Posts tagged WWII

VE Day in Europe: May 8, 1945

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VE Day

Seventy-five years ago today World War II ended in Europe.  Hitler was dead, and a devastated Germany surrendered unconditionally.

In his diary for that day William L. Shirer wrote: “All day I have had to rub my eyes to believe it; to realize that this is really the end of the nightmare that began for me . . . five and a half years ago.  It seems a long time—ages—and some twenty-five million human beings who were alive on that day and relatively happy have perished, slaughtered on the battlefield, wiped out by bombs, tortured to death in the Nazi horror camps.”

Although the end of the war in Europe is quite clear, when did it all actually begin?

Most conventional answers focus on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But would Hitler have invaded Poland without securing his southern flank, which he accomplished on March 15, 1939 when he marched into Czechoslovakia? Would he have marched on Czechoslovakia if he hadn’t already seized Austria in March 1938?  Does the date go back even further—to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty?

I would submit that the date may in fact be even earlier than all that: to January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  After all, Hitler had laid out his plans for all the world to see (and read) in Mein Kampf, published in 1925.  It’s all there: Germany’s need for Lebensraum in the East; his hatred of the Jews.  Hitler made no secret of his ultimate plans when and if he achieved a position of power.

And while much attention is focused on every conceivable aspect of the “hot” war (1939—1945), far less is paid to its crucial antecedents.

Peter Fritzsche, one of my favorite historians, has just written an in-depth study of Hitler’s start in 1939 in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, Basic Books (2020).  As Fritzsche is quick to point out early on, “[In 1933] Europe suddenly slipped from the firm footing of a postwar era into the anxious vertigo of a prewar one.”

In his latest book, Professor Fritzsche attempts to answer a conundrum that lies at the heart of one of the strangest socio-political developments of the Twentieth Century. Namely, how were Hitler and the Nazis able, in a bitterly polarized country; in a country where opposition parties consistently outpolled them; in a country where the Nazis were in fact losing popular support—how did Hitler, within a mere 100 days, so solidify his hold on the nation that all dissent was effectively eliminated and the country stood almost wholeheartedly behind his program?

As Fritzsche explains, it’s complicated, and this blog can hardly do justice to his deep analysis.

Fritzsche first makes clear that Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on January 30 was by no means preordained.  Just two months earlier, in the November 1932 national elections, the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, and the Communist Party, together received more votes than the Nazis, whose share of the national total actually slipped, from 37% to 33%.  But the right-wing, anti-Weimar parties were united, whereas the anti-fascist parties were not.

Even so, it was only on the morning of January 30 that the leaders of the nationalist, right wing factions each concluded that the appointment of Hitler was the only way to establish authoritarian rule, and destroy the hated Weimar Republic.  This desire outweighed even their fear that they would be unable to tame him.

Once in power, the Nazis used a combination of consent and coercion—push and pull—to meld German society into a united whole.  Many Germans, tired of the political and economic uncertainly which had characterized Germany since 1919, were beguiled by Hitler’s program, and the vision of a new Germany he offered.

In End of a Berlin Diary, Shirer relates an interrogation by US Forces of Hanna Reitsch conducted shortly after Germany’s surrender.  Reitsch had achieved notoriety during the war as a female test pilot and aeronautical expert.  Even in retrospect Reitsch continued to believe Hitler’s initial aims were worthy.  “Hitler ended his life as a criminal against the world,” she confessed, but quickly added, “he did not begin that way.  At first his thoughts were only of how to make Germany healthy again.”

Where consent failed, there was always the threat of coercion.  Armed with near dictatorial powers following the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Nazis soon forced the independent press to toe the party line.  At the same time the compliant nationalist press pursued its goal of the destroying the republic, “which meant the destruction of fact, morality and law.” Any underground movement soon fell afoul of impromptu concentration camps, where the violence meted out was not primarily to extract information but to break the spirit of the resisters, and to cause suffering rather than death.

