Hometown talk on Saturday as ‘Fire and Ice’ takes a break for Christmas

'Fire and Ice' arrives History Press author Vincent Hunt gives his final talk of the year this Saturday December 12th on the scorched earth destruction of Norway, telling stories from his book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ (ISBN: 9780750958073)

 The talk will take place at 11am at Didsbury Library in south Manchester. It’s his first UK appearance since a successful book tour of East Coast USA last month, where he spoke to Norwegian-American audiences in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC.

Hunt will tell how he left the streets of Manchester for the far north of Norway pursuing a story that became darker with almost every step.

During two months of October and November 1944, German fire patrols burned down every building in the north of the country – 11,000 houses, 6,000 farms and countless churches, hotels, hospitals, fish factories and lighthouses – and forcibly evacuated the 75,000 local population.

It’s thought 25,000 fled the forced evacuation and hid in caves, in the mountains or on islands. 50,000 Norwegians were transported south out of Finnmark and the north, mostly to the south and the Lofoten Islands. 10,000 were left behind in Russian-liberated areas and 8,500 Sami indigenous people were not evacuated.

More than 1,800 evacuees were crammed onto the boat Karl Arp, a Scottish-built cargo ship refitted for the Nazis after being sunk at Dunkirk. There were only two toilets and within hours people were becoming sick. Dysentery and typhoid broke out and lice spread like wildfire.

By the time the boat reached Narvik it was a floating hell, with dead, sick and injured everywhere. The final death toll from the Karl Arp was 29 dead, mostly the old and young, many of whom were buried in Narvik.

Many of those refugees passed through Tromsø and would have seen the one-time pride of the German fleet –the battleship Tirpitz – upside down in the fjord alongside the town, having been caught in an open fjord by RAF precision-bombing Lancasters.

As Hunt travelled across the Arctic seventy years later gathering stories from people who were there or whose families were affected, he uncovered some of the dark secrets of the time – and there were plenty.

Soviet PoWs were worked to death building Nazi defences in the Norwegian mountains for a glorious last stand that never came, when some prisoners were so badly starved they resorted to cannibalism; the children of German soldiers who massively outnumbered the local population were victimised and humiliated and the children who grew up during the war in the north were traumatised for life – that’s if they weren’t maimed and killed by the ammunition dumped by the Nazis as they fled the north.

Vincent Hunt’s talk begins at 11am and is free. More details about the author at www.vincenthunt.co.uk. Read his blog here: https://scorchedearthstories.wordpress.com and follow his tweets @scorchedvh

‘Fire and Ice’ talk on Saturday December 12th at 11am. Location: Didsbury Library, 692 Wilmslow Road, Manchester M20 2DN, 0161 227 3755

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Horror of Karl Arp cargo ship journey for 1,800 refugees remembered as ‘Fire and Ice’ US tour winds up in Washington

The final stop in my ‘Fire and Ice’ tour of Norwegian America was just outside Washington DC, in the town of Fairfax, Virginia, where the local branch of the Sons of Norway group are based.

They have their headquarters in a lovely two-storey building on the edge of town and their President Burt Koske was kind enough to pick me and son Martins up from the subway.

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It was an excellent night and we really enjoyed the company and the hospitality. There was a lavish buffet laid out for everyone and we were invited to eat and drink until we’d had enough. When everyone had finished, we began the talk.

I began by outlining the area of Norway affected by the scorched earth burning and the systematic and very thorough destruction of the northern county of Finnmark by the Nazis.

During two months of October and November 1944, German fire patrols burned down or destroyed more than 11,000 houses, 6,000 farms, 4,700 barns, 27 churches and 140 houses owned by religious organisations; 53 hotels and inns, 420 shops, 21 hospitals and medical buildings, 306 fish factories, 106 schools and 60 local administration buildings. 230 buildings for craft and industry, 350 bridges, 350 motor boats and thousands of rowing boats, 180 lighthouses – and boats, telephone poles and harbours.(1)

Before dealing in detail with the evacuation of the civilian population, I told the story of finding the diary of the destruction of Hammerfest. Small sections of the town were destroyed in November 1944 until one night the wind picked up when part was being burned and fanned the flames until the fire spread and took the churches too, which apparently wasn’t supposed to happen: there were German dead in the graveyards. After the war the Catholic church in Hammerfest was rebuilt from contributions sent from Germany.

But what happened to the people who lived in the north? The statistics for the scorched earth clearance of people are staggering.

The operation to forcibly evacuate 75,000 civilians from Finnmark began on October 26 1944 through a ‘Hitler order’ which had to be obeyed.

It’s thought 25,000 fled the forced evacuation and hid in caves, in the mountains or on islands. 50,000 Norwegians were transported south out of Finnmark and the north, mostly to the south and the Lofoten Islands. 10,000 were left behind in Russian-liberated areas and 8,500 Sami were not evacuated.

Between 1 – 21 November 1944, 35,000 refugees passed through Tromsø, the main evacuation centre in an operation co-ordinated by Tromsø hotelier Ragnar Hansen. People coming off the boats were found somewhere to stay, fed and put up overnight before the second phase of relocating them began, usually to relatives living further south.

Many of those in Tromsø at the time of the clearance of the north would have seen the one-time pride of the German fleet – Tirpitz – upside down in the fjord alongside the town, having been caught in the open while in Tromsø by RAF precision bombing Lancasters.

But the story that drew most attention is that of the Norwegians who were loaded onto one of the transport ships that called at the main fjords on the way south west to Tromsø. There were more than 1,800 people crammed onto the boat Karl Arp, a cargo ship built 25 years earlier in Scotland which had been bombed and sunk at Dunkirk while serving for a French shipping line.

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The German cargo ship Karl Arp seen in 1972 in Turkey as ‘Karaman Dogan’. She was sold for scrap in 1975 after 55 years in service. Picture by Robert J Smith from http://www.shipspotting.com

Salvaged by the Germans and registered in Hamburg the boat’s name was changed from Cap Tafelneh to Karl Arp and she was sent north to help evacuate refugees from the far north of Finnmark. But the boat was a cargo ship, not a passenger ship and the evacuees had to go in the hold.

There were only two toilets and within hours people were becoming sick. Dysentery and typhoid broke out and lice spread like wildfire. By the time the boat reached Narvik it was like a floating hell, with dead, sick and injured everywhere. The final death toll from the Karl Arp was 29 dead, mostly the old and young, many of whom were buried in Narvik.

At the end of the war the Karl Arp was seized as a war prize and returned to its French owners where she resumed service under her former name of Cap Tafelneh. In 1950 the boat was sold to a Turkish shipping company and again in 1957 to a second Turkish owner and renamed Kahraman Dogan. The ship is pictured in Istanbul in 1972 towards the end of her life. She was scrapped in 1975.

It was only in 2012 that a memorial was placed in Narvik to the people who died on the Carl Arp, thanks to the efforts of a determined local man Olav Sørensen whose family were on board.

At the end of my talk we had a short question and answer session which covered some of the other ways the war affected Norwegian society – the vast outnumbering of the local population by the Nazi military machine, for example; the issue of the lebensborn, the children born of liaisons between Norwegian girls and German soldiers.

It can take a while to realise that these issues are all part of the same story, as is the trauma suffered by the children of Kirkenes that many are still living with, even a generation or two later.

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Signing books afterwards with Jinaan Larssen and Burt Koske, organiser of the night.

Martins and I said our goodbyes to Burt Koske and the Sons of Norway in Fairfax, having had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and cast an envious eye at their library, featuring some of the books that I used as source material for ‘Fire and Ice’ and had shipped over to the UK.

When I got back to the UK several days later, I received an email from Lars Nilssen, the co-chair of the Norwegian Immigration Association in Brooklyn (http://niahistory.org/) and a gentleman with roots on Vadsø who had been at my talk in Brooklyn at the start of my week.

He told me he’d been reading ‘Fire and Ice’ with great interest, particularly the chapter about the evacuation of civilians from the north on the Karl Arp.

His grandfather Nils Betten had been the deputy in Vadsø and had tried unsuccessfully to head for the forest and so dodge the round-up of civilians onto the Karl Arp. He sailed south to Trondheim where he’d stayed with his sons before they were sent on to Sweden for the duration of the war and returned to Vadsø just before the war ended.

