The German's plan to create an atomic bomb hinged on the Vemork hydroelectric plant on the Rjukan waterfall. The plant produced Heavy Water, a 'moderator' that slows down neutrons in a reactor to ensure an effective fission chain reaction. Prior to the war, Vemork was already producing Heavy Water as a by-product of its fertilizer production. Once Norway fell to the Germans, the plant became central to Nazi’s nuclear ambitions and became a hugely significant target for the Allies.
The downside of using Heavy Water as a moderator rather than graphite - the American's preferred choice - is that it's an incredibly drawn-out process to create enough material for a viable programme. Simply put: destroy the Vemork plant and stop German atomic research in its tracks, which is exactly what a group of Norwegian commandoes did in 1943.
This remarkable story touched on in Hunting Hitler is given the full thriller treatment in Andrew Gross' new novel The Spy. The novel tells this little-known period of history that had a huge impact on the War. If the mission had failed and the Germans had developed an atomic bomb before the Americans, it could have been game over for the Allies. The stakes were incredibly high.
Though it is such a pivotal moment in WW2, it is strangely unknown. At the start of the interview, Andrew explains, "When I started writing about this, in the States it was a completely untold story and in the year and a half that I spent writing it, and then almost 2 years for publication, there were several things that brought the story to life, not the least of it was the last remaining member of the commando team died. He actually received a full-page article in the New York Times."
"The story is a big sprawling WW2 adventure story in the manner of the old Alistair MacLean novels."
Asked to describe the novel, Andrew paints it as a classic thriller, "The story is a big sprawling WW2 adventure story in the manner of the old Alistair MacLean novels, like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. The Spy is the story of Kurt Nordstrum who is a fictional hero based on Knut Haukelid, the actual Norwegian resistance fighter who led eight commandos to neutralise the Heavy Water facility in German-occupied Norway".
The mission was so treacherous because the plant, based near Rjukan, was well protected by mountains and by what was called the Hardangervidda plateau which rose above it. A previous attempt to destroy the plant in 1942, codename Operation Freshman, had also ended in failure with the deaths of 34 British soldiers.
After the failure of Operation Freshmen, it was down to these group of Norwegian freedom fighters to execute - what Andrew describes as - “The most thrilling and probably most strategic mission of the war”. In true novelistic fashion, the success of the mission lies heavily on the shoulders of the fictional Nordstrum.
As a novelist, Andrew likes to tell these historical stories in terms of the individuals involved, he explains, “I put one person in this pivotal role in history that without him events would have changed so radically”. Characters like Nordstrum are fascinating; what motivates them to keep fighting, when in the case of Norway under the Quizling regime, the country had capitulated to Germany?
"A true man goes as far as he possibly can and then he goes twice as far."
For Andrew, this resistance spirit is summed up in a Norwegian saying he happened across while writing the novel, “A true man goes as far as he possibly can and then he goes twice as far”. Andrew elaborates, “That sort of got at the heart of these people, this selflessness, knowing that they might all be killed, assuming the odds were so daunting that they would never return from the mission. The Spy is a story of heroism and patriotism and ultimately of the bravery of characters, who didn't fall into the trap of submitting to the Nazis.”
It was important for Andrew to write about this subject because, “It takes place in a theatre of the war that very few people know about, because traditionally everyone writes about central Europe as being the backdrop to WW2 and very rarely gets up into places such as Norway.”
The other fascinating aspect of the novel is thinking about what would have happened if the operation had failed and Germany had continued with its nuclear programme, ultimatley leading to the creation of its own atomic bomb. Andrew hypothesizes that as, "Britain historically was the target of Hitler’s efforts to create the V2 and V3 weaponry, there's no doubt in (his) mind that in his madness and desperation at the end, there's no doubt he would have used it. London would have been the target of it."