At the outset of World War II, Denmark did not resist German occupation. Deeply ashamed of his nation's leaders, fifteen-year-old Knud Pedersen resolved with his brother and a handful of schoolmates to take action against the Nazis if the adults would not. Naming their secret club after the fiery British leader, the young patriots in the Churchill Club committed countless acts of sabotage, infuriating the Germans, who eventually had the boys tracked down and arrested. But their efforts were not in vain: the boys' exploits and eventual imprisonment helped spark a full-blown Danish resistance. Interweaving his own narrative with the recollections of Knud himself, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is National Book Award winner Phillip Hoose's inspiring story of these young war heroes.
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The Boys Who Challenged Hitler
Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club
By Phillip Hoose
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Phillip Hoose
All rights reserved.
April 9, 1940. It was a breakfast like any other until the dishes started to rattle. Then an all-alert siren pierced the morning calm and the sky above Odense, Denmark, thundered with sound. The Pedersen family pushed back their chairs, raced outside, and looked up. Suspended above them in close formation was a squadron of dark airplanes. They were flying ominously low, no more than three hundred meters above the ground. The black marks on each wing tagged them as German warplanes. Scraps of green paper fluttered down.
Knud Pedersen, fourteen, stepped over and plucked one from the lawn. "OPROP!" it began. Slightly misspelled, that meant something like "Attention!" in Danish. Though the leaflet, addressed to "Danish Soldiers and the Danish People," was written in an error-filled garble of German, Danish, and Norwegian, the point was unmistakable. German military forces had invaded Denmark and were now occupying the country. The leaflet explained that they had arrived to "protect" the Danes from the sinister English and French, that Denmark had become a "protectorate" of Germany. So there was no need to worry: everyone was protected now. Danes should go on with their lives as usual.
Knud looked around at his neighbors. Some, still in their pajamas, appeared dazed. Others were furious. Across the street a father and his two sons stood at rigid attention on their apartment balcony, right arms thrust reverently upward toward the German planes. Mr. Anderson, the merchant who sold Tarzan comics from his kiosk on the corner, was shaking his fist at the sky. All four neighbors would be dead within three years.
The following day Denmark's prime minister, Thorvald Stauning, and the Danish king, Christian X, put their signatures to an agreement allowing Germany to occupy Denmark and take control of the government. A terse proclamation explained Denmark's official position:
The government has acted in the honest conviction that in so doing we have saved the country from an even worse fate. It will be our continued endeavor to protect our country and its people from the disasters of war, and we shall rely on the people's cooperation.
All day long German soldiers poured into Odense and other cities by boat, plane, tank, and transport wagon. Ordinary German foot soldiers of the German defense force—the Wehrmacht—wore brownish-green uniforms with black hobnail boots and rounded green helmets. Well prepared, they quickly took over the town, setting up barracks and command centers in hotels, factories, and schools. They pounded German-language directional signs into public squares and strung miles of telephone lines between headquarters, operations centers, and barracks. By the end of the day, there were sixteen thousand Germans on Danish soil and Germany was in total control.
When darkness fell, the Wehrmacht took to the streets of Denmark to explore their new home. In Odense, Denmark's third-largest city, many Danish merchants were delighted to open taps of beer or sell pastries to German troops—in fact, the huge new market seemed a windfall. German soldiers pushed into Odense's theaters, taverns, bakeries, and cafés.
In the evenings, the Wehrmacht soldiers marched arm in arm through Odense's streets, weapons strapped to their shoulders, bellowing folk songs in unison as on looking Danes cocked their heads in curiosity. Knud Pedersen watched from the crowd: "The commander would shout 'Three! Four!' and they would all begin to sing. Some songs were romantic ballads, others military marches. Either way they looked ridiculous. They actually seemed to believe that we liked them. They behaved as if we wanted them there, as if we had been waiting for them, like we were grateful to them."
