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 front of her and narrowly escaped with her life.
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.
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???
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.
‘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.’