Operation Heavy Water. Best Sabotage of World War II

Hydroelectric power plant Vemork, Norway

The action in Vemork is considered by the British the best sabotage operation of the Second World War. It is believed that the explosion of a heavy water plant in Norway was one of the main reasons that Hitler did not manage to create a nuclear weapon.

Norwegian saboteurs

In 1940, on the personal instructions of British Prime Minister Churchill, the Special Operations Executive, abbreviated as USO, was created. The special forces that are part of the USO were engaged in sabotage and subversive activities in enemy territory. Also, cells of well-trained fighters were created to organize resistance groups. The main enemy of Britain then was the Third Reich.

The USO consisted of two Norwegian units: Rota Linge and the Shetland Group. They were under the general control of the Norwegian government in exile in London. There was also another group, less popular, as it was associated with Moscow (the future enemy of NATO and Norway). In the northern Norwegian region of Finnmark, partisans operated under the command of the Soviet command. Norwegian partisans were trained from refugees by instructors from the NKVD. They operated in Tromso and Finnmark. The actions of the partisans assisted the 14th Soviet Army in the Arctic. After the war, their actions against the Nazis were hushed up, the partisans were considered Soviet spies.

Since the creation of the USO, Norwegian special forces trace their history. At first, the “Rota Linge” was trained following the example of the British commandos, for raids behind enemy lines. The Norwegian unit took part in the Battle of Norway. The founder of the “Rota” Martin Linge was killed during one of these operations in December 1941. The main operations of the Norwegian resistance were organized with the help of the Rota. The Shetland Group was incorporated into the Norwegian naval forces. Its main task was sabotage in German ports. So, in 1943, L. Larsen tried to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz with a torpedo. However, the storm thwarted this attempt.

Best Sabotage of World War

The most famous operation of the Norwegian saboteurs is the liquidation of the heavy water plant in 1943 near the town of Ryukan (Ryukan). It is possible that it was this event that prevented Hitler from obtaining atomic weapons during the Second World War. The Germans were among the first to start work on the atomic project. Already in December 1938, their physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann carried out the first artificial fission of the uranium atom nucleus in the world. In the spring of 1939, the Third Reich realized the military significance of nuclear physics and new weapons. In the summer of 1939, construction began on the first German reactor facility at the Kummersdorf test site near Berlin. The export of uranium was banned from the country, a large amount of uranium ore was purchased in the Belgian Congo. In September 1939, the secret “Uranium Project” was launched. Leading scientific centers were involved in the project: the Physics Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the University of Hamburg, the Physics Institute of the Higher Technical School in Berlin, the Physico-Chemical Institute of the Leipzig University, etc. The program was supervised by the Minister of Armaments Speer. The leading scientists of the Reich participated in the work: Heisenberg, Weizsäcker, Ardenne, Riehl, Pose, Nobel laureate Gustav Hertz and others. German scientists at that time were great optimists and believed that atomic weapons would be created in a year.

Heisenberg’s group spent two years conducting the research needed to build a nuclear reactor using uranium and heavy water. Scientists have confirmed that only one of the isotopes, uranium-235, which was contained in a very small concentration in ordinary uranium ore, can serve as an explosive. But it was necessary to isolate it from there. The main point of the military program was a nuclear reactor, and for it, graphite or heavy water was needed as a reaction moderator. German scientists chose heavy water (creating a problem for themselves). There was no heavy water production in Germany, as well as in France and England. The only production of heavy water in the world was in Norway, at the company “Norsk-Hydro” (plant in Vemork). The Germans occupied Norway in 1940. But at that time there was a small supply – tens of kilograms. Yes, and they did not go to the Nazis, the French managed to take out the water. After the fall of France, the water was taken to England. The Germans had to establish production in Norway.

At the end of 1940, Norsk-Hydro received an order from IG Farbenindustri for 500 kg of heavy water. Deliveries began in January 1941 (10 kg), and then six more consignments of 20 kg were sent until February 17, 1941. The production in Vemork was expanded. Until the end of the year, it was planned to supply 1000 kg of heavy water to the Reich, and in 1942 – 1500 kg. By November 1941, the Third Reich received an additional 500 kg of water.

