Posts tagged SOE

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

Norway’s Constitution Day: In Praise of Heroes


Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

I’ve written about this day, known as Syttende Mai, before, focusing on Norway’s experiences in World War II (here and here).  I’ve also written in the past about some of the heroes of World War II (here) and some of its tragic victims (here).  Today I would like to focus on a small, and sometimes overlooked, segment of the resistance movement in Norway during World War II.

When people join an armed resistance movement, or any organized military group, as many Norwegians did during the war, joining Milorg in country, or escaping to England to fight with British forces or the SOE (Special Operations Executive), they accepted the possibility of a premature, violent, death.  But each such person usually held, deep inside themselves, the somewhat contradictory belief that, while death might come to some of their comrades, it would somehow spare them.  And in truth, no situation, no matter how dismal, no matter how hopeless, guarantees certain death.  Stories are legion of soldiers charging into the face of death and yet somehow miraculously surviving unhurt.  It’s that belief—that miracles can and do occur—that allows many such heroic feats to occur at all.

But there is a smaller group of people touched by war—those who choose to die by suicide.

Not long ago I finished reading a recently published book, Secret Alliances: Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1944-1945, by Tony Insall.  I wish I could recommend the book, but that’s not possible.  It is overly dry, repetitive, stuffed with acronyms, and rather disorganized.  Nevertheless, what jumped out at me from the book were the number of stories that ended with a resistance fighter taking their own life.  “[Karl Rasmussen] was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Tromsø, and committed suicide by jumping out of a third floor window.”  “In an exchange of shots when the Gestapo tried to arrest them, [Gregers] Gram was killed and [Edvard] Tallaksen injured.  He committed suicide in prison.”  “[Bjorn] Eriksen, [a student leader in XU, a clandestine intelligence organization] was arrested. . . and committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth floor window.”  Åsmund Færoy parachuted into Norway in early April 1945 to help protect Norway’s harbors against possible destruction by the retreating Germans.  He was apprehended April 9, 1945 and “unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.”

Even Odd Nansen was aware of the number of such deaths.  On August 21, 1943, he relates the story of a fellow cellmate, Knut Eliassen, a navy lieutenant, who had slit his wrists.  “Knut’s attempt at suicide was—as was so many others’—not successful.”*

Why did these men choose to end their own life by suicide?  Certainly, and quite reasonably, they feared torture.  Torture of course could be avoided by telling all they knew.  And yet it was precisely this fear—of talking—and thus harming others, that led each of them to end their own lives, in the knowledge that death was the only sure-fire method of keeping their secrets safe.

And the fear of torture was well placed.  One witness, housed with a resistance fighter, reported on the experience:

“He [the resistance fighter] found great difficulty in talking. . . .  I had to feed and wash him.  The policemen had broken four of his fingers and had pulled out the nails from two of them.  Afterward they had hit him with sticks wrapped in cloth until he collapsed.  Then they turned him on his back and jumped on his stomach.  He stated that he had asked his tormentors to shoot him.  I myself saw that he was bleeding through the mouth and the rectum and that four fingers had been broken and were bent backwards.”

As Odd Nansen observed of the frightful activities at Grini Prison, and at Victoria Terrace, the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo: “People have been beaten up and tortured and tormented beyond all bounds.  Some held, others cracked.  No one dare sit in judgement.  One man cracked and had the death of others on his conscience.” (March 12, 1942).

This conscience, this realization of their own possible weakness, this concern for the lives of others above their own, was what motivated Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and many others, known and still unknown, to try and take their own life instead.

It takes a high degree of courage to go into battle, knowing full well there’s a chance of imminent death.  It takes an even higher degree of courage to face the certainty of death for the sake of one’s cause.

So on this day of celebration on behalf of Norway’s constitution—the second oldest in the world—let us honor those who selflessly and willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to protect that constitution.

Jeg hilser deg,** Messrs. Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and the many who preceded you, and those that followed in your wake.

