The Heroes (?) of Heidelberg
Never doubt the physical courage of the American military in combat. But, in peacetime, senior officials are sometimes lacking in what I’ll call: administrative courage. This true story illustrates my point.
On a moonlit winter night in 1943, nine Norwegian commandos parachuted into the snow not far from the town of Telemark and Norsk Hydro – the hydro-electric plant the occupying NAZI forces were using to prepare the heavy water essential to the development of the atomic bomb. An American-born Norwegian named Knut Haukelid led the commandos.
After skiing to a point just below the heavy water plant, the commandos scaled an "unscaleable" cliff to reach Norsk Hydro, blew up the plant and escaped into the night. Later, after the NAZIs rebuilt the plant and produced a railroad carload of heavy water. Knut Haukelid and other commandos infiltrated the ferryboat carrying the heavy water. They blew it up and sent it to the bottom of a fjord. Justifiably, Haukelid became a national hero. He served in the Norwegian Army reserve after the war, retiring as a two-star general.
In 1969, this observer had the honor of meeting and skiing with Knut Haukelid on winter maneuvers with the Norwegian Ski Brigade. We became friends and stayed in contact.
In 1972, when I was commanding an airborne battalion in West Germany, I decided a reenactment of the Telemark Raid would be wonderful training for some of my troops. Fortunately, the father of one of my platoon leaders was the U.S. Naval Attaché in Oslo. Both he and his Army lieutenant son were eager for the reenactment to happen. I contacted General Haukelid who agreed to have a Norwegian Army squad on the drop zone to greet my paratroopers, issue them cross-country skis and get them headed toward Telemark where they were to scale the cliff, plant dummy charges and try to escape undetected. General Haukelid would be at Telemark to insure that nothing went wrong.
The entire plan was sent to U.S. Army Europe Headquarters in Heidelberg for review and final approval. Meanwhile, we arranged for the needed parachutes and a C-130 Hercules to fly the mission. Our troops practiced the scaling of steep cliffs and cross-country skiing.
If ever a peacetime training exercise was prepared in exquisite detail, this was it. We had Knut Haukelid, Norway’s greatest hero of World War II, in charge of the arrangements for the drop zone and at Telemark. General Haukelid would be assisted by the U.S. Naval Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo whose son would lead his platoon out of the C-130 into the wintry night. Our troops were trained, fit and ready. Their morale was sky high and they had the physical courage to follow in the ski tracks of The Heroes of Telemark.
But their courage was not matched by the staff wimps behind their desks in Heidelberg. At the very last moment, our plans – which hitherto had been approved at each stage of development – were disapproved.
The only reason given was some mumbo-jumbo about fears of causing an international incident in a foreign country. Hello. Norway was and is a member of NATO and U.S. airborne forces parachuted into other NATO countries such as West Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey on joint NATO maneuvers.
But the real reason was probably concern that our West German allies would be offended by our reenactment of a daring raid against the German Army in occupied Norway. Moreover, the fact that Knut Haukelid’s commandos got in, destroyed the heavy water plant and got out without a shot being fired would be a painful memory to our West German friends. It cost them the war.
Bottom line: the Heroes of Heidelberg didn’t have the administrative courage to allow us to train as hard as we wanted. They didn’t even have the courage to contact General Haukelid themselves. I was ordered to give him their cockamamie excuse for the cancellation. Of course, he didn’t buy it.
William Hamilton is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy by William Penn. During a 20-year Army career, he parachuted into Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey and other places.
©2001. William Hamilton.