December 2, 1942: The Graphite Piles Up


“The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.”

“How were the natives?”

“Very friendly.”

With these code words, Arthur Compton, head of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, notified James Conant, chair of the National Defense Research Committee (overseeing the Manhattan Project), that the world’s first successful, man-made, self-sustaining chain reaction had taken place, in a squash court beneath the viewing stands at Stagg Field, University of Chicago.

Other observers were a bit more loquacious:

“Nothing very spectacular had happened.  Nothing had moved, and the pile itself had given no sound. . .. We had known that we were about to unlock a giant; still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it.  We felt as, I presume, everyone feels who has done something that he knows will have very far-reaching consequences which he cannot foresee.”

With the earlier discovery of nuclear fission by German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, as explained and named by their collaborators Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, it was known that the possibility of creating a self-sustaining chain reaction was possible.  However, finding the right material—one that would produce more splitting neutrons than it absorbed, and the right moderating material, to control the activity of those loose neutrons, had proved difficult.

It was up to Hungarian Jewish émigré Leo Szilard, who fled Hitler in 1933, to establish at Columbia University that fission of uranium produced more neutrons than it consumed, and it was up to Enrico Fermi, another émigré fleeing persecution in Italy in 1938—his wife was Jewish—to construct the first nuclear reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, or CP-1.  (Fermi is the “Italian navigator” mentioned in the coded message above, and CP-1 is the “pile” referred to in the above quote)


Pile was a very appropriate descriptor, for, in the words of Fermi, his primitive reactor was “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers.”  The final structure required 45 tons of uranium oxide and 5.4 tons of uranium metal, all encased in 45,000 ultra-pure graphite blocks weighing a total of 360 tons.  (Graphite was the moderator needed to control the activity of the neutrons; heavy water, the only other suitable moderator, was too difficult to obtain in large quantities).  When completed, the elliptically-shaped pile stood 20 feet high, 6 feet wide at the ends, and 25 feet across the middle.

The team that worked on CP-1. Fermi is front row, on left; Szilard is second row on right (in white trench coat)

On the fateful afternoon of December 2, 1942, CP-1 was ready.  The control rods were slowly removed, and pile went critical (self-sustaining) at 3:25 PM.  Having run for approximately 4-5 minutes, and having generated about 0.5 watts of power, it was shut down.  A scientist in the party opened a bottle of Chianti, and all toasted the event from paper cups.  It was the first demonstration that a nuclear device was now feasible, a turning point in the evolution of the Manhattan Project, with consequences we are still living with today.  As Leo Szilard observed when he at last proved fission was possible: “That night, there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.”

At The Lanier Library

This past Thursday I gave a lecture at The Lanier Library (where I am a proud member of the board), located in my hometown of Tryon, NC. The talk was entitled “The Heavy Water War: Stopping Hitler’s Atomic Bomb.”  It focused on the years-long struggle by the Allies to prevent the Germans from obtaining heavy water—a crucial moderator, as noted above—from the only available source, a facility in Rjukan, Norway.  After my talk ended, a library member named Betty, sitting in the front row, approached me, and shared with me that her mother had worked on CP-1 during the war years, and for her efforts, had been awarded a piece of the graphite pile used.  Here it is:

Talk about a small world!  Thanks again, Betty

Justice at Nuremberg–or not?


“This, then, is the climax!  This is the moment you have been waiting for all these black, despairing years!  To see Justice catch up with Evil.  To see it overtake these barbaric little men who almost destroyed our world.  This, really, is the end of the long night, of the hideous nightmare.

And how the mighty have fallen! . . . Why, the sudden loss of power seems to have stripped them clean of the arrogance, the insolence, the truculence that was their very being in all the years I knew them.  How quickly they have become broken, miserable little men!”

Written by William L. Shirer, Tuesday, November 20, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.

Seventy-eight years ago today, the first Nuremberg war crimes trial, also known as the International Military Tribunal, began.  Twenty-four of the most important political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were on trial for, among other things, crimes against humanity.

