A couple of weeks ago a man named Birger Stromsheim passed away peacefully at the ripe old age of 101. I became aware of Mr. Stromsheim’s exploits when I was a sophomore in High School in Bergen, Norway when my father took a sabbatical year and taught at the University there.
Stromsheim was something of a folk hero in the land of the midnight sun, and with good reason. He and his wife escaped Norway during the Nazi occupation in World War II and sailed to England where he was trained by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to become an expert in explosives. Early in the war the German army took over a hydroelectric plant in south-central Norway and converted it into a facility to manufacture so-called “heavy water”, an ingredient necessary to their approach in producing an atomic bomb. Stromsheim and five Norwegians parachuted into the Telemark region of their homeland on February 17th, 1943 with plans to destroy the Nazi’s cache of heavy water and hamstring their efforts in completing the bomb. After several days of struggling through blizzard-like conditions, they rendezvoused with four others who’d survived a similar-but-failed mission conducted the previous October. This group of ten set off for the Hydro plant at 8 p.m. on Feb. 27, and arrived to find it heavily guarded at its only entrance—a bridge that spanned two steep ravines on each side and a river below. The allied commandos furtively climbed down one ravine, crossed the icy river, and climbed the opposite ravine, a process that took hours. Once there they still had to navigate another steep descent, and did so in snowdrifts that went up to their waists. It was 12:30 a.m. by the time they were able to enter the plant by using bolt cutters to force open one of the metal gates. Exhausted, cold and soaking wet, a portion of the team quietly entered the building and ran to a basement door which was to have been opened by a Norwegian mole employed at the facility.
Unfortunately, the mole had been too ill to work that day so they had to improvise. They split into two groups, one ultimately entering through a window they grudgingly busted and the other through a cable duct. The latter group surprised a Norwegian caretaker when they entered, and—uncertain of his allegiances—held him at gunpoint while they laid the explosive charges throughout the room. Given the risk of German guards arriving at any moment, the team decided to use 30 second fuses instead of the two minute variety that would have given them enough time to get clear of the plant before the explosion. As they prepared to set the fuses, they encountered one more unexpected hitch: the captive caretaker informed the team that he’d misplaced his glasses and refused to leave without them (“They are impossible to get in Norway these days” he was quoted as saying). I’m reasonably certain my response would have been “tough luck”, “enjoy the hereafter, dude,” or—most likely—“send the bill to King George VI and let’s get the heck out of here.” But that’s not what Mr. Stromsheim and his fellow saboteurs did. Stunned and conflicted, they stopped and spent precious seconds assisting the hapless caretaker look for his spectacles. They quickly found them on his desk, lit the fuses and rushed away as the charges exploded (the sound was apparently muffled significantly by the walls of the facility. “It sounded like two or three cars crashing in Piccadilly Circus,” recounted one of Stromsheim’s colleagues). The Norwegian band escaped by trekking through snowstorms for 250 miles to neutral Sweden. That’s a tough group of hombres.
One obituary termed the operatives’ brief search for the glasses a case of “foolhardy benevolence”, a catchy phrase that has lingered in my brain. To my way of thinking, though, it’s also redundant. Generosity, grace, compassion, and altruism all come, by definition, with a price. These terms surely imply, if not express explicitly, some degree of sacrifice on the part of the giver. Many of us believe such giving is therefore stupid—why give without getting? But that’s immature and shortsighted, in my view. If I’m expecting (or demanding) something in return it’s not truly a gift, it’s simple commerce—a deal, a quid-pro-quo. Commerce and mutual obligations have their place, of course, and they’re crucial to the proper functioning of both a household and a society. On the other hand, so does munificence, giving with no agenda, no expectation, no desired response. This is a hard truth for mortals to grasp, extremely difficult for us to put into practice, and teaching children to give willingly and, gulp, cheerfully, is an assignment worthy of a Mission Impossible installment. Still, it’s a necessary and worthy effort, and one to keep at the forefront of our minds this season and always.
Now…where did I put my glasses….?
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.