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Home - War Crimes Trials - British Mounted Trials - Operation Freshman

Introduction

Operation Freshman was an operation mounted during the night of 19/20 November 1942, using gliders and Royal Engineer commandos. The purpose of the raid was to destroy a heavy water plant at Rjukan in Norway. The operations against this heavy water plant formed the basis of the Hollywood film "The Heroes of Telemark". The plan for the raid was to use gliders to land commandos with the knowledge and equipment to destroy the heavy water factory. They would then attempt to reach Sweden with the help of the Norwegian Underground.

The main sources for this report are the various documents held at the Public Record Office. Those documents produced by the War Crimes Investigation Branch, HQ Allied Land Forces Norway (ALFN) have proved useful: WO 331/16-18. The war crimes trial of Generaloberst Nickolaus von Falkenhorst (Commander of German Forces in Norway) produced by the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO) have also provided useful information: WO 235/196B and WO 235/684. The execution of Freshman raid members was the basis of several charges at Falkenhorst’s trial.

Acknowledgments

A very big thank you is due to all the people, especially in Norway, who have contacted me about this section of the web site. In many instances, they have supplied (unprompted by me) photographs of the various areas of interest.

Attack on the Plant

In February 1943, the Norwegian Resistance participated in an attack on the Heavy Water Plant at Rjukan. A memorial has since been errected to commemorare this attack.

Memorial for the February 1943 Raid on the Plant (Stratford family 2002)

The names on the memorial, as shown in the above photograph, are Joachim Ronneberg, Jens Anton Poulsson, Knut Haugland, Knut Haukelid, Claus Helberg, Kasper Idland, Fredrik Kayser, Arne Kjelstrup, Einar Skinnarland, Hans Storhaug and Burger Stromsheim.

Einar Skinnarland

AS an engineer at the Vemork hydroelectric plant some 50 miles west of Oslo, Einar Skinnarland provided a vital link in the struggle to frustrate Germany's production of Plutonium to develop an atomic bomb during the Second World War. The electrolytic process for the division of water to obtain hydrogen for the manufacture of ammonia at Vemork produced, simply as a by-product, small quantities of heavy water. This differed from ordinary water only in that the hydrogen atom is heavier than normal, but the heavy water was essential for Germany's production of Plutonium.

In May 1940, shortly after the German occupation of Norway, British Intelligence learnt that the Vemork plant had been ordered to increase production of heavy water to 3,0001b per year, a figure advanced to 10,0001b in January 1942. Six weeks later, a group of young Norwegians planning to join one of their units in Britain hijacked the coastal steamer Galtesund and sailed her to Aberdeen. Among them was Einar Skinnarland on one month's annual holiday from the Vemork plant. The layout of the plant was already known in Britain, thanks to information provided by Professor Lief Tronstadt, a Norwegian scientist who had escaped before the occupation. But Skinnarland was able to provide details of the German guarding system and, even more important, was prepared to return to Vemork to act as guide for a future sabotage operation. After a comprehensive debriefing on the current situation at Vemork and very basic parachute training, he was dropped over the Hardanger Vidda mountains by an RAF aircraft on March 28,1942. This was 11 days after he had reached Aberdeen and just in time for his return to work.

Because of the mountainous terrain and swiftly changing weather conditions, Skinnarland's return was only the second operation the RAF had been able to accomplish on behalf of special forces in Norway at that stage of the war. Moreover, the summer nights were too short to give adequate cover, so no attempt could be made to capitalise on the intelligence Skinnarland had provided until the autumn of 1942. He, meanwhile, befriended the chief engineer of the plant, gleaned from him additional information necessary for a coup de main operation and relayed this by radio to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London.

The first operation, in November 1942, ended in disaster. A four-man team of the Norwegian SOE, led by Lieutenant Jens Anton Poulsson, had been dropped successfully in October and established contact with Skinnarland. Their task was to select and prepare landing sites for two gliders carrying British Royal Engineers and, based on latest information from Skinnarland, guide them to the Vemork plant. Both gliders crashed in bad weather and the survivors were captured and executed.

A second operation, carried out by a six-man team of the Norwegian SOE parachuted on to the Hardanger Vidda in February 1943, was completely successful. The second team met Poulsson and his companions, who had existed on the mountain throughout the winter, and carried out a copybook sabotage action that put the heavy water producing plant out of action without the loss of a Norwegian life.