The Nazis also promoted solidarity within its growing ranks, ironically, by artfully engaging in the politics of division, of exclusion and inclusion.  The Jews were the first to be excluded, via boycotts, etc., and no one could be neutral.  To help a Jew was to be anti-German. Next came the Social Democrats.  To associate with a Social Democrat was to be a traitor, and a traitor could not be a friend.  Better then to accept the inevitable, and even embrace it, than to object, and thus stand out in the crowd.  In fact, it was not enough to keep quiet—one had to denounce the enemy.  When Hitler belittled Weimar, and those associated with it, in his speeches, his audiences cried out “Hang them.”

And so, in an exceptionally rapid and comprehensive way, German society became fascist.  As Hanna Reitsch’s comments above show, the country was soon convinced that the coming of Hitler promised a brighter future for Germany.

But as Professor Fritzsche makes clear, the conservative grandees who coalesced behind Hitler on that fateful morning of January 30, 1933, in their eager ambition to destroy Weimar by any means possible, made one fatal mistake, a mistake that they would only come to fully realize when Germany lay in utter ruin on May 8, 1945:

“they had made a pact with the devil.”

Civilian Lives in War: The Role of Luck

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Civilian casualties in war have existed for as long as war itself—it is happening today in Syria and elsewhere as we speak. World War II, the most violent cataclysm ever, took civilian deaths to new heights.

For example, 77 years ago today, Great Britain experienced what would prove to be the worst single loss of civilian life in the war.  At 8:17 pm on March 3, 1943, air-raid sirens sounded in London.  By now Londoners were well acquainted with such air raids, and dutifully headed to their closest underground station, which also functioned as an air-raid shelter.  At Bethnal Green, one such station, a large crowd was heading down the unlit stairs when a woman with a small child tripped and fell near the bottom.  Others behind her fell over, and soon nearly 300 people were trapped in a tangled mass of squirming bodies.  Before it was over, 173 people (including the young child) were dead, crushed or asphyxiated; another 60 needed hospital attention.    

Meanwhile, 600 miles away, Odd Nansen was writing about another event that occurred closer to home on March 3 that had implications for Norway’s civilians.  [Nansen did not—and could not—write about the Bethnal Green disaster, as British authorities suppressed the news, fearing it would incentivize the Germans to continue air attacks and cause similar panics.]

Here’s what Nansen wrote in his diary, three days later, on March 6:

“The news is excellent—but still with no essential points. . . .  The Knaben molybdenum mines bombed to pieces the other day.  Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

In my diary annotations I explain that the Knaben mines were of vital strategic importance to the war.  Knaben was the only molybdenum mine still operating in Europe and molybdenum is a critical alloy used in hardening steel.  It was only natural that the Allies would seek to deny Germany use of the site.

At the 2019 Norsk Høstfest, a gentleman approached my table, and introduced himself as Knut Gjovik.  Turns out that Knut’s father, Leiv Gjovik, was the foreman of the Knaben mine.  In fact, working at the mine was something of a family affair: Leiv’s brother, also named Knut Gjovik, was an interpreter for Russian POWs working there, and young Knut’s maternal uncle, Lars Knaben, was the mine’s assayer.

Young Leiv Gjovik and his wife Anna before the war.

Given the mine’s strategic importance, it didn’t take much imagination to figure that it was on the Allies’ hit list.  But how would the Allies strike?  Sabotage?  Aerial bombing?  And when?

Ultimately, the British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) ruled out sabotage; bombing it would have to be.  On March 3, 1943, ten British de Havilland Mosquito bombers, manned by Norwegian crews, attacked.  The British after-action report concluded the raid was a success: the mines “were completely put out of action,” the damages estimated to be between “two and three million kroner.”   The New York Times cited officials who considered Knaben “of greater economic and industrial importance . . . than any other target in Norway.”

