . . Featuring excellent characterization and exquisite detail concerning a theater of the war (Norway) not well-mined, this will make a terrific addition to World War II collections.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Nazi-occupied Norway, February 27, 1943
 In a staggered line, the nine saboteurs cut across the mountain slope. Instinct, more than the dim light of the moon, guided the young men. They threaded through the stands of pine and traversed down the sharp, uneven terrain, much of it pocked with empty hollows and thick drifts of snow. Dressed in white camouflage suits over their British Army uniforms, the men looked like phantoms haunting the woods. They moved as quietly as ghosts, the silence broken only by the swoosh of their skis and the occasional slap of a pole against an unseen branch. The warm, steady wind that blew through the Vestfjord Valley dampered even these sounds. It was the same wind that would eventually, they hoped, blow their tracks away.
      A mile into the trek from their base hut, the woods became too dense and steep for them to continue by any means other than on foot. The young Norwegians unfastened their skis and hoisted them to their shoulders. It was still tough going. Carrying rucksacks filled with thirty-five pounds of survival gear, and armed with submachine guns, grenades, pistols, explosives, and knives, they waded, slid, and clambered their way down through the heavy, wet snow. Under the weight of their equipment they occasionally sank to their waists in the drifts. The darkness, thickening when the low clouds hid the moon, didn’t help matters.
      Finally the forest cleared. The men came onto the road that ran across the northern side of Vestfjord Valley toward Lake Møs to the west and the town of Rjukan a few miles to the east. Directly south, an eagle’s swoop over the precipitous Måna River gorge, stood Vemork, their target.
      Despite the distance across the gorge and the wind singing in their ears, the commandos could hear the low hum of the hydroelectric plant. The power station and eight-story hydrogen plant in front of it were perched on a ledge overhanging the gorge. From there it was a six-hundred-foot drop to the Måna River, which snaked through the valley below. It was a valley so deep, the sun rarely reached its base.
      Had Hitler not invaded Norway, had the Germans not seized control of the plant, Vemork would have been lit up like a beacon. But now, its windows were blacked out to deter nighttime raids by Allied bombers. Three sets of cables stretched across the valley to discourage low-flying air attacks during the day as well.
      In dark silhouette, the plant looked an imposing fortress on an icy crag of rock. A single-lane suspension bridge provided the only point of entry for workers and vehicles, and it was closely guarded. Mines were scattered about the surrounding hillsides. Patrols frequently swept the grounds. Searchlights, sirens, machine-gun nests, and a troop barracks were also at the ready.
      And now the commandos were going to break into it.
      Standing at the edge of the road, they were mesmerized by their first sight of Vemork. They did not need the bright of day to know its legion of defenses. They had studied scores of reconnaissance photographs, read reams of intelligence, memorized blueprints, and practiced setting their explosive charges dozens of times on a dummy model of the target. Each man could navigate every path, corridor, and stairwell of the plant in his mind’s eye.
      They were not the first to try to blow up Vemork. Many had already died in the attempt. While war raged across Europe, Russia, North Africa, and in the Pacific, while battalions of tanks, squadrons of bombers, fleets of submarines and destroyers, and millions of soldiers faced off against each other in a global conflict, it was this plant, hidden away deep in the rugged Norwegian wilds, that Allied leaders believed lay on the thin line separating victory and defeat.
      For all their intricate knowledge of Vemork, the nine were still not exactly sure how this target could possibly be of such value. They had been told that the plant produced something called heavy water, and that with this mysterious substance the Nazis might be able “to blow up a good part of London.” The saboteurs assumed this was an exaggeration to ensure their full commitment to the job.
      And they were committed, no matter the price, which would likely include their own lives. From the start, they had known that the odds of their survival were long. They might get inside the plant and complete their mission, but getting out and away would be another story. If necessary, they would try to fight their way out, but escape was unlikely. Resolved not to be captured alive, each of them carried a cyanide pill encased in rubber, stashed in a lapel or waistband.
