His name is Joachim Ronneberg, a 96 year old WWII veteran of the Norwegian special forces and he is the last surviving member of the unit that was tasked with destroying the Norsk Hydro plant – effectively foiling Hitler’s nuclear ambitions.
While mostly unknown here in America, Ronneberg is the most decorated war hero in Norway’s history and if it weren’t for him, London would have looked like Hiroshima in the 40s.
But if you ask Ronneberg about his mission, he’ll tell you it wasn’t all that heroic.
“There were so many things that were just luck and chance…There was no plan. We were just hoping for the best.” he told the New York Times.
During a night off from training in Cambridge, England, Ronneberg decided to catch a movie and on his way there noticed a pair of heavy duty metal cutters in a hardware store window and bought them. Why? He had a hunch they may come in handy at some point.
Boy was he right. After dropping into Normandy, he was tasked with a new mission that previously left 35 British troops dead – Get dropped onto a snowy Norwegian mountain in Vemork and destroy the heavily guarded Norsk Hydro plant.
At the time, Ronneberg and his team were confused as to why blowing up what they thought was a fertilizer plant was so important. As they approached the building they realized the saw they brought to cut a very heavy padlock would make too much noise and draw attention. Luckily, Ronneberg has his metal cutters he got from that British hardware store – and the commandos got in, Ronneberg set the explosives and they escaped just in time to hear the boom.
The Norsk Hydro plant was not a fertilizer plant, rather the sole producer of heavy water – the key neutralizer needed for Hitler’s developing nuclear weapons. Germany’s nuclear program was much older than that of the U.S. – raids like this are why he never got a bomb.
Last year Norway unveiled this statue to commemorate Ronneberg’s 95th birthday:
From the New York Times:
ALESUND, Norway — For a man who saved the world, or at least helped ensure that Adolf Hitler never got hold of a nuclear bomb, 96-year-old Joachim Ronneberg has a surprisingly unheroic view of the forces that shape history.
“There were so many things that were just luck and chance,” he said of his 1943 sabotage mission that blew up a Norwegian plant vital to Nazi Germany’s nuclear program. “There was no plan. We were just hoping for the best,” Mr. Ronneberg, Norway’s most decorated war hero, added.
The leader and only living member of a World War II commando team that destroyed the Nazis’ only source of heavy water, a rare fluid needed to produce nuclear weapons, Mr. Ronneberg has had his exploits celebrated in a 1965 blockbuster movie, “The Heroes of Telemark,” starring Kirk Douglas, been showered with military medals and been honored, belatedly, with a statue and museum display in his hometown here on Norway’s west coast.
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