So even 71 years later there are still stories being told about the Karl Arp and the evacuation of 50,000 Norwegians into an Arctic winter. Incredibly, the vast majority survived – and the stories I’ve collected in ‘Fire and Ice’ are helping people on the other side of the Atlantic find out more about their family history today.

Thanks to everyone involved in the American ‘Fire and Ice’ talks, especially Burt Koske in Washington DC, Victoria Hofmo in Brooklyn and Jorgen Flood and Frode Kjersem in Philadelphia, as well as Alisa Myles, Donna Gusty and Judy Musto at Newtown Library, PA. Special thanks to Martins Vitolins, photographer for the trip.

1. Figures from Norway at War: Liberation (Norge I Krig: Frigjoring)

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Tears still being shed for Guri the horse; refugees sing as they sail past their burning homes, the pain still felt today

P1130327When I was in Norway researching for my scorched earth book ‘Fire and Ice’ I knew how powerful the stories were, but it’s surprising how a little distance and a different audience can make a writer realise the depth of the emotions involved in what people have told them.

The second stop of my ‘Fire and Ice’ speaking tour of the East Coast USA was a library in a pretty town called Newtown PA, an hour south of New York. This was an event organised by my friend Alisa Myles,  a specialist reading teacher in schools in the area who has close links to the library, run by a wonderful group of very motivated, well organised and generous women.

Newtown is what you might call ‘Small Town America’. It’s a town in the Pennsylvania countryside an hour north west out of Philadelphia: the kind of place where you can hear freight trains coming from a long distance away.

Alisa and I had circulated the details around the local community and the Norwegian organisations in the area and we were delighted when a small but significant crowd of representatives of both groups of people turned up for my talk.

Because this was a local event rather than a Norwegian occasion, I switched some of the topics in my talk so non-Norwegians would be able to relate to them.

We began with a couple of stories from Kirkenes, liberated by the Russians in October 1944, six months before the rest of Norway. The town, Norway’s most north-easterly settlement, had been attacked repeatedly for years by the Red Air Force as it was a supply port for the Nazi offensive into the Soviet Union.

Ships brought men, machines and munitions into Kirkenes all year round as its waters didn’t freeze, so the Soviets launched round-the-clock air attacks during the summer of 1944 to try to halt the build-up of troops ahead of their devastating and successful assault involving nearly 100,000 men on the German front line just west of Murmansk. This is known as the ‘Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive’.

The bombing absolutely traumatised the civilian population, the children of Kirkenes told me when I visited. I read a couple of stories told to me by the remarkable Karin Johnsen, who roamed the area as a youngster in the 1960s with her brother and their gang looking for old ammunition to blow up.

‘You would get a crisis psychiatrist or medical help if you went through that kind of traumatic experience nowadays,’ Karin said. ‘You’d be in therapy for years. But there was nothing. That’s why the kids took over, and we were ruling the town. Because we knew the grown-ups had their problems with screaming and shouting and drinking and everybody was more or less nuts, so that’s what happens.

‘When it was a clear sky in the winter, my grandmother would say, ‘Look out, it’s bomb weather.’ And when there was a thunderstorm she’d say, ‘Put your boots on and go to the basement because now we are going to die.’ She’d have these flashbacks and if there was a big explosion or planes passing low over town, she’d be hysterical. I’m still scared of thunderstorms.

‘My grandfather was crazy too. He taught me how to use a Luger. He said I had to bend my arm or the recoil from it would break my arm. He had a bayonet that he’d stolen from the Germans during the war. He sent me home once with it to scare my grandmother after getting me drunk.’

I can see shudders in the audience. What did the scorched earth destruction in the north of Norway actually mean for tens of thousands of people, I asked them? In reality they were ordered out of their homes at short notice into an Arctic winter and either forced onto boats heading south or they walked, cycled or made their own way out of the area. As they walked, they could see behind them the smoke rising from where they used to live as their homes burned.

One place that I visited during my research was a beautiful area alongside the Lyngenfjord, to the north west of Tromso. There I met an artist, Grethe Gunneng, and she showed me the area alongside the coast where her family had lived for generations. This town, Djupvik, had been occupied quickly after the German invasion in 1940 and heavily fortified. Checkpoints had been thrown across roads, barbed wire and minefields were laid along approaches from the fjord, anti-aircraft positions had been constructed and enormous gun batteries were built along the coast to shell any approaching invasion force. The gun positions are still there in Djupvik. Have a look at the paintings of the British war artist Stephen Bone who was there just as the war ended.

I told my audience about events in Djupvik, and the stories Grethe had told me about how everyday life gradually got darker and darker under German rule from the initial occupation of 1940 to the point where the prisoners of war were brought in to do the construction work.

The prison camp was built to hold them and local people could see how they were becoming malnourished so they’d leave food out ‘for the animals’ so the prisoners could eat it, despite the Germans having strict orders not to allow this. And then local officials like Grethe’s grandfather, the postmaster, would get invitations from the German commandant to go up to the camp on a Saturday evening to witness the hanging of prisoners – a sick night out which he tried to decline.

That was everyday life: going through checkpoints, being ordered around, witnessing the maltreatment of Soviet prisoners – and all this in a part of Norway that is picture book beautiful. This fjord is transformed during the summer months nowadays as motorists cruise around it enjoying the Midnight Sun. It’s one of the big modern tourist destinations, but it has such a sad recent past.

When Hitler ordered the scorched earth clearances in October 1944, all the people in the towns around Djupvik were ordered to report to Birtavarre, a small settlement a little further south on the fjord where there was a landing stage big enough to take a reasonable-sized boat.

Happier times before the Nazis: Grethe Gunneng's mother and some of her sisters together with Guri the horse and foal.

Happier times before the Nazis: Grethe Gunneng’s mother and some of her sisters together with Guri the horse and foal.

Many people started to walk the 20 kms to Birtavarre with their animals in the cold weather but one of Grethe’s uncles wasn’t going to let the Germans have his much-loved horse, Guri.

He couldn’t face the prospect of Guri being badly treated by the Germans, so he took an awful decision to spare her this. This is how Grethe told the story in ‘Fire and Ice’.

“My uncle told me about the time they had to go as refugees. The Germans told them to bring all their animals to Birtavarre [a town on the same fjord about 10 km south] so they went there along the road. But he didn’t want the Nazis to take his horse Guri, because he loved her so much. He said he would prefer to shoot Guri himself than let the Germans take her and maybe mistreat her.

“So he took a gun and walked with Guri to the field and shot her. Afterwards, some of the neighbours said they wished they’d done that to their animals too. My uncle was 70 when he told me this story and he was crying as he told me.”

As I was telling this story I realised I was becoming a bit upset myself. Imagine a young lad shooting his own horse so the Nazis wouldn’t have her? I looked up and saw a couple of people in the audience were dabbing away tears too.

At Birtavarre, there were scenes from hell. The animals the people living in the area had brought were being slaughtered for food and the river flowing into the fjord was running red with blood. In the middle of all this activity – houses being set on fire, soldiers ordering people to leave animals here and line up there, children probably upset and bewildered crying – people were being loaded onto boats away from this.

The refugees from Djupvik sail past the shore where they have lived their whole lives, their homes burning, their animals slaughtered - and burst into an impromptu song of the north: 'Oh I know a land far away'. It's the stuff that films are made of...

The refugees from Djupvik sail past the shore where they have lived their whole lives, their homes burning, their animals slaughtered – and burst into an impromptu song of the north: ‘Oh I know a land far away’. It’s the stuff that films are made of…

One of the most powerful moments of my research trip to Norway came when Grethe and I were standing looking out across the Lyngenfjord. She told the story of a boatload of refugees from Djupvik being sent to Tromso who realised they were sailing past the small area of coastline that had been their home for so many years; a picturesque stretch of land edged with mountains alongside a fjord that had been transformed by war from a place of natural beauty to a nightmare.

As the boat drew level with Djupvik one of the men in the boat, a teacher, began to sing one of the songs of the north which everyone knew and which is, in effect, a northern national anthem: ‘Oh I know a land far up north’ [A eg veit meg eit land’].

And as he sang, everyone in the boat being torn from the the land they loved, the place they had grown up in, sang too:

‘Oh, I know of a land far away to the north

With a shimmering beach between mountains and fjords

Where my heart wants to stay, when I’m far, far away

Tied with the finest, finest bands.

