Birger Stromsheim: One of the ‘Heroes of Telemark’


Birger Stromsheim was one of the Norwegian team that helped to thwart Nazi attempts to construct an atomic bomb. With five of his countrymen, Stromsheim was parachuted in February 1943 into the Telemark region of southern Norway.

Trained by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), their mission was to blow up the Vemork Norsk hydro plant, in Rjukan. The facility produced the heavy water, or deuterium oxide, and was key to Nazi hopes of mastering the atomic chain reaction which would lead to a nuclear bomb.

The mission was code-named Operation Gunnerside and included four other Norwegian agents already in the country. The combined team launched their assault, on the night of 27 February 1943. An earlier mission to destroy the facility in 1942, code-named Operation Freshman, had ended in tragedy when four Norwegian commandos formed an advance team for 34 Royal Engineers. Bad weather caused crashes when the British were dropped into the target area in two Horsa gliders. Their orders were to destroy the plant and then make their escape to neutral Sweden. In fact, some of them were killed instantly, 14 survivors were captured and, although in British uniforms, were shot in accordance with Hitler’s notorious “commando order”.

On this occasion the team, led by 23-year-old lieutenant Joachim Rønneberg, included two other officers, and three NCOs, among them Stromsheim who, aged 31, was the oldest. Ronneberg later acknowledged that he looked up to sergeant Stromsheim, who was one of four explosives experts and a skilled skier who spoke good English and German. They faced a daunting task. Since Freshman the Germans had increased security at the plant with mines, floodlights, and more guards.

In any case, the terrain made the defences seem well-nigh impossible to breach. The plant was built on a thickly forested ravine, with Germans guarding the bridge that led to its entrance. It was decided that the team would climb down one side of the ravine, cross the icy River Maan, and make their way up the other side, following a railway track that led into the plant. They were helped a little by the bad weather which put the Germans off their guard.

Getting into the plant was as challenging. Ronneberg first tried through a basement door, without success. The brief from London had advised them to climb a stairway to a hole in the wall for the cable, and to follow the cable tunnel running below the ceiling of the ground floor of the plant. Ronneberg and Hans Storhaug entered in this way and took the guard by surprise. Stromsheim and two others broke a window to get in, but the German guards heard nothing above the powerful drone of the generators.

“Two of us mounted the explosive charges. The fuses were about two minutes long. I cut them down to 30 seconds and lit them,” Ronneberg explained. They were able to escape rapidly because he had a key. “The German guards had been put out of action, locked up in the guardhouse.”

Operation Gunnerside was considered successful. The entire stock of heavy water produced during the German occupation, over 500kg, was destroyed, along with equipment critical to operation of the electrolysis chambers. Although 3,000 German soldiers were dispatched to search the area for the commandos, all of them escaped; five of them skied 250 miles in snowstorms to Sweden, two proceeded to Oslo, where they helped by the underground, and four remained for further work with the resistance.

Birger Stromsheim was born in the Norwegian port of Aalesund and worked as a builder before the war. He and his wife Aase escaped by boat to the Shetlands in September 1941, to join the anti-Nazi resistance. Stromsheim was awarded the British Military Medal; the Norwegian St Olav Medal; the US Medal of Freedom; and the French Legion of Honour and Croix de Guerre.

Their exploits were dramatised in the film The Heroes of Telemark (1965), starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, which was criticised for departing from the facts and did not mention Stromsheim. In a later documentary, The Real Heroes of Telemark, which cleaved more closely to the truth, Stromsheim was interviewed. The story was also covered in the 1948 Franco-Norwegian film Kampen om tungtvannet, in which many of the original Norwegian commandos starred as themselves.

Birger Edwin Martin Stromsheim, commando: born Aalesund, Norway 11 October 1911; died Oslo, Norway 10 November 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all