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.
The ‘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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.