Oh, I remember, I remember

I remember this land so well!

And I long to see this land so often, and it tugs at me gently when I am far away.

With awakening spring my longing turns strong

So that all I can do is cry

All I can do is cry’

I remember at the time Grethe was telling me this story that the emotion – quite naturally – seemed to be getting to her. I wrote about an extraordinary moment that happened at this time.

“We both gaze at the spot in the fjord where such a dramatic and emotional moment happened. As we look, a shard of sunlight breaks through the clouds and lights up the waves exactly where we’re looking. It’s like a scene from a film: a boat carrying people forced to leave their village – their world – having shot their much-loved animals themselves to spare them cruelty and mistreatment, their homes burned or destroyed, possessions buried, having walked to Birtavarre where the fjord is running red with the blood of butchered animals.

As they sail past the homes they had to leave, the teacher bursts into a song of their much-loved homeland they are now leaving and they all start singing too. It’s impossibly heart-rending and powerful against the backdrop of this grey, misty fjord with its single ray of sunlight. Grethe stares out across the fjord with a faraway look in her eyes and says: ‘My mother says to me: “When I die, play this song at my funeral.”’

Now, as I’m telling this powerful story to a room full of people on the other side of the world. I can feel the emotion is rather getting to me too, not least because of Guri the horse. I stop, and pause, and notice that one or two people in the room seem to be feeling the same way.

So not only did the story of Guri the horse have Grethe’s uncle crying 70 years after he spared her mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, it had Grethe crying as she told me. It’s  had me crying ever since and now I’m telling people and they are crying.

Guri’s unfortunate end in a field high up in the Arctic Circle 71 years ago hasn’t lost the power to touch people.

Relaxing after an emotional hour. left to right: Martins, Alisa, Violet, the author

Relaxing after an emotional hour. left to right: Martins, Alisa, Violet, the author

At the end of the talk I was delighted to meet several Norwegian ladies who live near Newtown who have quite an active group and then after a couple of photographs we all enjoyed the cakes and refreshments that Alise and the library staff have so kindly laid on. Then it was back to the station for Martins and myself for a late train to Philadelphia, where we had a day off to look around a city about to be voted UNESCO most important city in American history just a day or two later.

Next and final stop: With the Sons of Norway, Fairfax, Virginia (a Metro ride to the edge of Washington DC then a short ride in a car.)

With many thanks to the Board and staff at Newtown library, Alisa Myles and daughter Violet.

Posted in animals, author interviews, history, Manchester, memory, Norway, oral history, trauma, writers, WW2 | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

On first night of US-Norway book tour tales of Finnmark kids, ammunition and Gestapo men begging for mercy

Beginning my talk to the Leif Ericson Society in Brooklyn, introduced by Carl Hedlund.

Beginning my talk to the Leif Ericson Society in Brooklyn, introduced by Carl Hedlund.

I have taken my stories of the scorched earth destruction of wartime Finnmark and the far north of Norway on the road during the past few weeks: opening a literary festival in Merseyside at the beginning of the month and then as a guest of the Manchester and Liverpool Historical Association, an active group of history lovers in the north west of England.

Wherever I’ve taken the book so far in the UK the response has been similar to mine before I wrote it: I knew something of wartime events in Norway, such as the Heroes of Telemark, the Resistance in the south and the sinking of the Tirpitz.

But the stories I gathered on the road in the north of Norway which I tell in ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ – of the trauma of the people of Kirkenes from the bombing by the Red Army Air Force and the families scattered by the forced evacuation of Finnmark, to the cruel treatment and suffering of the Soviet prisoners of war worked to death building roads and military bunkers .. this is new to my audiences.

So I boarded a plane for the United States wondering what Norwegian-Americans would make of these stories.

My first stop was Bay Ridge in Brooklyn thanks to the wonderful Victoria Hofmo, who is an active organiser for the Norwegian-American community there and who runs the Scandinavian East Coast Museum (http://www.scandinavian-museum.org/about.html) Victoria was also kind enough to interview me at length for the Norwegian-American Weekly, which she contributes to.

On the way to the 'Fire and Ice' talk in Brooklyn.

On the way to the ‘Fire and Ice’ talk in Brooklyn.

The venue for my ‘Fire and Ice’ talk was a church dead in the centre of one of the largest and oldest populations of Norwegians in America. Bay Ridge was once home to 60,000 Norwegians and Scandinavians and had been established 300 years before by settlers from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, dominating that tip of Brooklyn. At the end of that section of land the enormous Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built, and it was Norwegian homes that had to be cleared for its foundations and approach roads.

Slides and stories from Finnmark transplanted to Brooklyn.

Slides and stories from Finnmark transplanted to Brooklyn.

Under the auspices of a meeting of the Leif Ericson Society – named after the Viking who first landed in America in 1000 AD and who almost gave his name to that enormous bridge – an audience of Norwegian-Americans gathered, mostly from the south although with one descendant of the former Sheriff of Vadsø, a small settlement in the north near Kirkenes.

I began with extracts of Knut Tharaldsen’s stories of watching the Red Army pushing the German Army out of Jarfjord, witnessing the death of several soldiers at close hand and of others fatally injured waiting to die, and then closing with his assessment of how that immediate trauma affected him and others for the rest of his life.

Then I moved on to Karin Johnsen’s shocking tales of how she and her brother used to collect live ammunition from around Kirkenes and either throw it on fires, when it would explode, or smuggle it into the family home in her rucsac. I could sense the same feeling of utter shock and disbelief among my audience as I had felt when Karin first told me these stories.

Sometimes, when I’ve had a break from these stories and then come back to them, I underestimate the emotional impact they might have on people hearing them for the first time. All of a sudden I realise that what went on in the north of Norway during the war is quite heavy duty material.

The children blown up by live ammunition. The Soviet prisoners starved and worked to death, resorting to cannibalism in their pitiful camps in the mountains near Tromsø. The ‘lebensborn’ children born of German fathers who were badly treated, abused and victimised after the war.

I mentally search for stories that might lift the mood. How about the Norwegian-American hero pilot Bernt Balchen who flew supply drops to the Resistance and later airlifted essential supplies into post-scorched earth Kirkenes? Yes, that anecdote about him watching some Red Army soldiers clearing a section of the airfield with a bulldozer and warning the Colonel in charge that there were mines laid in that area. And no sooner had the words come out of his mouth than the bulldozer hit a mine which exploded, killing the two men.

‘Not to worry,’ said the Colonel. ‘We have plenty of men and the Americans have plenty of bulldozers’.

Hmm. Maybe not. How about a rescue, maybe of Norwegians who defied the Nazi round-up of the population of Finnmark? The biggest rescue happened on the island of Sørøya, when 1,000 people took refuge in caves .. but they thought it would only be a matter of days before the Allies landed and rescued them, and in the end they found themselves starving and completely unprepared for winter, and had to send a boat out for help, which came in the form of Royal Navy destroyers running the gauntlet of German U-boats to get them off the island.

In the end I settle for a story told to me by Gunnar Jaklin, son of a Tromsø newspaper editor who fled with his family to Sweden when he discovered the Gestapo wanted to question him for a second time following a spell in a prison camp. Mr Jaklin volunteered for the Norwegian ‘police’ set up in exile in Sweden and sent into the north of Norway to re-establish Norwegian sovereignty in Finnmark, which seem in actual fact not far short of special forces commandos.

He told me a funny story about rounding up Gestapo agents after the capitulation and transporting them by boat to Narvik for further processing. The Gestapo men were lined up on either side of the boat’s main hall and as one of Mr Jaklin’s colleagues came through the door he accidentally caught his thumb in the trigger of his semi-automatic machine gun and fired a burst of bullets through the roof of the boat.

But the Gestapo agents thought this was simply a burst of gunfire before they were executed and dumped into the sea, and they began to cry and beg for their lives.

‘Can you believe it?’ Mr Jaklin said. ‘Gestapo?’

The story has the desired effect and a ripple of laughter spreads through my audience. I’m relieved. Perhaps I have under-estimated the content of my talk….

America's Norwegian population dates back 300 years. In tonight's audience were people with relatives who had been involved in events in Finnmark and those working to document the history of Norwegians who migrated to America. It was a fascinating evening.

