Monday, May 23, 2011

How a Few Norwegians Kept Hitler from Getting the A-Bomb in WWII

Hilter’s Atomic Bomb That Would Have Won the War

But for a Few Norwegians

Hitler came perilously close to beating the U.S. in developing an atomic bomb during World War II. Had he gotten it, the allies would have lost that war despite our superior number of forces, aircraft and ships. The story has a message for us even today. What prevented this disaster?

The free world was saved by less than a dozen Norwegian resistance fighters profiled in the Richard Harris/Kirk Douglas movie “The Heroes of Telemark.” Had it not been for them, we’d all be speaking Nazi German today. I became aware of this overlooked saga during a trip to Norway which included a stop at the hydro plant which was where this drama unfolded.

During WWII, Germany occupied Norway where it discovered a hydroelectric plant that powered a fertilizer factory which produced “heavy water” as a byproduct of the process (and discarded). This heavy water (D2O) was needed to control the fission process for making the first A-Bomb. The Germans converted the plant to focus solely on the production of heavy water. The hydro plant provided the vast power needed to make the required 10,000 pounds of heavy water, a drop at a time.

A bombing attack was first considered but because the plant was next to Norwegian homes the Norwegian resistance insisted on a small team penetrating the plant to destroy the machines used in the process. The only access to the plant was a small, heavily guarded bridge. A mountain stood behind it and a deep gorge protected it from the front. Less than a dozen of them managed to climb down the gorge and up the other side, went inside and blew up the production equipment. But the Germans had a trick up their sleeve.

They had more of the machines and within two weeks they had installed replacement machines and were in full production -- and on target to have the heavy water they needed for a bomb by April, 1943. So the allies ordered the site bombed from the air. The bombs destroyed the top of the building and surrounding homes but failed to damage the heavy water machines which were in the basement. It was then that the Germans decided to move the tons of heavy water to Germany for completion.

The heavy water was escorted under heavy guard on a train to a ferry that would take its special cargo on a two-hour journey across a Norwegian lake. From there it would be shipped on another train to Germany. The allies were running out of options, and time.

The “Hydro” ferry carried Norwegian civilians and freight on a regular run. The Norwegian resistance fighters timed the trip to see when it would reach the middle – the deepest part. Two of them snuck onto the ferry, which the Germans had failed to guard. They opened a hatch which led below decks to the area where the diesel fuel was stored and attached a timer and a bomb.

The next day, a Sunday, the ferry left port exactly on time at 10 a.m. Exactly 45 minutes later the bomb went off and the ferry broke in two pieces. The barrels of “heavy” water, which indeed is heavier than normal water, sank to the bottom. A couple were recovered a few years ago and this is a photo of one at the museum in the Telemark area of Norway.

That ended Germany’s shot at beating the U.S. in producing an Atomic bomb – all because of less than a dozen Norwegian resistance fighters.

And what happened to the Norwegian civilians on board? No one could warn them beforehand – an empty ferry would have tipped the Nazi’s that something was wrong. But unlike the movie, there was no one on board to organize survivors. When the explosion occurred, rescue boats from the surrounding farms were spontaneously launched and many people were saved.

This little known story shows what a difference a few people can make. Without these few Norwegians, Hitler could have wiped out London with one bomb and won the war. Hitler’s scientists had developed the V2 which entered space before striking its targets in London. Nothing could stop it once launched. The Nazi’s were working on an advanced design they called the “New York” which could have made New York the first Hiroshima.

I recommend you watch “Heroes of Telemark” to see how close we came to losing WWII but for a few Norwegian fighters. Our future still depends on American technology leadership and investment to keep from losing the global technology race we face in the 21st century – at a time when Congress continues to cut investment in the infrastructure, education and technology needed to regain our No. 1 position. Where are today’s heroes of America?

Michael Fjetland

Global American Series

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