Nothing terrified the Allies more than Adolf Hitler’s capacity to build a nuclear weapon. In a heavy water production plant in occupied Norway, the Führer was well on his way to possessing the raw materials to manufacture the bomb. British Special Operations Executive (SOE)—Churchill’s infamous “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”—working with the Norwegian resistance executed a series of raids in the winter of 1942–43, dropping saboteurs to destroy Hitler’s potential nuclear capability: operations Musketoon, Grouse, Freshman, and finally Gunnerside, in which a handful of intrepid Norwegians scaled a 600-foot cliff to blow the heavy water plant to smithereens. Nothing less than the security of the free world depended on their success.
The basis for the movie, The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, this true story is more harrowing than any thriller, and “Lewis does the memory of these extraordinary men full justice in a tale that is both heart-stopping and moving” (Saul David, Evening Standard).
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Six nautical miles off the autumn coast of Norway a sleek grey shape cut a stealthy path beneath the snow-flecked swell of the sea. The distinctive form of the Junon barely moved with the rise and fall of the waves.
Slowly, silently, a black metal tube extended itself from the submarine's conning tower. Lieutenant Commander Querville, the captain of the Junon, grabbed his periscope and did a rapid, three-sixty-degree scan of the surrounding sea. He could see that not another ship was in sight, which was just as he wanted it.
The captain downed periscope, ordering his vessel to the surface.
From the bridge, lookouts scanned the horizon as Commander Querville tried to locate his route into the Bjærangsfjord — the intended drop- off point for the team of clandestine warriors that his vessel was carrying.
'No craft in sight,' the navigator reported, as the Junon pushed ever closer towards the jagged profile of the Norwegian coastline.
To left and right sharp mountains towered before her, their lower slopes cloaked in dense, dark pine forests, the higher reaches encrusted with snow and ice that blazed a burnished gold in the fine morning light.
Suddenly, there it was: a plunging V-shaped slash yawned before them. Typical of these Norwegian inlets, the Bjærangsfjord was a long, narrow, steep-walled arm of the sea, one seemingly sliced from the mountains by a giant's hand. But of chief concern to Querville was that the Bjærangsfjord had only been chosen as the Junon's destination during the final stages of their long and storm-tossed voyage.
One of those that his vessel was carrying — a Norwegian commando with intimate knowledge of this coastline — had argued for a last-minute change of plan. He'd suggested a new drop-off point, one that would entail scaling a glacier-clad mountain to reach their target, for the enemy would never suspect an attack from that direction.
It was probably the right decision, but Querville carried few detailed charts of the Bjærangsfjord, and possessed little information as to currents, depths or the state of the fjord's bottom, and almost no intelligence on German defences that might be sited along its length. He would have to edge his craft into the knife-cut fjord with utmost care, feeling his way into her icy embrace.
The Junon had been chosen for the present top-secret mission for the simple reason that, with her sharply raked prow and streamlined conning tower, the Free French submarine resembled, in silhouette at least, a German U-boat. If an enemy warship spotted the Junon, with luck those aboard would mistake her for one of their own.
One of the few things that might mark the submarine out as suspicious was the rubber dinghy lashed to her casings, but an enemy warship would have to get decidedly close to spy that. And Querville didn't intend to let that happen.
For now, the surrounding waters seemed empty of shipping, and the Junon's commander took the opportunity to give the dozen commandos that he was carrying a glance through his periscope.
'Voilà, mes amis. C'est beau, très beau. Regardez.'
They were steaming towards the coastline, which was indeed beautiful, breathtakingly so, and especially for the two Norwegian saboteurs. This was the first glimpse of their homeland for more than a year — a nation that had been ground under the heel of the Nazi jackboot.
Ground, bowed — but far from broken.
The spirit of resistance was rising within Norway, as it was in so many of the occupied nations of Western Europe, and the present mission was designed to help invigorate that spirit. As Winston Churchill had urged, when unleashing his 'hunter troops for a butcher-and-bolt reign of terror', no German in occupied Europe should feel able to sleep soundly in his bed at night. He had demanded of his chiefs of staff that 'specially trained troops of the hunter class ... develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.'
