“Spies on Skis”: An excerpt from “The Winter Fortress” by Neal Bascomb

What is more rewarding than finding something rare and untouched in the wilderness? As backpackers and avid hikers, we all love exploring the unexplored, creating our own path. There is a serenity about walking on dirt to spend days, maybe even months, in the wilderness. Amid storms and poor weather, we persevere to get to the destination, even if it means we’re short on food or our feet are sore. The journey reminds us that we are human.

While not totally peaceful or refreshing, best selling author, Neal Bascomb, tells a story about a band of young Norwegian expert skiers on a mission to destroy a plant. The year is 1942 and the Nazis have the expertise to use this plant to build an atomic bomb that would end WWII. Follow a journey of triumph, loss, and tragedy as the young team returns to a remote, mountainous valley in Norway to complete the mission. Faced with harsh weather conditions and unexplored territory, the team must navigate their way to the plant before it is discovered.

Here is an excerpt from The Winter Fortress, introduced by its author, Neal Bascomb:

It’s 1942, and the Nazis have the physicists and the will to build an atomic bomb. What they don’t have is enough deuterium oxide—“heavy water”—an essential ingredient in their plans to obtain a weapon that would decide WWII. In a remote, mountainous valley in German-occupied Norway stood the lone plant in all the world that made this rare substance in any quantity: Vemork. For the Allies, the plant must be destroyed at all costs. But how would they reach the castle fortress set on a precipitous gorge in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on Earth? Enter a band of young Norwegian patriots, born almost literally with skis on their feet and trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). This is the story of their arrival back in their country for the mission, a book excerpt from the forthcoming “The Winter Fortress” by bestselling author Neal Bascomb.

* * *

“Number one, go!” the dispatcher yelled through the cold wind whipping into the Halifax. It was 11:36 p.m., October 18, 1942. With a surge of excitement and fear, 23-year old Jens-Anton Poulsson edged himself out of the open hatch on the plane’s belly. He tipped forward, careful to keep his head clear of the opposite side of the hatch. And then in an instant he was falling, falling fast. The sixteen-foot line connected to his parachute pack and a steel cable in the Halifax went taut. The chute emerged from its pack like a butterfly from its cocoon. He continued to free fall until the air swept into the silk chute and he was yanked sharply upwards by the straps tight over his shoulders. The sound of the plane’s engines faded, and he was floating downward from a thousand feet with the three other commandos he was leading on this mission.

The Vidda spread out beneath him in the clear moonlight: its snow-peaked mountains, isolated hills, lakes, rivers, and narrow ravines. It was a place both beautiful and terrible, and as a local of the area, Poulsson knew it must be respected. At three thousand feet above sea level, it was exposed to unpredictable weather and high winds that could hurl a man off his feet. In the winter, a skier could be sunning himself on a rock one moment only to find a storm sweeping through the next, bringing blinding slivers of ice and snow and temperatures below minus-thirty degrees Celsius. Norwegian legend had it that it could grow cold enough, quickly enough, to freeze flames in a fire. According to simple fact, it could kill the unprepared in two hours.

photo 1The Germans had steered around the thirty-five-hundred-square-mile plateau when they attacked Norway, and even now the country’s occupiers dared venture only far enough into it that they could get out by sunset. There were no roads, no permanent habitations in the huge expanse of land. Only skilled skiers and hikers could reach its scattering of hunting cabins. In the valleys, one could find birch trees, but many areas were simply frozen, lifeless hillsides of broken scree, one mile indistinguishable from the next.

Poulsson and his team landed without incident. For the next few hours, they searched the hillsides for their eight containers of gear, most importantly their stove, tent, and sleeping bags. If a storm hit without those essential supplies, they would be in trouble. Though they located this equipment, it was too late to do anything more than take shelter from the wind and settle in for the night. They made camp, huddling together beside a boulder. It was cold, but bearable. They all wore long underwear and two pairs of wool socks. Then gabardine trousers, buttoned shirts, and thick sweaters. Over these went parkas and windproof pants. They also had wool caps and two pairs of gloves, as well as balaclavas and goggles, but there was no need for those now.

Poulsson dug into his pouch of tobacco and prepared his pipe, a ritual that somehow eased the nerves of the others. He lit the pipe, puffed a couple of times, and then addressed his men who were as yet uniformed of their real mission.. “There’s a new order of the day,” he said. No longer were they there to build up a network of resistance cells; instead, they were the advance team for a sabotage operation against Vemork. In a few weeks, they were to guide over thirty, glider-born British Royal Engineers to Vemork. On hearing the plan, Claus Helberg, Poulsson’s best friend since grade school, thought it was a suicide mission for the British troops: How would they escape Norway? All four Norwegian commandos, however, were happy they would be in on a bigger job. As their radio operation Knut Haugland thought: You don’t jump out of a plane over your occupied country to contribute a little something.