When the SOE teams returned to Britain, one of them through Sweden, two members remained behind to train and arm volunteers for the Norwegian Home Army, as the resistance movement was known. One of those to remain, Knut Haukelid, teamed up with Skinnarland in a mountain hut until the spring thaw of 1943, when they moved to a farm on the lower slopes, where they were better placed to gather information to relay back to SOE headquarters in London. In July they received an inquiry about reports that production of heavy water at the Vemork plant had restarted. It was decided to attempt to destroy the plant by a United States Army Air Force bombing raid. This wrecked the factory but failed to destroy the heavy water plant, which was protected by seven concrete floors above it.

Norwegian technicians were able to convince the German authorities that the plant as a whole was no longer viable but, on January 29,1944, London advised Skinnarland that it was to be dismantled and shipped to Germany, together with the Vemork stocks of heavy water.Haukelid and he took great risks in entering local towns, where both were well known, to gather information about the planned shipment. Eventually, they discovered that it was to be conveyed in a Norwegian ferryboat which would have to traverse Lake Tinnsjo on its way to the open sea. Assisted by others recruited locally, Haukelid placed charges on the keel of the ferry, which blew up and sank in 1,000ft of water in Lake Tinnsjo in February 1944, unfortunately with the loss of several Norwegian lives.

Skinnarland continued to maintain radio contact between the local elements of the Norwegian resistance and SOE headquarters in London until the end of the war in Europe, when the Norwegian Home Army took over the emergency administration of their country.

After the war, Skinnarland emigrated to Canada where he died on 5 December 2002, aged 84 years.

Description of Personnel

During the investigation by the War Crimes Investigation Branch ALFN several bodies were discovered. The bodies were buried hastily and showed signs of torture. Also as the guilders crashed in bad weather, a request was sent from Major Rawlings to the Judge Advocate General’s Office. This request to the Judge Advocate General’s Office produced the letter from the DJAG Office, BLFN. This letter was received by Major Rawlings on 3 September 1945.

SECRET

To: Officer i/c War Crimes Investigation Branch A.L.F.N.

Ref: ALFN/44/2/DJAG.

Date: 1 September 1945.

From: Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Bellis DJAG Office Ext: 647.

SUBJECT - War Crimes - Operation FRESHMAN

Further to my letter even reference dated 24 August 1945 I now enclose descriptions of the Royal Engineers personnel who took part in this operation. These descriptions I have today received from the Officer i/c Military Department Judge Advocate General Office.

Copy: Officer i/c Military Department.

Office of the Judge Advocate General.

NOTE: Statistics were those provided at the soldier’s attestation.

NUMBER

RANK

NAME

HGT

WGT

CHEST

HAIR /EYE

4385760

Lance-Sergeant

Healey, F

5’8"

126

32

Brown

1871585

Lance-Sergeant

Knowles, G

5’7"

130

35

Brown

2076750

Acting Corporal

Thomas, JGL

5’8"

152

33

Fair & Blue

1948916

Sapper

Williams, GS

5’5"

105

18

Light Brown

1869293

Sapper

Bailey, EW

4’12"

81

31

 

1886725

Sapper

Grundy, CH

5’8"

144

32

Brown & Blue

1922713

Sapper

Legate, HJ

5’3"

118

33

Aubum & Blue

2068169

Sapper

Smallman, L

5’5"

112

30

Fair & Blue

2000197

Driver

Pendlebury, E

5’5"

123

35

Brown & Blue

2110314

Corporal

Cairncross, JD

5’6"

147

33

Fair & Green

1906932

Sapper

Bonner, F

5’10"

156

32

Brown

2110268

Sapper

Norman, R

5’9"

164

37

Brown & Green

1884423

Driver

Simkins, G

5’5"

127

35

Brown & Hazel

2110332

Sapper

Hunter, JGV

5’5"

123

32

Fair & Blue

2073797

Sapper

Walsh, JW

5’9"

147

33

Brown & Blue

2115238

Sapper

Faulkner, TW

5’6"

133

34

Black & Blue

2114930

Sapper

Jacques, W

5’6"

145

37

Fair & Blue

4537415

Lance-Corporal

Jackson, WM

5’9"

141

35

Brown

2074196

Sapper

Bevan, H

5’5"

129

37

Dark & Brown

2016305

Driver

Belfield, JTV

5’10"

137

36

Fair & Blue

2010697

Sapper

Stephen, JM

5’6"

133

34

Brown

2010213

Driver

Farrell, PP

5’8"

148

37

Dark Brown & Hazel

1923037

Lance-Corporal

Campbell, A

5’6"

134

37

Brown

1892979

Sapper

Smith, EJ

5’7"

127

34

Brown & Blue

1884418

Lance-Corporal

Bray, FW

5’10"

147

36

Dark & Hazel

1900803

Sapper

Blackburn, JF

5’9"

159

38

Brown & Blue

1872832

Lance-Corporal

Masters, TL

5’7"

124

34

Fair & Blue

1875800

Sapper

White, TW

5’7"

128

35

Dark Brown & Blue

All are personnel of either 261 Airborne Squadron RE or 9 Airborne Squadron RE.

