Operation Freshman

Operation Freshman was an operation mounted during the night of 19/20 November 1942, using gliders and Royal Engineer commandos. The purpose of the raid was to destroy a heavy water plant at Rjukan in Norway.The plan for the raid was to use gliders to land commandos with the knowledge and equipment to destroy the heavy water factory. They would then attempt to reach Sweden with the help of the Norwegian Underground.

The main sources for this article are documents held at the National Archives, including documents produced by the War Crimes Investigation Branch, HQ Allied Land Forces Norway (ALFN) and Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO): WO 331/16-18, WO 235/196B and WO 235/684.


In February 1943, the Norwegian Resistance participated in an attack on the Heavy Water Plant at Rjukan. A memorial has since been erected to commemorate this attack.

Memorial for the February 1943 Raid on the Plant.

The names on the memorial, as shown in the above photograph, are Joachim Ronneberg, Jens Anton Poulsson, Knut Haugland, Knut Haukelid, Claus Helberg, Kasper Idland, Fredrik Kayser, Arne Kjelstrup, Einar Skinnarland, Hans Storhaug and Burger Stromsheim.

As an engineer at the Vemork hydroelectric plant some 50 miles west of Oslo, Einar Skinnarland provided a vital link in the struggle to frustrate Germany’s production of Plutonium to develop an atomic bomb during the Second World War. The electrolytic process for the division of water to obtain hydrogen for the manufacture of ammonia at Vemork produced, simply as a by-product, small quantities of heavy water. This differed from ordinary water only in that the hydrogen atom is heavier than normal, but the heavy water was essential for Germany’s production of Plutonium.

In May 1940, shortly after the German occupation of Norway, British Intelligence learnt that the Vemork plant had been ordered to increase production of heavy water to 3,0001b per year, a figure advanced to 10,0001b in January 1942. Six weeks later, a group of young Norwegians planning to join one of their units in Britain hijacked the coastal steamer Galtesund and sailed her to Aberdeen. Among them was Einar Skinnarland on one month’s annual holiday from the Vemork plant. The layout of the plant was already known in Britain, thanks to information provided by Professor Lief Tronstadt, a Norwegian scientist who had escaped before the occupation. But Skinnarland was able to provide details of the German guarding system and, even more important, was prepared to return to Vemork to act as guide for a future sabotage operation. After a comprehensive debriefing on the current situation at Vemork and very basic parachute training, he was dropped over the Hardanger Vidda mountains by an RAF aircraft on March 28,1942. This was 11 days after he had reached Aberdeen and just in time for his return to work.

Because of the mountainous terrain and swiftly changing weather conditions, Skinnarland’s return was only the second operation the RAF had been able to accomplish on behalf of special forces in Norway at that stage of the war. Moreover, the summer nights were too short to give adequate cover, so no attempt could be made to capitalise on the intelligence Skinnarland had provided until the autumn of 1942. He, meanwhile, befriended the chief engineer of the plant, gleaned from him additional information necessary for a coup de main operation and relayed this by radio to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London.

The first operation, in November 1942, ended in disaster. A four-man team of the Norwegian SOE, led by Lieutenant Jens Anton Poulsson, had been dropped successfully in October and established contact with Skinnarland. Their task was to select and prepare landing sites for two gliders carrying British Royal Engineers and, based on latest information from Skinnarland, guide them to the Vemork plant. Both gliders crashed in bad weather and the survivors were captured and executed.

A second operation, carried out by a six-man team of the Norwegian SOE parachuted on to the Hardanger Vidda in February 1943, was completely successful. The second team met Poulsson and his companions, who had existed on the mountain throughout the winter, and carried out a copybook sabotage action that put the heavy water producing plant out of action without the loss of a Norwegian life.

When the SOE teams returned to Britain, one of them through Sweden, two members remained behind to train and arm volunteers for the Norwegian Home Army, as the resistance movement was known. One of those to remain, Knut Haukelid, teamed up with Skinnarland in a mountain hut until the spring thaw of 1943, when they moved to a farm on the lower slopes, where they were better placed to gather information to relay back to SOE headquarters in London. In July they received an inquiry about reports that production of heavy water at the Vemork plant had restarted. It was decided to attempt to destroy the plant by a United States Army Air Force bombing raid. This wrecked the factory but failed to destroy the heavy water plant, which was protected by seven concrete floors above it.

Norwegian technicians were able to convince the German authorities that the plant as a whole was no longer viable but, on January 29,1944, London advised Skinnarland that it was to be dismantled and shipped to Germany, together with the Vemork stocks of heavy water.Haukelid and he took great risks in entering local towns, where both were well known, to gather information about the planned shipment. Eventually, they discovered that it was to be conveyed in a Norwegian ferryboat which would have to traverse Lake Tinnsjo on its way to the open sea. Assisted by others recruited locally, Haukelid placed charges on the keel of the ferry, which blew up and sank in 1,000ft of water in Lake Tinnsjo in February 1944, unfortunately with the loss of several Norwegian lives.

