Ex Libris: The Winter Fortress

The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb

Imagine the horror if Germany, under Adolf Hitler, had developed the atomic bomb first. In 1942, the Nazis were racing to be the first to produce this weapon. They possessed the scientists and the uranium but were lacking one key ingredient — heavy water. This product was manufactured in only one plant in the world located in a remote area of Norway. Norsk Hydro, a hydroelectric plant in Vemork, Norway, produced heavy water as a sideline business before the war. A by-product from creating nitrogen for fertilizer, heavy water initially had no market, and the plant actually closed heavy water production because of the lack of sales. However, the Nazis quickly forced it to restart after they captured Norway in 1940.

Leif Tronstad, a Norwegian scientist who worked closely with the plant in producing heavy water, narrowly escaped Norway and alerted the allies of Norsk Hydro’s importance. He also had inside information on how to sabotage the plant and destroy it. With his wife and two children still in Norway, Tronstad worked feverishly with the British military to develop a plan to neutralize the heavy water plant. The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb is the amazing tale of how halting Germany’s quest for the atom bomb was accomplished. 

Bombing raids on the plant were ruled out due to the high civilian casualties that would be incurred. In November 1942, the first attempt to destroy the plant was undertaken. The plan was to take two gliders with 15 men (British demolition troops) each, land at night in a remote spot, hike to Norsk Hydro, overwhelm the guards, and blow up the plant. This attempt ended badly with both gliders and one of the two planes crashing — and the saboteurs either killed or captured. 

Now alerted, the Germans reinforced defensive measures to protect the plant. Tronstad recruited a band of Norwegian patriots who had escaped to England and were itching to fight for their country. From this point the book takes the reader through the amazing and extensive efforts that the all-Norwegian team undertook to accomplish the mission. 

Winter Fortress reads like a spy novel and is hardly a dry historical account. Neal Bascomb does a wonderful job of bringing to life the key players in this high-stakes drama. These young Norwegians put their lives on the line to fight for their country and keep the nightmare of a Nazi atom bomb from coming to fruition. Secret nighttime parachute jumps, cross country skiing chase scenes, and close calls of detection keep readers on edge as the story unfolds. Even when the plant was disabled, a large shipment of heavy water was already on its way to Germany. The Norwegians now had the additional mission of sinking the ship carrying the heavy water before it left Norway.

Well-written, suspenseful, and informative, The Winter Fortress tells the little-known story of Norway’s finest hour and its indomitable spirit to succeed at all costs.

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