This Easter 2014, after endless planning, intense fitness regimes and preparation, Cambridge University Air Squadron (CUAS), joined by students from the East Midlands, East of Scotland and Oxford, completed a 17-day expedition in Norway retracing the route of the Heroes of Telemark.
The historic significance of the footsteps we followed and the challenges the saboteurs faced in their bid to halt Hitler’s nuclear ambitions only became fully apparent to us as we experienced for ourselves the harsh landscape the Hardanger plateau ‘Telemark County’ offered. We had the fortune of being guided by Glyn Sheppard, amongst the most highly qualified mountaineers in Europe, and Brian Desmond, who helped Ray Mears film a BBC documentary on the subject, so no aspect of the intriguing story was left untouched either in the classroom or on the plateau.
70 years on, we followed the routes of Operations Grouse (November-October 1942) and Gunnerside (February 1943). After Hitler had conquered Norway, he intended to take full advantage of a heavy water plant near Rjukan in Norway, then the only factory producing heavy water that could act as a moderator in the production of weapons grade plutonium, with the hope that an atomic bomb could end the war with Nazi Germany as the victors. The British Special Operations Executive responded by sending a team of British trained Norwegian commandos to parachute onto the Hardanger plateau and traverse the landscape until they could prepare a landing site for gliders to be dispatched in Operation Freshman later that November. Tragically, the gliders were severely disrupted by weather and either crashed into the mountainous terrain or were soon captured by German soldiers. A punishing wait over the unforgiving Norwegian winter without supplies ensued before reinforcements could be deployed via parachute in February 1943. The two groups of commandos met up and succeeded in destroying the heavily guarded factory with the resilience, expertise and local knowledge they held between them.
Most of us had skied before, but only Glyn, Brian, our instructors Sergeant Jimmy Gregory (CUAS Ground Training Instructor) and Warrant Officer Bob Wilkins, as well as one student, James Hutchings, had previous experience of cross-country skiing. The remaining nine of us learnt the new techniques from scratch on the narrower Telemark skis with a free heel in the binding, with a particular impressive effort from Lauren Crawford who had never skied downhill before – not that it meant the rest of us didn’t have our fair share of impressive wipeouts! Additionally, we were taught survival and mountaineering techniques, such as how to predict avalanches and build emergency snow holes, which would be key to making it a successful trip, especially if the weather deteriorated.
It took more than a week before we were ready for the expedition itself, after travelling from the UK to the Joint Services Mountain Training Centre at Evjemoen, Norway via Denmark and completing our training, by which point we were all desperate to put our new skills to use. A four hour trip from the centre to the plateau followed, including an exhilarating snowmobile ride with a windchill factor of -20°C across the glacier to our first hut. The first day was largely a warmup where we practiced skiing with pulks (trailers belted to the waist), covering the day’s distance in a few hours. The second day proved a tougher challenge, with long uphills and 22km in total to ski, but glorious weather meant we arrived by 2:35pm, the quickest ever time for that leg. The weather held for the following two days, allowing us to ski between huts in t-shirts for much of the trip given how surprisingly hot the skiing could be. Many of us also took the opportunity to sleep overnight in snow shelters we had built ourselves, which proved a chilly but unforgettable experience.
After four days of skiing, we reached civilization and the end of Operation Grouse, enjoying showers and reindeer meat served in a mountain lodge before reenacting Operation Gunnerside. We wore white camouflage outfits as the saboteurs would have for the final attack, and the thick forest and uneven terrain showed how skilled they must have been to succeed. Crossing the finish line overlooking the gorge defending the factory in our white outfits made for a fitting end to our epic 87.2km expedition.
We would like to thank the Ulysses Trust for supporting this expedition, without whom we could never have taken this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Expedition Media Officer