Divided into a pair of tents, using their parachutes as ground sheets, the four slept wrapped in their sleeping bags. They woke to a stunningly clear blue sky, the rugged hills surrounding them cast in sharp relief. They were home now, far from soggy Scotland where they had trained. Now they needed to make a 45-mile journey to the landing site for the gliders that they had chosen near Vemork.

* * *

On the third day of their trek, Haugland was cold, hungry, exhausted, and wet. His team members, skiing in a line behind him through a valley, suffered the same. Burdened by seventy pounds of equipment, Haugland often sank into the deep, heavy snow. The candle wax he had spread on his skis was proving useless; given the mild weather, the new snow clumped like gum to the bottoms, making the trek a snail’s slog.

Haugland navigated around birch trees and the rugged, boulder-pocked terrain, sticking close to the banks of rivers and small lakes. In the full of winter, he could have easily skied straight across them, but on this morning, five days since they landed back in Norway, the ice was not yet completely frozen. In the few patches he thought they could cross, the surface water on the ice left their boots and socks drenched. After an advance of a few miles, Haugland and the others stopped, emptied their rucksacks, and took a short break to eat. Poulsson had rationed them each a quarter slab of pemmican, four biscuits, a little spread of butter, a cut of cheese, a piece of chocolate, and a handful of oats and flour—for the day. The pemmican, a pressed mix of powdered dried game, melted fat, and dried fruit, was treasured above all. Altogether, they were probably burning twice as many calories as they were eating each day.

photo-2Their rest over, the four returned to their morning starting point, this time with empty rucksacks, and retrieved the other half of their equipment and food, another seventy pounds each. This they hauled across the countryside, retracing their tracks in what at times felt like Sisyphean labor. A slight misdirection of their skis and they would sink to their waists.

In ideal conditions, they could have skied the 45-miles to the landing site in a couple of days. But even after leaving unessential supplies in a depot dug into the snow, they still had 560 pounds to carry, including one wireless radio set, two batteries, a hand generator, field equipment, weapons, and food stores. Divided by four, this was 140 pounds for each of them, impossible to haul unless they split it into two journeys. With the double-backing, their journey would be 135 miles, and the condition of the snow was far from ideal.

By the end of day, having advanced only eight miles in totla from their drop site, they came across an abandoned farmhouse where they found some flour and frozen meat. They built a fire, melted snow in a pot, and then softened the meat in the boiling water. For the first time in days, they feasted until their bellies were full. Set by the crackling fire, their wet socks, boots, and clothes steamed as they dried out. Better still, they found a welcome surprise in the cabin: an old wood-and-canvas sledge.

Over the next six days, the team made slow, steady progress east, their supplies split between their rucksacks and the sledge. No longer would they need to make the double journey. But it was still tough going. At one point, Poulsson fell through the surface of a half-frozen lake. Body stretched flat on thin ice, the fourth team member Arne Kjelstrup pulled him free with a ski pole. At night, the men continued to break into cabins for shelter, but none held the same booty as the farmhouse. They devoured their pemmican, sometimes cold, sometimes mixed with oats or flour in a hot gruel, but they were always left wanting more.

As one day followed the next, the four grew thin and their beards scraggly, their cheeks and lips blistered from the constant wind, cold, and toil. They were almost always wet, as their clothes never dried completely at night. Their skis, not wholly impermeable, grew heavy as logs. Their Canadian boots became so frayed, they had to take an awl and yarn to them each morning to keep them from falling apart altogether. Had it not been for all their hard training in Scotland, they would already have given up.

In the early hours of November 6, the Grouse team arrived at a cabin three miles east of the landing site for the gliders. Inside the cabin, the four—dirty, unshaven, and half-starved—collapsed from the strain. Their boots were in shambles, their sweaters shrunken and in tatters, and two of their rucksacks had been chewed up by dripping battery acid. They slept that night like the dead.

After a long struggle to recharge their radio batteries, Haugland powered up the wireless set. With his three team members watching closely, and his hand trembling from the cold and excitement, he sent out his identity call sign. He immediately received an answer in return. They had contact with SOE Home Station in London. Poulsson and the others whooped in celebration as they congratulated the radioman.
Haugland delivered his first message: “Happy landing in spite of stones everywhere. Sorry to keep you waiting. Snowstorm and fog forced us to go down valleys. Four feet of snow impossible with heavy equipment to cross mountains. Had to hurry on for reaching target area in time. Further information. Next message.”

The team was in place for the first operation against the winter fortress of Vemork, a place the commandos were told was instrumental to Hitler obtaining a bomb that could destroy all of London.


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