The Winter Fortress

Title:                      The Winter Fortress

Author:                 Neal Bascomb

Bascomb, Neal (2016). The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LCCN:    2015042716

D794.5 .B373 2016


  • The water — The professor — Bonzo — The dam-keeper’s son — The open road — The commando order — Make a good job of it — Keen as mustard — An uncertain fate — The lost — The lost — Those louts won’t catch us — Rules of the hunter — The lonely dark war — The storm — Best laid plans — The climb — Sabotage — The most splendid coup — The hunt — The phantoms of the Vidda — A national sport — The target list — The cowboy run — Nothing without sacrifice — Five kilos of fish — The man with the violin — A 10:45 a.m. alarm — Victory.


Date Updated:  October 13, 2017

In “Reviews in Brief: Forthcoming or Recently Published”, the following terse summary of Bascomb’s book appeared.[1]

The story of a small group of British-trained Norwegian commandos who sabotaged Nazi efforts to build an atomic bomb by sabotaging Norsk Hydro, the world’s largest producer of deuterium: heavy water. Discusses advances in physics that led to the race to build the first A-bomb, Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Manhattan Project, the privation and brutality of the Nazi occupation of Norway, German scientists’ efforts to build a bomb, and the resolve of the Norwegian resistance.

Of the book, Foreign Affairs[2] had the following to say.

At the heart of this book is the story of the heroic and successful efforts of a small group of Norwegian patriots who sabotaged a German-controlled hydroelectric plant in Vemork, Norway, in February 1943. At the time, the plant was the world’s only source of heavy water, a component of the uranium enrichment process. This was not the first or last attempt to deny Germany access to heavy water. In this authoritative account, Bascomb also describes how a few months before, there had been a calamitous mission undertaken by British commandos, which failed when their gliders crash-landed far from their target; the Germans later executed the surviving soldiers. In November 1943, nine months after the Norwegians’ successful mission, it became apparent that the Germans had started up production again, so the U.S. Army Air Forces bombed the plant. Finally, in 1944, there was a terminal act of sabotage, when two Norwegians sank a ferry carrying the last remaining containers of heavy water to Germany. Germany’s equivalent to the Manhattan Project might well have failed on its own, without these efforts, but it would have been too risky to assume as much. Bascomb offers a vivid and gripping narrative that conveys the heroism and dedication of the anti-Nazi operatives, especially in the face of severe weather conditions, and also delves into the ethics of resistance, which sometimes involves implicating or even killing innocent people.

Bascomb is certainly correct in recognizing the heroes who, believing that the hydroelectric plant was an extraordinary threat, attempted no less than three times to put it out of action permanently. British SOE failed miserably owing to glider crash. Neither attempt by the Norwegians was successful in shutting down the plant. In my view, Bascomb fails miserably on several levels. It demonstrates that journalists who are not trained scientists often get it very wrong.

A number of excellent books have already been written about the heavy-water plant in Vemork and the attempts to destroy it. Incidently, it was heavy water, deuterium oxide (not deuterium) that the plant was producing. Heisenberg’s War[3] is an important read, to see the true role of heavy water. Heavy water is used in certain types of nuclear reactors, where it acts as a neutron moderator to slow down neutrons so that they are more likely to react with the fissile U235 than with U238, which captures neutrons without fissioning. This leads to fissioning U235 but not to a chain reaction. The main value of heavy water would have been to use it in a reactor, hardly an atomic bomb. At one point Heisenberg thought of using a reactor as a kind of dirty radiation bomb, but realized to have a desired effect it would be so large no German plane could transport it.

Skis Against the Atom[4] is another excellent book that tells much more about the Norwegian heroes. It is written, not by a journalist, but by an actual participant in the raids. If you read it, you will likely never be warm again. They faced incredible hardships, an d saw German cruelty result after every raid. There is no question that Bascomb is right when he calls these warriors “heroes.”

Jeffrey T. Richelson’s book Spying on the Bomb[5] traces he evolution of U. S. nculear intelligence efforts—both successes and failures—from the early days of World War II to the twenty-first century.