The attack on Knaben, Marc

The bombing of Knaben

The after-action summary included an additional fact: “It is reported that the German mine manager and 17 Norwegians were killed.”  Where was Leiv Gjovik? On the morning of the attack, Leiv, who apparently hadn’t missed a day of work in over two years, didn’t feel right and so called in sick.  He was thus was spared, while his entire crew was wiped out.  Did he know something?  Was he in fact in the Resistance?  Was it divine intervention, as Anna believed?  Or was he just plain lucky?  To this day even his son is not totally sure.  Leiv was subsequently interrogated at length by the Germans, but nothing ever came of it.

One thing is certain: had Leiv Gjovik reported for work as usual, he, too, would likely have been added to the swelling ranks of World War II’s civilian dead, and I never would have been able to calmly discuss Odd Nansen, or the Knaben raid, with his son.  Such are the vagaries of war.

Following the war, a monument was erected to the victims of the Knaben raid.

*March 3 continued to be an ill-omened date for civilians.  Two years later, on March 3, 1945, fifty British bombers attacked a V-2 launch site located near The Hague in Holland.  They missed the target and instead dropped their loads in a residential area more than a mile away.  The result: over 500 Dutch civilians dead and 20,000 homeless—including the Dutch resistance fighter who had provided the tip.

**Photos of Leiv Gjovik and of the Knaben Memorial generously supplied by Knut Gjovik.

A Memorial Day Remembrance

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Capt. Robert M. Losey

I don’t generally recycle old blogs I’ve previously written, but in some cases I will make an exception.  Two years ago on Memorial Day I wrote about Capt. Robert M. Losey, the first U.S. serviceman to be killed in World War II—it happened in Norway.  The full story can be found here.

The Katyn Massacre: A Mystery within a Riddle

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From Odd Nansen’s dairy, Thursday, July 9, 1942:

“At dinnertime I was called down for questioning in the Vermittlung [registration office].  It was Herold who did the questioning.  My entire life was unrolled, from the cradle to the present day. . . .  Clearly the point was just to get a résumé of my whole career and make it look—in its entirety—like a menace to the Third Reich.  I was confronted with a good-sized collection of “anti-German” remarks I’ve made throughout the years in lectures and articles on the refugee question. . . . I felt positively flattered by so much attention.

He confronted me with things I was supposed to have said to one of the drivers at Grini. [For example, that] I didn’t believe in the Russian atrocities they were using as publicity.  Katyn, etc.”

That single word, “Katyn,” is the subject of today’s blog.

On this date 76 years ago, the Nazis stunned the world with a major propaganda coup.  Official Nazi radio announced on April 13, 1943 that the remains of thousands of Polish prisoners had been found, all shot in the back of the head, and buried neatly in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk.

Katyn Forest

German forces quickly overran Smolensk following the start of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941.  Eventually, news of the massacre reached German occupation forces in the area, leading to the discovery and exhumation of the graves.

Despite clear and convincing proof of Soviet culpability (Stalin was intent on destroying anyone who might resist Soviet efforts to control Poland after the war), Moscow actually blamed the Germans for the massacre, a position they staunchly maintained throughout the war. The Polish Government-in-Exile, which had earlier agreed to ally with the Soviets (despite their invasion of Poland in September 1939) in a common struggle against Germany, now demanded an impartial investigation by the International Red Cross.  Stalin refused to allow the Red Cross to investigate, and broke off relations with the Polish government.

This left the United States and Great Britain on the horns of a dilemma.  While it was quickly apparent to all that the Germans were entirely correct—the massacre had been perpetrated by Soviet forces, the Soviet Union was also clearly bearing the brunt of the Allied fighting against the Wehrmacht; the opening of the so-called Second Front (i.e., D-Day) was still over a year away.  So the Allies deferred to Realpolitik, and kept their well-founded suspicions to themselves, an awkward silence that the Nazi propaganda machine tried to take full advantage of.

Nazi Poster

The official Soviet position remained one of steadfast denial for 50 years after the fact.  With glasnost ushering in a new policy of transparency, the Soviet Government under Mikhail Gorbachev finally acknowledged what had been an open secret for decades.  On April 13, 1990, it officially admitted to the murder of thousands of Polish officers and others, all at the express order of Stalin. It is believed that almost 22,000 Polish nationals, primarily army officers but also including doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers, were killed at Katyn and similar execution sites.*

Mystery solved.

But here’s the riddle: Although there were rumors of Soviet atrocities circulating in the Katyn region soon after the murders took place in April 1940—it’s awfully hard to shoot thousands of prisoners and bury them, even in a remote forest, without the locals knowing something about it—almost all the accounts of the event maintain that German authorities only learned of the massacre in late 1942 or early 1943.  Senior German officials only heard the news in March or April 1943.

And yet.

From Nansen’s diary, it is clear that he was sufficiently knowledgeable about the event to discuss it openly with a German soldier working at the Grini camp in Oslo in July 1942.  How did Nansen come across this intelligence, fully nine months prior to the German radio broadcast in April 1943?  In occupied Norway at the time, the Nazis controlled the airwaves.  The news could not have come from the BBC (or, as Nansen refers to it in his diary, the “west wind”) as they, too, were unaware of the story, and in any event buried almost all mention of it even after April 1943 lest they antagonize their ally.

So, while the mystery of the real perpetrators of the Katyn massacre has now long since been put to rest (despite some deniers in Russia today), the riddle of Odd Nansen’s awareness of this key episode of World War II, so many months prior to its public dissemination, remains an enduring riddle which we may never be able to unravel. But at the least, subsequent histories of Katyn may need to revise their timeline to account for an earlier public awareness of the event than traditionally has been the case.  Yet another reason why Odd Nansen’s diary is such an important historical document.

[* The Katyn tragedy claimed yet more victims in 2010.  On April 10 of that year, an airplane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 87 other Polish politicians and military officers crashed just outside the Smolensk airport, killing all on board.  The purpose of the trip was to attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacre.]

Another Astonishing WWII Holocaust Diary Surfaces

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From the November 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/astonishing-holocaust-diary-hidden-world-70-years-resurfaced-america-180970534/?fbclid=IwAR0dSgjl9xk0oeJLVivob9K4hP1azB9iJeJ8psQg5ORxeoOwsvyR_ugWR94

Joachim Ronneberg (1919–2018)

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Joachim Ronneberg

Joachim Ronneberg, the last surviving member of Operation Gunnerside, the daring raid to destroy the heavy water facility at Vemork, Norway, died on Sunday, October 21.  Ronneberg was 99.  Obituaries from the New York Times and the BBC, respectively, are here and here.

Norwegian World War II hero Joachim Ronneberg, 93, attends a wreath-laying ceremony in his honor at the SOE agents monument in central London on April 25, 2013, for leading the SOE operation Gunnerside where Norwegian soldiers destroyed the German occupied Heavy Water Plant in Vemork, Norway.  (ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2016 I was asked by The Norwegian American to review The Winter Fortress, the latest in a string of books detailing Operation Gunnerside, written by Neal Bascomb.  The complete review is here.

It is worth quoting at length the final two paragraphs of my review:

“The members of Operations Grouse, Freshman, Swallow, and Gunnerside and the team that sunk the ferry on Lake Tinnsjø never really knew why destroying heavy water was so important; they only knew that it had to be destroyed. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the Allies’ own atomic program meant that their feats could not be widely publicized during the war. The members were simply promised: “[Y]our actions will live in history for a hundred years to come.”

It’s a good bet that that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it is now almost 75 years [this was written in 2016] since the Grouse team first landed on the Vidda. They and their compatriots endured ferocious winter weather, near starvation, the constant threat of discovery, and even death, and yet their patriotism, courage, and fortitude in the face of all this still inspires worthy books such as The Winter Fortress. As the official historian of the SOE [Special Operations Executive], M.R.D. Foot, later observed: “If SOE had never done anything else, ‘Gunnerside’ would have given it claim enough on the gratitude of humanity.”

Humanity is indeed grateful, Joachim Ronneberg.  You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.

 

THE Tour (Part II): Postscript

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Seventy-seven years ago last Thursday (August 23, 1941), Per Birkevold, Hjalmar Svae and Bjorn Fraser began their ill-fated quest to steal a German boat and escape from Norway to England.  I have written about this episode in prior blogs (here and here).  I also wrote about the amazing coincidence of meeting Hjalmar Svae’s niece, Siri Svae Fenson, and Bjorn Fraser’s daughter, Helene Sobol, within days of each other (here).

Well, there’s yet more to the story.  After the war Svae ran a dancing school in Oslo, named, appropriately enough, Svae’s Dancing School.  Turns out that Helene Sobol, Fraser’s daughter, attended the very same dancing school.  Here’s a photo of Helene, age around 9, with her younger sister Jane, all dressed up in their finest ball dresses.

Courtesy Helene Sobol

What you cannot tell from the photo is that the two dresses shown were made by Helene’s father out of parachute silk! When Fraser’s death sentence was commuted, he volunteered to work in the prison tailor shop, where he learned—apparently quite well—his tailoring skills.  Siri Svae Fenson, Svae’s niece, remembers visiting her uncle’s dancing school as a child, and may even have unknowingly crossed paths with young Helene many years ago.

And wait, there’s still yet another interesting connection.  As mentioned in my earlier blog, Bjorn Fraser went on to a very successful career in the Norwegian Air Force.  In the early 1960s he commanded the Sola Air Base near Stavanger.  There he was visited, in 1964, by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, who was in the country to receive the Order of St. Olav, the only German ever to be so honored for her wartime heroics.  Zassenhaus, in her capacity as a “chaperone/watchdog,” accompanied clergy from the Seamen’s Church who were allowed to visit Norwegian prisoners.  While supposedly keeping an eye on the clergy, she was actually secretly smuggling food and vitamins into the prisoners, and keeping track of their exact location, allowing them to rescued in the “White Buses” operation at the end of the war.  Ten years later (1974) Hiltgunt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work by the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting).  I have written about Zassenhaus at more length here.

Courtesy Helene Sobol

In the above photo from the 1964 visit, Fraser stands to the far right; Zassenhaus stands next to him (his right, our left); Helene is the young woman in the white dress (fifth from the left); her mother is standing directly in front of her (to our right).

Thanks to Helene Sobol for the photos, and the additional insights.  Are there still more connections out there?? Stay tuned.

The Holy Trinity: A Bomb Story

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No, not that bomb story.  This doesn’t involve the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was successfully exploded (although there is, as we shall see, a tie-in to that matter as well).

No, this story involves the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, otherwise known as Charles Henry George Howard, or Charles Howard for short.  Most everyone, however, knew him as Mad Jack or Wild Jack.

Charles Howard

Charles quit college at 17 and ran away to sea, sailing around the world and earning tattoos on both arms.  [In today’s self-expressive age that doesn’t rate as much, but there were not many members of the peerage in the 1920s sporting such adornments.]  Upon his return to Great Britain he was commissioned in the Scots Guards but was soon asked to leave because of his “wild ways.”  For a while he tried his hand as a jackaroo on a sheep ranch in Australia, before returning to Great Britain again and earning a degree in chemistry and pharmacology from Edinburgh University.

World War II found the Earl of Suffolk serving as Liaison Officer to the French Ministry of Armaments, posted in Paris.  With the imminent fall of France in June 1940, the British were eager to spirit out of the country various assets important to the Allied cause, including important research scientists, diamonds, and most importantly, heavy water in the possession of France’s nuclear scientists.

Heavy water was initially considered crucial in the production of a nuclear chain reaction, and the French scientists’ precious supply had itself been previously spirited out of Norway (the only producer of heavy water) under the Gestapo’s very noses.  Possession of the world’s then entire supply of heavy water would allow the Allies to continue their experiments with uranium fission; its loss to the Germans would conversely have sped up their own research program.