In addition to these Royal Engineers, there were two RE officers: Lieutenants Alex Charles Allen and David Alexander Methven GM.

While serving with 226 Field Company Royal Engineers, 2nd Lieutenant Methven was awarded the George Medal. This George Medal was awarded for his role in Mine Disposal work at Mablethorpe Beach (Lincolnshire) on 25 December 1941, and at Skegness Beach (Lincolnshire) on 5 April 1942. The award of his George Medal was published in the London Gazette on 10 July 1942 (page 3039).

Lieutenant Methven was not even in the original party, but three days before the operation 2nd Lieutenant Mike Green was injured in a training accident. The 20-year-old Lieutenant Methven took 2nd Lieutenant Green's place.

2nd Lieutenant Green later went on to a distinguished war record, although the experience of his failure to be part of Operation Freshman was very traumatic. Especially so, when the fate of the soldiers was ultimately discovered after the war's end.

Fate of Freshman Personnel

Following receipt of the identification details the investigation continued into the reports of British prisoners being executed. The following text was extracted from a letter sent by Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Bellis to the Military Deputy in the Judge Advocate General’s Office (based in London) dated 28 November 1945. The letter outlines the fate of five of the Operation Freshman Personnel:

  • 4537415 Lance-Corporal W.M. Jackson, RE.

  • 1906932 Sapper F. Bonner, RE.

  • 1900803 Sapper J.N. Blackburn, RE.

  • 2073797 Sapper J.W. Walsh, RE.

  • 1875800 Sapper T.W. White, RE.

  • FX88494 Able Seaman Robert Paul Evans, Royal Navy.

Evans together with Sergeant Don Craig (Royal Engineers), Quartermaster Leif Larsen (Royal Norwegian Navy), Telegraphist Roald Strand (Royal Norwegian Navy) & Able Seaman William Tebb (Royal Navy) landed ashore and prepared to make their way to neutral Sweden. During a short gun battle near the Swedish border, Able Seaman Evans was badly wounded in the stomach. The others thinking that he was dead eventually made their way into Sweden. For their contribution to this operation, Quartermaster Larsen received the CGM to add to his DSM. Evans, despite his serious wounds and period in hospital, survived.

Able Seaman Evans was then taken to Grini Concentration Camp (located 30 miles outside Oslo), where he joined Lance Corporal Jackson and Sappers Bonner, Blackburn, Walsh and White. On 18 January 1943, they were marched into Trandum Forest and executed by firing squad. Initially, their bodies were buried in a mass grave. After the war's end, their remains were exhumed and reburied in Oslo Western Military Cemetery, Vestre Gravland.

Sapper Bonner

Sapper Bonner commemorated on Hemel Hempstead War Memorial (Stephen Stratford 2001)

CONFIDENTIAL

To: Military Deputy JAGO, 6 Spring Gdns, Cockspur St., SW1

Ref: BLFN/44/TR/DJAG.

Date: 28 November 1945.

From: Lieu-Col. W.H. Bellis, DJAG Office, BLFN.

This case relates to the killing of 5 of the 9 British survivors from the glider crash at Lysefjord, Norway, on the night of 19/20 November 1942; the other 4 being put to death in circumstances outlined in my minute to you reference BLFN/44/2/S/T/DJAG dated 15 November 1945 (click here to read about the brutal murder of these 4 soldiers).

Briefly the further facts indicated by the documents now submitted appear to be as follows:

After these survivors had been captured and imprisoned at Stavanger as described in that minute there was an exchange of communications between Wilkens, the head of Stavanger Gestapo, and Fehlis, head of the Oslo Gestapo, who in turn communicated with Muller, in charge of the Amtschef office in Berlin. Following this, orders were given by Fehlis that 5 of the 9 survivors were to be dressed in civilian clothes and were to be sent to Grini Concentration Camp.

Upon arrival in Grini the 5 survivors were dressed in blue pullovers and trousers.

They remained there until 19 January 1943 when they were taken out to Trandum and executed on the orders, so it would appear, of Fehlis given in the presence of Reinhardt, the orders being in turn based on directions from Muller that the Hitler (Commando) order was to be carried out.

Signed W.H. Bellis Lt. Col. DJAG.

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