The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were making good on the promise they had made just over two years earlier, in the so-called Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943. There, the three big Allied powers did “solemnly declare and give warning . . . as follows: At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above . . . atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries.”   Where such offenses had no geographic locale, the criminals would be punished by a joint decision of the Allies.

The Judges

The Nuremberg trials were the result.  The prosecution, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, wanted more than to simply win convictions against the initial 24 defendants.  They wanted the proceedings to 1) provide “irrefutable evidence” of Nazi war crimes, 2) offer a “history lesson” to the defeated German nation, and 3) delegitimize the traditional German elite.  Proceedings began on November 20, 1945, and ended on October 10, 1946. Of the 24 initially charged, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 received sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, 3 were acquitted, 1 was deemed physically incapable of standing trial, and 1 died by suicide before the trial could begin.

The hangings were all carried out on October 16, 1946.  Among the 10 actually hanged (Martin Bormann had been sentenced in absentia, and Herman Göring, died by suicide the day prior to his scheduled execution), was Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the OKW (Supreme Command of Armed Forces).

November 20 also marks an anniversary of another sort with particular relevance to Keitel.  Those of you who have heard my lecture on the heavy water war/Vemork raid, have learned of the tragic fate of the 30 British demolition experts who took part in Operation Freshman (November 19/20, 1942), the attempt to destroy the Norwegian heavy water facility at Vemork.  The plan called for the sappers to land in Norway in two gliders, destroy the facility, and try and escape to neighboring Sweden.  Such an escape called for evasion over hundreds of miles of Norwegian terrain (in the middle of winter) despite the fact that the sappers could hardly speak a word of Norwegian. In other words, the odds of a successful evasion were practically nil.  By wearing British uniforms, however, the attackers could feel safe in the knowledge that, under the Geneva Convention, they would, if captured, be interned as POWs for the duration of the war.

What the sappers did not realize, however, was that Hitler had decreed that any enemy soldier caught in a commando operation was to be killed immediately, uniform or no, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding.  On November 20, 1942, those surviving British sappers in glider #2 were immediately executed pursuant to the so-called Commando Oder, which had been signed by none other than Keitel in October 1942. It is thus ironic that exactly three years after the deaths of the British commandos, Keitel would stand trial for his actions.  By signing the Commando Order, Wilhelm Keitel had sealed his own fate. Whether he realized the coincidence is unknown, although perhaps the enormity of his crimes finally sank in when his request to be shot by a firing squad was rejected by the Allies in favor of death by hanging.

The Defendants

Subsequent war trials at Nuremberg targeted a further 177 military and party leaders, leading to 142 additional convictions, and 25 death sentences. This represented a small fraction of the almost 100,000 Germans initially arrested as war criminals, and the 2,500 “major” war criminals identified by the Allies.

Although other war trials were also held in subsequent years in various venues outside of Nuremberg, the numbers convicted, and their sentences, like that of General von Falkenhorst* represent an exceedingly small price to pay for the many, many millions of innocent lives lost at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the Supreme Commander of German forces in Norway, was also sentenced to death in 1946 for his role in the death of the British commandos in Operation Freshman.  His sentence was later commuted to 20 years imprisonment.  In 1953, having served only seven years of his sentence, he was released “for reasons of health.”  He lived for another 15 years, dying in 1968.

Happy Birthday Marit


Today would have been the 95th birthday of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve.

Marit as a child

As I pointed out in my Acknowledgements in From Day to Day, “To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.” If anything, my admiration of, delight in, and love for, Marit only grew in the succeeding years after her father’s diary was republished.

Marit, I shall always miss you, and remember our times together with fondness.  Your memory is, and shall always be, a blessing.

October 6, 1943: Nansen Arrives at Sachsenhausen


Eighty years ago today, Odd Nansen arrived at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany, approximately twenty-five miles north of Berlin.  After a practical joke went awry, and became a contest of wills between Nansen and the head of the protective custody camp called Grini, located outside of Oslo, Norway, Nansen was informed by the Schutzhaftlagerführer:

“that I would now go to Germany and find out what a real German “K.Z.Lager” (Kazettenlager) [Concentration Camp] was like.  He assured me that I need entertain no hopes of ever getting back to Norway—they could just put up the “monument” upon my grave (once more) straight away,  for from the place I was now bound for, people seldom returned alive.”

