‘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.

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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.

Posted in history, military history, nazi germany, World War Two, writers | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

London’s ‘Den Norske Club’ in Mayfair the venue for author’s scorched earth talk on Friday March 6

Vincent Hunt with his Norwegian scorched earth oral history ‘Fire and Ice’.

It’s a great honour for me to be a guest speaker at ‘Den Norske Club’ in London, a social and networking club that’s at the centre of the UK’s Norwegian community.

As part of the informal Friday evening drinks event, I will be talking about my scorched earth book ‘Fire and Ice’ and recounting some of my experiences as I moved east to west across the Arctic, from Kirkenes to Tromso, gathering my interviews from eye witnesses and those affected by the scorched earth destruction of 1944.

Among the topics I’ll be discussing will be:

  • Children from Finnmark growing up playing with ammunition – it seems to be a common and sometimes fatal experience
  • Issues of legacy and remembrance relating to this period in Norway
  • The Lyngen Line and the last stand that didn’t happen

There’ll also be the chance for questions and I will have some books for sale, as well as vouchers offering mail order discounts from The History Press – or, the book can be bought here from them:

My talk will be in the Canning Room at Den Norske Club in St James’ Square between Piccadilly and Pall Mall in Mayfair, London. The event is free for members and non-members but advance booking is required through Charlotta at secretary@dennorskeklub.co.uk

DNK logo(1) Den Norske Klub, The In & Out

4 St James’s Square, London

SW1Y 4JU

More details and directions are here: http://www.dennorskeklub.co.uk/events.html

and there’s a jacket and tie dress code.See you there at 6.30pm.Vince Hunt* ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press, priced £20.

Posted in 20th century history, Finnmark, military history, Nazi, oral history, tactics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Fire and Ice’ interview most viewed on Roz’s writer’s blog just weeks before US publication

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. Picture used by kind permission of the Hammerfest Museum of Reconstruction.

The importance of social media to writers and readers is now well-established in today’s rapidly changing world and I’m delighted to say my account of the scorched earth destruction of Norway during the war ‘Fire and Ice’ is currently riding high at the top of an interesting chart of very good writers.

The chart has been compiled from views of a blog written by my one-time news editor at the BBC, Roz DeKett. It’s called ‘The Right Word’ and Roz interviews writers about the processes by which they came to write their book.

Roz deKett, creator of 'The Right Word writers' blog

Roz DeKett, creator of ‘The Right Word’ writers’ blog

It’s just a fun chart because Roz has only recently begun to write the blog – but to me it’s just another way that social media can overcome geographical and physical boundaries and share interesting ideas.

The Right Word an eclectic selection but a rapidly growing gathering of people united by their urge to write, and brought together by Roz’s urge to explore that urge.

Her subjects include poets, authors of guides to being a wedding officiant and a woman who wrote one hundred 100-word stories to mark the tenth anniversary of her mother’s death.

Roz’s blog also carries links to online retailers so if readers see something they like, they can follow it and buy the book, either in hardback or as a e-book for Kindle. Roz herself is a very clear and thoughtful writer and she has that knack of being able to frame her subject’s thoughts really well. That’s a skill radio people really appreciate gathered from years of putting microphones in front of their guests.

It’s a good read: follow this link.

Meanwhile, the publication date for ‘Fire and Ice’ in the US is now drawing near. It’s due to be available in bookshops from February 1st.

The German general who oversaw the destruction of Norway, Lothar Rendulic, was cleared of wanton destruction at Nuremberg but sentenced to twenty years for other crimes committed in Yugoslavia.

The German general who oversaw the destruction of Norway, Lothar Rendulic, was cleared of wanton destruction at Nuremberg but sentenced to twenty years for other crimes committed in Yugoslavia.

It’s an account of the burning and evacuation of the north of Norway at the end of the Second World War, told through the stories of people who were either there or who were affected by its aftermath, framed by a journey across the Arctic by the author.

If you’d like a preview of what’s in the book, visit my website at www.vincenthunt.co.uk or see earlier blog entries on this site, ‘Scorched Earth Stories.’

* ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press, priced £20. More information at www.vincenthunt.co.uk and at the blog https://scorchedearthstories.wordpress.com/

Posted in 20th century history, Arctic Circle, Nazi, Norway, United States | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gas boom town Hammerfest lay in scorched earth ashes 70 years ago

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. Picture copyright the Hammerfest Museum of Reconstruction: used with permission.

Seventy years ago in February 1945 the modern gas boom town of Hammerfest in the Norwegian Arctic was reduced to ashes by Nazi troops carrying out a scorched earth retreat in the face of a huge Red Army offensive.

The razing of Hammerfest, now home to liquefied gas companies producing 2-3 million Euros of gas daily in a boom expected to last three to four decades, is just one of the episodes in Vincent Hunt’s new book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ published by The History Press.

Hunt details the destruction of Hammerfest following Hitler’s order in October 1944 for a scorched earth withdrawal in the face of a massive Red Army offensive ending a three-year military stalemate in the Arctic north.

More than 200,000 Nazi troops withdrew to fortified positions in the mountains near Tromsø and forcibly evacuated 70,000 civilians in the north before torching their towns so they could not be used by pursuing Soviet troops. Up to 20,000 civilians sought refuge in caves and on outlying islands, where some had to be rescued by Royal Navy destroyers.

Homes were set on fire and every building, bridge, water pipe and pier blown up and burned. The destruction in February 1945 was so complete that when King Olav flew over northern Norway following the German surrender in May he said: ‘‘When we passed over Hammerfest there was nothing. There was snow on the ground so there was nothing casting shadows. It was as if nobody had ever lived there.’ He described the scorched earth destruction as ‘the worst catastrophe in Norwegian history since the Black Death.’

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.

Hammerfest was a major port for the Nazis, a fortified U-boat base and supply centre for ships attacking Allied convoys to Russia in the Arctic Sea. More than 4,000 mines were laid in surrounding sea lanes and numerous anti-aircraft gun positions manned by 400–500 Wehrmacht troops.

The author crossed the Arctic regions of Finnmark and Nord-Troms to see the scale of the scorched earth destruction across a region the size of Denmark, and visited the Hammerfest Museum of Reconstruction to see what survived the devastation, including a 1930s barber’s chair buried to save it. The town’s churches, once earmarked to be saved, were consumed by the flames. The only building left standing was a white funeral chapel where German war dead had been buried.

The Nazi general who carried out Hitler’s orders – an Austrian called Lothar Rendulic – was cleared of wanton destruction at the post-war Nuremberg trials. He told the court Hammerfest was militarily significant and that not destroying it would have helped the Red Army pursue his men.

“We worked through all the possibilities which the enemy had concerning landings. Again and again [we] were confronted with the fact that Hammerfest would be the best point for supply for troops which had already landed.

“Further, Hammerfest was situated in the vicinity of Highway 50… then one had an excellent road. The place itself could accommodate a strong regiment or even a division if necessary. This double significance of Hammerfest was a fact for an enemy in pursuit. You must not think that we destroyed wantonly or senselessly. Everything we did was dictated by the needs of the enemy. That was its necessity.”

Hammerfest was rebuilt by townspeople who defied the post-war Labour government’s orders not to return, and ignored plans to develop nearby Alta as the main centre instead. They erected temporary barracks donated by Sweden and started again. In the 1980s extensive gas fields were discovered 140kms off the coast, and the pipes began pumping in 2007. The start of gas production has been like turning on a tap of money, the head of the tourism office in Hammerfest Knut Arne Iversen told Hunt:

“We say here we have won the lottery since 2002. Hammerfest gets tax income from this gas plant – about 20 million euros a year. There are 10,000 people here, so that’s quite a lot of money for such a small town. Since 2009 they have renovated the whole of the city centre and from next winter [2014] the sidewalks will be heated, so we can do shopping almost without wearing shoes. We don’t have unemployment – only about 2 per cent or 150 people – and we have a lot of foreigners here, about 10 per cent, which is quite a big number.”

