An exciting, thorough account of how Norwegian resistance, with help from the British, scuttled Nazi attempts to build an atomic program.
The steady focus of this suspenseful work of research by accomplished nonfiction author Bascomb (The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts, 2011, etc.) is Vemork, a Norwegian hydroelectric plant on the Mana River. The author weaves together several strands regarding this top-secret 1943 Norwegian-British mission to dismantle the part of the Vemork power station that was producing heavy water, a severely condensed substance that the Nazi physicists were beginning to understand might help lead to the production of an atomic bomb. Soon after the invasion of Norway by the Nazis in April 1940, Norwegian scientist and professor of atomic chemistry Leif Tronstad, a fervent patriot, caught on to the Germans’ sudden interest in increasing the production of heavy water. Working through the British Secret Intelligence Service, Tronstad was able to direct the commando operation on Vemork from the safe resistance headquarters in London. Bascomb’s intricate story involves two teams of commandos organized under Britain’s Special Operations Executive, both of which dropped into Norway in late 1942: the Grouse team, led by Jens-Anton Poulsson, would act as the advance unit, carrying radios and support, and the Gunnerside team of saboteurs, led by Joachim Rønneberg, would infiltrate the plant at night and perform the delicate demolition before escaping on skis through the snowy valley. Bascomb carefully examines the significance of the plant in the entire scheme of Allied victory as well as the perilous fates of the men and their families. Ultimately, he asks, “if the Germans had fashioned a self-sustaining reactor with heavy water, what then?”
Featuring excellent characterization and exquisite detail concerning a theater of the war (Norway) not well-mined, this will make a terrific addition to World War II collections.