Monday, October 13, 2014


            In what was the first combined use of seaborne and airborne military units in history, the people of neutral Norway found themselves under attack by Nazi Germany on April 9th and 10th 1940. It came as an unmitigated shock to the unprepared people of that Scandinavian country since they had declared their neutrality under international law, just as they had done in WW I. Even with the assistance of British forces and not without some naval losses itself, Germany completed the defeat and occupation of Norway in a matter of three weeks  Because Norway had unwisely required its citizens to register personal firearms, the invaders were able to identify every owner and thus confiscate virtually every gun in the country within hours, leaving the citizenry without the ability to put up any meaningful defense even as their ill-equipped and small military were being overwhelmed. Thus the people of a country known for its love of independence and home rule found themselves looking at four long years of bitter suppression under its jack-booted conquerors.
            While the King and government leaders managed to escape and eventually establish a government-in-exile in Great Britain along with thousands of their countrymen, the spark of patriotism was alive and well in the land the Germans mistakenly believed to be supine and helpless. A resistance movement quickly took shape, and with the clandestine support of Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) began a well-organized and dedicated secret war of their own.
            To understand what life in occupied Norway was like during this period, it is important to recall the name of a traitor named Vidkun Quisling, a former military officer and founder of Norway’s National Socialist political party and admirer of Adolph Hitler, with whom he enjoyed a personal friendship. Quisling was a collaborator of the occupiers from the start, and eventually became the Reichcommissioner – or titular leader – to the utter disgust of the citizenry who saw to it that he was first to face a firing squad in 1945 at war’s end. The very name became an epithet during the war years, and many people were assigned the sobriquet “Quisling” if they were perceived to be traitors.
            And this brings us to a resistance leader named Gunnar Sonsteby who was 22 years old when he traveled to England to receive Special Ops. training and returned home to begin blowing up locomotives, military armories, German aircraft and anything else that could thwart or slow Nazi exploitation of his homeland and its people. The extent and ingenuity of his sabotage activities, even as he provided inspired leadership to other resistance units remains almost without parallel. In one coups he engineered the theft of plates for the printing of Norwegian currency kept in national vaults to be smuggled out to the government-in-exile, and when it was learned that the Nazis were preparing to establish a system for inducting citizens into service on the Eastern Front he blew up the office of forced labor putting an end to the enterprise. And as is now known, the Norwegian Resistance put finis to Hitler’s atomic bomb program by destroying their heavy water plant at Telemark.
            As in other occupied countries, the Germans were bleeding Norway’s agricultural production dry and when an even more aggressive rationing system was about to be put in place, Sonsteby arranged the theft of 75,000 newly-printed ration books setting the program on its heels. Meanwhile, his group continued blowing up trains, repair depots, parts manufacturing facilities, field guns and setting fires to oil storage sites.
            A master of disguise, Sonsteby constantly changed between 40 different identities while known among his fellow resistance leaders simply as “The Chin” and to his SOE controllers as “Agent 24”.
            When Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sonsteby passed away in 2008 at the age of 94, he had been honored by more awards than any other Norwegian, and perhaps more than any Allied fighter in WWII.

  Keeping a proud memory alive, Gunnar Sonsteby’s image appears on the vertical tail of a                                                 
   Norwegian commercial jetliner today.                                   Photo by Chris Cooper

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