In 1941, British intelligence received information that the Germans were using a plant in Norway to produce heavy water needed for the Reich’s nuclear program. After collecting additional information in the summer of 1942, the military command demanded the destruction of the strategic facility. A large-scale air operation was abandoned. First, the plant had large reserves of ammonia. Other chemical plants were located nearby. Thousands of civilians could have suffered. Secondly, there was no certainty that the bomb would pierce the multi-storey concrete floors and destroy the production center. As a result, they decided to use a sabotage group (Operation Stranger). In October 1942, the first Norwegian agents were successfully dropped into Norwegian territory (Operation Grouse). The group included A. Kelstrup, K. Haugland, K. Helberg, J. Paulson (the head of the detachment, an experienced climber). They successfully reached the site of the operation and carried out preliminary preparations for the action.

In November 1942, 34 sappers began to be transferred on two bombers with gliders under the command of Lieutenant Matven. However, due to lack of preparation, difficult weather conditions, the operation failed, the gliders crashed. The saboteurs who survived were captured by the Germans, interrogated and executed. Linge’s boys, who had been dropped earlier, reported that the operation had failed. They were instructed to wait for a new group.

USO has prepared a new operation to destroy the facility in Vemork – Operation Gunnerside. Six Norwegians were selected for the new group: the commander of the group was Lieutenant I. Reneberg, his deputy was Lieutenant K. Haukelid (first-class demolition man), Lieutenant K. Jgland, sergeants F. Kaiser, H. Storhaug and B. Stromsheim. In February 1943, they were successfully landed in Norway. The new group connected with the first, which had been waiting for them for more than four months.

On the evening of February 27, the saboteurs went to Vemork. On the night of February 28, the operation began. An insider from the plant staff helped to enter the facility. The saboteurs set up their charges and successfully left. Part of the detachment remained in Norway, the other went to Sweden. 900 kilograms (almost a year’s supply) of heavy water was detonated. Production was stopped for three months.

Bombardment. Explosion at Lake Tinnsche

In the summer of 1943, the Allies learned that the Germans had restored production at Vemork. The enterprise managed to commit sabotage – adding dark vegetable oil or fish oil to heavy water. But the Germans purified the heavy water with filters. The Americans were worried that Hitler might get nuclear weapons ahead of them. After the sabotage, the Nazis turned the object into a real fortress, increased security and tightened the access control. That is, the attack of a small group of saboteurs was now excluded. Then it was decided on a large-scale air operation. At the same time, they turned a blind eye to the number of possible victims among the local population. On November 16, 1943, 140 strategic bombers attacked Ryukan and Vemork. The bombardment lasted 33 minutes. More than 700 heavy 200-kilogram bombs were dropped on the enterprise, more than 100 hundred-kilogram bombs on Ryukan.

The smoke generators that the Germans installed around the hydroelectric power station after the sabotage were turned on immediately and proved to be effective. The bombing turned out to be ineffective. Only a few bombs hit large objects: four at the station, two at the electrolysis plant. The heavy water plant located in the basement of the building was not damaged at all. Haukelid, an agent in Norway, said:

“The hydroelectric power plant is out of order. The heavy water plants, protected by a thick layer of concrete, were not damaged. There are casualties among the peaceful Norwegian population – 22 people were killed. “

The Germans decided to evacuate production and the remnants of finished products to Germany. To ensure the safety of transporting important cargo, the precautions have been further strengthened. The SS men were transferred to Ryukan, the air defense was strengthened and a detachment of soldiers was called in to guard the transport. The members of the local resistance decided that it was pointless to attack Vemork with the available forces. There remained an opportunity to carry out sabotage while transporting heavy water by rail from Vemork or by ferry on Lake Tinnsche. The operation on the railroad had major shortcomings, so they decided to attack the ferry. The activists of the resistance group were Haukelid, Larsen, Sorle, Nielsen (he was an engineer in Vemork).

Early in the morning of February 20, 1944, a railway ferry loaded with heavy water wagons departed from the pier strictly on schedule. Norwegian saboteurs planted explosives in the ferry, calculated that the explosion would occur during the passage over the deepest part of the lake. After 35 minutes, when the ferry was over the deepest place, an explosion occurred. The ferry began to heel and sink aft. The carriages rolled into the water. A few minutes later the barge also sank. In the depths of Lake Tinnshe there were 15 tons of heavy water.

So the last hope of the Nazis to get a precious cargo for the atomic project died. The nuclear project in Germany continued, but it was not possible to complete it by the spring of 1945. The war was lost.

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