‘The only surprise was the weather; we had wall to wall blue skies and dazzling sunshine!’ says one of the Forces Wives Challenge (FWC) team, Ailsa Claire Snaith. Their expectation had been for Arctic winds and ferociously cold temperatures, so the sunshine was a proper bonus, but not the reason they ‘nailed it’ and in the guides’ words, were ‘pro-active and one of the easiest groups they had ever had.’ On 23rd March 2022, the Forces Wives Challenge intrepid team of 12 became the first all-female team to successfully complete the re-enactment of the gruelling journey of The Heroes of Telemark across the Hardangervidda to Vemork, the heavy water plant the heroes sabotaged to thwart Hitler’s effort to build an atomic bomb.
Says FWC leader, Heather Sharp, ‘All the planning and preparation paid off.’ Adding with typical modesty that they were the beneficiaries of their guides’ exceptional experience amassed over many years. ‘We were trained by the best,’ she says, ‘all those marginal gains – the food we had, [the knowledge] to pull pulks – just meant it was really slick.’
But the outcome was assured long before the team set foot in Norway, and in no small part because of a rigorous selection process and Heather’s empathetic leadership style. So keen was Ailsa to be selected for the team that she made the journey twice to England from her home in Saudi Arabia to give herself the best chance, despite an unease at being scrutinised. Could have turned round on the way here/Headed for the hills or maybe a coffee/ Alone, she writes in her diary. But acknowledges that the process gave those selecting the team the best possible opportunity to understand each of the applicants. ‘The team was seamless from the start,’ she says. ‘It flowed like melting jelly, each person filling in gaps as needed. There was no confrontation, no issues at all, just equal participation, and joy.’ As a doctor, Ailsa has worked in the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry, but this, she says, was the best team she’d worked with, by miles.
I found myself curious about Heather’s leadership style that ensured such harmony and effectiveness. I asked Ailsa, was it shaped by her experience in the military? ‘It has everything to do with her military experience,’ she replies, ‘She is disciplined but still relaxed, and very good at delegating. She allows people to work with their strengths, volunteering for roles, or backing away if they feel someone else could do something better.’ And, she adds, ‘she is always a part of the team rather than asserting her leadership.’
Naturally, there were times when each of the women had to dig deep to keep going, but clarity around roles and responsibilities smoothed the path. They were divided into three teams of four and at the end of each day, one team prepared firewood, another collected snow, and another melted snow for water – and the roles were rotated daily. Hannah Evans, commercial manager of QinetiQ and mother of two girls under three, describes the toughest section, pulling pulks up a steep hill to a wilderness hut at the end of a 10-hour day, the wind howling, chilling bones and blasting away any chance of communication. ‘There was solace in knowing I wasn’t the only one tired and cold,’ says Hannah, ‘that support was there if needed, and that we’d all get there together.’
In the main the women spoke of how exquisitely beautiful the journey was in every conceivable way. ‘It felt so meaningful,’ said Heather, ‘the guides pointed out every detail of the [Norwegian saboteurs] journey, we slept in the beds they slept in.’ There was another dimension, too; they were immersed in nature, just with the rhythm of their breath and the placing of one ski in front of the other, no mobile phones. Minds were cleared of clutter; there was time to reflect, about family and life, to talk to one another. Ailsa’s diary entry again, Rivers of emotions/Editing thoughts in the rolling hills/Veer from left to right/Energising voices/Raise my spirits/Interpret my silence positively/Every moment together warms my heart. Friendships were made for life.
In Ailsa’s case, as for many, there was a sense of calm skiing across the rolling hills of the Handangervidda. But emotions hit with full force when she arrived at the Vemork heavy water plant, now a museum, and watched a film of the brave men who risked everything to stop Hitler building an atomic bomb. Her shared experience of the last few days led her to truly appreciate how close we might have been to the end of the western world had they failed in their mission; how extraordinary it was that they pulled it off.
For Hannah, the message resonated to conflict in the current day. The Norwegian saboteurs were utterly committed to their mission. ‘We very often thought that it was a one-way trip,’ said leader of the small band of six, Joachim Ronneberg. Until you’ve lived under occupation, you can’t imagine what occupation is like.
To complete the re-enactment, the women followed the extraction route taken by the saboteurs across the suspension bridge spanning the gorge and zigzagging up a steep forested hillside to the plateau. But not before they laid a wreath of white chrysanthemums and red poppies, sent by the War Widows Association – the FWC’s chosen charity – in the shadow of Vemork, and read out loud a prayer and the names of the 41 men who lost their lives in Operation Freshman, in November 1942. Operation Freshman sent British Royal Engineers in two gliders to link up with a recce party and attack Vemork, but the mission failed when the gliders crashed short of their destination. Those who weren’t killed on impact were captured, interrogated, and executed. They, like so many, paid the ultimate price for us to have a chance to live in peace.