[* = This passage is found only in the newly edited 2016 version of Odd Nansen’s diary.]

[** = “I salute you”]

Syttende Mai: 17 May


Today Norwegians everywhere celebrate Syttende Mai (literally 17th May), the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution on May 17, 1814, in Eidsvoll, Norway.

Typically, Norwegians mark Syttende Mai with celebrations and festivities—parades, feasts, etc.  I suspect this year’s activities will be much more subdued, if held at all.  More likely the celebration will be virtual in most areas. I had had a full slate of appearances scheduled for May 14—19 at Sons of Norway lodges and other venues in such places such as Grand Forks and Fargo ND, Thief River Falls, Red Wing, St Cloud, Minneapolis and Austin, MN.

All cancelled (or rather, postponed until 2021).

It’s probably no coincidence that the great Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl started one of his famous expeditions—the RA II voyage, on May 17, 1970, departing Morocco in a papyrus sailing craft.  Fifty-seven days and 4,000 miles later he arrived safely in the Barbados.  A true adventurer and a man in the mold of  Fridtjof Nansen, Heyerdahl made his reputation sailing the Kon Tiki raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947.

One of Heyerdahl’s crew members on the Kon Tiki was Knut Haugland, who participated in the famous raid on the heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway. Even the general in charge of Germany’s military occupation of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, later described the raid as “the finest coup I have seen in this war.”  Many books have been written about the daring attack, most recently The Winter Fortress, by Neal Bascomb, which I reviewed in the pages of The Norwegian American (here).

Speaking of World War II, whose end in Europe we recently celebrated, I’ll close this essay with an observation made by M.R.D. Foot, a British intelligence officer during the war, and the official historian of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE.  Winston Churchill conceived the SOE to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance throughout occupied Europe.  During the war it employed almost 13,000 people from every occupied country and every conceivable background, men and women.  [I’ve previously written about some Norwegian members of the SOE here and here.]

This is what Foot had to say in his definitive history of the SOE:

“One thing, besides their courage, distinguished the agents sent into Norway for SOE: their toughness.  Several times over, they stood up to conditions of hardship that would make most city men not merely wilt, but die: Jan Baalstrud, who lay wounded in his sleeping-bag, without food or drink, in the snow for six nights and days, and survived, may stand as an example for several more.”

So, to my rightfully proud Norwegian friends on this 17th of May, I raise a (virtual) glass and toast your famous day: Skål!

Upcoming Events


Book Signings

  • October 20, 2023: Institute for Learning in Retirement, New Haven, CT
  • October 23, 2023: Institute for Learning in Retirement, Bergen, NJ
  • October 24, 2023: The Adult School, Harding Township, NJ
  • October 30, 2023: Osher Lifelong Learning, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
  • November 4, 2023: Georgetown University, Washington, DC
  • November 30, 2023: The Lanier Library, Tryon, NC
  • December 10, 2023: Sons of Norway, Myrtle Beach, SC
  • January 23, 2024: Hamden Public Library, Hamden, CT *
  • February 9, 2024: Lifelong Learners, Norwalk, CT
  • February 11, 2024: Shalom Club, Monroe, NJ
  • March 12, 2024: The Bigelow Center, Fairfield, CT
  • May 5, 2024: Hadassah Stonebridge, Monroe, NJ
  • June 2, 2024: Yiddish Club, Monroe, NJ
  • * = Virtual

People are talking

"Timothy Boyce captivated a larger than usual, attentive and appreciative audience with his spellbinding presentation of Odd Nansen and his World War II diary. He brilliantly demonstrated Odd Nansen’s will to survive while also helping others. A remarkable tale presented in an informative and fascinating way by a truly engaging speaker."

- Audun Gythfeldt, President
Sons of Norway Nor-Bu Lodge, Rockaway, NJ

For more posts please see our archives.


On This Date

< 2023 >
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history