It was 15 September 1942, and the flagship of the 1st Free French Submarine Division was about to launch a daring sortie in Churchill's cause. The present mission, code-named Musketoon, was intended to be one of the very first sabotage operations of the war, designed to hit back hard against a seemingly invincible foe.
It took an hour or more for the Junon to creep into the jaws of the Bjærangsfjord, where her captain ordered her to periscope depth. They were drawing too close to land — and prying eyes — to remain on the surface.
But even as the last of the commandos took his turn at the periscope, a fishing boat chugged out of the shadows cast by the towering peaks behind her. She looked innocuous enough, but in the bitter war being waged between Britain and the German forces occupying Norway, the fishing flotillas had come to perform a dual role.
Britain had raised the 'Shetland Bus' flotilla, a fleet of Norwegian fishing vessels headquartered in the Shetland Islands and converted into 'Q-ships' — seemingly innocent trawlers, but which bristled with hidden weaponry and defences. The role of the Shetland Bus flotilla was to ferry men, weaponry and wireless equipment into and out of Norway, and to defend themselves and their charges resolutely if detected by the enemy.
The Germans had responded in kind. They had raised their own flotilla, press-ganging local fishermen into the service of the Reich and tasking them to help rebuff any Allied incursions into Norwegian waters. The vessel now turning into the Junon's wake could easily be one of those.
The captain of that fishing boat was tired. He'd been at work for many hours. Yet still his eyes were sea-spray sharp. The form of the vertical black pole cutting through the waters drew his gaze. For a second he thought he had to be dreaming, before he threw open the wheelhouse door and gave a yell. To his rear a second fishing boat emerged from the shadows, but her captain was still too distant to properly hear his cry.
As the first vessel bore down on what her captain now knew had to be a submarine, the commando at the Junon's periscope finally relinquished it to the vessel's navigator. Taking the handles, the navigator executed a quick three-sixty-degree scan, spotting what the commandos, mesmerized by the dramatic sweep of the shoreline, had failed to see: directly to the submarine's rear were the two fishing vessels bobbing in their wake.
He gave a shout of alarm, and Querville ordered an emergency dive. The nose of the Junon tilted sharply and she sank to a depth of thirty metres, which was as much as her commander felt he could risk in the uncertain embrace of the Bjærangsfjord.
Querville reduced her speed, and at a painful snail's pace she nosed her way up the centre of the V-shaped chasm. Above, the throbbing of the fishing boats' screws rose to a deafening crescendo, before fading away on the dark waters.
Everyone was silent and tense.
The Junon's trim officer kept an eagle eye on his instruments as the depth gauges registered a constant thirty metres. For a further two painstaking miles the submarine crept into the Bjærangsfjord, until the shore to either side crowded in to less than 500 metres.
There, Querville ordered the Junon to dive for the bottom — whatever that might entail. Forty metres, fifty, fifty-five; the descent was barely perceptible, as all held their breath for whatever might follow. Finally, at sixty metres dead the 870-tonne vessel settled upon what the captain knew from sound and feel alone had to be the flat, sandy bed of the fjord.
Querville — a smart, sanguine fellow — gave a brief but reassuring smile. Everyone sighed with relief. It was one thirty in the afternoon, and Querville planned to wait out any search in silence, his vessel's distinctive outline masked by the Bjærangsfjord's sandy bottom.
An hour later the submarine's bulbous steel hull resonated to the sound of powerful propellers on the surface. The rhythmic beat faded away, but it was audible again forty minutes later. For the next seven hours the mystery vessel quartered the waters above at regular intervals, steering what had to be a search pattern.
By now it was approaching dusk, and Querville intended to release his sabotage party unnoticed and undetected in the night hours. It was time for the force of commandos — nine Britons, two Norwegians and a Canadian — to make their final preparations.
What lay before them was a doubly daunting proposition.
