In July 1942, the British War Cabinet decided to try to destroy the heavy water production facilities at the Norsk Hydro factory at Vemork, Norway - this was code-named Operation Freshman. Guest author Dr. Bruce A. Tocher shares his research into this operation, and efforts to trace descendants of those involved.

The reason for this operation was the concern that the heavy water was being used as part of Nazi Germany's program to develop a nuclear bomb.  After much discussion, it was decided to use specially trained Royal Engineers to carry out the task. They were to be flown to a landing site on the Hardanger Plateau, using two Horsa gliders, each towed by a Halifax bomber; their top-secret mission was code-named, Operation Freshman. 

Prior to the raid, a photo reconnaissance mission was undertaken in order to obtain more high-resolution aerial images of the Norsk Hydro facility and, in particular, the proposed glider landing zone on the Hardanger Plateau. Sadly, the de Havilland Mosquito from No.1 PRU (Photo Reconnaissance Unit) Squadron, crewed by Flight Lieutenant Donald Higson RAF and Pilot Officer John Douglas Hayes RAFVR, was shot down near Oslo on 17 October 1942, and both men were killed – the first casualties of Operation Freshman.

On the evening of 19 November 1942, despite some misgivings regarding the weather over the objective, two Halifax bombers, each towing a Horsa Glider took off from RAF  Skitten, near Wick in NE Scotland. On board each glider were 15 Royal Engineers, and two pilots. 

War memorial with poppy wreaths
Photograph by Dr. Bruce A. Tocher
Memorial to the men of Operation Freshman near the site of the former RAF airbase at Skitten.

Waiting near the target zone were a group of four Norwegians (Grouse Team) from the Special Operations Executive, who had parachuted into the area some weeks earlier. Their primary mission was to light flares on the planned landing zone on the Hardanger Plateau, then guide the engineers to the target – the Norsk Hydro heavy water facility at Vemork.  

Tragically, due to failures in the navigation and guidance systems, and poor weather, the aircraft failed to identify the landing zone and were forced to turn back. On the return journey, ice began to build up on the tow ropes and the increased weight began to seriously affect the flight performance. Eventually, over southwest Norway, the tow ropes between the bombers and their gliders snapped. One glider, from Combination A, crashed in Fylgjesdalen, while the towing aircraft, Halifax A, made it back to Scotland, extremely low on fuel. Both Halifax and Glider from Combination B crashed near Helleland.

Of the 17 men onboard Horsa Glider A (DP-349), eight were killed on impact. The dead were initially buried near the site of the crash in a steep valley, Fylgjesdalen, near Lysebotn, Norway. In August 1945, their bodies were recovered, transported to Stavanger and reinterred, together with their comrades in the Commonwealth Grave section at Eiganes Cemetery. 

Woods with a sign saying Gravstad
Photograph by Dr. Bruce A. Tocher
Original burial site of the 8 men killed when Glider A crashed in Fyljesdalen, Lysebotn, Norway.

Of the nine survivors from Glider A, four men were brutally murdered by the Gestapo in Stavanger sometime on the 23/24th of November 1942. Their bodies were then weighted down with rocks and dumped at sea near the island of Kvitsøy. In 1985, a special memorial was raised to these four men with no known grave in Stavanger. 

The five remaining survivors from Glider A, were held in the Gestapo Prison in Lagårdsveien, Stavanger for a number of days before being transported to the German prison camp at Grini, near Oslo. The Grini records indicate that they entered the camp on the 29th November. According to statements made at the War Crimes Trials, the men were interrogated at both Grini and the Gestapo Headquarters in Oslo during the period of time they were held in captivity. On 19 January 1943, they were taken out of Grini, together with Able Seaman Robert P. Evans, who had been captured during a failed attempt to sink the German battleship, Tirpitz (Operation Title), and transported to Trandum Wood, north of Oslo where they were executed at dawn by a special firing squad (Sonderkommando) comprising members of the German Security Services.  

Stone cross marker in the woods
Photograph by Dr. Bruce A. Tocher
Grave 9, Trandum Wood, near Oslo, where the five Freshman soldiers and Able Seamen Evans were originally buried.

The bodies were initially buried in an unmarked grave but were recovered by the Norwegian authorities in 1945 and reburied in the Commonwealth Grave section at Oslo West Cemetery.  