As Nansen departed Grini for his new destination, he remained upbeat, observing “There’s something strange about movement—even if one is going to hell.  At any rate one’s getting somewhere—something is happening, the route may be pretty, and isn’t the paving celebrated?”  And, commenting on his arrival in Sachsenhausen after a voyage by bus, ship and train, Nansen observes:

“In the light from a crack in the door [of the railcar] where I was lying, I wrote about the strange journey.  Unfortunately I didn’t manage to preserve that section of the diary, but I am certain there was nothing dolorous in those travel notes.  We were going on—slowly perhaps, but we were getting somewhere.  Something was happening—we were in motion.  And as I said, there’s something about movement—even if it leads to hell.  And that was pretty much where it led.”

Prison Wall, Electrified Fence and Guard Tower – Sachsenhausen Camp

(Portions of the preceding post first appeared on October 6, 2017.)

September 26, 1905: Einstein Publishes a Paper


In his long and prolific career, Albert Einstein published over 300 scientific papers in addition to hundreds of books and articles.  One of his most famous scientific papers, published on September 26, 1905, was “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Køper” or “On the Electro-dynamics of Moving Bodies.”  We mere mortals know it (slightly) better as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.  Don’t ask me to begin to explain it (I can’t), but I can report that special relativity is important in the fields of quantum mechanics, atomic physics and nuclear physics.

Einstein was only 26 when he published his paper, just months after having received his PhD.  It was one of four groundbreaking papers he published within the space of a single year, which has since been referred to as Einstein’s annus mirabilis—Einstein’s miracle year.  (The other three papers dealt with the equivalence of mass and energy—E=mc2; Brownian motion; and the photoelectric effect.  Don’t ask me to explain them either.)

Einstein was visiting the United States when Hitler came to power in January 1933, and he never returned to Germany.  In March 1933 he learned that his house had been raided (it was later seized and eventually converted into a Hitler Youth camp).  On May 10, 1933, his works were targeted (along with those of Freud, H.G. Wells, Proust, Remarque, and many many others) for Nazi book burnings by students in university towns throughout Germany.

Following short stays in Belgium and Great Britain in mid-1933, Einstein elected to accept a position at the recently formed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Those of you who have seen the movie Oppenheimer witness, in one of the early scenes, an avuncular, slightly disheveled Einstein (he was once described as looking like “a reliable old-fashioned watchmaker in a small town who perhaps collected butterflies on a Sunday”) conferring with Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute.  It was Einstein’s initiative with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (explaining nuclear fission and warning that Germany might already be on the road to developing an atom bomb) that, more than anything else, gave rise to the Manhattan Project.

Notwithstanding Einstein’s preeminence—he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921—not everyone in the U.S. was pleased with his decision to move permanently to America in October 1933.  According to historian Richard Ketchum:

“[W]hen it was learned that Einstein  . . .  planned to emigrate to the United States, a women’s ‘Patriotic Corporation’ tried to prevent his admission on the grounds that he was a Communist, and the National Patriotic Council, labeling him a German Bolshevist, announced that his theory of relativity ‘was of no scientific value or purpose, not understandable because there was nothing there to understand.’”

Einstein became a U.S. citizen in 1940, and died in Princeton in 1955, age 76.

We’ll let Einstein have the last word vis-à-vis his xenophobic critics:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not yet completely sure about the universe.”

“O, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?”


Today marks the 161st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American military history.  More Americans were killed or wounded—22,717–in a single day, September 17, 1862, than on any other day in any other war America has fought.

General George B. McClelland, the ever-cautious, ever-methodical commander of the Union Army of the Potomac failed, despite numerous opportunities, to inflict a crushing blow upon General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  He did, however, force Lee to abandon his incipient invasion of Pennsylvania, and return to northern Virginia.  In that sense Antietam can be considered a slight military victory for Union forces.