      There were nerves about the operation, for sure, but a sense of fatalism prevailed. For many months now they had been away from their homes, training, planning, and preparing. Now at least they were about to act. If they died, if they “went west,” as many in their special company already had in other operations, so be it. At least they would have had their chance to fight. In a war such as this one, most expected to die, sooner or later.
      Back in England, the mastermind of the operation, Leif Tronstad, was awaiting news of the operation. Before the commandos left for their mission, he had promised them that their feats would be remembered for a hundred years. But none of the men were there for history. If you went to the heart of the question, none of them were there for heavy water, or for London. They had seen their country invaded by the Germans, their friends killed and humiliated, their families starved, their rights curtailed. They were there for Norway, for the freedom of its lands and people from Nazi rule.
      Their moment now at hand, the saboteurs refastened their skis and started down the road through the darkness.
The Water
On February 14, 1940, Jacques Allier, a middle-aged, nattily dressed banker, hurried through the doors of the Hotel Majestic, on Rue la Pérouse. Situated near the Arc de Triomphe, the landmark hotel had welcomed everyone from diplomats attending the Versailles peace talks in 1919 to the influx of artists who made the City of Light famous in the decade that followed. Now, with all of France braced for a German invasion, likely to begin with a thrust through Belgium, and Paris largely evacuated, a shell of its former self, conversation at the hotel was once again all about war. Allier crossed the lobby. He was not there on bank business but rather as an agent of the Deuxième Bureau, the French internal spy agency. Raoul Dautry, the minister of armaments, and physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie were waiting for him, and their discussion involved the waging of a very different kind of war.
      Joliot-Curie, who with his wife, Irène, had won the Nobel Prize for the discovery that stable elements could be made radioactive by artificial or induced methods, explained to Allier that he was now in the middle of constructing a machine to exploit the energy held within atoms. Most likely it would serve to power submarines, but it had the potential for developing an unsurpassed explosive. He needed Allier’s help. It was the same pitch Joliot-Curie had given Dautry months before, one made all the more forceful by the suggestion that the energy held within an ordinary kitchen table, if unlocked, could turn the world into a ball of fire. Allier offered to do whatever he could to help the scientist.
      Joliot-Curie explained that he needed a special ingredient for his experiments​ — ​heavy water​ — ​and that there was only one company in the world that produced it to any quantity: Norsk Hydro, in Norway. As an official at the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas, which owned a majority stake in the Norwegian concern, Allier was ideally positioned to obtain whatever supplies Norsk Hydro had at its Vemork plant as quickly and discreetly as possible. The French prime minister himself, Édouard Daladier, had already signed off on the mission.

Meet the Author

NEAL BASCOMB is the New York Times best-selling author of Hunting Eichmann, The Perfect Mile, Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky, and Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin, which won the U.S. Maritime Literature Award in 2007. A former editor and journalist, he has appeared in documentaries on A&E and the History Channel. He lives in Seattle.

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The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Ilsa73 9 months ago
Knowing it dealt with a fight regarding the nuclear weapons program, I was a little nervous that this book would be over my head. Science is not my strength. However, I felt the author gave me enough info that wasn't too technical regarding the making of the bomb and most of it was in the beginning. So after somewhat of a slow start ,the book picked up for me as I read about these heroic families and men who braved amazing conditions to keep the Nazis from their goal of getting the bomb first. I know a book is good when I can't put it down and read it in one weekend, this was one of those books.
RobbieBobby44 More than 1 year ago
A gripping account of the British and Norwegians who risked their lives to keep the Nazis from developing a nuclear weapons program. As with most missions of this magnitude, not everyone came home. Apart from the dangers of sabotaging the facility in Norway, the brutal weather conditions (and potential starvation) they endured for months and the fear of being discovered or betrayed by Nazi sympathizers were equally troublesome. Watch The Heroes of Telemark (starring Kirk Douglas) to go along with this excellent book.