Rønneberg: Hero of Telemark
Janet Voke meets Joachim Rønneberg, survivor of one of the most daring actions of the Second World War: the sabotage of a German heavy water plant deep in occupied Norway.
It has been described as ‘the most daring sabotage raid of the whole of World War Two’, recreated by Hollywood in the 1965 film, The Heroes of Telemark, a favourite of Christmas television schedules. Churchill sanctioned the mission, which took place in February 1943 and was aimed at preventing the Nazis from developing a nuclear weapon. Following its successful completion, the prime minister personally thanked the eight Norwegians, only just out of their teens, who carried it out. Their leader, Joachim Rønneberg, was awarded the British Distinguished Service Order and received the War Cross with sword from the king of Norway. The 19-year-old Rønneberg had enrolled in the free Norwegian army in 1941 following the Nazis’ surprise invasion the previous year and fled his country in a fishing boat, by cover of darkness, to Scotland. Now, just a few weeks short of his 92nd birthday, he was a guest of the Queen at Windsor Castle for a commemoration of Norway’s part in defeating Hitler.
Rønneberg, who speaks fluent English, is one of two surviving team members; the other, aged 99, is in a Norwegian hospital. His memories of the raid are vivid: ‘I knew exactly where I was when I was dropped at dead of night by a propeller-driven Halifax plane in the white-out conditions of Europe’s most remote and inhospitable mountain terrain, the Hardangervidda. We trekked 18 miles to a small stone hut at 1,200 metres. Our equipment was very basic, mostly made of wool, and wooden skis – not like the wonderful kit youngsters have today with their padded waterproof suits. Inside we could light a fire, but it was seldom above freezing, which was good, in a sense, because the damp in our clothing was never dripping.’