The larger significance of Antietam, however, derives from more than the military outcome alone.

By early September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had concluded that the war needed to be fought, not just to preserve the Union, but to end slavery in America once and for all.  Lincoln concluded, however, that such a monumental move could only be implemented when the North had seized the initiative in the war.  As historian Bruce Catton explains in Mr. Lincoln’s Army, the first volume in his Army of the Potomac trilogy (recently re-released by the Library of America):

“[A]s things stood just then he [Lincoln] could not issue it.  [Secretary of State William] Seward had warned him: Put that out now, when we have been defeated [at First Bull Run; Peninsula Campaign; Second Bull Run] and our armies are in retreat, and it will look like a shriek of despair—not an attempt to help the black race, but an appeal to the black race to help us.  We must have a victory first.”

Antietam gave Lincoln this opportunity, as Catton eloquently concludes:

“Yet it was finally, and irrevocably, the decisive battle of the war, affecting the whole course of American history ever since.  For this stalemated battle—this great whirlwind of flame and torn earth and shaking sound, which seemed to consume everything and create nothing—brought about the Emancipation Proclamation and put the country on a new course from which there could be no turning back.  Here at last was the sounding forth of the bugle that would never call retreat.”

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued five days later, on September 22, 1862.

Some of the scenes from the battle are nothing short of tragic.  One regiment, the 16th Connecticut, had been mustered into the army only three weeks earlier. Its soldiers had loaded their muskets for the very first time only the evening before; during the battle it was ordered to maneuver as a regiment for the first time, and do it while under fire. “The grand and picturesque business of charging a rebel line, which had sounded so impressive and inspiring back home, had come down to this—hiding in cornfield and being shot at by people who were completely out of sight.”

The astounding loss of life at Antietam, and indeed, the prodigious casualties experienced throughout the Civil War (more than all the casualties suffered by America in all other wars combined) perhaps explains the attraction of a poem entitled “Mortality,” which was said to be President Lincoln’s favorite poem.

Composed by Scottish poet William Knox (1789–1825), it is said that Lincoln could recite the entire work from memory.  It was widely reprinted following his assassination.  The full poem runs eight stanzas (and can be found here).  The first and last stanzas read as follows:

“O, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?/Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud/A flash of the lightning, a break in the wave/Man passes from life to his rest in the grave.

‘Tis the wink of any eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath/From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death/From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud/O, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”

Odd Nansen in the News


Not long ago I was introduced to an interesting blog called “Dairies of Note.”  Having spent much time involved in a diary of note, I was intrigued by the blog writer’s approach:  quote, on each calendar day, a different diary entry written by someone on that very day sometime in the past.  It is quite a feat to be able to draw upon so many varied diaries, and, from what little I’ve seen so far, the range is enormous, and utterly fascinating.

Each diary entry comes with some explanatory material, and links for further reading, but the main attraction is the diarist’s words in each instance.  Yesterday, it just so happened to be Odd Nansen’s turn.  It’s a horrifying entry, but all of you who have read Nansen’s diary know that the scene described is unfortunately by no means unique.  As I have said in many of my lectures, it is Nansen’s inspiring humanity which prevents his diary from becoming simply a catalog of horrors.

Here is the 1944 entry from Odd Nansen’s diary that was chosen for  August 31.

We are all inundated with more reading material than we can cope with these days, but this daily blog is unique, and worth a close look.

August 10, 1941: The Atlantic Conference


Eighty-two years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met (August 9-14, 1941) for the first time as heads of state.  The two had met only once before—back in 1918, when Roosevelt was a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Churchill a young Member of Parliament.  This new meeting would forever after be known as the Atlantic Conference.

The location, a tightly guarded secret, was Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the site of a new American naval base leased from the British as part of the destroyers-for-bases deal.  [Note that I write “the British” instead of “the Canadians.”  You might be surprised to know that Newfoundland was at the time still a British dominion, and did not vote to join Canada until March 31, 1949! For a time, the base, Naval Station Argentia, was the largest American military base outside the U.S.  Its importance earned it the nickname “the Gibraltar of the Atlantic.”]

