A team of ten intrepid women have committed to undertake a challenging ski journey to remember a group of extraordinary Norwegians and their mission to prevent Hitler and the Nazi’s from building an atomic bomb. This is a story about commitment and going further for a great cause.
Some people are conspicuous by their utter commitment to a cause. There is no doubt that a strong sense of purpose drives the emotional core of our beings to motivate, energise and make things happen. Add to this a sense of moral outrage and a call to action can become a categorical imperative – something that a person is compelled to do, no matter what the circumstances. A fine example of such driven action in challenging circumstances is that of impoverished Polish countess Krystyna Skarbek, who was so incensed by the Nazi-occupation of her country that she travelled to England and signed up with the Secret Intelligence Service. She was the first female agent of the British to serve in the field and became the longest serving of all Britain’s wartime women agents. One of her many daring exploits was to ski into Nazi-occupied Poland across the Carpathian Mountains in deepest winter and create an escape line along which she aided the passage of several hundred Polish pilots who would later go on to play a decisive role in the Battle of Britain. No wonder she was Churchill’s favourite spy, and inspiration for the naming of Skarbek Associates, whose mission it is to help organisations execute their strategies and make things happen, just as she made things happen, with courage, quick-wittedness, agility, and utmost resolve.
Stop Hitler getting the atomic bomb
On February 16th, 1943, operating in similarly snow-covered terrain but in a different Nazi-occupied country, a small team of Norwegian saboteurs, trained in the wilds of Scotland by the top-secret British unit Special Operations Executive (SOE), parachuted under the cover of darkness onto the high mountain plateau of Hardangervidda in Norway, and risked all to carry out one of the most daring undercover operations of World War II. It was called Operation Gunnerside – the aim, to thwart Hitler’s effort to build an atomic bomb. Theirs too was a categorical imperative. ‘We very often thought that this was a one-way trip,’ said leader of the small band of six, Joachim Ronneberg, but there was never any questioning their commitment.
The story of their epic journey across one of the most inhospitable terrains of northern Europe and their raid on Norsk Hydro’s Vemork plant just outside Rjukan, is one that has caught the imagination of historians and film makers alike. The plant was controlled by the Nazis and had recently become the world’s first industrial-scale production site of heavy water, a key ingredient in the German atomic bomb research programme. The story made great material for the action-packed film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas – although the real-life event was both more complex and more challenging, as a team of ten women, plus two reserves, are about to find out.
Forces Wives Challenge – remembering the Heroes of Telemark
In March 2022, a team of intrepid women, all wives of servicemen, are flying to Norway to follow the gruelling journey of The Heroes of Telemark across the Hardangervidda Plateau. If successful, they will be the first all-women team to retrace the steps of this historic World War II mission. Skarbek is sponsoring the team, and it’s easy to see why founder Paul Heugh chose to step on board, aside from a personal interest, having visited Rjukan and skied across the Hardangervidda Plateau himself. Paul saw that the values of Heather Sharp, retired army officer and founder of the so-called Forces Wives Challenge, and the women she has gathered, align perfectly with those of Skarbek Associates. As a team, they have a defined objective (a stretching one at that), and they have planned, prepared, and trained to give themselves the best possible chance of success in their mission.
Of course, there will be obstacles to overcome. None of the women lack enthusiasm and heart, but a number of them have never skied. And the Hardangervidda Plateau can be ferociously cold; according to legend, it can turn so cold, so fast, that it freezes flames in the fire. The women will be skiing over 100km at 3,500ft elevation with over 300kg of kit between them. It will be welcome reprieve at night to sleep in the very same mountain huts that the Heroes of Telemark slept in themselves 80 years ago.
In October 1942, Operation Grouse successfully placed a reconnaissance team of four Norwegian commandos on the Hardangervidda Plateau above the Vemork plant. The following month, in November, Operation Freshman sent British Para-engineers in two gliders to link up with the recce party and attack Vermork, but the mission failed when the gliders crashed short of their destination. The subsequent search by the Germans, and interrogation and execution of survivors, meant that plans had to be adapted.
Incredibly, all four commandos on the Grouse reconnaissance team survived a long, harsh, bitterly cold winter in a mountain hideaway, subsisting on moss and lichen they scraped from the rocks, and the occasional reindeer.
On 16th February 1943, six SOE trained Norwegian commandos on Operation Gunnerside parachuted onto the Hardangervidda Plateau. After five days searching on cross-country skis, the six commandos found the Grouse team, and together they made final preparations for their assault on the Vemork heavy water plant, on the night of February 27th, 1943.
Perched high on a precipice, Vemork is a natural fortress. Above it is mountainous terrain; in 1943, floodlit and littered with minefields. An alternative approach is on a single-lane suspension bridge stretching 75 metres across a deep gorge, but this was closely guarded. Or there is the gorge itself, steep sided and dangerous with a cold icy river flowing some 200 meters below. ‘When you look at the gorge we climbed down,’ said Mr Ronneberg, ‘you feel it is impossible.’ But this is the route they took, in the dark.
On the far side of the gorge the saboteurs followed a single railway track straight into the plant evading the guards. A Norwegian agent had supplied detailed plans and schedules, and with this intelligence, they entered the basement by a cable tunnel and through a window. They placed explosive charges on the heavy-water electrolysis chambers, lit a fuse, and retreated from the building. The explosive charges detonated. Mission accomplished.
An entire German division was sent to chase the saboteurs on a mad dash across Southern Norway on skis, but every one of them escaped. With a wry smile, Mr Ronneberg described it as ‘the very best skiing weekend I ever had’.
The Forces Wives Challenge Organisation
The Forces Women won’t of course be re-enacting all the final events of this extraordinary wartime mission. But this, in a way, is what makes these women all the more remarkable. They are not compelled with orders for a near suicide mission, as the Norwegians were in 1943, but rather they have made a considered choice to step beyond the normal day-to-day, to stretch themselves and rise to a challenge. They are all incredibly engaged, absorbing everything they can from this inspiring ‘Mission Impossible’ story. It has become personal, as each one of them experiences something of the utter commitment these Norwegian men exhibited to make it happen. Each knows the journey will be a mental as well as physical challenge, and none will want to let their fellow team mates down. All will draw strength from one another and the spirit of those who skied this trail before them.
I have met a number of these Forces Wives. They come from all walks of life – healthcare, for example, aerospace, make-up artistry, sports rehab – but have one thing in common: the responsibilities and challenges that are peculiarly a part of being a serviceman’s wife, little appreciated or understood outside of the military. One woman’s story in particular moved me. She had four children, two who had special needs, and every 18 months she was uprooted, required to move house, and establish a new home, schools, relationships and work. ‘I blame myself,’ she said, ‘but I stopped trying to make friends. What’s the point?’ Isolation is a common state of being among service wives, but on a Forces Wives Challenge, none has to explain that to the other.
Heather Sharp has created something incredibly important in the Forces Wives Challenge – something that builds friendship, boosts confidence, and builds resilience so that the women can tackle the challenges of military life together. ‘I see it as preventative,’ she says, hinting at the downward spiral women might experience without its support. That word ‘preventative’ is worth examining. There are many challenges we face in organisations, in society, in our environment. Some might not invoke in us a sense of moral outrage, a categorical imperative to act. But that doesn’t make them unimportant. We need to take a lead from the Forces Wives, make a choice to rise to the challenge, plan, and make things happen now, before it’s too late.