* * *
A tall, slender teen, Knud Pedersen had known and cared little about war or politics until that Friday morning in April. He was a reasonably good student and handy with his fists, as you had to be at his all-boys school. But Knud's real loves were drawing and painting. Each Saturday morning he met his favorite cousin, Hans Jøergen Andersen, at the Odense library. They went straight for the big volumes of art history, flipped to the breathtaking nudes of Rubens or to Greek sculptures of the female figure, and started drawing. To Knud and Hans Jøergen, the half-draped Venus de Milo was a hundred times more interesting than the fully clothed Mona Lisa.
On Sundays, after Knud's father, the Reverend Edvard Pedersen, completed his Protestant church service, the Pedersen family would convene in the church residency with aunts, uncles, and cousins from other branches, forming a great tribe. In the office, uncles drank and swore their way through a fast-moving, table-slamming card game called l'hombre. Knud's mother, Margrethe, and his many aunts occupied the sitting room, knitting, sipping tea, and talking nonstop, getting up now and then to tend the slow-cooking chickens whose aroma grew stronger from the kitchen by the minute. Children, including Knud, his brother Jens (a year older), his sister, Gertrud (two years younger), and his much younger brothers, Jørgen and Holger, played on the second floor, creating and painting scenery for the evening performance of Robin Hood or Snow White or Robinson Crusoe. Each child got to invite a friend. By evening there were dozens of laughing, drinking, applauding friends and family, full and satisfied. It was like growing up in a cocoon.
Knud had been only dimly aware that Germany had invaded Poland the year before, and he was oblivious to the special peril that Jews faced with Hitler in control. Before its planes arrived on April 9, Germany had seemed no more than the neighborhood bully, a bordering country with twenty times Denmark's population and an undue influence on Danish history and culture. Even before the war, Danish students had to study German in school, learn German literature, and play German music.
Adolf Hitler had not seemed a particular menace either. In 1937, the fourth year of Hitler's Nazi regime, the Pedersen family had gone on a motor tour of Germany in the family's big green Nash Rambler. As they rolled through neatly cropped pastures and well-managed towns, Knud's parents expressed admiration for what Hitler had accomplished. There was a sense of order and industry in the small towns and cities. Germans were at work while many other nations were still mired in a worldwide economic depression. At the end of the trip their father had pinned a small flag with a swastika to the windshield of the car. When they reentered Denmark, Danes in the border villages, neighbors who knew the Nazis well, suggested they remove it at once.
But now all this innocence was gone, a bubble popped. German forces had also stormed into Norway on April 9, but Norway had fought back, standing up to the mighty German war machine and paying with a heavy loss of life. In those early days after the German invasion, there were sickening news accounts of Norwegian soldiers slaughtered in defense of their nation. Many were boys in their late teens.
Meanwhile, Danish schoolchildren were being peppered with Nazi propaganda describing the glorious future awaiting them.
Knud Pedersen: I was in eighth grade when the Germans came. We had about two months of school remaining until summer recess. The occupation was on everyone's mind, but during those weeks our teachers kept telling us not to talk about it. Don't object. Don't mouth off. We mustn't arouse the giant. There were many German sympathizers on our school faculty. In Denmark our second language was German, and our books suddenly sprouted all these articles about the happy Hitler Youth who went out in the sunshine and camped and hiked through the forests and played in the mountains and got to visit old castles and all that bloody garbage. It was easy to see that it was all crap.CHAPTER 2
The RAF Club
With the occupation of Denmark and Norway, Hitler had now overwhelmed a second and third nation, the first being Poland in 1939. Denmark may have been tiny, but it was strategically prized by the Nazi regime: the country provided railroad lines to transport iron ore from Sweden and Norway to Germany for use in fashioning weapons. Denmark's fertile farmlands could now feed millions of Germans butter, pork, and beef. Geographically, Denmark stood between Britain and Germany—a valuable buffer. Beyond that, Adolf Hitler regarded Danes as model Aryans. Many were blond and blue-eyed, exemplars of the "master race" Hitler believed in—the perfect people. If Germany could win, Denmark would be a charter member of the world's ruling elite.