Churchill arrived at Placentia Bay on the morning of August 9, 1941, aboard HMS Prince of Wales, a British battleship.  Roosevelt awaited him aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta.

Roosevelt and Churchill

The goals of the two leaders heading into this all-important first meeting were poles apart.  At the top of Churchill’s list was an American declaration of war against Germany, or at the very least vastly increased military assistance.  Roosevelt’s expectations were much more modest.  He hoped to use the conference to help dislodge the implacable isolationist sentiment gripping much of the country, and even more of the Congress.

Both parties came away only partially satisfied.  American isolationist sentiment remained as implacable as ever.  On August 12, while the conference was underway, a bill to extend the military draft passed the House of Representatives by a single vote.  Nevertheless, Roosevelt did agree that the U.S. Navy would henceforth escort British ships sailing from the coast of North America to a point two hundred miles east of Iceland.  This move alone freed up “over fifty destroyers and corvettes” for use in Britain’s home waters in Churchill’s estimation.  Moreover, the military leaders of the two countries were able to further their staff discussions, providing greater coordination.  Finally, Roosevelt promised to be more provocative in challenging the German Navy on the high seas, hoping to perhaps create an “incident.”

Churchill, for his part, had to be content with these developments, as well as an offer for increased aid (FDR promised to ask Congress for another $5Billion in lend-lease aid).  All these fell far short of his original goal, but half a loaf was better than none.

Finally, the conference could not fail to have an important symbolic impact as well. Felix Frankfurter, writing to FDR afterward, observed:

“We live by symbols.  And you two in that ocean . . . in the setting of that Sunday service, gave meaning to the conflict between civilization and arrogant, brute challenge; and gave promise more powerful and binding than any formal treaty could, that civilization has brains and resources that tyranny will not be able to overcome.”

Ironically, the most far-reaching outcome of the Atlantic Conference grew out of a suggestion Roosevelt made at his initial meeting with Churchill: to issue a joint declaration of principles.  This joint statement—really no more than a mere press release—soon became known as the Atlantic Charter.  In the words of one historian “it seized men’s imaginations and framed their hopes.”  Issued on August 14, 1941, its eight points had the universal appeal of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points (issued in 1918), with the important distinction that it was a joint, rather than unilateral, declaration.  These eight “common principles” for the postwar world included: no territorial expansion; liberalization of international trade; freedom of the seas; international labor, economic and welfare standards; freedom from fear and want; and most importantly, restoring self-determination to all countries occupied during the war by the Axis powers

The Atlantic Charter would ultimately influence the formation of NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  Adherents to the Atlantic Charter would later (January 1, 1942) sign the Declaration by United Nations, which became the basis of the current United Nations.

Admiral Harold Stark, CNO, and General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, stand behind FDR and Churchill

Although the Atlantic Conference has been best remembered for the Atlantic Charter, the emotional high point of the event, agreed by all, was a joint religious service held on the quarterdeck of the Prince of Wales on Sunday morning, August 10.  All the conferees, along with hundreds of sailors from both countries, attended.  In his magisterial history of World War II, The Grand Alliance, Winston Churchill described the scene:

“This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck—the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and Americans sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in prayers and hymns familiar to both.”

August 10, 1941 service aboard the Prince of Wales

Franklin Roosevelt agreed. He later told his son Elliott “If nothing else happened while we were there, that would have cemented us.”  FDR may have been particularly moved by the choice of hymns (personally chosen by Churchill himself) which included Roosevelt’s personal favorite, the Navy Hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

O hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril on the sea.*

It is a powerful hymn, one I heard many times while one of my sons was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The closing words of the hymn, along with Churchill’s final observation: “Every word seemed to stir the heart.  It was a great hour to live,” would prove to be particularly poignant. Exactly four months later—on December 10, 1941, the Prince of Wales would be sunk by Japanese dive and torpedo bombers off the coast of Malaya; nearly half of its officers and sailors who had attended services that sunlit morning would be dead.