America’s Norwegian population dates back 300 years. In tonight’s audience were people with relatives who had been involved in events in Finnmark and those working to document the history of Norwegians who migrated to America. It was a fascinating evening.

All of the stories in ‘Fire and Ice’ affected me deeply – that’s why I included them. But perhaps the story that affected me the most, and increasingly chokes me up, is that of the 23 year old Luftwaffe ‘helferin’ or secretary Erika Schöne, who died in what remains the worst crash in Norwegian aviation history, that of an overloaded Luftwaffe Condor which broke up over a fjord in the north in October 1944 killing all 51 people on board, most of whom were women.

Erika’s story was told to me by Lakselv author Roger Albrigtsen who runs a website piecing together the historical landscape of the war in Finnmark and the north called FKLF.no which can be found at the website (http://krigshistorisklandskap.blogspot.co.uk/). This was a resource I relied on heavily when researching ‘Fire and Ice’ and Roger – part of a network of military historians and enthusiasts in the north – was extremely generous with his help.

Erika died in the plane crash but her family contacted Roger quite recently and asked if he’d take a picture of her grave when he was next in Narvik, where there is a German cemetery. This he did, laying a rose on her grave before taking the picture. Erika’s family were very grateful and shared with him the contents of Erika’s last letter home to her sister and young niece in which she described how she’d grown to love the north of Norway and if she didn’t make it back she would be buried there. It’s almost as if she knew. Roger was interested in this as the book he was writing at the time was called ‘Last Letters’.

The part of the story which chokes me up though is how the family reacted to Erika’s death. For years afterwards her father would scan the skies, as if looking for Erika’s plane to come back. There’s a grave for Erika in Germany, but of course, she’s in Norway. To me this shows how grief and loss lasts a lifetime and that the theme of remembrance can reduce war to individuals caught up in it – and a tragedy like that of Erika Schöne is a tragedy we can all as humans relate to.

After the talk, author and audience sat down to a meal of Swedish meatballs, pasta, salad and cakes which was delicious and very welcome, before my son Martins and I walked back to our hotel through Bay Ridge, once a bustling area of Scandinavian life which – 40 minutes from Manhattan on the ‘R’ subway – is mentally miles away from the frantic pace of life in New York.

I would certainly love to go back to Bay Ridge again, and I’m very grateful to Victoria and the Leif Ericson Society for hosting my talk. The next day we moved on to Philadelphia and then to Washington DC, so stay with my blog for details of our visit there.

‘Fire and Ice’ is published by The History Press and distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing (www.ipgbook.com) It is available online and in all good bookshops. More details at http://www.vincenthunt.co.uk/ Buy the book here: http://bit.ly/1ONpYON Read a fascinating in-depth author interview with writer Roz DeKett at her blog: Tweets about the book at: @scorchedvh and a Facebook page too where you can contact the author.

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‘Fire and Ice’ US speaking tour takes shape with New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC talks

Award-winning British journalist Vince Hunt will be giving a series of talks in the USA later this month on the writing of his book about the scorched earth destruction of Finnmark in World War Two.

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Hunt speaking at Den Norske Klub in London earlier this year.

The writing of ‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ took BBC documentary maker Hunt across the Arctic north of Norway, interviewing people who lived through or grew up with the consequences of the burning of Finnmark in October 1944 by German troops retreating from the Red Army.

In a journey from Kirkenes west to Tromso he uncovered tales never before told in English about life in the occupied north, of families traumatised by relentless bombing, of Soviet prisoners starved so badly they were reduced to cannibalism, of a PoW death camp alongside the fabled Lyngen Line, where fanatical Nazis planned a glorious last stand should an Allied invasion come.

As many as 50,000 Norwegians were forcibly evacuated south so they would not help Soviet troops pursuing the Nazis.. and once they’d gone their houses were doused in petrol and torched.

The burning of Hammerfest: picture taken by a German soldier as the town was torched.

The burning of Hammerfest: picture taken by a German soldier as the town was torched.

On Monday October 26th – in the week of the 71st anniversary of Hitler’s orders to burn the north – Hunt will be the guest of the Scandinavian East Coast Museum and Leif Eriksson Society at The First Free Church, on 66th Street & 6th Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Contact victoriahofmo@aol.com to reserve a space. 7pm start.

The following night Tuesday October 27th, he’ll be at the Newtown Library, 114 E. Center Ave, Newtown, PA 18940, starting at 7pm. Reserve a space via librarian@newtownlibrary.com.

Then on Friday October 30 he’s the guest of the Washington Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Fairfax, VA. The meeting starts with a dinner at 7pm at The Washington Lodge (Norway House) 3846 Meredith Dr., Fairfax, VA 22030, with the talk starting at 8pm. Reserve places with Lodge President Burton H Koske (kobur@cox.net)

Remains of one of the gun batteries at Gamvik. The garrison was 135-strong, so there were two villagers for each soldier.

Remains of one of the gun batteries at Gamvik. The garrison was 135-strong, so there were two villagers for each soldier.

‘Fire and Ice’ is distributed in the USA and Canada by Trafalgar Square Publishing (www.ipgbook.com) and is available online and in all good bookshops. For review copies and further details, contact Bridget Costin at bcostin@ipgbook.com

‘Fire and Ice’ tells stories from the Nazi scorched earth retreat from northern Norway in 1944. Virtually everything was destroyed to stop te Red Army pursuing the retreating Germans. Bridges, harbours, towns and houses were blown up and set on fire and fifty thousand people were forcibly evacuated. Seventy years later, the author crosses the Arctic gathering dramatic stories of this terrible time: of relentless bombing, sudden death and survival in sub-zero temperatures.

More details at http://www.vincenthunt.co.uk/ Buy the book here: http://bit.ly/1ONpYON

Read a fascinating in-depth author interview with writer Roz DeKett at her blog:
Tweets about the book at: @scorchedvh and a Facebook page too where you can contact the author.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inside stories from my Norway scorched earth history book ‘Fire and Ice’ in Manchester this weekend

My book tour of northern England and the East Coast of the USA rolls into Manchester this weekend.

On Saturday October 17 I’ll be telling stories about the destruction and forced evacuation of northern Norway by the Nazis in 1944 and the writing of my book about this time: ‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway.’

Almost every building in the region known as Finnmark was torched. Entire towns were blown up, with bridges, harbours and ports put out of action so the Red Army couldn’t pursue the Nazis retreating from their front line in the far Arctic north around Kirkenes and Murmansk.

I travelled across the region meeting people who were there or who had lived with the consequences – and the stories they told me were shocking. Soviet prisoners were treated so brutally and starved so badly some resorted to cannibalism: 50,000 Norwegians were forced out of their homes into the sub-zero winter; a community of fishermen was murdered by Nazi commandos just two days before the war ended.

Kare Tannvik, whose family was burned out and who now runs an Ice Hotel in the far North of Norway told me: ‘1944 is Year Zero here. We don’t have a history.’

History of War magazine said of my book: ‘Hunt’s book is a huge success. Packed withdetail, meticulous research.. it’s absolutely essential reading.’

Last weekend I was the opening speaker at Wirral Bookfest, an amazing week of book-related events and guest speakers on Merseyside – and at the end of the month I’ll be giving some talks in New York and Washington DC to Norwegian-American groups.

Come and hear true stories of the scorched earth destruction of Norway and tales from my journey across the Arctic on Saturday October 17th at the Friends’ Meeting House, Peter Street, Manchester starting at 12 noon. Entrance is £2. Or check my website at www.vincenthunt.co.uk

See you there.

Posted in military history, Second World War, writers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

‘Fire and Ice’ ready for Wirral Bookfest with Manchester and Washington DC dates in the diary – and discount voucher news too

fire and ice comp 0956369-1The final preparations are being made for Wirral Bookfest, a celebration of all things literary in NW England. I’ll be the opening speaker on the afternoon of Saturday October 10th talking about ‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway.’

I’ll be telling stories about what happened in 1944 in northern Norway, the people that are in the book and the journey I made across the Arctic gathering the stories from people who were either there or who have lived with the consequences of the destruction and forced evacuation of an entire region.

I’ll be showing slides and answering questions as well as signing copies of ‘Fire and Ice’.

