Jens A. Poulsson

Norwegian, born in 1918. Took part in the sabotage action against Norsk Hydro’s heavy-water plant at Rjukan in 1943. Photographed in 2003.

He follows the bloody tracks in the snow. So he did hit a reindeer after all. A few more metres and he finds the wounded animal, drinks its blood and then fills his ruc- sack with as much as it will hold. 2nd-lieutenant Jens Anton Poulsson then skis swiftly back to the hut. Shouts of joy greet him.

They are hungry, those three waiting for him at Svensbu, a tiny hut in the mountains of Sogna Valley on the Hardanger plateau.

It is the day before Christmas Eve in 1942. Their Christmas dinner won’t be all that bad after all.

They had landed by parachute in this mountain area on 18 October 1942 because of a secret operation code-named “Freshman”. British forces will be transported to the Rjukan area in two gliders.

They are then to attack and destroy Norsk Hydro’s power station at Vemork used to produce heavy water. This operation has highest Allied priority and is meant to stop German production of an atomic bomb.

“Grouse”, the advance group with the four Norwegians, has been sent ahead to build and ready the landing strip, report on German guards at the plant, and, in short, lead the Brits to their target. The four soldiers in “Grouse” are all members of Kompani Linge, Norwegians who serve under British command and are trained by them.

Linge men have carried out numerous sabotage raids in Norway, set up radio contacts and trained home forces. It is now December and “Grouse” have kept themselves hidden since that October night when they landed in the mountains.

Jens A. Poulsson, a native of Rjukan, has been made leader of this advance group that will take part in the attack on the heavywater plant. The troop also consists of lieutenant and wireless operator Knut Haugland, sergeant and second-in-command Arne Kjelstrup and sergeant Claus Helberg.

On 9 November they make radio contact with England, and then wait for the command to start the sabotage raid. But the message they finally receive ten days later brings bad news. Both gliders carrying the British troops have crashed. A shock for the British, a shock for the advance group waiting in the mountains. A new operation, code- named “Gunnerside”, is immediately ordered. But now the four Norwegians’ patience and survival skills are put to the test.

Their scant supply of food becomes the greatest burden; the area they are hiding in has little game and very little wood for fuel. After the failure of the first raid they have moved from hut to hut. They must find a better place to hide. They only barely avoid German searching parties who control everyone they find after the failure of that first raid. But on 19 December they move into Svensbu where they will stay until late February.

Their days are short. They get up at daybreak, but night falls at four or five in the afternoon and then their only option is to go back to bed. Daylight hours are used for finding food. Such activities must be carefully assessed: they will drain their limited strength spending days hunting if they find no game. Should they conserve their strength by remaining quietly in the hut, or use it up in trying their luck with the rifle?

Jens becomes a master at utilizing their food to the maximum. He learns to use every part of the animal – innards, windpipe, stomach contents. The only things left are the skin, horns, hooves and a few bones.

Sometimes they are forced to scrape lichen off stones and mix this with some flour and water. But this area around Svensbu is actually quite good and has plentiful game. They eat thirteen rein- deer while they wait at Svensbu. Once again it is a matter
of waiting for the signal from England. Storms often rage at this time, delaying the scheduled raid countless times.

During these days, which grow into months, during the long wait in all this loneliness, Jens remembers the little things: the fine comradeship, a tiny bit of butter they managed to get, or perhaps a tasty sugar cube.

Now and then he wants to give up, but he doesn’t speak of his doubts to the rest of the group. One of Kipling’s poems runs constantly through Jens’ mind during this delay, a line that keeps his courage up: “Hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to you: Hold on.”

On 23 February things get serious and the group is completed. The “Gunnerside” men had arrived from England a few days earlier. They land on the Hardanger plateau and are quartered at Sundsbu. Six more Norwegians join “Grouse” which has been in hiding since October. They bring chocolate, raisins and all the tobacco that Jens could ask for.

Discussions rage in the mountain hut during these days in late February 1943. Final details are determined. The heavywater plant is to be blasted.

The action starts in earnest on 27 February 1943, at 20.00 hours.

They are dressed in white winter uniforms, armed with submachine guns, pistols and hand grenades. The troop move down the highway, hide their skis and rucksacks, slide 700 metres down the sheer sides of the ravine, climb over the railway track and finally stand near the factory gate. They wait for the change of guards.

Then they cut through the gate and take up their positions inside the factory area. The group is split into two: a covering group and a blasting group. A guard is overpowered, and a few minutes later the already prepared explosive charges are placed on the 18 heavywater cells.

A short discussion ends in their using two thirty-second fuses instead of two-minute fuses as they had planned. They light the fuse – and run.

From his guard position, Lieutenant Jens hears a muffled bang. That is the sound telling that the heavywater cells are smashed 500 kilos of heavywater are running down the drain. The operation has been successful.
Now it is a matter of getting away from the factory unseen. They also manage that, these Norwegian saboteurs.

Back up to the road, back up the demanding mountain side. The next morning, 28 February, they split up.

The solidarity that has lasted for months is abruptly ended. Everything has gone according to plan, better than planned, Jens thinks. Some of the men head for Sweden; some are to remain in Norway. They choose to keep themselves hidden for a few more days.

The Germans hunt them intensely. Mass arrests of Norwegians are carried out in Rjukan. But the saboteurs have all escaped.
Jens moves out on skis, mostly on his own, on and on. He is going to Oslo. Once he is almost taken in a control, but the rucksack holding the many British saboteur proofs remains unopened. Later he goes to Sweden, then back to England and takes part in another sabotage operation. This one, codenamed “Sunshine”, is set up to protect Norwegian industry against German destruction.

A total of 530 Norwegian men served in the Linge Company during World War II. 57 of these lost their lives, while seven were captured by the Germans. At liberation the troop had 245 men.

The Vemork action was filmed in 1965 under the name “The Heroes of Telemark”, with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. British BBC-TV has also made a series about the action at Rjukan.