With God On Our Side: The Terrorist Who Helped Save Western Civilization
Joachim Roenneberg was a terrorist.
Many years ago, when Joachim Roenneberg was a young man, he and a group of colleagues snuck into a foreign country and detonated explosives that crippled one of the country’s most critical scientific projects.
Okay, linguists might argue that really sounds more like sabotage, especially because no persons were injured. But we shouldn’t get too precious with words here, because what Roenneberg and his friends did is what most people these days just call terrorism. They slithered their way into someone else’s country and destroyed valuable things, sending the message that nothing is safe. They undermined security. They made the other country angry and uneasy, and they were glad they did.
Imagine if someone from another country slipped into the U.S. today and blew up a facility developing next-generation military equipment that would give our soldiers an edge in their next fight. How long would it take our leaders to declare, in voices trembling with fury, that we would not rest until we had hunted down and punished the terrorists who did this?
When Joachim Roenneberg died Sunday at the age of 99, he was widely hailed as an international hero, a man of transcendent selfless courage.
The difference: Roenneberg was on our side. He was our hero. Our saboteur. If you will, our terrorist.
Roenneberg was a Norwegian who fled his country when it was overrun by Nazi Germany in 1940. At the age of 21, in exile, he joined the resistance.
Once the Nazis took over Norway, they began using the Vemork hydroelectric plant to produce “heavy water,” which is essential to the early stages of extracting plutonium, the key ingredient in a nuclear bomb.
While it was top secret at the time, we know in hindsight that the race between Germany and the Allied powers to develop nuclear weapons was perhaps the most critical competition of World War II.
The Allies won, though neither easily nor handily. Had victory gone the other way, it’s fair to suggest this might be a different world today, and a measurable part of the reason Germany did not win was Joachim Roenneberg and the team with which he worked.
The Allies had tried to cripple or destroy the Vemork plant with a British commando raid in 1942. That mission failed. The team was killed.
It was decided the second attempt would employ more stealth. Instead of sending in commandos by helicopter, the Allies this time had a team of snow-savvy Norwegians parachute to a remote mountain and ski to the site.
Operation Gunnerside, it was called, and that team included the 23-year-old Roenneberg. While everything did not go perfectly, the plan ultimately worked. They only encountered one person inside the plant as they made their way to the heavy water area, and that was a Norwegian who was quite happy to help.
They set the charges, got out, heard what Roenneberg later said sounded like a “pop” and high-tailed it over to Sweden.
This brief summation, needless to say, greatly understates the drama of the raid. On their two-week, 250-mile retreat alone, they had to avoid thousands of German troops, which they did with a combination of good fortune and home field advantage — knowing the turf better than the visitors.
Roenneberg, who continued to work with the resistance for the rest of the war and then became a journalist, was the last survivor from the Gunnerside team. He lived to see their mission dramatized on film — the 1965 Kirk Douglas/Richard Harris movie Heroes of Telemark — and documented four years ago in a series on Norwegian public television.
Announcing his death Sunday, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg called Roenneberg a national hero. Even in divided political times, it’s doubtful many disagreed.
Roenneberg in later years admitted that his team had no idea in 1943 about the gravity of their mission. They only knew they had to get rid of some special kind of water. It wasn’t until he saw film of the atomic bomb exploding over Japan, he said, that he understood to what that water could have led.
Operation Gunnerside didn’t destroy the Vemork plant. It drained all the heavy water, which set German development back by several months. That gave the Allies time to launch bombing raids that further hampered the operation, and Germany finally decided to move the development process back home.
So the Germans loaded their new stock of heavy water onto a boat — which the Norwegian resistance sank.
Gunnerside didn’t neutralize a German nuclear bomb five minutes before Herr Hitler was set to light the fuse. But in a close race, with so much at stake, it’s hard to overstate the importance of buying that much time.
And that was Joachim Roenneberg’s act of terrorism, which perhaps just reminds us that even concepts we consider pitch black and pure white can develop shades of grey once we know the full story — and acknowledge the side from which we’re seeing them.