*= At President Roosevelt’s funeral on April 14, 1945,  in the East Room of the White House, the opening hymn was the Navy Hymn.

Profiles in Courage: Peter Deinboll


Peter Deinboll

Last Thursday (July 27) was Peter Deinboll’s birthday.  Were he still alive today he would be 108.  Deinboll was born in Orkanger, Norway in 1915 and graduated from college in 1939 with a degree in chemical engineering.  He fought for Norway following Germany’s invasion in April 1940, and, when Norway capitulated, he chose to escape to Great Britain, where he joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE).  His escape route from Norway tells you a bit about his persistence: he traveled to Sweden, then the Soviet Union, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, India, South Africa, Trinidad, Canada, and finally, to England.

Of particular interest to the SOE during the war were Norway’s pyrite mines located at Løkken Verk, southwest of Trondheim.  Pyrites are a raw material involved in many uses, including the production of  sulfuric acid, a key chemical in many industrial processes.  Each year the Løkken mines produced hundreds of tons of ore, which were then transported by special electric trains to the port of Thamshavn to be loaded onto cargo ships.  Deinboll knew the mines well—his father had worked there since 1920 and was its chief engineer.

Pyrite Mines

Deinboll’s first undertaking for the SOE—Operation Redshank—involved bombing the electrical transformer that powered the mine and the railway.  With two accomplices Deinboll successfully destroyed the transformer on May 5, 1942, temporarily halting all pyrite transport.  During the attack Deinboll was spotted, and pursued for seven hours before he was able to elude his pursuers.  Ultimately, all three saboteurs escaped to Sweden and thence to England.

For his actions, Deinboll received the War Cross, Norway’s highest military award (an honor he would share with such other resistance luminaries I have previously written about as Gunnar Sønsteby, Joachim Rønneberg, Knut Haugland and Birger Eriksen).  He also received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) from the British.  At a subsequent meeting of the Anglo-Norwegian Collaborating Committee (ANCC) Operation Redshank was described as “almost a model operation.”

As production at the mine gradually returned to normal, a further attack was planned.   Since security at the transformer station had been significantly strengthened, a new target was selected.  This time Deinboll was ordered to destroy the loading tower at the jetty in Thamshavn, and, for good measure, to also sink a cargo ship at the loading dock, thereby rendering the port inoperable.

Deinboll’s mission was beset with problems from the outset.  He and his two companions left England on December 6, 1942, and were launched from a British fishing boat, the Aksel, 20 miles off Norway’s coastline.  Their small boat was heavily damaged in a storm, and ultimately sank, but fortunately not before they had salvaged all their gear.  Just reaching the mainland took six days, and another fortnight was needed to reach the target. (Moreover, the Aksel and all its crew were lost at sea on its return voyage.)

The loading tower proved to be so heavily guarded that any thought of attacking it had to be abandoned.  It also took a further two months for a suitable cargo ship to arrive. Incredibly, during the wait Deinboll’s father hid the sabotage party, and provided advice on their attack plans.  Finally, in late February a 5,000-ton cargo ship, the Nordfahrt, arrived.  On February 26, 1943 Deinboll and his party stole a dingy and were able to attach three limpet mines, which seriously damaged the ship, but did not sink her—she was run aground and later salvaged.

Deinboll’s troubles were far from over.  He and his crew escaped on skis, heading for the Swedish border miles away.  Separated from the rest of his party in a blizzard, Deinboll at one point fell 200 feet over a precipice, injuring his leg.  He was forced to dig himself into the snow, and remain there for 30 hours before mustering enough strength to continue.  Deinboll later holed up in a deserted mountain hut, drinking water from snow melted between his legs.  Eventually he reached safety in Sweden.  His father and the rest of his family were also forced to flee to Sweden at this time, as the Nazis had begun to question Deinboll pere’s allegiances.

Although this attack, known as Operation Granard, had little long-term effect on the operation of the pyrite mines, Deinboll nevertheless received a Military Cross (MC) from the British for his efforts.

