November 19, 1904 The Hunted

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. These are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. We rarely know their names and yet, there are times when the lives of millions hang in the balance.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. These are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. We rarely know their names and yet, there are times when the lives of millions hang in the balance.

Sven Somme

One such was Iacob Sømme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943.

But for the work of men such as this, we are left only to imagine a world in which the Nazi Swastika was painted on the sides of “Little boy” and “Fat Man”. We may thank the likes of Iacob Sømme that such a world remains merely one of nightmare imagination.

Another such man was Iacob’s brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother, Sven Sømme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. A scientist and fisheries officer, Somme joined the Resistance. He would photograph strategic German military bases using a miniature camera, sending covert maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the postage stamps, on letters.

In 1944, guards saw the sun glint off a camera’s lens, and came running. Sømme had been caught, taking pictures of a German U-boat base on Otteroy island. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it. He was put in cuffs.

The penalty for what he was doing, was the firing squad. He would be lucky not to be tortured to death.

That night, Sømme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a nightmare race to freedom. A relentless hunt two months in duration, across 200 miles of snow covered mountains.

The Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start. The Nazis couldn’t let this man escape. He knew too much. Pursued by 900 troops and a pack of bloodhounds, Sømme worked his way through icy streams and across ravines moving ever higher, into the mountains.

Otrøya island (right) where Sømme photographed the torpedo base, at Midfjorden. H/T Wikipedia

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but the family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots.

Sven Somme, tree

Sømme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a game he‘d once learned, as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner dodging bears and wolves. That baying horde was never far from his heels.

At last he made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Mountaineer Arne Randers Heen guided Sømme through the steep mountains from Isfjord to Eikesdalen (photo) and locals in Eikesdal helped him through the difficult terrain in from Eikesdal to Aursjøen lake. From there he walked across Norway to Sweden. H/T Wikipedia

Sven Sømme passed away in 1961 following a battle with cancer. Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant, written out in German and Norwegian.

Documents: His daughter has now found an incredible archive of secret documents he collected while working as a spy” H/T UK Daily Mail

Sømme had written a memoir about his escape. He called it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know. It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

April 9, 1940 “Evacuation Day”

Norway was out of the war, but not necessarily out of the fight.   A Nazi officer passed an old woman on the street, who complained at his rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized and scurried off.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be regarded as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1, left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not necessarily out of the fight.   A Nazi officer passed an old woman on the street, who complained at his rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized and scurried off.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

A Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

The Norwegian secret army, known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

Sven Somme, tree
Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but still-unknown dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted God-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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“Croton oil (Crotonis oleum) is an oil prepared from the seeds of Croton tiglium, a tree belonging to the order Euphorbiales and family Euphorbiaceae, and native or cultivated in India and the Malay Archipelago. Small doses taken internally cause diarrhea. Externally, the oil can cause irritation and swelling. Croton oil is used in some chemical peels, due to its caustic exfoliating effects it has on the skin”. H/T, Wikipedia

Norwegian resistance fighters, as dedicated as they were, still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of these guys were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

U-864
German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of Croton oil.

From midget submarines such as the Biber, Hai, Molch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort.  In the North Atlantic, the battle raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Except for the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like, when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

Feature image, top of page:  “Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

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