Hammerfest old and new: tourism office manager Knut Arne Iversen (right) celebrates Hammerfest's new gas boom, while his father Knut (left) remembers the destruction of 70 years ago. Picture: Vincent Hunt

Hammerfest old and new: tourism office manager Knut Arne Iversen (right) celebrates Hammerfest’s new gas boom, while his father Knut (left) remembers the destruction of 70 years ago. Picture: Vincent Hunt

Wages, house prices and the cost of living are high, but many skilled young people are heading to Hammerfest to join the modern gold rush. Gas industry engineering jobs have replaced the traditional and sometimes unreliable trades like fishing and fish processing and reversed a slow but steady drift away.

What happened here in wartime hasn’t entirely been forgotten though, says Iversen.

“Nowadays we have a lot of tourists here, especially Germans. A lot of them say their fathers or grandparents were here in the north in the war but never talked too much about it. It can’t have been a good story or an easy story to tell; they can’t have been proud of it. But some certainly did tell their children or their grandchildren because they come here and want to get a feeling of what it was like for Grandpa.”

Looking back to the time when the town was a pile of smouldering ashes will surely be only a fleeting glimpse for the modern inhabitants of Hammerfest. Making the most of the gas boom and securing the future is surely the priority for today’s generation.

—————–

Extract from the book ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth destruction of Norway’ by Vincent Hunt

Midway through January the fire squads came back, burning the district of Fuglenes and the Feddersen and Nissen fish factory, run by a family with roots in Hammerfest dating back to 1861. Feddersen and Nissen had been involved in fish production, trapping and export for decades and had run a fleet of fishing boats and a retail business stretching across Finnmark, including Gjevsvår, Honningsvåg, Mehamn and Berlevåg, all destined for destruction in the flames.

Now the pace began to pick up. In the following days the remains of the eastern town were burned, the landing stages of the Finnmark Canning Factory and associated buildings were demolished, as was the Robertson coal depot. All the nearby houses were doused with petrol and set ablaze. A fresh southerly wind whipped up a fire started in the elementary school which spread to the centre of the city and burned all night. All the churches – initially earmarked to be saved – were engulfed. The west of Hammerfest was charred timbers. The hospital, refrigeration plant and the offices of the bus and boat company FFR (Finnmark Fylkesrederi) were blown up. The steamboat landing stage was dynamited and the two bridges into town were blown and mines laid on their approaches.

The Germans cut down every telegraph pole, rolled up all the cables, smashed all the ceramic conductors and dismantled all the transformers and apparatus at the power station. Then they loaded everything onto ships and took it all away.

At 9am on 5 February the power station was shut down and an hour later the transformer stations were blown. Depth charges were laid alongside the 9-inch main pipe to the water works running through the lake. Pipes further out were ruptured when the bridges were brought down. On 6 February orders were issued for all remaining Norwegians, Germans and Soviet prisoners to leave the city. This left behind twenty engineers and a lieutenant to blast the rest of Hammerfest then escape in a tugboat. After each building was burnt, the engineers set explosives to blast the foundations, levelling smoke stacks, apartments and foundations.

By 6 February snow had started to fall. A white blanket covered the devastated town with its shattered buildings and charred timbers. On 10 February 1945 the Germans pulled out of Hammerfest. Only the white chapel in the cemetery remained standing.

Copyright Vincent Hunt 2014

————-

‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press, priced £20. More information at www.vincenthunt.co.uk and at the blog https://scorchedearthstories.wordpress.com/

Posted in business, gas, history, Nazi, Norway | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Praise for ‘Fire and Ice’ from scorched earth eye witness .. and getting ready for US publication

A Christmas card full of praise from scorched earth eye witness Gunnar Jaklin.

A Christmas card full of praise from scorched earth eye witness Gunnar Jaklin.

There’s another visit from my postman, this time bringing a Christmas card from another of my contributors to my scorched earth book ‘Fire and Ice’.

This time it is from Gunnar Jaklin, the founder of the Tromso Defence Museum and wartime volunteer in the Norwegian army ‘police’ force in Sweden.

Having fled the Gestapo when it became apparent his newspaper editor father was about to be arrested a second time, Mr Jaklin joined the 50,000 Norwegians who fled their Nazi-occupied country and sought refuge in Sweden during the war.

He joined the Norwegian army-in-exile there, described as ‘police’ to bypass Swedisn neutrality rules, and served in the Arctic north towards the end of the war protecting a radio station in Finnmark. At the liberation he was in Narvik and later rounded up Nazis. He is what you might call, the ‘real deal.’ Later, he edited the Tromso newspaper ‘Nordlys’ – ‘Northern Lights’.