And here’s where Mad Jack comes in.  He arrived in Bordeaux ahead of the Germans and was given the assignment of safely conveying the heavy water, scientists, and diamonds intact to England.  As Richard Ketchum describes it in his book The Borrowed Years 1938-1941: America on the Way to War:

“After a series of misadventures, [Hans] Halban, [Lew] Kowarski, and other colleagues from the Collège de France arrived with their families and the heavy water at Bordeaux, where they boarded the little British coaler SS Broompark and encountered a crew that might have emerged from Central Casting.  The man in charge—who knew exactly who the scientists were and what they had brought with them—was the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, a swashbuckling character with a thick mustache . . . wearing hunting boots and swinging a loaded hunting crop.  At his side, lighting his cigarettes, was his secretary, Miss Morden; hovering nearby was his chauffer, Fred Hards.”

Hedging his bets, Mad Jack, who stood 6’4”, built a raft which carried the heavy water and diamonds.  Were the ship to be attacked and sunk (and another vessel leaving Bordeaux at the same time was in fact sunk), the raft could be cut loose and its precious cargo saved.  In any event, the ship, which set sail on June 19, 1940, soon reached Falmouth in one piece.  Later that year Halban and Kowarski, with the help of the heavy water, proved a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was possible.  Mad Jack was commended in the House of Commons for “a considerable service . . . rendered to the Allied cause.”

SS Broompark, June 1940

[Note to my Norwegian friends: the skipper of the Broompark was Olaf Paulsen, born in Oslo (then Christiana) in 1878.  Broompark was torpedoed three months later (September 21, 1940) by German U-48, but Paulsen’s efforts saved the ship, for which he was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the British Government.  Broompark (under a different skipper) was again attacked on July 25, 1942, and this time sunk, by U-552.  Note to my American friends: U-552 was the same submarine that sunk the USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship lost in World War II (October 31, 1941).]

But Charles was just getting started.

A Bomb Disposal Squad At Work

Drawing on his scientific training, he now joined a bomb disposal squad, along with secretary Morden and chauffer Hards—the group now dubbed “the Holy Trinity.”  With what Winston Churchill would later describe in his magisterial memoir of the Second World War as “urbane and smiling efficiency,” the Holy Trinity proved their prowess, successfully defusing thirty-four unexploded bombs.  Mad Jack would closely examine each bomb, dictating notes all the while to Morden, with Hards standing by to assist, under the theory that others would learn from any mistake he might make, and not repeat it again.

Seventy-seven years ago today (May 12, 1941), on his thirty-fifth try, Charles’s luck ran out.

He had been asked to work on a 500-pound unexploded bomb which contained two separate fuses, a Type 17 and a Type 50.  Since intact fuses of these types were needed for instructional purposes for other bomb disposal units, and as these types were in short supply, he began his work on the 12th of May with Morden and Hards standing by.

In the cat-and-mouse game between Allied and Axis forces, the Germans began to booby-trap their own bombs, adding yet another detonator, hidden out of sight behind the fuse, which would set-off the bomb once the first fuse was withdrawn.  It is believed that the bomb in question held just such a booby-trap (most of the evidence having been destroyed).  All three members of the Holy Trinity were killed in the resulting explosion, as were eleven others standing nearby.

The twentieth Earl of Suffolk was 35 years-old.  He was survived by his Chicago-born ballet dancer wife, Mimi Forde-Pigott, and three sons.

In 1947 a stained-glass window was dedicated in Charles’s honor at the church of St. John the Baptist, Charlton, Wiltshire, where his remains had been buried.  On one panel is a poem, written by John Masefield, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, commemorating his death:

“He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing;

He felt the anguish in the hunted thing;

He dared the dangers which beset the guides;

Who lead men to the knowledge nature hides;

Probing and playing with the lightning thus;

He and his faithful friends met their death for us;

The beauty of a splendid man abides.”

Stained Glass Memorial, Charlton

Norway Invaded: A Fish(y) Tale

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King Haakon VII and Crown Prince Olaf, Molde, Norway

When we last left Norway in 1940 (here), it was reeling from an invasion by German forces which began on April 9, 1940.