Eight months later, Deinboll was at it again.  He and six other Norwegian SOE operatives were parachuted into Norway, with a mandate to disrupt the mines—either by attacking the lift shaft, or else the locomotives which carried the ore from the mine to the port.  Because these locomotives ran on a special track gauge unlike any other in Europe, they could not be easily replaced.  Arriving at the mine on October 10, 1943, Deinboll concluded that the now even more heavily guarded mine was too difficult a target, and focused instead on the locomotives.  On October 31 his crew split into three groups, and succeeded in destroying or disabling five locomotives.

Less than three weeks later (November 19, 1943), despite even more heightened security, the group disabled the sole remaining locomotive.  One saboteur was killed due to a premature detonation, another captured, while the remaining five once again escaped successfully to Sweden.  [Interestingly, where Deinboll’s story ends, Gunnar Sønsteby’s begins.  One of the damaged locomotives was sent to Oslo for repair, and in August 1944 the repairs were nearing completion.  Despite the best efforts of the workers in the repair shop to slow-walk the process, the Germans were pressing hard for the job to be done; a night shift was even ordered to speed up things.  On the night of September 12, 1944, Sønsteby and two accomplices broke into the repair shop undetected, placed eight pounds of plastic explosives in the locomotive and another six pounds on the controls and set a fuse for two minutes.  The operation was a complete success.]

For Deinboll’s actions, known as Operation Feather, Colonel John Wilson, head of the Scandinavian section of the SOE, recommended that he receive a second DSO.  The British War Office, however, downgraded the recommendation to another MC instead.  When the papers were submitted to King George VI for his approval, he remarked that, if the actions described in the citation were correct, a higher award was justified, and ordered that the recommendation be resubmitted.  So Peter Deinboll received his second DSO after all—the only Norwegian to received two DSOs during World War II.

On November 8, 1944, an airplane carrying Deinboll back to Norway for yet another mission (his fourth) disappeared over the North Sea without a trace.  His body was never recovered.  Deinboll’s personal war against the Germans was over.  He was 29.

In 2003, a bust of Peter Deinboll was erected in the center of Orkanger, his hometown, and close to the scene of his exploits.  It is perched on a block of ore taken from the Løkken mine.  A tablet on the monument bears a quote attributed to Deinboll:

“Bare den som har hatt døden til følgesvenn vet hva livet er verdt.  Only he who has had death as a companion knows what life is worth.”

Deinboll Memorial

German Gold


Dear readers, some of you may recall my recent blog, and article (Rescuing Norway’s Gold), about Nazi Germany’s quest for gold, beginning with its seizure of Austria’s gold reserves following the Anschluss of 1938.

Recently I read a book (War at Sea by James Delgado) which tells the history of naval warfare through the shipwrecks which litter the ocean floor.  There I came across an interesting tale.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Imperial Germany had a naval squadron—the East Asia Squadron—stationed in the German quasi-colony of Qingdao (aka Tsingtao) in China’s Shandong Province.  Outnumbered and outgunned by Allied navies in the region, notably the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, the East Asia Squadron, under the command of Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, elected to abandon the area, sail east, resupply from neutral but pro-German countries such as Chile, round Cape Horn, and try to reach Germany via the Atlantic, along the way “doing as much mischief as I can,” in von Spee’s words.

Off the coast of Chile, von Spee’s squadron met up with SMS Dresden, a German light cruiser.  Since the war began the Dresden had been acting as a commerce raider in the waters off the east coast of South America, and had just entered the Pacific in search of more targets.

The newly augmented squadron soon thereafter successfully tangled with a British force off the coast of Chile, in the Battle of Coronel (November 1, 1914), sinking two British cruisers.  It then proceeded to head east, around Cape Horn.  Once in the south Atlantic, von Spee, instead of taking the most direct route back to Germany, elected to attack the British naval base in the Falkland Islands.  His aim was to destroy its wireless station and all-important coal stocks.

He walked into a trap.

