The Heavy Water
War

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About

After invading Norway in the spring of 1940, the Nazis took immediate notice of the Hydrogen Production Factory at Vemork - the only facility in the world that produced heavy water in large volumes. 

 

This heavy water would be the key ingredient in the German atomic research program – and the Allied forces feared that should Germany develop an atom bomb, London would be well within range with population of over 8 million – one of Hitler’s military fixations.

Allied hopes of disrupting the Nazi atomic program naturally focused on sabotaging the Vemork Hydrogen Production Factory, fortified and heavily guarded in a nearly impossibly inaccessible part of Norway.

 

Click here for an incisive look at one of the most exciting stories of World War II - one that took place here in the heart of the Wild Telemark. 

The Hydrogen Factory

The Hydrogen Factory that was located at Vemork in Norway is famous as the target of Operation Gunnerside, the February 1943 WWII heavy water operation that has been called “the most successful act of sabotage in all of World War II.”

 

Penetrating a virtually inaccessible location in the frozen mountains of Telemark, Norway, Norwegian commandos successfully destroyed the heavy water production that may have brought Adolf Hitler the atomic bomb.

 

The Hydrogen Factory was designed by the well-known Norwegian architect Thorvald Astrup, who had earlier designed the Såheim power plant in Rjukan, as well as the famed Admini, the official Norsk Hydro hospitality headquarters in Rjukan.

For a deeper look at the Hydrogen Factory and the story behind what made this facility such an important target for Nazi Germany, learn more about the story here

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The Hydrogen Factory at Vemork was the world's largest water electrolysis plant. From 1934, heavy water was produced on an industrial scale, but as a byproduct of hydrogen electrolysis.  Within industry, the factory was well-known for its state-of the art technology, becoming the world’s first producer of heavy water that would begin in 1934, growing to a capacity of 12 tons annually in 1941

 

The Uranium Club

Germany had began its secret program, the ‘Uranium Club’ in 1939 just a few months after Otto Hann and Fritz Strassman, both German scientists, had discovered nuclear fission by a ‘lucky accident’. Research was focused on three main areas, one of them being the use of heavy water as an element in the production of an atomic bomb.

 

By the spring of 1942, scientific research showed that it was possible to produce plutonium in heavy water reactors. The Allies feared that the Germans would develop an atomic bomb.

 

But who would be the first to get ‘the bomb’? 

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The Race for the Bomb 

As World War II moved into 1943, heavy water production at Vemork was producing 100 kilograms per month - more than enough to fuel German research. By then, the tide of the war had begun to shift in favor of the Allies, but at the same time a dangerous wartime intrigue was developing. 

 

The year before, in 1942, the United States had decided to go full-steam ahead at producing an atomic bomb, but the simple fact was that no one really knew for certain who had the lead in developing “The Bomb”.

 

Clearly, action had to be taken by the Allied Forces. 

 

Impossibly Inaccessible

Allied hopes of disrupting the Nazi atomic program naturally focused on sabotaging the Vemork Hydrogen Production Factory, fortified and heavily guarded in a nearly impossibly inaccessible part of Norway. For centuries, the only way into Rjukan and Vemork was to brave travels over the high mountain plateau of Hardangervidda, is Europe’s largest high mountain plain, an endless chain of lakes and rocky outcrops, over half a mile above sea level. 

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Not only was the factory virtually impossible to attack with its remote location deep in the Norwegian mountains, the facility was heavy guarded by the Germans.

 

Even with the modern technology and expertise at the Allieds’ disposal, any penetration of Vemork seemed an impossible task. The first attempt to disable the factory ended in utter failure with Operation Freshman in November 1942 when two mlitary planes dispatched from the UK crashed in southern Norway.  All 41 English commandos on board in the two planes were either killed in the crash or executed afterwards. It was a low point of the war.

 

After the Operation Freshman failure, a special operations team was created consisting of Norwegians, a team that knew the local area around Rjukan and Vemork. This is the operation that some say changed the course of World War II.    

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The Vemork sabotage that subsequently took place just after midnight on February 28th 1943 is described as one of the most heroic that took place during the Second World War. At any rate, it is indeed one of the most spectacular. 

 

In the cover of night 12 saboteurs were dropped by parachute onto the barren frozen Hardangervidda. Then, just before midnight on 27 February, nine of the twelve Norwegian saboteurs descended the steep canyon wall from the frozen plateau into the deep valley, down the cliff and crossing the frozen Måna river basin and then up the hill to the railroad line that led to the gates of the Vemork installation.

 

Unnoticed and unstopped, the saboteurs made their way along the railroad track that led to the entrance of the Vemork facility, and into the cellar of the Vemork Hydrogen Production Factory.  There, they detonated the explosive that would sidetrack Adolf Hitler’s quest to create a bomb that could have fulfilled his dream of eradicating London with its 8 million inhabitants.