The fate of Combination B was almost certainly similar to Combination A, in that at some point the tug aircraft and its glider became separated. However, in this case, both glider and tug crashed near Helleland in southwest Norway. The seven-man crew of the Halifax were killed on impact. They were initially buried by the Germans in a shallow grave close to the crash site on Hestafjellet but after the war, the bodies of the airmen were recovered by the people of Helleland and buried with full military honours in the Commonwealth Graves Section in Helleland Churchyard. 

Row of seven white headstones
Photograph by Dr. Bruce A. Tocher
Commonwealth Graves for Halifax B aircrew, Helleland Churchyard, Norway.

Three men, including both Australian glider pilots were killed when Glider B crashed on Benkja Mountain, near Helleland. The fourteen survivors, who surrendered to the German Army, were taken to the nearby German Army Camp at Slettebø. Later that same day, 20 November 1942, they were led one by one to an area on the outskirts of the camp and executed by firing squad as a consequence of the Hitler Order (Führerbefehl) which demanded that anyone caught undertaking sabotage actions were to be summarily executed.

Stone wall next to trees
Photograph by Dr. Bruce A. Tocher
Execution site of 14 British soldiers from Operation Freshman at Slettebø Camp, near Egersund, Norway.

The bodies of the men were buried that evening in an unmarked grave in the sand dunes at Brusand. However, a local Norwegian civilian secretly observed the burial and, after the war, was able to guide the Allied Authorities to the location. 

In July 1945, the remains of the soldiers from Glider B were recovered and re-buried with full military honours in the Commonwealth Grave section at Eiganes Cemetery in Stavanger where remembrance ceremonies are still held each year to honour their sacrifice. 

Due to the secrecy surrounding the mission, very little information was provided to the families of the servicemen at the time, other than that they were missing. A short news article was released by the Germans shortly after the raid saying that a number of aircraft had landed in Norway and that all of the soldiers on board had been engaged and killed to the last man. However, it was not until after the war that true scale of the tragedy was unveiled.

A soldier salutes in front of war graves
Photograph by Dr. Bruce A. Tocher
Remembrance Sunday 2020, Commonwealth Grave Section, Eiganes Cemetery, Stavanger, Norway.

The successful attack on the Heavy Water facility at Vemork in Norway in February 1943 is rightly regarded as one of the most daring special forces raids of the Second World War. Over the years many books have been written about this raid, Operation Gunnerside, and it has been portrayed in films (The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas), television series (The Heavy Water War) and numerous documentaries. However, what is less well known is that there was an earlier attempt to destroy this target. This raid, Operation Freshman, which was launched on 19 November 1942, ended in tragedy with 41 of the 48 soldiers and airmen involved losing their lives. A list of those who took part in this operation can be found here.

Several books have been published in which Operation Freshman is described, e.g., by Richard Wiggan (1986) and Jostein Berglyd (2005). In 2011, Ion Drew et al. published Silent Heroes which, in addition to the details of the raid, also provided a unique insight into the personal lives of the servicemen and their families. At the time of publication, however, details of only some of the men were available.  

 With this in mind, The Operation Freshman Project is trying to trace any surviving relatives or people who have stories or anecdotes concerning the servicemen who participated in the raid, or who were involved in the planning, training and support roles, and who may have photographs, letters or other documentary information relating to the servicemen. The idea is to tell the story of all of these incredibly courageous young men through their lives, and lives of their families, rather than more conventional histories which focus primarily on the events themselves.   

Since the start of 2020, the project has managed to trace and make contact with relatives of 38 of the 48 soldiers and aircrew who took part in Operation Freshman, as well as families of many of the Norwegians who became involved. This effort is ongoing.  

In the Autumn of 2022, to mark the 80th Anniversary of Operation Freshman, a total of 67 Freshman relatives spent 8 days in Norway visiting the various sites connected with the raid. This included visits to the three Commonwealth War Grave sites (Oslo, Stavanger and Helleland), as well as the three crash sites, execution sites, prisons, and the Heavy Water Cellar at Vemork. The visit culminated in a reception at the British Embassy in Oslo. 

Future initiatives include updated and new museum exhibitions focusing on Operation Freshman, profiling sites of interest in collaboration with local Norwegian Councils, as well as a series of lecture presentations in 2024. 

If you wish to offer information or find out more about the Operation Freshman Project, please contact [email protected]