The Germans had achieved complete surprise, and quickly seized key ports and airports.  Practically the only thing that went well for the defenders was the sinking of the German heavy cruiser Blücher, which was steaming up the Oslo Fjord on the morning of April 9 when well-placed artillery and torpedo fire from Oscarsborg Fortress sank her.  The mission of the Blücher had been to seize the capital, Oslo, and the ship’s destruction gave the King, government officials, the Parliament (Storting) and, crucially, Norway’s gold supply (23 tons worth), enough time to flee Oslo by train.

Initially German officials, led by envoy Curt Bräuer, tried to negotiate with King Haakon VII, to convince him that resistance was futile, and that it was in Norway’s interest to capitulate—much like what had occurred in Denmark, where the king and government capitulated without almost a shot being fired.  By April 10, however, the 67 year-old King, with the support of his government, rejected any surrender, and elected to fight on:

“In this most difficult time that my people and my country find themselves in . . . I ask all Norwegian women and men to do all they can to save freedom and independence for our dear fatherland.  God preserve Norway.”

King Haakon VII

From then on, the mission of German forces was to capture or kill Haakon, and he was hunted through the interior of Norway, always staying one step ahead of his pursuers.

By late April, the King elected to move to Molde, Norway, a small seaport town, but with a large and busy harbor, to set up his government until Trondheim was recaptured.  [By this time, British, French and Polish forces had landed in Norway to help drive the invaders out. The King—and almost all Norwegians—were confident they would succeed.  Instead, the outgunned and outmanned Allies failed miserably and eventually withdrew.]  The King arrived in Molde on April 23—seventy-eight years ago tonight.

I have previously written about my friend, Siri Svae Fenson (here), whose uncle, Hjalmar Svae, attempted to escape to England during the war, was captured and sentenced to death, only to make a daring escape from prison, and ultimately to freedom in Sweden, and later England and Canada.

Well, the Svae saga is not quite over yet.

While in Molde, King Haakon stayed at a villa on the outskirts of town called Glomstuen.  Glomstuen was the home of Jacob Preuthun (the regional forest director), and his wife, Mathilde Petersen.  Mathilde Petersen, it turns out, was Siri Fenson’s great-aunt.

Glomstuen

By April 25th, German intelligence was aware of Haakon’s presence in Molde, and began an unrelenting bombing campaign targeting the city.  As Tim Greve, the King’s biographer, notes in Haakon VII of Norway: “Undoubtedly the object was to kill the King, the Crown Prince and as many of the [government] ministers as possible.” [Incidentally, Tim Greve was Odd Nansen’s son-in-law, and the late husband of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve.]

The idea of the royal party dashing from Glomstuen into the adjacent snow-covered forest to escape the near constant German raids wreaking destruction on Molde is more than a bit ironic, inasmuch as Kaiser Wilhelm himself had visited Molde each summer prior to World War I, where he was a guest at none other than Glomstuen!

The picture shown at the top of this blog, of the King consulting with his son beside a large birch tree—one of the most iconic pictures of Norway during the invasion—was taken at Glomstuen.  There is a plaque nearby commemorating this famous scene.

Although Glomstuen itself was never hit, by April 28 Molde was practically in ruins, and it was clear that Haakon would have to leave. The following day the British cruiser HMS Glasgow, with an escort of two destroyers, arrived in port to transport the King, Crown Prince, cabinet members, and gold supply to Tromsø, 600 miles farther north.  “By nightfall Molde was a roaring bonfire,” writes historians Hans Christian Adamson and Per Klem in Blood on the Midnight Sun.  The royal party and the government made good their escape.  But by then Molde, a quaint, idyllic town whose lush gardens and parks had earned it the nickname The Town of Roses, was almost 70% destroyed.

Siri Fenson’s mother relates one particularly comic episode in what was an otherwise bleak time in Norway’s history.  One day, the air raid sirens sounded just as a fish gratin had been placed in the oven at Glomstuen.  The cook, named Kristine, was out of action, having broken her leg in an earlier sprint to the woods.  So, Mathilde, fearing for the fate of the untended fish gratin, left her hiding place, dodged the attacks, dashed back into the house and rescued the savory dish.

