Check out this Q&A with Neal Bascomb, the author of “Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb.”
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What inspired you to write the story?
Richard Rhodes. Many years ago, I devoured his history of the making of the atomic bomb. Ever since, I’ve tried to find my way into writing about it. At one point, I considered writing a novel, specifically focusing on an American plot to kill Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel prize–winning physicist who was at the center of the Nazi program. This never took off, however. Then I switched to an idea about a television series. Set at Los Alamos, it would be a fascinating drama. Then I learned a show was already in the works. Then I recalled this little vignette about the sabotage of Vemork. I investigated — again thinking it might serve as the basis of a novel. I investigated more and realized that it was such a rich story that I’d be a fool not to write in the way I know best how, as a nonfiction narrative. Boy, I’m glad I did.
How do modern military heroes compare to those in your book, WINTER FORTRESS?
They are fundamentally similar, no doubt. They were patriots who itched to fight, to do something, on the occupation of their country by the Nazis. Some among them hijacked fishing boats and steamer ships to cross the North Sea to be trained by the British Special Operations Executive (or, more famously, the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare). There, they underwent many months of specialized commando training, the most intensive the Allies had to offer at that time. Those select few of the select few became members of the Norwegian Independent Company, capable of sea, air, and land operations. They then parachuted in behind enemy lines, cut-off from any support and survived off the land, gathering intelligence and planning their mission against a plant key to the German atomic bomb program that was heavily guarded and set on the edge of steep icebound precipice (a natural fortress in its own right). The odds were against them; they knew they might not survive, but they were fighting for their country, their town, their families. And when things went bad, as they would, they fought most of all for each other. All these elements sound very similar to the men the soldiers who we herald today for their bravery on missions overseas.
What tactical military lessons that can be learned from your book, Winter Fortress?
Admiral William McRaven, former Commander of US Special Operations Command, specified a list of six principles for successful special operations missions. The infiltration and sabotage of Vemork (Operation Gunnerside) is a shining example of these principles.
- Simplicity – The single purpose of Gunnerside was for a demolition team to enter the basement level of the heavy water plant and destroy the 18 steel cells that concentrated the heavy water (the ingredient the Germans needed for their bomb program). A previous mission intended to blow up this high-concentration room, but also disable the overall plant and take out some of the hydroelectric power station. This mission (Operation Freshman) meant more men, more complications—and this was a factor in its catastrophe.
- Security – Operation Freshman informed the Germans that Allies wanted to destroy the plant, but then months passed without any action, lulling the Germans into a sense of complacency. Meanwhile, with total operational silence, Gunnerside prepared for the operation in Britain while the four-man advance team (Grouse) hid in the high mountain plateau north of the plant, unknown to the Nazis. The Germans had captured an ancillary individual in the effort and tortured him for information on potential subsequent sabotage effort, but this brave man never broke.
- Repetition – Outside London, Leif Tronstad, the scientist who had built Vemork and then escaped to Britain to plan its destruction, built a mock plant for Gunnerside to train on. Day and night, the commandos practiced on setting the explosives, so much so they could do it in the absolute dark. In addition, Tronstad gave them detailed blueprints of the plant and information on every stairwell, lock, guard rotation. The team memorized these to the point that they could mentally rebuild the plant.
- Surprise – The Nazis thought the only real way to attack the plant was from across the single lane suspension bridge or from the mountains above. They doubled the guard on the former and set minefields on the latter. Gunnerside decided to infiltrate the plant from the valley below, scaling a 500-foot cliff that the Nazis thought was insurmountable. This gave them the element of surprise.
- Speed – With the climbing of the cliffside, the saboteurs quickly reached the inside of the plant without alerting the Nazis (eliminating any fiction with the enemy, as McRaven stipulates). This gave them the narrow window of time they needed to set Nobel 808 plastique explosives on all 18 cells. They set only a 30 second fuse to detonate them and were running away from the plant before the guard was finally alerted.
- Purpose – The Gunnerside leader was very clear. Of the nine-member team, one individual had to make it inside the plant to destroy the heavy water facility. If unsuccessful, they were told the Nazis could get their hands on a weapon that could destroy London with a single bomb. Further, the team was absolutely committed to reaching their objectives. They considered escape in their plans, but most thought the operation was a one-way suicide mission and they had all accepted this fact. Each carried with him a cyanide capsule in the event of capture.
How would you compare the race to stop Hitler and his atomic program to stopping Iran or North Korea’s nuclear program?
It is plain that Iran and North Korea present serious challenges, particularly since their rulers have shown themselves to be belligerent toward American interests. That said, most experts believe that their obtainment of this power is most likely to be used only as a deterrent against an unprovoked attack. This is very different than what Hitler would have done if his scientists would have managed to develop a bomb. With very little question, he would have struck London or even New York with it—and so every effort, no matter how dangerous, needed to be implemented to stop him. I would argue the same case goes today for terrorists groups like ISIS, who have shown a proclivity towards getting their hands on a dirty bomb at the very least1. No doubt they would use it.
If Hitler were to have rose to power in this generation, how would his plan for atomic power be different? Do you think he still would have used conventional warfare?
Before Hitler invaded Norway, he had his emissary show a film to the high officials in Oslo showing London embroiled in flames after a bomb attack. At a June 1942 meeting on the German atomic bomb program, a leading Nazi general asked the scientists how big a bomb would need to be to drop on New York. As before, I believe the Germans would have used such a bomb, and if they had managed to obtain one before the Americans, it might have eclipsed any importance of conventional warfare. As history shows, the Japanese did not last long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What was the biggest difficulty in writing this book? Was it difficult to find accurate reference material and interviews since many of those alive during the war have passed away?
All but one of the saboteurs had passed before I started my research. That said, of all my books, I had more first-hand material on this one than any other. The families of these brave men gave me their diaries, letters, and memoirs. The British and Norwegian archives opened up to provide me all the planning notes for these operations, the secret telegrams, and the after-action reports by the saboteurs themselves. With this vast trove of material, I felt like I could almost see what these soldiers saw, experience their fears and doubts and what carried them through the mission (Gunnerside and the last-minute sabotage that followed). Hopefully this brings this story to life like never before—and makes for a thrilling read.
If this mission was in the present, which Special Operations unit would be most likely involved?
They would need to have the specialized operational effectiveness of the SEALS, but also be expert skiers and skilled winter survivalists. As much as these operations were against the Nazis, the greatest threat these commandos faced in many periods of time was nature. Before the operation, they had to survive for over two months in a high mountain plateau of rock and snow, in a place where legend has it that it gets so cold, so fast, that flames freeze in the fire. Blizzard winds hurled these men off their feet. They survived off only what they could hunt (reindeer), and so needed to be expert hunters as well. To escape, they had to ski almost 400 miles through enemy-occupied territory at night to the Swedish border. They could call on no support. Put simply, they were on their own.