The venue has now been confirmed as Moreton Library in Pasture Road, Moreton
Wirral, CH46 8SA starting at 2.30pm. There’s a map here: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Moreton+Library/@53.4025366,-3.1117981,14z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x487b28849466f26d:0x3fd621d85c5f3db5

Wirral Bookfest is a brilliant week-long literary gathering organised by Wirral Council featuring national and local writers, poets and historians who will be giving talks, appearing at drop-in sessions and signing books.

The big ‘Bookfest’ name this year is Brian Patten, one of the trio of Liverpool Poets who published ‘The Mersey Sound,’ considered one of the most significant poetry anthologies of the 20th century. The three – Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri – changed perceptions of what modern poetry could do and what it should be about, so this is a rare opportunity to hear Brian talk about his work.

The Wirral is also a beautiful part of the country, so I’ll be getting in my car early to walk along the coast at Hoylake and if the tides are right, walk the causeway to Hilbre Island. There’s nothing like a bit of sea air on a Saturday morning….

Utter destruction: Hammerfest in 1945 after the scorched earth burning. Picture copyright the Hammerfest Museum of Reconstruction, used with permission.

Utter destruction: Hammerfest in 1945 after the scorched earth burning. Picture copyright the Hammerfest Museum of Reconstruction, used with permission.

The following Saturday, October 17th I’m in my home town, Manchester, for a 12 noon start as guest speaker at the Manchester and Liverpool Historical Association’s AGM.

This will be held at The Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount Street in Manchester city centre. This historic building is directly behind the Central Library on St. Peter’s Square and visible from the Midland Hotel.

There’ll be stories, slides and signings, so be there if you can. If you’d like a copy of the book and can’t get there, I have vouchers for a discount price with The History Press.

The following week I’m in the United States and I’m working now on arranging some guest events with Norwegian-American Associations and Sons of Norway Lodges on the East Coast. I’ll be in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC.

I have a firm date in the diary though that I’m looking forward to very much. I will give a talk on the evening of Friday October 30th at the Sons of Norway Lodge in Fairfax, just outside Washington DC. More details including a map nearer the time, but it’s a 7pm start with the talk beginning at 8pm.

If any readers in the US would like vouchers for a 30% discount code from my American publisher, please email me through my contact form or via Facebook. The same goes for UK readers.

I hope to see you on the road….

‘Fire and Ice’ tells stories from the Nazi scorched earth retreat from northern Norway in 1944. Virtually everything was destroyed to stop the Red Army pursuing the retreating Germans. Bridges, harbours, towns and houses were blown up and set on fire and fifty thousand people were forcibly evacuated. Seventy years later, the author crosses the Arctic gathering dramatic stories of this terrible time: of relentless bombing, sudden death and survival in sub-zero temperatures.

More details at http://www.vincenthunt.co.uk/ Buy the book here: http://bit.ly/1ONpYON
I tweet about the book at: @scorchedvh
and I have a Facebook page too where you can contact me.

Posted in WW2 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Fire and Ice’ stories go to Wirral Bookfest and Manchester Historical with plans being made for American talks too

The burning of Hammerfest: picture taken by a German soldier as the town was torched.

The burning of Hammerfest: picture taken by a German soldier as the town was torched.

This summer I’ll be taking scorched earth stories from my book ‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ on the road, giving some illustrated talks to historical societies and at book festivals.

It’s a great opportunity for me to tell a few of the stories from wartime Finnmark  in ‘Fire and Ice’ – which is published by The History Press and available from all good bookshops or online.

Following my talk earlier in the year to Den Norske Klub in London, I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be a guest speaker at ‘Bookfest’ – the Wirral Book festival – on Saturday October 10th.

This is a brilliant week-long literary gathering organised by Wirral Council at various locations across the borough featuring national and local writers, poets and historians who will be giving talks, appearing at drop-in sessions and signing books.

I’ll be telling stories, showing slides and answering questions as well as signing copies of ‘Fire and Ice’. That’s a 2.30pm start on the Saturday afternoon October 10th at either Bromborough or Moreton library – that’s to be confirmed at this stage.

The big ‘Bookfest’ name this year is Brian Patten who came to national attention with Roger McGough and Adrian Henri as one of the trio of Liverpool Poets who published ‘The Mersey Sound,’ which is considered one of the most significant poetry anthologies of the 20th century.

'Fire and Ice' author Vincent Hunt

‘Fire and Ice’ author Vincent Hunt

The following Saturday, October 17th I’m in my home town, Manchester, for a 12 noon start as guest speaker at the Manchester and Liverpool Historical Association’s AGM.

This will be held at The Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount Street in Manchester city centre. The building is directly behind the Central Library on St. Peter’s Square and visible from the Midland Hotel.

There’ll be stories, slides and signings, so be there if you can.

The following week I’m in the United States and I’m working now on arranging some guest events with Norwegian-American Associations and Sons of Norway Lodges on the East Coast. I’ll be in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC and am in talks about several possible events around the last week of the month, so watch this space for updates nearer the time.

I really hope this will happen!

‘Fire and Ice’ tells stories from the Nazi scorched earth retreat from northern Norway in 1944. Virtually everything was destroyed to stop the Red Army pursuing the retreating Germans. Bridges, harbours, towns and houses were blown up and set on fire and fifty thousand people were forcibly evacuated.Seventy years later, the author crosses the Arctic gathering dramatic stories of this terrible time: of relentless bombing, sudden death and survival in sub-zero temperatures.

More details at http://www.vincenthunt.co.uk/ Buy the book here: http://bit.ly/1ONpYON
I tweet about the book at: @scorchedvh
and I have a Facebook page too where you can contact me.

Posted in 20th century history, military history, Norway, oral history, Uncategorized, writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why not open the files and reveal the truth about Hopseidet seventy years on?

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The 70th anniversary preview in today’s Finnmarken

A one-word message arrives via Facebookfrom Norwegian author and historical researcher Roger Albrigtsen: ‘Hopseidet.’

That one word breaks opens a chapter of pain and sorrow dating back seventy years to the murders 70 years ago tomorrow (6 May 1945) of six fishermen by Nazi commandos who landed from a submarine at Hopseidet, far to the north of Norway.

As people gather by the stone monument alongside the fjord commemorating the six men who died two days before the war ended, my thoughts will be with Mette Mikalsen and her family, whom I met while in Norway. Mette lost a father, brother and uncle that day, saw her mother raped in fron20.HOPSEIDET MEMORIALt of her and narrowly escaped with her life.

I travelled to Hopseidet when researching my book ‘Fire and Ice’ about the scorched earth destruction of Norway by the German Army. Hopseidet remains one of the most tragic and unresolved episodes of the war in the Arctic north.

Thanks to Alf Helge Jensen, the deputy editor of the newspaper Finnmarken who acted as translator, the curator of the Gamvik museum Thorstein Johnsrud who put us in touch and the owner of a local hotel who lent me a car, I interviewed Mette Mikalsen. I spent an emotional morning with her and her husband Øyvind as she recounted the events that day.

It was an emotional morning hearing the story of Mette and Oyvind Mikalsen

It was an emotional morning hearing the story of Mette and Oyvind Mikalsen

I will publish the full chapter I wrote about Hopseidet in ‘Fire and Ice’ below for the record, but 70 years on, Mette Mikalsen is now in poor health and Øyvind, who at the time we met in August 2013 was 90, died during this past winter. According to some accounts the civilians were ordered by the Norwegian commander in the Finnmark region, Colonel Arne Dahl, to act as look outs for Norwegian soldiers investigating reports of German submarine activity.

For Mette the memories of that awful day when she was five years old have haunted her throughout her life. A German soldier raped her mother as she and nine of her children hid in a cowshed. The soldier then tossed a grenade into it but it failed to go off. When they emerged, they found the bodies of the six men sprawled on the shore of the fjord, having been machine gunned.

No one has ever been brought to justice for the killings at Hopseidet, despite several attempts to put the soldiers involved on trial. And Colonel Dahl never admitted that his order might have caused the deaths of these unarmed civilians so close to the end of hostilities. Why the German commandos killed these men when – even more tragically – the order had been given for a Nazi surrender, we may never know.

ALF HELGE AT METTE'SBut one woman’s life has been scarred irreparably by events seventy years ago – and no one has ever explained why, apologised or been brought to justice.

