Seattle author Neal Bascomb’s “The Winter Fortress” tells the true story of a daring World War II raid with a fearfully high-stakes goal — to block Germany from building an atomic bomb. A launch party for Bascomb’s book will be held Thursday, May 5, at Seattle’s Hugo House.
The history of World War II is endlessly fascinating because the events can be told from myriad points of view. Neal Bascomb’s “The Winter Fortress” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp., $28) presents one of those unique perspectives in a spellbinding account of the quest to stop Germany from building an atomic bomb.
The dawn of the development of nuclear weapons coincided with the rise of Germany and Japan in the 1930s. Scientists in Germany, England and the U.S. worked feverishly to harness the energy of uranium atoms. As the battle lines were drawn between the Axis and the Allies, the competition became increasingly intense and urgent.
One of the key components needed to build the bomb was a liquid that contained a variant form of hydrogen, and the world’s largest producer of this “heavy water” was a hydrogen plant in Vemork, Norway.
The author of “The Winter Fortress” will be featured at a launch party for the book at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 5, at Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; free (206-322-7030 or hugohouse.org).
In April 1940, Germany invaded Norway, but despite the apparently easy takeover, an underground resistance force flourished and carried out commando operations throughout the war. An initial raid on the plant in November 1942 ended in disaster when planes and gliders carrying a squad of Royal Engineers (a special force of the British Army) crashed, killing most of soldiers on board.
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Planning began immediately for a second attempt, this time using Norwegians well-trained in sabotage and backcountry survival skills. This mission was particularly daring and difficult. The plant was located on a 600-foot cliff above a deep river gorge in the middle of the vast Norwegian wilderness. During the war the factory’s windows were blacked out and it was protected by mines, searchlights and garrisons of soldiers armed with machine guns. Because of their knowledge of the previous failed mission, the Nazis were on high alert for a repeat attack.
In February 1943, six saboteurs parachuted from the night sky, donned white camouflage suits to avoid detection in the snow, and approached the plant on skis. A team of four commandos was already in the area, waiting to rendezvous and help the parachuters.
Bascomb uses diaries, memoirs, letters and interviews with family members to vividly re-create both action and dialogue. He includes remarkable details, such as team members receiving orders by listening to coded language on BBC news reports and the wind in a hellacious winter storm they encountered sounding like “muddled screams.” Each of the saboteurs was prepared to swallow a cyanide pill if captured.
All of the months of meticulous preparation — the memorization of factory blueprints, the incessant practice in setting explosives and the grueling physical training — paid off.
To avoid detection, the commandos approached the plant from the cliff side, scaling the stupendous rock wall. Their getaway was almost as daunting, a 280-mile trek east to the border with Sweden, which was officially neutral in the war.
The narrative naturally flags a bit after the raid — the author recounts an aerial bombing of Vemork by Americans and the sinking of a ferry carrying heavy water — but otherwise “The Winter Fortress” is a taut and peerlessly told adventure story full of thrills, derring-do and heart-stopping tension. And it packs an even more powerful punch because so much is at stake.