Skinnarland continued to maintain radio contact between the local elements of the Norwegian resistance and SOE headquarters in London until the end of the war in Europe, when the Norwegian Home Army took over the emergency administration of their country.

After the war, Skinnarland emigrated to Canada where he died on 5 December 2002, aged 84 years.

During the investigation by the War Crimes Investigation Branch ALFN several bodies were discovered. The bodies were buried hastily and showed signs of torture. Also as the guilders crashed in bad weather, a request was sent from Major Rawlings to the Judge Advocate General’s Office. This request to the Judge Advocate General’s Office produced the letter from the DJAG Office, BLFN.

Further to my letter even reference dated 24 August 1945 I now enclose descriptions of the Royal Engineers personnel who took part in this operation. These descriptions I have today received from the Officer i/c Military Department Judge Advocate General Office.

4385760L/SgtHealey F5′ 8″12632
1871585L/SgtKnowles G5′ 7″13035
2076750A/CplThomas JGL5′ 8″15233
1948916SprWilliams GS5′ 5″10518
1869293SprBailey EW5′ 0″8131
1886725SprGrundy CH5′ 8″14432
1922713SprLegate HJ5′ 3″11823
2068169SprSmallman L5′ 5″11230
2000197DvrPendlebury E5′ 5″12335
2110314CplCairncross JD5′ 6″14733
1906932SprBonner F5′ 10″15632
2110268SprNorman R5′ 9″16437
1884423DvrSimkins G5′ 5″12735
2110332SprHunter JGV5′ 5″12332
2073797SprWalsh JW5′ 9″14733
2115238SprFaulkner TW5′ 6″13334
2114930SprJacques W5′ 6″14537
4537415L/CplJackson WM5′ 9″14135
2074196SprBevan H5′ 5″12937
2016305DvrBellfield JTV5′ 10″13736
2010697SprStephen JM5′ 6″13334
2010213DvrFarrell PP5′ 8″14837
1923037L/CplCampbell A5′ 6″13437
1892979SprSmith EJ5′ 7″12734
1884418L/CplBray FW5′ 10″14736
1900803SprBlackburn JF5′ 9″15938
1872832L/CplMasters TL5′ 7″12434
1875800SprWhite TW5′ 7″12835
Height (feet inches), Weight (pounds) and Chest (inches) as stated at attestation.

All personnel of either 261 or 9 Airborne Squadron RE.

The party was completed by two RE officers: Lieutenants Alex Charles Allen and David Alexander Methven GM.

While serving with 226 Field Company Royal Engineers, 2nd Lieutenant Methven was awarded the George Medal. This George Medal was awarded for his role in Mine Disposal work at Mablethorpe Beach (Lincolnshire) on 25 December 1941, and at Skegness Beach (Lincolnshire) on 5 April 1942. The award of his George Medal was published in the London Gazette on 10 July 1942 (page 3039).

Lieutenant Methven was not in the original party, but three days before the operation 2nd Lieutenant Mike Green was injured in a training accident.

Following receipt of the identification details the investigation continued into the reports of British prisoners being executed. The following text was extracted from a letter sent by Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Bellis to the Military Deputy in the Judge Advocate General’s Office (based in London) dated 28 November 1945. The letter outlines the fate of five of the Operation Freshman Personnel:

4537415L/CplW.M. JacksonRoyal Engineers
1906932SprF. BonnerRoyal Engineers
1900803SprJ.N. BlackburnRoyal Engineers
2073797SprJ.W. WalshRoyal Engineers
1875800SprT.W. WhiteRoyal Engineers
FX88494A/SR.P. EvansRoyal Navy

Evans, together with Sergeant Don Craig (Royal Engineers), Quartermaster Leif Larsen (Royal Norwegian Navy), Telegraphist Roald Strand (Royal Norwegian Navy) & Able Seaman William Tebb (Royal Navy), landed ashore and prepared to make their way to neutral Sweden.

During a short gun battle near the Swedish border, Able Seaman Evans was badly wounded in the stomach. The others thinking that he was dead eventually made their way into Sweden. For their contribution to this operation, Quartermaster Larsen received the CGM to add to his DSM. Evans, despite his serious wounds and period in hospital, survived.

Able Seaman Evans was then taken to Grini Concentration Camp (located 30 miles outside Oslo), where he joined Lance Corporal Jackson and Sappers Bonner, Blackburn, Walsh and White. On 18 January 1943, they were marched into Trandum Forest and executed by firing squad. Initially, their bodies were buried in a mass grave. After the war’s end, their remains were exhumed and reburied in Oslo Western Military Cemetery, Vestre Gravland.