Knud Pedersen: A group of us boys in Odense, my older brother, Jens, and my cousins included, started reading the newspapers every day. They were filled with stories of Norwegian civilians being murdered by German troops. The Germans had already started censoring the news, and these reports were supposed to impress readers with the mighty German war machine. But the stories were sickening: twenty-five young Norwegian soldiers rounded up and executed in one town, thirty in another. Wailing families held back by guards. Two young women gunned down in Ringerike. Four unarmed civilians shot at Ringsaker—one of whom was shot in the back, but the bullet went through the neck and came out his jaw. Through all the horror, Norwegians kept fighting.
Jens and I, and our closest friends, were totally ashamed of our government. At least the Norwegian victims had gone down in a country they could be proud of. Our small army had surrendered to German forces within a few hours on April 9. Now there was no armed, uniformed force to stand up for us. We were furious at our leaders. One thing had become very clear: now any resistance in Denmark would have to come from ordinary citizens, not from trained soldiers.
Everything changed in those first weeks, even our family. We had been this settled pastor's family, our lives organized around father's church services. We tried to keep the house quiet as Father puffed on his long pipe in his office and prepared his sermons during the week. Women crowded into our living room to take tea with Mother. Sometimes she could be persuaded to play Mozart on the piano.
But after April 9, my father became agitated and defiant. "May God forgive the Nazis," he thundered from his pulpit during his Sunday sermons. "I cannot!" He screened every new friend we brought into the house. "Who is his father?" he would demand. "Is he a Nazi?" My father forbade me and Jens from even asking for a Boy Scout uniform. Hitler Youth wore uniforms. Now Father hated all uniforms.
At night we would gather in his study to listen to radio broadcasts from England. The show from the BBC would begin with the first four notes from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and then the firm, confident voice that said, "This is London calling." Then war news of aerial battles and troop skirmishes. That was for me.
When school let out for the summer we took our usual family holiday to the western coast of Denmark on the North Sea. It was a total waste for me. I kept asking myself: How on earth could I lie on the beach sunning when my country had been violated? Why were we not as brave as Norway? Had Denmark no pride?
By the time we got back to Odense, in the summer of 1940, Jens and I had reached the same conclusion: if the adults would not act, we would.
* * *
A few days after they returned to Odense, Knud and Jens met in the quiet calm of the churchyard with their cousin Hans Jøergen Andersen and their friends Harald Holm and Knud Hedelund. The two Knuds were best friends at school, known universally as "Big Knud" and "Little Knud," since Pedersen was nearly two feet taller than Hedelund.
Knud Pedersen: The topic was whether or not to form a resistance unit. My brother Jens thought we should wait a little longer, until we could recruit more members. I felt just the opposite. My idea was to get going—members would come when they saw results. Hans Jøergen was likewise a man of action: he was ready. Harald usually had his head in the clouds about some intellectual problem or another, but this time he was as disgusted with our politicians and the king as we were. "Britain and France will never want us as allies when we make the Germans so comfortable," he kept saying. Little Knud was ready to go—as usual. So our club was voted into existence that day. It was Harald who suggested we call ourselves the RAF Club after the heroic British Royal Air Force.
"So, we exist. Now what do we do?" That's what we all were thinking. We were few; the Germans were many. They were fully trained, bulging like goons with their weapons. We had no weapons at all and wouldn't have known how to use them even if we were armed to the teeth. We rode our bikes downtown to the central square to scope things out. Right away we spotted all these freshly planted directional signs. They were yellow and black, not the usual bright red Danish signs. They had black arrows pointing this way and that. Clearly they had just been put up by the Germans to direct the newly arrived soldiers to their barracks and military headquarters. One sign hung suspended from a wooden arm. It was a choice target. Two of us backed up our bikes, counted off, and pedaled full speed at the sign, one on either side, and smashed the thing to the ground. Then we twisted other signs around so they pointed in the opposite directions from what was intended. We were doing these things in broad daylight, right after school. Plenty of people saw us, and we could see them pointing, but we struck lightning-fast and got out of there. In and out quickly—that became RAF Club style.
