Joachim Rønneberg, Operation Gunnerside and their lessons for new nuclear arms race

Author : News Agency

Source : 112 Ukraine

Against the background of the talks about the new nuclear arms race and the possible World War III, we recall the story of a fighter of the Norwegian Resistance Movement, who managed to thwart Hitler’s nuclear program in 1943 and prevent the victory of Nazi Germany in World War II
09:32, 26 October 2018

112 Agency

A few days ago, US President Donald Trump announced Washington’s intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by Soviet Union Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the then American head Ronald Reagan in 1987 to reduce the risk of war. If the agreement is really broken, then both Russia and the United States will again have the opportunity to deploy such weapons, build up their nuclear potential and frighten the whole world with its use.

Related: Russia violates Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, - NATO Secretary General

The international community is considering an option of eliminating the threat of a nuclear arms race, remembering nuclear escalation of the past years. Sometimes, it was solved by diplomatic ways, and sometimes the prerequisites for the use of nuclear weapons had to be removed by force.

The latter might be illustrated by the amazing story of the Norwegian Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg, who recently passed away in the age of 99.

The last hero of Telemark: Who is Joachim Rønneberg

Joachim Rønneberg was born in the Norwegian town of Ålesund in 1919. In the late 30s, he entered the compulsory military service, (geodesy). After the invasion of German troops in Norway in 1940, he was forced to leave the country. He ran along with eight friends to Scotland, but he planned to return and fight for the liberation of his land from the Nazis.

He joined the Norwegian Independent Company 1 in exile, British Special Operations Group (SOE), which was formed in March 1941 by captain Martin Ling, initially with the aim of sabotage raids in Norway against the Nazi occupiers. 

Related: NATO not to place more nuclear arms in Europe, - Stoltenberg

After training in the United Kingdom and receiving the rank of lieutenant, Rønneberg led one of the most difficult secret raids - Operation Gunnerside a clandestine operation to destroy the heavy water plant at Vemork, Norway. Heavy water is a necessary component for efficient nuclear fission reactions and thus was highly prized by the Germans, who had invaded and taken over Norway in April of 1940. The Vemork Plant was the only factory capable of producing heavy water, and thus became a crucial target for the Allies.

“He is one of our great heroes. Probably the last of the most famous resistance fighters who left us,” said Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg following the death of Rønneberg in his native Ålesund on October 21.

On the verge of a nuclear bomb

In 1934, the first industrial plant capable of producing heavy water as a by-product was built near the town of Rjukan of Telemark region (Norway) at a large nitrogen fertilizer plant of Norsk Hydro. Its capacity was 12 tons per year.

Heavy water is a form of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium, rather than the common hydrogen-1 isotope that makes up most of the hydrogen in normal water. The presence of deuterium gives the chemical different nuclear properties, and the increase of mass gives it different physical and chemical properties compared to normal "light water." 


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Immediately after the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940, the accumulated supply of heavy water was removed from the factory by air by French intelligence. The Allies were afraid that the Germans could use it for the mass creation of nuclear weapons.

However, it soon became known that the Germans continued to extract heavy water in the Telemark area, having increased its production tenfold. British intelligence found the proof that Germany was actively elaborating a nuclear bomb.

To prevent the Nazis from developing a nuclear weapon, the Allies decided to destroy the heavy water plant. The target of the sabotage was the Vemork power station (60 MW) at Rjukan Falls, located in the same region of Norway.

Related: Nuclear treaty: Tension between U.S. and Russia over nuclear missiles

Four British agents, Norwegian citizens, were brought the Hardanger Plateau above the plant.

It was planned to transfer by airplanes groups of saboteurs from the UK, who were supposed to establish contact with the advanced group and directly carry out sabotage. Due to the difficult weather conditions, a part of those carrying the paratroopers crashed against the rocks or was seriously damaged during landing. Many of those who survived the landing was captured by the Gestapo and were shot.

How Rønneberg won the Heavy Water War  

In the fall of 1942, the Allies decided to carry out a new operation to destroy the Norsk Hydro plant (codenamed Gunnerside). As already mentioned, Colonel Wilson, head of the Norwegian SOE department, commissioned Lieutenant Joachim Rønneberg to lead its preparation and conduct the mission.

“We were a bunch of friends who do the work together,” Rønneberg recalled in an interview with BBC.

On January 14, 1943, a group of saboteurs from London took off on a Halifax bomber and parachuted successfully onto the ice-covered Skrykken Lake near Telemark province.

Preparation of the operation took six weeks: local underground workers figured out the work of the factory security system. It was established that all the approaches were mined, so it was possible to get into the territory only through the railway gates, the guard changed every two hours. 

February 17, they came closer to the plant. They walked 10 hours using the skis and carrying 30-pound backpacks.

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February 27, they crossed the ford river at the bottom of the gorge and climbed a 150 m high hillside on the ledge of which the plant was built. When they got very close, they had to lie down several times not to be noticed. At 00:30, the saboteurs penetrated the factory’s territory.

Related: US National Security Adviser Bolton starts talks with Russia over nuclear treaty

The Resistance member, a janitor in the necessary shop, had to leave one of the doors unlocked but it turned out to be tightly closed.

The saboteurs found a tunnel through which cables and pipes went into the building, made their way inside, neutralized the guard and laid the explosives. They jumped out the window and rushed to the broken gate. They barely had time to reach the explosion. The shop of high concentration was completely destroyed. 

After that, part of the group began a 400-kilometer departure to Sweden, while others remained in Rjukan to continue work.

Related: DPRK rejects proposals of the US for denuclearization

Despite the fact that Germany involved about 3 thousand soldiers to search the saboteurs, they all managed to survived.

According to Rønneberg, then he and his friends considered themselves suicide bombers, and they understood the true importance of what they did only after the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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November 16, 1943, the plant was completely destroyed by the bombers of the 8th Air Division of the US Air Force.

What History Teaches Us

After the war it turned out that there was no real threat of a nuclear weapon for the Nazis (such an option was completely excluded for economic reasons), Operation Gunnerside was recognized as one of the best special operations in World War II, and Rønneberg received the highest Norwegian reward for personal courage - Military Cross with a sword for it.

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Rønneberg himself spoke little of his heroic deeds. After the war, he worked as a radio journalist, and only in the 1970s he began to tell the stories about those times, but always focused on the urgency of the struggle for peace.

Related: In 2019-2020, Ukraine to spend USD 107 mln on disposal of Chornobyl nuclear power plant

Today, this story gives the belief that not all fears about the start of a nuclear war mean its immediate beginning, and if they are real, the international community will find how to deal with it.

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