In the Battle of the Falkland Islands (December 8, 1914), a superior British naval force destroyed the entire German East Asia Squadron, with the sole exception of the Dresden and a few auxiliary vessels (von Spee and his two sons were all killed in the battle).  The Dresden fled back into the Pacific once again, and low on fuel (coal), sailed into Cumberland Bay in what is now known as Robinson Crusoe Island, hoping to be interned for the duration of the war.*  The British, however, still smarting over the debacle at Coronel, had other ideas.  When they located the Dresden (March 14, 1915) they announced their intention of ignoring international law, and commenced shelling an enemy ship while in a neutral harbor.  This shelling, and the decision by Dresden’s captain to scuttle the ship, sent her to the bottom of Cumberland Harbor in no time.

SMS Dresden under attack

What the British did not know, however, was that the Dresden was carrying a secret cargo.

Before von Spee’s squadron departed Qingdao, it had onloaded all the gold held in the German concession.  Sometime between the East Asia Squadron’s rendezvous with the Dresden in the South Pacific and the Battle of the Falkland Islands, all that gold was transferred from von Spee’s ships to the Dresden.  Von Spee may have been hoping that the Dresden’s powerful turbine engines would enable her to outrun her slower British pursuers.  He took a long-shot gamble, and lost.

The Dresden would remain, seemingly undisturbed, for years at the bottom of Cumberland Harbor.  When author Delgado and others examined the underwater wreck in 2002, however, they made an unusual discovery.  The 1915 photos of the Dresden’s sinking show the ship intact.  The divers instead found the stern to be heavily damaged.  Further investigation revealed that, following the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933, a “secret expedition by German and Chilean hard-hat divers had blasted open [the captain’s] cabin and retrieved the gold for Hitler.” The actual amount of gold carried by the Dresden is not known, but apparently it was enough to mount a major salvage operation halfway around the world from Germany.  How much was in fact recovered is also unknown, and remains a mystery to this day.

So, the story of the Nazis’ quest for gold began well before the Anschluss of 1938.**

Incidentally, I had the honor this past May of speaking about Odd Nansen at Polhøgda, Nansen’s birthplace and childhood home. During my visit to Norway, Odd Nansen’s granddaughter Anne and her husband Preben graciously accompanied me on a ferry ride from downtown Oslo to Oscarsborg Fortress in the Oslofjord.  Those who have read my article know that Oscarsborg is the site of the opening clash between Norway and Germany in World War II.  I was able to personally inspect the 11-inch guns (ironically, made by Krupp) which initially disabled the German cruiser Blücher, as well as the torpedo battery which finally sank the Blücher, giving the Norwegians sufficient time to evacuate the Royal Family, the government ministers, and the nation’s all-important gold reserves.  It was a wonderful day—filled with poignant World War II history.

"Moses" one of the 11-inch guns

Examining “Moses” one of the 11-inch guns

The torpedo battery at Oscarsborg

The Blücher sank approximately where the white ship in the distance is located.


* Formerly known as Más a Tierra, Robinson Crusoe Island is the second largest island in the Juan Fernández Islands.  Administered by Chile, it was the site where Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704 for four years and four months.  Selkirk had asked to be left on the otherwise uninhabited island, during a resupply stop, due to his growing concern over the seaworthiness of his ship, the Cinque Ports; the captain, tiring of his complaints, happily obliged.  Selkirk’s experience is widely believed to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel of the same name (although Defoe set his Robinson Crusoe in the Caribbean).  Selkirk’s decision to leave the Cinque Ports proved prescient: the ship soon thereafter foundered off the coast of Bolivia.  Más a Tierra was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 to reflect the literary lore associated with the island, and to attract tourism.

** Trivia Note: The naval intelligence officer aboard the Dresden when it was attacked was Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, who would later go on to become an admiral and head of the Abwehr—Germany’s military-intelligence service.  Initially a fervent Nazi, Canaris later grew disenchanted with Hitler, and used his powerful position to assist resistance movements.  His double-game was discovered late in the war and he was hanged on Hitler’s order on April 9, 1945, in Flossenburg concentration camp.


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