Our bicycles were our weapons. We carved concentric circles on our bicycle seats to mimic the RAF insignia. We would look with pride at those circles and vow to use our bikes like the British pilots used their planes. Mine was black and rusty, and I called it the Iron Horse. We hung out in front of the Phoenix Cinema in Odense, where they showed westerns. John Wayne had his horse. We had our bikes. Like John Wayne, we were all fast and daring riders.
After school the second day we rode back downtown, looking for more ways to disrupt our occupiers. This time we discovered telephone lines linking German military headquarters to the barracks where soldiers slept. They were not electric lines, so there was no danger that we'd fry ourselves if we messed with them. We went out on our bikes, Hans Jøergen, Little Knud, and me, tracing the lines to German-controlled buildings. We found a place next to a tree where the line was only a couple of meters off the ground. It was an easy reach for me. I climbed out on a limb and snipped the wire with garden shears. In the next several weeks we cut those lines again and again.
We struck repeatedly throughout the autumn of 1940, and we began to get a reputation in Odense. We had a particular style. Word got around about the cut wires, and everyone could see the mangled signs. I remember standing in the lobby of the Phoenix Cinema and hearing other kids talking about the saboteurs. Who were they? everyone wondered.
The Germans ordered the Danish police to crack down or else the Germans would take over the police force. That was last thing the Odense police wanted. They assigned eight officers to capture us. Suddenly there were police on the street corners where food was sold at kiosks, asking questions: Did anyone know who cut the lines? Did anyone have any information? The Odense police commissioner ran an announcement in the Odense newspaper offering three hundred Danish kroner to the provider of information leading to our arrest.
Clearly we had their attention: three hundred kroner was three months' wages in a factory back then.CHAPTER 3
The Churchill Club
In the spring of 1941, Edvard Pedersen accepted an assignment to a new Protestant church and moved the family 150 miles north to Aalborg, a city in the northern part of Denmark called Jutland. Knud and Jens, now fifteen and sixteen, said reluctant goodbyes to aunts, uncles, and cousins; to languorous Sunday afternoons of card games and family plays; and, most important now, to the RAF Club. The Pedersen brothers pledged to build an even stronger quick-strike sabotage unit in Aalborg. The RAF boys laughed in their faces. "You'll never keep up with us," they vowed.
Aalborg, Denmark's fourth-largest city, was teeming with German soldiers. The big attraction for the Third Reich's war planners was Aalborg's strategically located airport. Within minutes on April 9, 1940, the German forces—some parachuting onto the airfield—had secured the airport and seized all the bridges spanning waterways in Aalborg. They immediately set to work building hangars and expanding runways.
Excerpted from The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose. Copyright © 2015 Phillip Hoose. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
1 OPROP! 9
2 The RAF Club 17
3 The Churchill Club 25
4 Learning to Breathe 39
5 Flames of Resistance 45
6 To Arms 53
7 Whipped Cream and Steel 61
8 An Evening Alone 71
9 The Nibe Offensive 77
10 Grenades 83
11 No Turning Back 89
12 King Hans Gades Jail 95
13 Walls and Windows 107
14 At Large Again? 117
15 Nyborg State Prison 123
16 First Hours of Freedom 137
17 Better on the Inside 143
18 Our Evening with Mr. Churchill 159
Epilogue: The Times That Followed 167
Selected Bibliography 177
Illustration Credits 193
Denmark and Northern Europe: 1940 16
Aalborg, Denmark, During the War 24
Holy Ghost Monastery 28