Knut Haugland: A real-life adventure story

He fought the Nazis. He braved the Pacific. And he hated being called a hero. Jonathan Brown looks at the extraordinary career of Knut Haugland, the last Kon-Tiki survivor

Adventure stories rarely come more epic than that of Knut Haugland, the Norwegian resistance fighter who died on Christmas Day at the age of 92. His exploits were already the stuff of legend even before he joined Thor Heyerdahl's crew aboard his balsa wood raft, Kon-Tiki. Together they not only conquered the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean using only the most primitive of technologies – but in doing so, they helped rejuvenate the crushed spirit of human endeavour in the bleak aftermath of the Second World War.

A heavily decorated commando who escaped three times from the clutches of the Nazis, his bravery and endurance gave rise to one of the most enduring legends of the Second World War – one retold in spectacular style in a Hollywood movie.

Yesterday Haugland's successor as director of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, where thousands flock each year to relive the optimism and excitement of that intrepid voyage, announced that the former radio operator had succumbed to natural causes in a city hospital, closing the final chapter on an extraordinary life.

Haugland's death, following that of Heyerdahl himself in 2002, marks the passing of the last of the six-man crew that set sail from Callao in Peru in April 1947, bound several thousand nautical miles for the far-flung islands of Polynesia based on little more than an anthropological hunch. That journey set a new benchmark for modern adventurers, spawning an international best-selling book published in 66 languages and an Oscar-winning film in which Haugland played himself. It also helped popularise Heyerdahl's passionately held belief that the great oceans had been highways and not barriers for the movement of ancient seafaring civilisations.

Haugland's role aboard the Kon-Tiki was that of radio operator, keeping the outside world aware of the raft's stately progress during the long drift westwards on the currents off South America. He had trained in the technology before the war and fought against the invading German forces until Hitler's troops overran Norway in 1940. Under occupation the then 23-year-old gave the impression of having settled down as an Oslo factory worker but was in fact a major figure in the Norwegian resistance movement. His first brush with the Nazi authorities came in August 1941 when he was arrested but escaped. In exile, he joined the Norwegian Independent Company, a celebrated band of patriotic Nordic fighters assembled under the auspices of the newly-formed British Special Operations Executive which was planning raids in occupied northern Europe. Key to the British strategy was the establishment of a network of radio sets and operators allowing for the co-ordination of anti-Nazi operations.

The most famous of these became known as the Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage – an ambitious raid on the Norsk Hydro Rjukan plant at Vermork. The operation provided the sensational plot line for Anthony Mann's 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. Appropriately enough it was being broadcast once again on the BBC yesterday as news of Haugland's death was announced.

Yet Haugland was always unhappy with the depiction of events in the film and particularly the use of the word hero. "I never use that word about myself or my friends. We just did a job," he said in one of his last interviews to mark the 60th anniversary of the raid. "Forty-one men were killed and it could have been avoided. Because of the loss of life you shouldn't glorify the story."

The plan of action grew out of Allied fears that the Nazis were preparing to build their own atomic bomb. One of the key components in the production process was deuterium oxide, otherwise known as heavy water. The hydro plant at Vermork provided the Germans with a ready supply as a by-product of local fertilizer production capable of manufacturing 12 tons of the stuff a year. Before the war the French had carried away much of the reserves but while the hydro plant was still operable the threat remained.

In November 1942 a forward party of four local resistance fighters, including Haugland, was parachuted onto the Norwegian wilderness from where they would ski to a base close to the plant. It was their task to report back to the British after memorising the blueprint of the facility. This first phase was codenamed Operation Grouse and was achieved successfully. But the second phase – Operation Freshman – was a disaster. Despite the harshness of the Nordic terrain and savage weather, the British planned to land two gliders packed with Royal Engineers and members of the 1st Parachute Regiment on a frozen lake. They took off from Wick in Caithness pulled by Halifax bombers. One plane and both gliders crashed with much loss of life. The crew that were not killed outright were interrogated by the Gestapo before being put to death.

The failure not only alerted the Germans to the importance of the heavy water site, but also consigned the Norwegian advance party to a gruelling winter on the remote Hardanger Plateau where they were forced to endure temperatures of minus 20F. Food was so short they resorted to eating the contents of a reindeer's stomach. Haugland's job was to keep in contact with the British using a radio he had fashioned from a stolen fishing rod and an old car battery. Each morning at 1am he would make contact, often unable to control the chattering of his teeth.

The final phase of the sabotage began in February 1943. Named after SOE head Sir Charles Hambro's favourite grouse shooting moor, Operation Gunnerside saw a further six Norwegian commandos parachuted into the target area. Luck played its part and the two groups were united, launching their assault on the now heavily mined and floodlit plant. To bypass the exposed bridge which led to the plant they waded through snow and forded an icy river before scaling a sheer ravine side to reach their target via an old railway line. In the end the cells producing the heavy water were blown up without a shot being fired. The Norwegians made their way back to the plateau undetected, leaving behind a British gun to divert suspicion from the local resistance, including the mole working inside the hydro plant.

Three thousand Germans were involved in the hunt for the saboteurs and though it was revealed that the Nazi high command had not in fact been planning to build a bomb, the operation came to be regarded as a triumph of its kind.

After surviving this, the perils of the Pacific held little fear for Haugland. He had first met Heyerdahl at a military training camp in Britain in 1944 where he had fled once more after another close scrape with the Gestapo. Sufficiently impressed with the anthropologist's powerful personality and controversial theories on Polynesian migration patterns, he agreed to join the expedition, taking a break from a military career which was to see him rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring from his position as head of the Norwegian Resistance Museum in 1983. In 1947, the desire to sail across the Pacific baffled many in a world still mourning the deaths of thousands of mariners who lost their lives in oil-choked seas during the war. Yet few could resist the spirit of resurgent individualism and heroic adventure which the Kon-Tiki project embodied, even if many were baffled by Heyerdahl's devotion to the idea that New World mariners had populated Polynesia from the east rather than the west.

The raft itself was named after a mythical seafarer who, according to the Aymara Indians of Lake Titicaca in modern-day Bolivia, had set sail over the horizon never to be seen again. Despite the reliance on primitive technology – the raft was built by the men on the dockside based on drawings dating back to the time of the conquistadores – the expedition allowed itself the luxury of a hand-cranked radio. Haugland spent much of the 101 days at sea briefing the outside world. The voyage came to a halt when the vessel was grounded on a reef off Raroia Island, part of the Tuamotu group, some 3,770 nautical miles from the Peruvian coast. They were eventually rescued from the tiny islet after several days, and taken back to Tahiti by a French schooner. An expedition which included Heyerdahl's grandson duplicated the voyage in 2006.