Surely on this seventieth anniversary the Norwegian government can open its files and tell Mette the truth about why her husband, brother and uncle died???

 Vincent Hunt is a journalist and author based in Manchester, UK

Extract from ‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway.’

Chapter 8: Still Mourning the Men of Hopseidet

I meet Alf Helge Jensen, deputy editor and a veteran of thirty-five years on Norway’s northern newspaper, Finnmarken, at 8.30am on a Saturday morning at a snowplough-passing point in a remote mountain valley.

We are meeting on a bend on Road 888 between Mehamn and the rest of Norway. This is Hopseidet, scene of one of the most tragic incidents of the scorched earth period: the killing of six local fishermen by German commandos in May 1945, two days before the war ended. I am here to talk to the daughter of one of the men killed and to her husband, who was first on the scene seventy years ago. Alf Helge will translate and also write a story about my visit for Finnmarken.

Gale force winds whip the door of my borrowed Mitsubishi Galant out of my hands as I get out of the car in the slashing rain. We are at the base of some very steep-sided slate mountains. A narrow strip of land here separates two fjords, the Hopsfjord to the east and the Eidsfjord to the west. During the war the Germans tried to cut a channel between the two so their boats could use it as a Suez Canalstyle alternative to running the gauntlet of Allied planes in the Barents Sea. With dark foreboding clouds, gusting wind and driving rain this strikes me as a very lonely place.

We drive first to a solid column of black stone a short distance away, overlooking the grey-blue Hopsfjord, rippling stiffly in the wind. It’s carved with the names of the three men and three teenagers who were gunned down here and stands in an area of marshy shoreline fenced off with chicken wire. A piece of twisted wire keeps the gate closed. Alf Helge wants to know what I think of the monument: his paper thinks the council should improve access to it and clean it up.

‘The monument is fine,’ I say, ‘but there are no signs saying where it is, there’s nowhere to park when you find it and there’s no path down to it. And the chicken wire is a bit – disrespectful.’ On a visit to the First World War graveyards of the Western Front in Belgium and France a few weeks previously, I had chanced upon a remote cemetery several kilometres off the beaten track to find it spotlessly maintained. I tell Alf Helge I think more could be done here to respect the memory of these unfortunate men – definitely. We take our photographs and move on.

At 9am Alf Helge and I are sitting in the kitchen of a fisherman’s cottage a few kilometres further east with an elderly man and woman who are offering us coffee and cakes. Mette Mikalson was 5 when this tragedy happened; her husband Øyvind was 20. It will turn out to be a very emotional and tearful morning.

Two U-boats, U-318 and U-992, broke surface in the waters near Hopseidet on the night of 5 May 1945. Thirty commandos were put ashore. They reached the coast 10km from the village and took prisoner a local fisherman, Ivar Oye. He was taken back to the U-boats as a guide.

Hopseidet had been burned in November 1944 during the German withdrawal and Arne Dahl’s men were monitoring the area. In his book The Liberation of Finnmark he says there was a garrison of six men at Hopseidet: regulars from the Norwegian Brigade and Norwegian ‘police’ trained in Sweden. Other accounts say there were three police. But, despite warnings of the German landing, Dahl’s HQ did not send reinforcements immediately. The police were apparently told to use the local fishermen to help resist.

The Germans were a special forces team from the MEK 35 (Marine Einsatz Kommando 35) unit based in Harstad, trained for action behind enemy lines.

Captured Norwegian police had apparently revealed that the village was being used to transport supplies to the growing band of Norwegian soldiers spreading out across Finnmark. Special forces commander Kapit.n-Leutnant Wolfgang Woedermann had drawn up plans in March for a U-boat to visit Hopseidet to destroy any landing piers and buildings being used by the enemy.

Although Hitler had committed suicide the day before, approval came from Berlin and the U-boats left their base in Narvik on 1 May, meeting up with a fishing boat carrying the special forces troops and Woedermann, overall leader of the operation. There is a photograph in German U-boat histories showing the MEK troops, the U-boat crew and Woedermann on the deck of a surfaced U-318, en route to Hopseidet.

But the day before the U-boats broke surface in the Hopsfjord, the new commander of the Reich’s forces, Admiral Donitz – successor to Hitler – had ordered all U-boats to return to their bases. Whether U-318 received that order is not known.

The Norwegians spotted the German subs on the night of 5 May and some of the fishermen prepared to engage them with the weapons they had: one machine gun, a revolver and two old guns. When the Germans came ashore the following morning the defenders opened fire but the commandos drove them back, leaving one man, Mathis Person, shot through the knee, stranded on the beach.

Having overcome resistance, the Germans shot every animal they could find and destroyed every building. At this point they caught the six fishermen trying to escape into the mountains.

Seventy years later I am talking to a woman who was 5 years old at the time and hiding in a cowshed with her mother and eight siblings. Her husband, now 89, lived a few kilometres away. They tell me three Norwegian military officers came to Hopseidet to investigate German submarine activity in the area. The six doomed fishermen were ordered to help by acting as look-outs. The six were Mette’s 47-year-old father Einar, his 18-year-old son Johann and his friend Reidar Karlsen, 17, who had come to Hopseidet after being burned out of his home in a nearby fjord. He became friends with Johann; they were destined to die together. Mette’s uncle Leonard Eriksen, 35, and cousin’s husband Harald Kristiansen, 39, were there too, along with Harald’s 16-year-old son Henry, who lived nearby. The fishermen were unarmed and wearing civilian clothes.

German soldiers came down from the hills and captured the group as they were trying to leave the area, Mette says. Two other fishermen managed to avoid being spotted. One, Odd Olsen, hit behind a rock, clenching his jaw from fear so hard he broke a tooth. Another – Juul Ferman – camouflaged himself with seaweed. Both witnessed what happened next.

Mette begins:

‘My father and mother had eleven children but two were away when this happened. Our house had been burned down in November 1944 so we were living in the cowshed, which my father had cleaned up. He made a roof for it from the wreckage of a German ship which had been bombed by the Russians.

A German soldier came to where we were and fired three shots through the roof. One bullet missed my brother by a metre. Then he raped my mother in front of all of us. I saw it happen. As he left he threw a hand grenade inside, but it landed in a pile of clothes and didn’t explode. My mother threw it out of the window.

There was a lot of shooting, for a long time. Even the Germans up in the hills were shooting. One civilian and one military man escaped into the hills and Germans on the submarine were firing at them as well but they escaped. My mother and all the children were lying in the cellar and we heard the shooting.

Her husband Øyvind lived a short distance away to the east. The news of the killings reached him quickly and he went to the scene with his sister and cousin. He was shocked by the sight that greeted him.

‘The Germans lined them up and shot them. It was an execution,’ he says. ‘My sister Astrid, cousin Rudolf and I were first on the scene. The bodies were not lying very close together so they had probably tried to run away when the shooting started. The two military men and one civilian who had been in the hills said that, when Einar was hit, he got up on his knees and said, ‘You wouldn’t shoot civilians?’

They were his last words. He was shot again and fell dead. When the submarine left it didn’t dive – they played ‘Lili Marlene’ over the loudspeakers. They were so close to the end of the war, so near to being safe. These deaths were so meaningless.

Subsequent accounts of the murders described two German soldiers placing knives they found in a warehouse in the hands of the dead fishermen. The Germans also pinned printed notices to the bodies which read:

Norwegian Men and Women:

Point I: We fight and work for you and for a future European state.

Point II: We do not give away chocolate and tobacco as bait, but we have shown a friendly attitude toward you during five years of our stay here.

Point III: We protect your homes against Bolshevik blood terror.

Point IV: We protect your homes from capitalistic plundering.

Point V: We grant you fishing grounds for your own personal use.

Point VI: We get you work and bread.

The one who opposes us, the one who supports the anti-European powers with English, America, and Soviet Russia as leaders, the one who openly or secretly places himself against us in this for Europe so difficult time, the one who fleeing in fishing boats or escaping across the border opposes our arms, the one who openly or secretly assists the enemy on this or on the other side of the front, he is a traitor to Europe and to his Norwegian homeland, and he will be found and destroyed regardless of where he is hiding.