After the war, Mathilde was invited to an audience at the royal castle in Oslo.  There, King Haakon, after having just lived five years in exile in England, posed a question which apparently had haunted him all that time: “Tell me, Mrs. Preuthun—how did you manage to save the fish gratin?”

April 15, 1945: Roosevelt Buried

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

On this date in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving president in U.S history, was buried at Springwood, his family home in Hyde Park, New York.  Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, GA at 3:35 pm. on April 12 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  He was 63.

Roosevelt, who shook off a debilitating illness which left him at age 39 totally and permanently paralyzed from the waist down, had the burden of guiding the country through two of the most cataclysmic events in its history: the Great Depression and World War II.  Through it all the U.S. emerged stronger, more prosperous, and freer, than at any time in its history.

Like Lincoln, Roosevelt died within weeks of realizing the final fruits of the war he had led, with “the unbounded determination of [its] people” since its inception.  Like Churchill, his contemporary (whom I have written about here), he was a complex man, whose complexities, accomplishments and contradictions have fascinated and challenged historians and biographers ever since.   In all events, historians and political scientists consistently rank Roosevelt, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln as the country’s three greatest presidents.

On the centennial of FDR’s birth, George Will wrote:

“Anyone who contemplates this century without shivering probably does not understand what is going on. But Franklin Roosevelt was, an aide said, like the fairy-tale prince who did not know how to shiver. Something was missing in FDR. . . .   But what FDR lacked made him great. He lacked the capacity even to imagine that things might end up badly. He had a Christian’s faith that the universe is well constituted and an American’s faith that history is a rising road. . . .  Radiating an infectious zest, he did the most important thing a President can do: he gave the nation a hopeful, and hence creative, stance toward the future.”

Roosevelt almost never had a chance to fulfill his historic role.  On February 15, 1933, between his first election to the presidency and his inauguration, Roosevelt gave an impromptu speech in Miami, Florida.  In the crowd was Giuseppe Zangara, who fired off five shots at the president-elect.  FDR was not hit, but Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was standing next to him, was fatally shot, and four other bystanders injured.

Winston Churchill almost met a similar fate as well, when, on December 13, 1931, while visiting New York City, he exited a cab in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and looking left, saw no traffic.  He forgot that in America, unlike England, cars drive on the right.  He proceeded to step in front of an oncoming car approaching from the right and was hit and dragged several yards. [Churchill later wrote: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.”]  He escaped with a serious scalp wound and two cracked ribs.

The great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was fully mindful of these two events when he later observed:

“One might invite those who believe that individuals make no difference to history to tell us what would have happened to the world a decade later had the automobile killed Winston Churchill on Fifth Avenue and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in Miami.  Fortunately, the two men survived to find each other and to save us all.”

Recently I described the German invasion of Norway, beginning with a famous speech from FDR (here).  Norway was immensely grateful for both the inspiration Roosevelt gave to resistance fighters in Norway with his remarks, and for the hospitality the Roosevelt family extended to Crown Princess Märtha (the King’s daughter-in-law) and her family.   She and her children (including the current King of Norway, Harald V) initially stayed in the White House upon arriving in the country, and lived out much of the war in nearby Maryland, and where she was a frequent guest at the White House.

After the war, the Norwegian government dedicated a statue to Roosevelt, prominently displayed in Oslo harbor, adjacent to City Hall, close to Akershus Castle and other important landmarks of World War II.  Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication.

Statue of FDR in Oslo

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  • July 21, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • July 23, 2020: Del Webb at Grande Dunes, Myrtle Beach, SC (Virtual)
  • August 18, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • August 25, 2020: Montgomery County Library, Potomac, Md (Virtual)
  • October 7, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • October 30, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
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  • November 5, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • February 5, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC,
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • SPRING 2021: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • SPRING 2021: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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