As a nuclear physicist, it pains me to read over-simplified junk physics and claims of weapons nearly developed that would destroy us all, when these claims are unwarranted.

Should the destruction of the heavy-water production facilities have been carried out? Probably. Were those who risked (and gave) their lives to do the operation heroes? Undoubtedly! If nothing had been done, would Hitler have had nuclear weapons to rain on us? Unreservedly, NO! The mass emigration of physicists from Nazi Germany, and the disdain of those who remained for “Jewish physics” undercut the program so much that it never had a chance for success. That we know in hindsight. Let’s celebrate the heroes without making them saviors of the world.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[6]

The 1965 British movie, The Heroes of Telemark starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. It told how the Norwegian resistance working with SOE destroyed the plant manufacturing heaving water intended for use in making an atomic bomb in Vemork, Norway, in 1943[7]. But the movie didn’t tell the whole story. A number of memoirs and movies told other versions, but none was anchored in official accounts of the operation that author Neal Bascomb used to write The Winter Fortress.

There were several unsuccessful joint British and Norwegian attempts to destroy the heavy water plant at Vemork, and Bascomb deals with each one. The first, Operation FRESHIHAN, tried to use gliders to land commandos who would then destroy the plant. It failed when one plane had to return to Britain and the other crash-landed in the wrong location. The Norwegian team awaiting the commandos survived. The glider troops who survived the crash were caught, tortured, and shot by the Germans. A second attempt, Operation GROUSE, involved four Norwegian resistance fighters who succeeded in penetrating the plant itself and destroying, with a bomb, a key portion of the facility. While the plant shut down production and the commandos escaped, the Nazis soon had it back in operation. Then the US Air Force, without informing the Norwegians as previously promised, attempted to bomb the plant, but they hit only the surrounding city, causing civilian casualties. The Norwegian headquarters in London complained about not being informed; US planners apologized for missing the target but would not promise not to try again: civilian casualties are an unfortunate consequence when fighting a war to win. (pp. 272-274)

The final attempt was carried out by the resistance when the Nazis decided to ship what heavy water there was to Germany. A Norwegian team placed a bomb on the ferry that was carrying the heavily protected cargo and it sank in the middle of a deep lake as described in the Telemark film. The saboteurs realized the danger to civilian passengers; not all survived.

The Winter Fortress gives a thorough account of these operations, and more. Bascomb also includes the personal stories of the operatives and their families in Norway and Britain. He discusses the contributions by British and US planners and air crews based in England. Finally, he considers the impact of the VEMORK operations on the German and Allies’ atomic bomb programs.

In the epilogue, Bascomb reviews what happened to the key players after the war. Most went quietly back to their former lives, though he notes that things were never quite the same. One of them, Knut Haukelid, became Thor Heyerdahl’s radio operator on the Kon-Tiki expedition.

The details in some of the other versions of the VEMORK operations differ from those presented by Bascomb, but they are not as well documented. The Winter Fortress is the definitive account to date.[8]

[1] The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, p.140).

[2] Foreign Affairs (May/June 2016), downloaded June 16, 2016

[3] Powers, Thomas (1993). Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb. New Hork: Knopf

[4] Haukelid, Knut (1974, 1989). Skis Against The Atom (2nd rev. ed.) Minot, ND: North American Heritage Press

[5] Richelson, Jeffrey T. (2006). Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea. New York: W. W. Norton

[6] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 134-135). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[7] In the movie, the plant was not destroyed. A shipment of heavy water was destroyed by placing a bomb in the bowels of a ferry transporting railroad cars loaded with the heavy water. No heavy water plant in Norway was destroyed, in fiction or in fact. (FLW)

[8] See my own (FLW) comments in the first review above. Bascomb describes the heroic efforts, mainly by Norwegians, to destroy the production of heavy water. In fact, it made no difference, since the German scientists, lead by Werner Heisenberg, were totally on the wrong track. Heavy water, as stated in my review, is not an element of a nuclear weapon. It is a neutron moderator, used in the production of fissionable materials.


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