Mette’s mother would prove to be a lifesaver the following morning when she heard the cries of the wounded fisherman Mathis Person. She rowed across the fjord to get him to medical help: without it he would have bled to death. At 5am Norwegian troops from Arne Dahl’s relief unit arrived on the scene with a doctor.

Two hours later Germany surrendered. The war was over.

I ask Mette what it has been like growing up without her father and brother and so many close relatives. She has been in tears several times already during this interview but cannot even get started on this answer. We pause while she regains her composure.

‘I couldn’t believe that my father was dead. I was 5 years old. I couldn’t accept it, even after the funeral,’ she says:

‘I was sitting by the sea waiting many times, and all this has followed me through all these years. I had nightmares when I was a child. I saw German U-boats in my nightmares.

The government in Finnmark gave us a new house and cowshed and a couple of cows and sheep as a sort of reward so we had milk and meat but it was very hard all the time. We were quite poor. After a while my mother got a small pension every month but that was it. From when we were very young we had to help support the family. The oldest had to go away to work.

‘The worst thing is that after the war all these Germans were arrested at their base in Harstad. There was a trial but the result was nothing. No one was punished in any way. They had every possibility to punish them but that didn’t happen.’

The deaths at Hopseidet were investigated by the Norwegian police at the end of the war. Kriegsmarine Leutnant Ewald Lubben admitted killing the men but said he had fired in self-defence because the Norwegians were armed with knives.

The case was shelved by the Norwegian authorities in 1947. Further investigations took place in 1967 when six men were arrested in connection with the killings, again with Lubben as a suspect and also including special forces commander Wolfgang Woedermann.

The six men claimed self-defence saying the fishermen attacked them with knives. Despite evidence showing the fishermen were shot in the sides and back and ballistics tests showing more than one weapon was fired at them, the cases were dropped in 1969, perhaps because the Norwegians were conscious that civilians had been ordered to fire on soldiers.

In 2005 an investigation by the Norwegian TV current affairs show Brennpunkt (Focal Point) interviewed some of the seventeen children orphaned at Hopseidet, highlighting their unhappiness that Norway had never properly explored the incident.

I ask Mette why she thinks no-one has ever been brought to justice.

‘I have a theory,’ she says:

‘The big mistake the military made was in using civilians as guards with no uniforms or weapons. I think General Dahl wanted it covered up so there wouldn’t be a big scandal on the military side. He was responsible, and afterwards he became a big hero.

In those days the telephone system was a switchboard so the operator could hear what people were talking about. The woman who was working there said she heard the conversations between General Dahl and one of the three Norwegian military officers. He said to them: ‘You must not give up Hopseidet under any circumstances. Use the civilians to help you.’ She is sure about that.

‘We never had any apology from the Norwegian military either. That hurt as well. And General Dahl denied everything.’

We finish our coffee and take some photographs for Alf Helge’s newspaper. As we leave to go, Mette says:

‘Before you came I thought I would be OK talking about it. I thought I could talk about this without crying, but it’s still so strong after so many years. But what would I have done without 0yvind? Not only a good husband but a great comfort to me.’

Copyright Vincent Hunt 2014, reproduced from the book ‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ published by The History Press.

No unauthorised reproduction, please.

More details at www.vincenthunt.co.uk

Posted in German submarines, grieving daughter, unexplained killing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stories of war and horror from the north of Norway at Friday drinks in a cosy Norwegian club in London

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Friday Drinks editor Catharina Patjas introduces me at the start of my scorched earth talk.

It was a great honour to be invited by Den Norske Klub in London to talk about my book ‘Fire and Ice’ and to share some of the stories I collected about the scorched earth destruction of the north of Norway.

The club is a jacket and tie affair in an historic square just off Piccadilly Circus and the Norwegians share their premises with a military club and an Argentinian club. The club was apparently started by a group of Norwegians who wanted to drink later one night and who were told: ‘You have to be a member of a club to do that, sir.’ So they formed a club on the spot, and ordered another round. Or so the story goes.

WP_20150306_006The ‘Friday Drinks’ is an informal gathering of people united by a common Norwegian heritage or interest in Scandinavian affairs. My talk was the first of a new season and I’m delighted to say the room was packed. Well, let’s say every space on those well-stuffed Chesterfields was taken.

I told the tale of my journey across the Arctic, from Kirkenes west to Tromso, gathering my scorched earth stories, and read a few of them out. I focussed on the personal stories from the war, mostly from a child’s perspective as they were the speakers who were still alive. I also think that these stories have a lot to say about the legacy of the war, and the memories of that war that have stayed with the northerners for generations and many decades.

My first story was told to me by Knut Tharaldsen, who lived on a farm near the border with the Soviet Union at Jarfjord, and saw at first hand the Pestamo-Kirkenes Offensive of October 1944 – the assault which pushed the Germans out of the USSR and triggered the scorched earth retreat.

KNUT:

The Germans had to retreat from the Litsa Front back to Norway on 17 October 1944. There was fierce fighting between the Russians and the Germans.

‘On 22 October there was no more left of the German army. They were destroyed. There were German soldiers lying by the side of the road with their intestines outside their body, crying for their mothers. And later, Russians.

There was fighting for many days. I saw it all. We were hiding in the forest in a shelter my father made, but we were close to the house. Fewer and fewer Germans were coming and more and more Russians. I saw a German soldier lying in the field next to the house shooting at the Russians but he had no helmet. He was hit many times and the front of his head was blown off. I was 10 metres away.

The Russians used to say: ‘Bayonet the Germans in the back, above the belt, above his ammunition belt.’ When they ran after the retreating Germans they would bayonet them in the back as the blade wouldn’t stick. It was easier to kill them. The boys were lying by the side of the road, fatally injured, waiting to die, crying for their mothers.

Of course what you saw as a child affected people very badly: it made many children alcoholics after the war. It’s a miracle I am not insane because of all I have seen as a young boy.’

Then I moved on to a story told to me by Karin Johnsen in Kirkenes, who was running a travel agency at the time I met her. She was a great storyteller and a lovely woman with a fabulous sense of irony. Her stories shocked me though!

 KARIN:

Taking her place on the red sofa in my room an hour later, Karin begins an account of a little girl’s childhood that is just extraordinary. Her first words take my breath away. ‘It was absolutely normal growing up playing with ammunition,’ she says:

We all collected ammunition. My brother and the other kids used to find ammunition belts and start a fire in a barrel. He’d put the ammunition belt in it and then crawl away otherwise they would have been shot. The bullets would heat up and go off and there would be bullets flying everywhere. This was in the 1960s.

I think most people here collected ammunition: old people, young people. Like – ‘I have a secret.’ The secret was the ammunition. I always wanted to go to school so I started wearing a backpack when I was four years old, so everything went in my backpack. I trusted my brother – if he said ‘carry this’ I would do it.

But I knew I had to because they would search him. My mother used to search my brother, but I used to carry the explosives. My brother said I looked so innocent. Everybody did it. Kids would say: ‘We’ve got something.’

The thought of a 4-year-old girl carrying live and unstable ammunition in her backpack fills me with horror. Karin continues:

Everybody collected ammunition. Up that road there [she points from the window] some kids found some shells from an anti-aircraft gun so they blew them up, and everyone around lost their hearing. Not one of those kids was older than 15. We still laugh about it now.’

Chilling, isn’t what, what the post-war Norwegian kids got away with. Of course, not all of them DID get away with it. There were plenty of casualties and maimings from unstable shells and dodgy ammunition. The war historian Rune Rautio was kind enough to meet me while I was in Kirkenes and shared his own personal story of escaping with his life from a blast.

RUNE:

There were a number of incidents directly after the war, in 1945 to ’47, of kids playing with mines or accidentally stepping on mines and getting killed but in my generation there were surprisingly few. I was seriously injured myself when one of the shells we put on the fire didn’t detonate. Finally after a long time I went to the fire and the shell exploded right in front of me when I was a metre away. That cost me four months in hospital. I remember it like yesterday. I took the blast right in the chest and a lot of shrapnel hit me in the arms and stomach and went quite deep.

He shows me white scars along his wrist and arm:

One piece missed the main artery in my arm by a centimetre. We found two boxes of 37 mm anti-aircraft shells at the German airfield near Vardo and took them over to the island. We’d worked through both boxes and had great fun for two days. The one that fooled me was the last one, I think.