As the official logs would record, the Junon's storm-tossed crossing had rendered all but one of the commandos seasick: 'The effect of the submarine journey under very bad weather conditions reduced the physical conditions of the party.' Ahead of them lay a night paddle to their intended landfall, followed by a punishing trek carrying crushing loads over uncharted, ice-clad mountains.
But today's long and silent sojourn at sixty metres depth had rendered the Junon's air particularly foul, and not a man amongst the sabotage party could wait to get off her and set foot on Norwegian soil.
At nine fifteen the Junon surfaced, her form like a great black whale slicing apart the silvery gleam of the fjord's calm. Querville was first up the ladder, conscious of his responsibility to get these brave men safely ashore.
He scanned his surroundings. Moonlight glinted off the snowy peaks, beneath which blinked the odd sliver of light from dwellings clustered at the shoreline. The waters seemed deserted of any other vessels, and the only noise Querville could detect was the gentle slap of ripples against his vessel's hull.
Querville called the raiders up to join him. From the conning tower two figures crept along the deck towards the rubber boat lashed to the stern. They bent over it with an oxygen canister. A sharp hiss rang out across the still water as the gas was released, and moments later the semi-inflated dinghy broke free from her bounds.
'Hell!' a voice whispered. 'What a racket!'
'I hope no one heard it ashore,' came the muted reply.
Querville felt certain the noise of the escaping gas would have reached the shoreline, but there was little point worrying about that now. One by one the raiders made their silent way to the boat. The French crew brought up their bulging rucksacks, each weighed down with fully ninety pounds of war materiel, the vast majority of which consisted of explosives.
They passed the heavy bundles across to the waiting men, all twelve of whom were by now crammed into the cow boat'— so named because the first such inflatables were fashioned from rubberized animal skins. With whispers of 'Bon voyage!' from Querville and his crew, the commandos pushed off. Moments later the dinghy was adrift on the moonlit waters.
Six men set to the paddles, as their captain plotted a course due east, and soon the craft was swallowed up in the emptiness of the Bjærangsfjord. From behind there came a faint snort and a gurgle, and when the men glanced behind them the Junon was no more.
They were alone now, in the vast, star-spangled expanse of the Norwegian wilderness. The dozen figures crammed into that dinghy would be for ever in Querville's debt: he had taken them further inland than any had dared hope for. Just six kilometres separated them from the headwaters of the Bjærangsfjord — landfall.
The crew nosed the dinghy along the fjord's southern shore, moving silently as ghosts and skirting past the odd fishing boat moored to a rickety wharf. The Norwegian coastline is so pockmarked and indented that its total length would encircle fully one half of the earth. The Musketoon raiders were sneaking a tiny rubber craft into just one of its myriad inlets: what chance was there that they would be seen by anyone, or detected by the German occupiers?
The dinghy was almost past Bjærangsjoen, the last of the tiny settlements that ring the fjord, when an old lady — the village insomniac; some believed her a little crazed with it — thought she heard something. Her tiny wooden house lay right on the shoreline. There had been a splash out on the midnight water, she was certain of it.
Putting aside her knitting, she crossed to the window. As she peered into the darkness, she did indeed spy something: silhouetted on the moonlit waters, a small, unlit craft was creeping silently past. What on earth could it be, she wondered? Who could be out on the water at such an hour? And why the need for the dark silence and secrecy?
She decided to raise it with her neighbours in the morning. They'd doubtless think her crazy. It wouldn't be the first time. But there was a war on, and it made sense to be vigilant. She knew what she'd seen. She'd convince them.
The dinghy rounded the end of Bjærangsjoen, and only the emptiness of the night beckoned.
'Right,' rasped Captain Black, Musketoon's commander, in his gravel- edged Canadian drawl, 'steer her in here.'
Moments later the bulbous rubber prow bumped into the first of the boulders lying half submerged in the shallows. The leading commandos — the two Norwegians — jumped out, and began to drag the craft ashore. They'd landed on a rocky beach, where a straggly, orange-tinged grass grew almost to the waterline.
