Posts tagged Vemork

Justice at Nuremberg–or Not?

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“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 Hermann 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 executed pursuant to the so-called Commando Order, 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.

The Vemork Raid: February 27/28, 1943

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Odd Nansen’s Diary, March 6, 1943:

“The news was excellent—but still with no essential points.  There has been sabotage in Vemork.  The heavy-water works are destroyed.  Four Norwegian-speaking men in English uniform got away. . . .   Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

Seventy-nine years ago tonight, eleven British-trained Norwegian saboteurs descended upon the heavily guarded Vemork hydroelectric plant.  Their mission: to destroy all extant stocks of heavy water, as well as the accompanying electrolysis machinery used in heavy water production.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant

Did the members of Operation Gunnerside understand the importance of their mission?  Probably not.  To do so would have required an advanced degree in nuclear physics.  They were simply told that their mission was critical to the war, and, if successful, would be written about long afterward.

The Vemork hydroelectric plant—the world’s largest when it came on line in 1911, was originally dedicated to the production of fertilizer.  Only years later was it discovered that Vemork’s abundance of both water and electric power could be employed in the production of “heavy-water,” so-called due to the presence of an additional neutron in the H2O molecule.

Even then, heavy water was something of a mystery: what was it any good for?  No one really knew.  It was only when nuclear physicists discovered that heavy water made an excellent “moderator,” controlling the process of nuclear fission—and thus enabling the construction of a nuclear reactor and, ultimately, an atomic bomb, that the true value of Vemork’s unique heavy water plant was recognized.

With their invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, control of Vemork passed into German hands.  Soon, it was apparent that German demands for ever increasing amounts of heavy water from Vemork signaled that they were pursuing their own research on an atomic bomb.  To the Allied Powers this possibility was unacceptable.

The first British Special Operation Executive (SOE) attempt to sabotage Vemork (Operation Freshman), which took place on November 19, 1942, was a total  failure, resulting in the loss of 41 men.  Equally concerning, Operation Freshman alerted the Nazi occupiers of the Allies’ intentions, leading to increased security at the plant: additional guards, searchlights, mine fields, etc.

Nevertheless, faced with such daunting obstacles, the Gunnerside team successfully scaled down a sheer, 660 ft. ravine, crossed a narrow river, and scaled back up the opposite side, to reach the remote ledge where the plant was located.  Entering the plant without detection, the demolition squad set delay fuses to allow time for escape.  All told, over 1,000lbs of heavy water, as well as associated equipment, were destroyed.  There were no casualties.

Recreation of the heavy water sabotage

Despite a search effort involving 3,000 German soldiers, none of the Norwegian saboteurs were caught, even though five members skied—in uniform—200 miles to safety in Sweden (two escaped to Oslo and four remained in the area for additional resistance work).

The SOE later considered Operation Gunnerside the most successful act of sabotage in WWII, and the German military commander of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, called it “The finest coup I have seen in this war.”

Joachim Rønneberg, the last surviving member of the Gunnerside operation, passed away on October 12, 2018, age 99.  I have previously written about Rønneberg here.  With Norway’s medal performance in the Winter Olympics still fresh in our minds, it is worth noting how Rønneberg described his 200-mile ski escape to Sweden: “The best skiing weekend I ever had.”

Operation Gunnerside members being congratulated by King Haakon VII. Rønneberg is on the far left.

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