Bombing Nazi Targets In Norway
Both the Allies and the Germans invested large amounts of resources and funds inventing new weapons. The most famous and effective wizard weapon was the atomic bomb. Driven by a fear that Nazi Germany would develop and use an atomic bomb first, physicist Albert Einstein wrote President Roosevelt in 1939 to warn him of the potential threat. US Army General Leslie Groves was tasked with creating the American program, which used a mix of eccentric academics and military spit-and-polish officers.
Raids on the German heavy water plants in Norway indicated that their program was behind the Americans, and emphasis switched to using the bomb on Japan after the German surrender.
Attacks on German nuclear installations from 1941 until the end of 1943 were not effective in doing more than harassing the German nuclear research effort. A key target was the German-controlled heavy water production plant, Norsk-Hydro, at Vemork, Norway. Heavy water was required to conduct nuclear fission experiments and denial of the Norwegian plant's output would cripple the German atomic bomb research effort.
The only industrial-scale production facility in Europe capable of producing heavy water for the German atomic effort was the Norsk-Hydro power station at Vemork, to the west of Rjukan in Telemark (region or state), a remote mountainous area deep in a long Southern Norway valley at the foot of Telemark's tallest mountain. There, large amounts of water and electricity were available for the heavy water electrolysis process, already in use for producing ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer. The power station was built of reinforced concrete, snug against the cliffside, with its critical processing machinery located in the basement. Its location and fortress-like nature made it almost impregnable from both ground and air attack.
From the start of the Nazi occupation of Norway in May 1940, the Germans made clear their interest in heavy water. They replaced the process equipment at Vemork with German-designed improved methodology and increased the production. Water was dripping in a hydrogen plant at Rjukan in Telemark, Southern Norway, as it had done since 1934. But this was no ordinary water, and no ordinary plant - it was the only facility in Europe that produced heavy water in large-scale volumes.
Late in 1938, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered the phenomenon of atomic fission. Physicists everywhere realized that if chain reactions could be tamed, fission could lead to a promising new source of power. What was needed was a substance that could "moderate" the energy of neutrons emitted in radioactive decay, so that they could be captured by other fissionable nuclei. Heavy water was a prime candidate for the job.
Allied forces were determined to stop Nazi Germany from developing the atomic bomb. Of two materials to control a nuclear reaction - pure graphite and heavy water - the Germans chose heavy water because of a mathematical error in calculating the use of graphite. The German nuclear research community relied on a supply of deuterium oxide [heavy water] from the Norwegian Norsk Hydro plant, the only commercial production facility. This plant in Vemork, Norway was the world's major source of heavy water in the early 1940s. In the United States, Heavy water was used as a coolant and moderator in nuclear materials production reactors at the Savannah River Site.
Concentrating heavy water requires enormous amounts of electricity. In the 1930s, one of the few places in the world with power to spare was the Vemork plant of Norway's Norsk Hydro-Elektrisk, which had harnessed a 144-meter-high waterfall to produce fertilizers. The heavy water was generated as a by-product of producing fertilizer. Norsk Hydro supplied the world's scientific community with heavy water only as a sideline. In late 1939, the Germans began ordering heavy water in very large quantities, Norsk Hydro management suspected "some kind of deviltry." With the cooperation of Norsk Hydro, the French managed to spirit the company's entire stock of heavy water, some 185 kilograms, out of the country under the noses of watchful German agents.
The Germans kept the plant under heavy guard during World War II - for good reason. The barrels of heavy water that were rolled out were sent to Germany, where they were used to control nuclear fission. Following the occupation of Norway in the spring of 1940, it soon became clear that the Germans were interested in heavy water. By the start of 1942, production at new installations in Rjukan, based on a German method, increased to 100 kilos per month. Not long after, the Germans announced they wanted to increase output further.
The situation escalated to the point that Hydro's top management protested and the company's managing director Bjarne Eriksen was arrested in early 1943 and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. It was known in London and Washington that two German atomic physicists were working on nuclear fission, and it was assumed that heavy water had something to do with Hitler's threat of a secret weapon.
Norwegians in London assisted in the plans to sabotage the heavy water unit at the Vemork power plant at Rjukan, and photographs and sketches of the plant were sent to London by Norwegian contacts at the facility, in particular Jomar Brun, manager of the heavy water unit.
A huge political thriller began to unfold in 1943 and 1944. Was this a question of preventing the development of a nuclear weapon? Was this an arms race? In any case, the outcome could determine who won the war. In November 1942 the military campaign began with a disastrous British commando raid into Norway. Operation Freshman, mounted by Special Operations Executive (SOE), failed when thirty four Royal Engineers of the 1st British Airborne Division, together with the crews of two gliders and one bomber, died when their craft crashed crashed in fog in Southern Norway into mountains. Survivors were interrogated, tortured, and executed by the Germans.
The first attempt to attack the Vemork plant ended in tragedy, all aboard were either killed in the crash or shot by the Germans. A sabotage operation was then planned. This was to be carried out by specially trained Norwegians. On 28 February 1943 a second all-Norwegian commando raid - Operation Gunnerside - destroyed the Rjukan electrolysis plant, with the loss of 500kg of heavy water. The plant was, however, quickly repaired.
The heavy water plant was rebuilt and production restarted during the next six months. On the night of 16 November 1943 the American attempt to destroy the plant employed a total of 388 B-17 and B-24 bombers from Eighth Air Force. US bombers swooped in over Rjukan and totally destroyed the Vemork power station. The raid resulted in considerable loss of civilian life but minimal damage to the electrolysis building. While this attack did little damage it convinced the Germans to abandon the plant, give up producing heavy water at Vemork, and move remaining stocks and critical components to Germany in 1944.
Haakon VII (1872-1957) was a former Prince of Denmark who became the ruler of Norway after the country's independence in 1905. When the Germans invaded Norway, Haakon only just escaped capture in Oslo in April 1940 and along with his cabinet ministers fled for the north. He remained in Norway until the British withdrew and left in June 1940. With the Norwegian Government at his side he led the Norwegian Resistance from London and was recognized by the Allies as the legitimate government. Haakon made radio broadcasts to Norway to encourage his people to resist and up to 50,000 left to join his forces abroad. Morale in Norway was maintained by the production of illegal pamphlets and journals which tried to give the people an alternative version of events. In late 1944 Norwegians helped the Russians by invading German positions in northern Norway from Finland. In June 1945 Haakon returned to a liberated country which had remained staunchly anti-Nazi throughout the war.
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