A large cardboard box has landed in my hall. Inside is a copy of the new edition of the legendary book about the scorched earth destruction of northern Norway, They Burned Our Homes .. in Norwegian: De Brente Var Hjem.
It’s been sent to me by Pal Fredriksen of the Nord Troms History Group, who acted as my guide during a visit to the Lyngen Line, a series of defensive bunkers built in the mountains near Tromso by Soviet prisoners used as slave labour.
Christmas may be a time for goodwill but this is an extremely generous gesture.
Pal’s sent the book at his own expense with a lovely message inside:
“I hope you will get some information from this by looking at the pictures. Maybe you can learn Norwegian words.’
‘De Brent Var Hjem’ is an unbelievably thorough and extremely close-up analysis of the destruction of Finnmark that my book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ tells stories about seventy years later.
It’s entered Norwegian folklore. Many people I interviewed for my book referred to it – some quoted from it, like the story of the fjord running red with the blood of slaughtered animals in Birtavarre.
As many as 20,000 – 25,000 sought refuge in caves, in the hills and on islands while others chose to head south.
Here is the human face of the evacuation – how the elderly or immobile were moved out. The German withdrawal by truck or using horses. The cost in lives. The equipment that was destroyed and left behind.
I couldn’t get hold of this book when I was there two years ago and it was too heavy for me to carry with me as I flew between destinations in Kirkenes, Honningsvag, Hammerfest and Tromso. It’s a big, weighty book.
I already thought Pal was a great guy for giving up his time to show me around.
We had a drive into the beautiful wilderness of the Nordreisa valley, an area of dense forest and rivers where Norway meets Finland and Sweden and many young Norwegians fled to escape Nazi occupation.
Then the next day we climbed the 800m slope of the Fals mountain to look at a reconstructed bunker at the top using a track known as the Russian Road, so-called because of the prisoners shifting building materials, artillery and munitions up the mountain. Many died in the construction of these bunkers – others, who were too sick to work, were dumped in camps and left to die. Some resorted to cannibalism.
His work helped keep him mentally young and his commitment to his subject and willingness to go the extra mile for an Englishman he met for two afternoons is pretty staggering.
We climbed the Fals mountain in a couple of hours but he was like a mountain goat. That’s Norwegians for you – they grow up in the mountains, and it’s like second nature.
The view from the top were breathtaking. In the picture Pal is standing on the site of an artillery platform, where the gun could shell any incoming boats from miles away.
Even as a well-fed reasonably fit Westerner I struggled a little with the climb. I could only imagine what it was like for undernourished, sick, exhausted prisoners.
It’s a great gift that Pal has sent me and if you are in two minds about getting the book, don’t hesitate. Because the pictures speak a thousand words…
Many thanks Pal. Next time I’m in Storslett we’ll go up into the mountains again!
Vince Hunt’s book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press. You can follow Vince’s Tweets at @scorchedvh
You can read an interview with Vince at the blog: http://rozdekett.com/2014/11/29/a-journey-into-determination-vincent-hunt/