I spent two occasions with him listening to his very entertaining stories about the war, and wrote up a couple of chapters full of his anecdotes for ‘Fire and Ice’. I remember fondly our afternoon drinking coffee and eating cakes round at his house in Tromso. As a journalist and military man, he had an eye for detail and a self-discipline that would set an example to many.

Gunnar Jaklin in Tromso's Defence Museum, which he stocked, translating all the information boards into three languages: Norwegian, German and English. It's an amazing place: well worth a visit.

Gunnar Jaklin in Tromso’s Defence Museum, which he stocked, translating all the information boards into three languages: Norwegian, German and English. It’s an amazing place: well worth a visit.

As any self-respecting journalist would when gathering the thoughts of a senior member of his profession, after I finished my first draft of the book I printed off my transcript and posted it to him by surface mail. Mr Jaklin doesn’t do email. He was 87 at the time – why would he?

He sent it back to me, corrected and with comments, which of course, I amended. When ‘Fire and Ice’ was published earlier this year, he was among the first to receive a complimentary copy. I met so many really lovely Norwegians that it’s very difficult to come away from such intense meetings that you have during interviews not liking them, and not considering them in some way more than acquaintances – even friends. Certainly that’s true of many of the people I met.

So when I saw the slightly shaky handwriting on the envelope this card above arrived in – Mr Jaklin must be 89 by now – I rather expected to open it and find a series of corrections, observations and amendments inside. Instead his letter read:

“Many thanks for your most interesting book. I am really impressed at all the facts you have collected about the destruction of Finnmark, the German withdrawal, the Lyngen Line and the refugees in Tromso.”

I gulped, a little stunned. Mr Jaklin was actually there. He was for me the diamond in my story – the eye witness, the creator of the museum, the gatherer of the artefacts. It would be hard to do better – and here he is sending me such a nice letter praising what I’ve done. That really is praise indeed.

Old Tromso escaped the scorched earth burning, and so stands as an example of what the north of Norway used to be like. Pretty good, in my opinion.

Old Tromso escaped the scorched earth burning, and so stands as an example of what the north of Norway used to be like. Pretty good, I’d say.

I’ve been a little surprised at the reaction from my Norwegian contributors. Although it’s been very positive, there do seem to be certain blind spots – even for Mr Jaklin.

He goes on to say that there hasn’t really been very much in Norway about the Nuremberg trial of Generals Jodl and Rendulic, who masterminded the withdrawal of 230,000 German troops, thousands of horses and a mountain of equipment, weapons and supplies from inside the USSR back along a single road to the mountains of the Lyngenfjord. The trial was in 1947 and there was outrage when Rendulic was cleared of ‘wanton destruction.’ Maybe that’s all been forgotten now?

Tromso's main street. The Defence Museum is about 15 minutes drive from here, over the skinny bridge by the Cathedral and right, opposite where the Tirpitz was sunk.

Tromso’s main street. The Defence Museum is about 15 minutes drive from here, over the skinny bridge by the Cathedral and right, opposite where the Tirpitz was sunk.

I included the trial transcripts because they offered so much detail about the Nazi withdrawal and such great insight into the German position on the scorched earth destruction, especially Rendulic’s justification of it, especially Hammerfest.

Hammerfest incidentally celebrates the 70th anniversary of being reduced to a smoking pile of ruins by Rendulic’s men at the start of February 2015.

In the same month, ‘Fire and Ice’ will be published in America. Norwegians in America during the war did much to raise money for relief operations for Norway, so I’m hoping there’ll be decent interest Stateside in my book.

I will pick out some Hammerfest and American interest extracts from ‘Fire and Ice’ over the next few posts to illustrate this, but in the meantime, may I wish all the readers of my blog and my book a very Happy New Year and great success in 2015.

Vincent Hunt, Manchester UK

‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ is published by The History Press, priced £20. More information at www.vincenthunt.co.uk and at the blog https://scorchedearthstories.wordpress.com/

Posted in 20th century history, Arctic Circle, Nazi, Scorched Earth, tromso | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment