If we were to tell you Joachim Ronneberg had died, your first question might be ‘who?’, but the Norwegian war hero and real-life James Bond is someone you certainly should have heard of.
In fact, it might not be going too far to say some of the people reading this sentence wouldn’t be alive today were it not for Ronneberg’s actions.
The lieutenant, who has passed away at the age of 99, is the holder of the Legion d’Honneur from France, a Distinguished Service order from the UK and awards from the US and Norway, and played a huge part in the Nazis never developing and using nuclear weapons during the second world war.
So, it might be time to start reading up on a set of achievements which are so remarkable you wouldn’t even write them into a Bond plot for fear of them being considered too far-fetched.
He led a six-man allied operation to return to Nazi-occupied Norway and destroy a hydroelectric plant which could have given Germany the heavy water it needed for nuclear bombs, but the way he and his team did it is even more remarkable.
A five-man team had been sent in initially, with a six-man Operation Gunnerside team, led by Ronneberg, joining them, following a failed attempt (Operation Freshman) by British paratroopers. After landing 45 miles from the first team, they first spend five days waiting out an intense blizzard before meeting up. The combined team then commenced action, parachuting into the Hardangervidda plateau on 16 February 1943, skiing across country, descending into a ravine and crossing an icy river before using a railway line to get to the plant and set their explosives.
As they went off, Ronneberg and his team escaped without the German guards discovering them.
Ronneberg recalled the dawn as they escaped: “It was a mackerel sky, it was a marvellous sunrise. We sat there very tired, very happy. Nobody said anything. That was a very special moment.”
However, soon the Germans realised, with 2,800 German troops chasing them. Five of the saboteurs, led by Ronneberg, escaped to neutral Sweden after a 14-day march across 250 miles, while the other six members hid in various locations in Norway without being discovered.
Nothing says ‘international hero’ quite like parachuting, skiing and destruction all in one fell swoop, and it worked in helping prevent Nazi nukes ever coming into existence.
The ‘heavy water sabotage’, as it became known, took place in 1943, and two years later the war was over.
Operation Gunnerside was later evaluated by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) as the most successful act of sabotage in all of World War II.
Ronneberg was the last surviving member of his team, and spoke enthusiastically of the mission in the decades since, telling the BBC: “We were a gang of friends doing a job together”.
Ronneberg was unfortunate in that his most famous moment was documented on the big screen too early, in the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, which he himself criticised for being a “hopeless portrayal”. Surely a remake is in order now?
As fears of nuclear war continue in the current political climate, the gravity of Ronneberg’s work should not be understated.
However, we can’t really say it better than Eric Boehm, who just has a way with words:
In April 2013, Rønneberg was presented with a Union Jack during a ceremony at the Special Operations Executive monument in London, to mark 70 years since the successful Gunnerside mission, and we should all raise a glass to him today.