I would normally never consider a trip to my cabin special at all, I have grown up with it and it is normal. However, after living in London for 4 years I have come to realise how fortunate I am to have such a special place and be surrounded by so much beauty.
The cabin belongs to my dad’s family is in Hjartdal in Telemark and we often go for a day or for the weekend. This time we went for the weekend with ambitions to climb the mountain Heksfjell as well as doing the usual maintenance (all Norwegians know how much work it is to have an old cabin). However, I got flu and Saturday offered fog and rainfall so we decided to drive to Rjukan, a town familiar to many as it was the location for heavy water production during WW2, and a “popular” place to sabotage for the Allied troops. Rjukan is situated in a beautiful valley with mount Gaustadtoppen towering over the town. Rjukan made it to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2015, and with good reason. It is a typical Norwegian small town in the shadows of the mountains, beautiful small wooden houses and impressive buildings housing the first hydroelectric plants in the world. The town also has that correct Norwegian small town feeling, with barely anyone outside and everything closed on a Saturday. However, the people are not unfriendly, and if you’re driving around in the south-east of Norway, make sure to check out this town.
Rjukan has five hydroelectric plants and also used to be a place for Norwegian industry. In the early 1900s we didn’t know how to transport electricity over long distances, so a lot of industry was put in close vicinity to the hydroelectric plants. At the time of the German invasion in 1940, Vemork hydroelectric plant was the only place in the world that powered the production of heavy water (heavy water is the by-product of ammonia based fertilizer production). Norway was the only country with commercial heavy water production in the world, and had supplied the scientific community around the world with heavy water since the mid 1930s. However, heavy water is also a key ingredient in the atomic bomb, and the plant with a capacity to produce 12 tonnes of heavy water a year became very interesting and important to the Germans.
Hitler was keen on keeping the production of heavy water up at Vemork as it would be an important ingredient in his atomic bomb. Churchill on the other hand was quite keen on stopping the production of heavy water. A team of Norwegian blokes were sent to England to receive training to sabotage the plant. They stayed on Hardangervidda, a mountain plateau close to Rjukan, and were initially supposed to make a landing strip for planes that were supposed to bomb Vemork. However, the mountains and weather of Norway are treacherous and the planes never saw the strip and never landed, three out of four places crashed and 41 men died. A second attempt was made by sending the same guys (plus some explosive experts) into the factory to place a bomb, and they did so successfully in 1943 (known as “Operation Gunnerside”). Yet the production started again just half a year later. They tried bombing it again, but they didn’t ruin the heavy water store. Then Hitler decided enough was enough, we are going to move this production to Germany. However, he wanted to bring the heavy water to back to Germany. You would perhaps think that if you have an important treasure you wouldn't risk transporting all in one go, and especially not when you are surrounded by Norwegians wanting to blow it to pieces. Yet, instructions were made to transport it all back in one go, and in 1944, the heavy water was loaded from train onto a passenger ferry. The train taking the heavy water to the ferry had been heavily guarded, but the ferry itself wasn’t, so 8.5 kg of plastic explosives were planted before departure and timed to go off when the ferry crossed the water, and so it did. So if you are after heavy water, there are plenty on the bottom of lake Tinnsjøen.
Vemork is still a power station but is now inside the mountain. The old power station building is now a museum where you can see the old turbines, some old gear, an exhibition about Norwegian Industry, a film and exhibition about the saboteurs as well as temporary exhibitions. I saw from old posters that Sebastião Salgado had had both his “Exodus” and “Workers” photographs exhibited in the early 2000, so the photographic exhibitions there seem to hold a high standard.
Thanks for reading,