He laughs at the memory:

We were quite professional and didn’t take too many chances. The first thing you did was kick off the casing and use the gunpowder inside for other purposes. We only put one shell on the fire at a time because, if you put more on, one would explode before the other and you wouldn’t have any control over the other one. Sometimes the shell wouldn’t explode properly because they were damaged by time – rotten, we used to say. So there wouldn’t be a detonation, just a ‘pffffff ’. I went to the fire to look at this one and it exploded.

I was severely injured in the stomach, but if I had been a second closer I’d have been killed instantly. A second later I’d have taken the blast across more of my body and my neck and head and I would have been fatally injured. A few centimetres to the right or left and I would have been killed. I was also very lucky that the senior doctor at Kirkenes where I was flown was a professor with surgical experience of dealing with war wounds. I think he saved me. My parents were extremely shocked.’

I bet they were. Many of the parents in the audience looked a bit shaken after I’d told these stories. Those from the older generation nodded their heads in recognition.

This artillery bunker had a huge gun capable of firing very heavy shells miles.

This artillery bunker in Djupvik had a huge gun capable of firing very heavy shells miles.

———–

The forced evacuation of 50,000 people from the north is another major part of the scorched earth story, and many Norwegian families lost everything in the fires that consumed their homes after they’d been moved out.

I met artist Grethe Gunneng in her family’s home village of Djupvik and we spent a very interesting afternoon together exploring the physical remnants of the war: gun positions, bunkers, machine gun pillboxes, the outline of the concentration camp where the Soviet PoWs were held. Grethe grew up alongside the Lyngenfjord, a really lovely landscape better known now to tourists as part of the Midnight Sun driving route in the summer. But Grethe has different memories.

GRETHE: BIRTAVARRE

We are strangers standing side by side staring out across a misty fjord, sharing thoughts so close to a person’s heart. As we look at the mountains, the fjord and the sky Grethe tells stories of cruelty and brutality, of hurt, pain and anguish: in this area of remarkable natural beauty stories like this seem unimaginable:

 My uncle told me about the time they had to go as refugees. The Germans told them to bring all their animals to Birtavarre [a town on the same fjord about 10 km south] so they went there along the road. But he didn’t want the Nazis to take his horse Guri, because he loved her so much. He said he would prefer to shoot Guri himself than let the Germans take her and maybe mistreat her. So he took a gun and walked with Guri to the field and shot her. Afterwards, some of the neighbours said they wished they’d done that to their animals too. My uncle was 70 when he told me this story and he was crying as he told me.

The Germans slaughtered the livestock and made the horses work for them. My grandfather also had a beautiful traditional boat and he didn’t want the Germans to take that either, so he took the family to Birtavarre in it with everything they could carry, like the sewing machine, and then he took it out to sea and sank it with stones. After the war he went and got it back. We still have it in the barn.

The Germans set fire to Birtavarre and slaughtered all the animals. The fjord was red with their blood. Then the Germans put everyone on a boat from Birtavarre to Troms.. They sailed past this spot on the boat, not far out on the fjord from where everyone used to live, and the teacher was singing a song called  ‘Oh I know a country far up north’ [‘Å eg veit meg eit land ’]. It’s a song every person from the north knows, it’s the national song of north Norway, written by Elias Blix [a hymnwriter and politician credited with translating the New Testament into Norwegian] Everyone one in the boat was singing it. The teacher was conducting. Everyone loves this song:

Oh, I know of a land far away to the north,

With a shimmering beach between mountains and fjords

Where my heart wants to stay, when I’m far, far away

Tied with the finest, finest bands.

Oh, I remember, I remember

I remember this land so well!

And I long to see this land so often, and it tugs at me gently when I am far away.

With awakening spring my longing turns strong

So that all I can do is cry

All I can do is cry’

I looked at the clock to see that I’d talked for 30 minutes – my time was up. So I decided against telling them about the Soviet PoWs reduced to cannibalism in the death camps in the Kitdalen, and I left out the emotional interview with Mette Mikalsen, who lost her father and brother in the murders of six fishermen by German commandos at Hopseidet two days before the war ended.

But I wish I’d had time for the story of Erika Schone. Erika’s story was given to me by the Lakselv author Roger Albrigtsen, who pieces together tiny fragments of history and brings memories from the past into the present. Roger came across the story of Erike when he was writing his recent book ‘Last Letters.’

ERIKA SCHONE

Many serving in the German forces were a long way from home but appreciated the beauty of their surroundings. The historian and author Roger Albrigtsen came across a heartbreaking story of a Luftwaffe auxiliary who fell in love with Norway.

Roger says:

I knew of the crash of a Focke Wulf Condor transport plane in October 1944 into the Lavangsfjord near Troms because a man who was just 3 at the time saw it happen.

He was standing in the garden eating a stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar when he saw the plane making a steep turn over the fjord. As it did the wing broke off. He saw bodies falling out of it and fuel pouring onto the fjord as it caught fire and went into a spin. When it hit the water the fuel caught fire. There were no survivors. His sister is still so traumatised she can’t talk about it.

The Condor was significantly overloaded for its final and fatal flight, carrying fifty-one passengers instead of a maximum thirty. Among those on board were two wounded soldiers, two officers and a crew of six as well as forty-one women, mostly in their 20s and listed as ‘Helferin’: nurses and female Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe staff assistants. The Condor took off from Banak airport and flew to Finland to pick up thirty nurses, then returned to Banak where another eleven women auxiliaries climbed aboard, including Erika Schone. The plane was so full by this stage the last passengers loaded had to sit on the floor. And 45 minutes after take-off, everyone on board was dead.

Although there are few details recorded officially about it, the Condor crash remains the worst aircrash on Norwegian soil.

 ‘This is a tragedy and it seems like it was edited out of history,’ Roger says. ‘When I was doing research for my book Last Letters I got an email from a man who said one of his family members was buried in the German cemetery at Narvik. The family member was Erika Schone. He wondered if I might take a picture of her grave so he could show it to her brother and sister who were still alive but too elderly to travel. I agreed to get a picture taken and in return he showed me her personal effects. From this I could build up a picture of her life not only in Norway but also in Germany, before and after her death.

Erika came from Wismar on Germany’s Baltic coast and worked as a maid and in a baker’s before joining the Luftwaffe in 1942 . She was posted first to Rimini in Italy and then in April 1943 to Banak in Norway, where she worked as a secretary. In January 1944 her sister Eva had a baby, Peta, and Erika wrote a number of letters to her, addressing her as ‘my beautiful ray of sun’. She sent presents home: Sami shoes, a sheepskin jacket, an ornamental knife. In her last letter she tells Peta that she is excited about coming home but has grown to love the part of Norway where she is stationed.

‘After the war has ended I will go back to Norway, because it is so beautiful,’ she writes. ‘If I do not survive, I will be buried there.’ It’s as if she knew.

Her family took her death very badly. For years afterwards her father would stare at the sky, as if looking for his daughter. Her elder brother and sister are still alive and say she was a very happy and generous girl. Her name is on a grave in Germany. But of course, she’s not there.

I am quite stunned by this. Roger tells me he arranged for a rose to be laid on Erika’s grave at Narvik cemetery when the photograph was taken and wrote to her brother and sister to let them know when his collection of letters from wartime Norway was to be published.

‘How does it make you feel, being able to roll back history like this?’ I ask.

‘Quite strange,’ he admits. ‘There have been tears, at times.’

Even now I still think about poor Erika’s father looking at the sky, hoping she will come home. It’s stories like this that bring the war home on a personal level, and these stories of tales of personal loss, whichever side they were fighting on.

I would like to do more talks in the future – with slides of some of the people and places – so that I can share some of these heartbreaking and shocking stories in ‘Fire and Ice.’

I’d like to thank Den Norske Kulb for their invitation and hospitality, and in particular, editor Catharina Patjas. Catherina was kind enough to give me a guided tour of what is really an incredible building and to show me the dining room where members can enjoy first class hospitality.

She also very kindly arranged for me to become an ‘honorary member’ so I will most certainly be making another visit to St James’ Square to sample the rarified atmosphere of Den Norske Klub. Care to join me?

‘Fire and Ice – the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press and available from all good booksellers as well as online. More details at www.vincenthunt.co.uk.

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