The short life of Jens Christian Beck (An occasional series)


One of the advantages of annotating someone else’s work well after the fact is that I have the benefit of hindsight—lots of hindsight—something the writer (in my case, the diarist Odd Nansen), did not.  Like an omniscient god, I know, seventy years after From Day to Day was first written, what happened to many of the characters who passed through Nansen’s life while incarcerated in various concentration camps.  Some of those individuals when on to famous lives of their own after the war; many others were not so lucky.

In his diary entry of February 6, 1942, Nansen describes a day of confusion and tumult at Grini (his first concentration camp) — everyone has to move rooms, beds, trunks, “everything conceivable.” Why?  To make room for new prisoners being transferred from the prison ward of Ullevål hospital, located in downtown Oslo, following a particularly audacious prison escape.

On the night of February 2, two cars bearing Gestapo plates pulled up to the hospital and several agents stormed through its halls and corridors, produced the necessary certificates, badges, and forms, and demanded immediate custody of several sick resistance fighters, including a certain Jens Christian Beck.  When the chief nurse of the ward objected vigorously that the men were in no condition to be moved, she was met with the bellow: “Haben Sie nicht verstanden! Es ist ein Befehl!” [Haven’t you understood!  It is an order!]

Beck had been arrested the preceding October (after a comrade identified him under torture) and charged with organizing an armed resistance group in his hometown.  Under the circumstances he was in grave danger of being shot, and so he (and several others) had swallowed bacterial cultures (smuggled in by the Resistance) and became violently ill, resulting in his hospital stay.

The frightened hospital staff quickly rounded up the prisoners and turned them over to the intimidating, threatening visitors, who then sped off with their quarry.

Except that it was all an elaborate sham.

The “Gestapo officials” were in reality members of the Resistance, armed with German accents, German uniforms, fake documents, and plenty of chutzpah.

The Nazis were so incensed when they discovered the ruse that they immediately moved all such prisoners from the hospital to the confines of Grini, where the medical attention might be less than optimal, but where they could keep a much closer eye on their prey.

Jens Beck, meanwhile, harbored in a safe house in Oslo for a while, no doubt luxuriating in his freedom and exulting over his good fortune in The Great Deception.  Ultimately he was smuggled into Sweden, and from there traveled to England in late March 1942. True to his resistance roots, Beck immediately joined Company Linge, an elite company of Norwegian commandos, trained by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and named after Martin Linge, a Norwegian killed in late 1941 during a commando raid.

Beck trained assiduously.  His SOE personnel file describes him as five feet, nine and a half inches tall, of medium build, with dark brown hair and blue eyes and a “scarred nose.” His superior added that he was as “a quiet, unobtrusive type,” “of good character” who was “keen on his work.”  Beck learned to parachute, and in March 1943 attended Special Training School (STS) 7 for a course on industrial sabotage.  His first mission, slated for May 1, 1943, was scrubbed.  A second mission, four months later, on September 27, 1943, was also cancelled “until the next moon period.”

Parachute drops over Norway—then occupied by 350,000 German troops, or approximately one soldier for every ten inhabitants—were extremely dangerous and could only occur at night.  Navigation over a sparsely inhabited, blacked-out countryside, especially at low altitudes, was tricky.  Methods were primitive (map, compass and stopwatch) and highly dependent on cloudless skies and a bright moon.

Beck finally got his chance a few weeks later.  In the autumn of 1943 the Allied High Command had tasked the SOE with the destruction of Norway’s key railway crossings.   The result was “Operation Grebe.”  The plan called for three-man teams to parachute into Norway to sabotage rail bridges in central Norway.

Beck had now been in England for almost eighteen months—a lifetime for a determined young man—without having contributed anything meaningful to the liberation of his country. No doubt he feared yet another cancellation.  Would all his training ever be put to use?

On the night of October 10, 1943, conditions appeared just right, and Beck’s three-man team boarded a British bomber, while a second team loaded into another plane.  As darkness descended the two planes, observing radio silence, headed out for their target zone.

In the dark, Beck’s pilot thought he had reached the designated drop zone.  It was now or never.  To return was unthinkable. Beck and his two partners jumped.

Instead of landing over the correct spot, Beck and his partners were deposited over Rambergsjøen Lake, a remote body of water near the Swedish border.

Weighed down by well over one hundred pounds of gear and equipment, Beck hit the water and sank immediately.  Despite efforts then and after the war, Beck’s body was never found.  Both of his partners drowned as well (the second team all landed safely).  A memorial to the three men was later erected on the shores of Rambergsjøen Lake.

According to his file, Beck was presumed dead on October 13 when nothing had been heard from his team.   He was 23 at the time of his death.

Thus ended a military career, and a life, before it had really begun.  A life daringly snatched from the jaws of death once—in a manner worthy of a movie, or a novel, only to end in a dark, cold, watery tomb on his very first combat jump, his first real chance to strike against his occupiers.

Rest in peace Jens Christian Beck. You fought the good fight, you finished the race, you kept the faith.

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