Review of “Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Program” by Thomas Gallagher

In 1943 and 1944, a couple of amazing raids by Norwegian volunteers removed the supply of heavy water – used by the Germans to develop nuclear weapons – from the Norsk Hydro plant at Vemork, Norway.

Heavy water differs from ordinary water in that the former is made with hydrogen isotopes, each of which has a neutron in addition to the proton in its nucleus. This isotope is called deuterium and is uncommon in nature. Heavy water acts as a moderator for nuclear fission, thus making possible the production of atomic bombs. It is difficult to manufacture, and at that time, there was only one plant in the world capable of making it in significant quantities: Norsk Hydro. When the Germans occupied Norway in 1940, they took over the plant. But the success of the intrepid saboteurs eliminated any chance for the Germans to develop a nuclear bomb before the Americans.

Gallagher provides a play-by-play of the sabotage efforts, from the insertion of the operatives onto the barren wastes of ice and snow in Norway, to the destruction of the remaining barrels of heavy water two years later.

You follow the small team as they learn to stomach reindeer eyeballs to survive; as they climb the snow-and-ice-covered walls of a sheer 600-foot gorge to wire the factory with explosives (and then climb back down); as one of them literally races from six Germans on skis, out-skis all but one, and then stands stock-still as the German empties his Lugar from forty-feet (but into the sun, so he misses). And that’s only a few highlights of this incredible adventure.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway in 1935. The front building was the Norsk Hydro hydrogen production plant

Evaluation: The beginning might seem a bit slow as you are introduced to the volunteers, and as they wait for the weather to be favorable. But persevere: you won’t be disappointed! By the end, this gripping story will seem like the action-packed opening scene in the movie “True Lies,” and you will be hanging on the edge of your seat! James Bond has nothing on these guys, except maybe a taste for martinis rather than reindeer parts.

Rating: 3/5 for the beginning; 6/5 for the second half

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1975

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