Barely fifty yards away the cover of the trees beckoned: first birch, their silver trunks sleek in the moonlight, and behind those the taller, darker forms of firs.
Quickly, they unloaded the inflatable, hefting rucksacks onto eager shoulders. With the dinghy deflated, they rolled it up and carried it towards the forest. There they dug a hole and lowered it in, throwing the oars after, and covering the grave with rocks and moss. The dinghy had served them well. She deserved a decent burial.
'Right, let's move inland,' Black ordered, as he signalled the others to follow his lead and ready their weapons. It might look and sound utterly deserted, but from now on they would be moving through the territory of the enemy. 'Keep close together. And no noise.'
With the two Norwegians guiding, the file of well-trained fighters moved further into the trees. Once a safe distance from the open coast and in good cover, Black ordered a halt. Sleeping bags were unrolled and the party settled down to rest.
They would move off at dawn, for they would need daylight to find their way over the maze of jumbled ice and jagged peaks that lay between their present position and their target.
Captain Black found that sleep just wouldn't come. He dozed fitfully, the excitement of what lay before them fizzing through his mind.
As with all nine of his British troops, Black hailed from No. 2 Commando, a force formed entirely from volunteers who'd answered Churchill's call to arms. Barely two years into the war proper No. 2 Commando had earned a fearsome reputation, taking part in the famous raid on Saint-Nazaire, amongst other daring sorties.
What, Captain Graeme 'Gay' Black wondered, had drawn him — a Canadian — to his present situation: leading a bunch of British and Norwegian commandos on a mission as desperate as this? Growing up in Ontario, in southern Canada, Black had been an average student at best. He'd preferred snowshoeing in the woods in winter, shooting game, or rafting the wild Ontario rivers.
His thirst for adventure whetted, Black had worked a passage to England on a cattle boat, cleaning the stalls to earn his fare. In London he'd drifted from job to job, before founding a ladies' handbag company, together with a London leather worker he'd befriended. Black knew nothing about leather or the craft, but he was charming, energetic and good-looking — with a shock of unruly blond hair above laughing eyes — and he knew how to sell.
He married a Scottish girl and in time Black & Holden thrived, supplying handbags to the fashion houses frequented by royalty. On the day after Britain declared war on Germany, Black decided to enlist in the British Army. The handbag business could go hang: there was a war to be fought and won.
He promptly volunteered for hazardous service, joining No. 2 Commando. There he earned the reputation of being something of a daredevil, in part because he seemed to reply to just about every order with the 'cowboy'-sounding 'Check', as opposed to 'Yes, sir'.
Black was known to be independent-spirited, which at times rubbed his senior commanders up the wrong way. But having gone on to fight with real distinction and to earn the Military Cross, few could doubt his credentials as a commando officer.
Oddly, it was Black's second-in-command, Captain Joseph 'Joe' Houghton, who was the chief mover behind the present mission. But while Musketoon was Houghton's brainchild, it was Black who had been charged to lead it. Typically, Joe Houghton hadn't seemed to mind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hunting the Nazi Bomb"
Copyright © 2016 Damien Lewis.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Author’s Note
- Chapter One
- Chapter Two
- Chapter Three
- Chapter Four
- Chapter Five
- Chapter Six
- Chapter Seven
- Chapter Eight
- Chapter Nine
- Chapter Ten
- Chapter Eleven
- Chapter Twelve
- Chapter Thirteen
- Chapter Fourteen
- Chapter Fifteen
- Chapter Sixteen
- Chapter Seventeen
- Chapter Eighteen
- Chapter Nineteen
- Chapter Twenty
- Chapter Twenty-One
- Chapter Twenty-Two
- Chapter Twenty-Three
- Chapter Twenty-Four
- Chapter Twenty-Five
- Chapter Twenty-Six
- Chapter Twenty-Seven
- Chapter Twenty-Eight
- Chapter Twenty-Nine
- Chapter Thirty
- Chapter Thirty-One
- Chapter Thirty-Two
- About the Author