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One man’s epic struggle to help liberate Occupied Norway during WW2

Posted in Adventure, Espionage, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Saturday, 18 January 2014

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This edited article about World War Two first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 518 published on 18 December 1971.

National mblem of Norway, picture, image, illustration

The Norwegian Lion, the popular emblem of Norway embraced during the Occupation as a symbol of freedom

The long chase after Jan Baalsrud started on a cold, snowy morning in March 1943, when a small fishing-boat entered the waters of German-occupied Norway. The boat, with its top speed of eight knots, moved slowly and stealthily towards a tiny island off the frozen, north-west coast.

Aboard the craft were four dedicated Norwegians who had escaped from Norway in the summer of 1940, when their Government had reluctantly acknowledged the superior might of Germany, and retreated to London.

The fight against Hitler was continued from there, and Jan and his friends were trained as saboteurs. Their mission as they sailed back to their native land, was to blow-up a vital seaplane base at the island port of Tromso.

The fishing-boat carried a cargo of explosives capable of blasting the aerodrome sky-high. And as the craft reached the deserted island near Tromso, it dropped anchor in readiness for the attack the next day.

Before this could be launched, however, a German warship entered the fjord and bore swiftly down on the fishing-boat. Jan and his companions only had time to light a fuse to the explosives and then row towards the shore in a dinghy.

On reaching land, they split-up as German snipers opened fire on them. Their fishing-boat demolished, they had no alternative but to flee through the ice and snow in the hope of eventually reaching the neutral country of Sweden.

During the initial dash up a snow-blanketed hill, Jan lost one of his sea-boots. His right foot became frozen and he hardly felt the pain when one of the sniper’s bullets removed half of his big toe.

He reached the summit of the hill, found that his three comrades were nowhere in sight, and set out to swim from island to island until he reached the comparative safety of the Norwegian shore.

For the next few days he had little awareness of what was happening to him. He lost all track of time, came across nothing substantial to eat, and finally arrived at the mainland without knowing where he was.

He collapsed senseless on the beach, where he was discovered by two small girls out on a walk. They helped Jan to his feet, took him to their home, and begged their parents to give the fugitive food and shelter.

Despite the risks they ran, the family tended to Jan’s wounded toe, and gave him hot meals and a warm bed to sleep in. He stayed quietly indoors until his strength and confidence returned.

The girls’ father told him he was still some eighty miles from the Swedish frontier, and that German patrols were out looking for the “enemy agent.” Realizing his presence in the house was endangering his new-found friends. Jan said a grateful goodbye to them and pushed on into the surrounding hills.

As he moved cautiously forwards, still troubled by his injured foot, he was surprised and gratified by the number of people who were eager to help him. At the time it was a capital offence to aid and abet anyone who had illegally entered Norway – whether by parachute or boat.

Even so, the men and women of the mountains provided him with suitable clothing, clean bandages, and skis. Before long he found just how invaluable these were.

He was trying to make his way over the 6,200-foot Mount Jaeggevarre, when an avalanche suddenly came hurtling down towards him. He had neither the opportunity nor the agility to get out of its path, and stood transfixed as the snow crashed and thundered around him.

A few seconds passed . . . the avalanche continued on its course of destruction . . . and Jan was buried almost up to his neck in the tightly-packed mass. Again he lost consciousness and all sense of time. When he finally came to, he forced open his eyes and discovered he could not see anything!

He was snowblind, and although he was now able to struggle clear he could not tell where or what he was lurching towards. It was then, as both death and the pursuing Germans grew nearer, that he had a magnificent stroke of luck.

Covered from head to toe with frozen ice, he stumbled upon a remote log cabin belonging to a dedicated patriot called Marius Gronvold. Marius took the runaway in, heard his incredible story, and determined to do all he could to ensure that Jan safely reached Sweden.

It was obvious that the saboteur’s foot would no longer allow him to walk properly. A sledge and reindeer were called for, and to get these Marius hurried off to Tromso. There he approached several shopkeepers and merchants who detested the Germans as much as he did.

Between them they raised nearly £1,700 – enough to buy a serviceable sledge and a healthy young reindeer, and to pay two Lapps to guide Jan to the border. Within a week he was strapped to the sledge, the reindeer was harnessed, and the Lapps were ready to escort him on his last dash to freedom.

All went well until the expedition reached the top of Mount Redval, where a new sledge and reindeer were to await them. There was no relief party there, however, and Jan had to be concealed in a four-foot hole, with a boulder placed so that the ever-present storms did not freeze him to death.

The German patrols were now out in force, and due to this it was not until nearly four weeks later that Marius and the Lapps were able to return to Jan’s hiding-place!

Convinced that Jan must surely be dead, Marius rolled back the stone and looked sadly at the snow-covered body of his friend. Then, amazingly enough, the fugitive looked up, opened his eyes, and said faintly: “You can’t kill an old fox, you know.”

The food and brandy stowed in the hole had kept Jan alive. All that remained was for him to be taken down the far side of the mountain, across a frozen lake, and into Sweden.

It was then – as the sledge was speeding across the lake – that six German soldiers were seen resting on their skis at the top of a nearby hill. For a moment the Germans looked incredulously at the sledge, its occupant, and the herd of five hundred reindeer which had attached itself to the party.

Three of the patrol immediately set off in pursuit, while the others fired at the escapees with their rifles. The reindeer scattered in fear as the shots rang out, and with a hundred yards still to go it looked as if Jan would be captured after all.

The skiers grew gradually closer and the bullets whistled low over Jan’s head . . . Fifty yards to the border and the Germans were rapidly narrowing the gap . . . Twenty yards and it seemed that all was lost.

Then, with a final desperate spurt, the sledge surged ahead and shot over the borderline. The Germans were forced to a halt, and the runaways were soon out of rifle-range.

Jan’s epic adventure on the run had come to a successful, touch-and-go conclusion. Six months later he was back again in Britain, at his base in the Shetland Islands, ready to carry on the battle to make Norway a free and independent country once more.

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