by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug (Nordic Spirit Productions, Inc.)
(This column first appeared in the February 6, 2003 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
I wish my mother were still alive and could read the exciting story told in Defiant Courage: Norway's Longest WW II Escape by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. My mom was brought up in Sweden and I am certain that she would recognize the kind of high-minded and brave characters who people this true story.
This book is about a World War II partisan raid on northern Norway that goes terribly wrong and the escape of a single member of the commando crew against not only rotten odds and vicious Gestapo personnel but also terrifying weather.
Betrayed by a quisling, their landing ship is cornered by a German patrol. The commandos and the boat crew barely have time to set fuses and row away from their craft when we are told, "A thunderous boom filled the fjord. The men in the sinking dory were hurled backwards and thrown on top of each other.
"The eight tons of explosives in Brattholm's hull had ignited. Brattholm's masts were broken into short stubs, and whirled through the air like matchsticks. Pieces of engine, wheelhouse, lantern glass, metal and hatch covers flew over the five men. Burning oil barrels cut through the air, like torches and with big thuds, crashed into granite boulders far up the mountainside behind them.
"The bullet‑ridden dory began sinking beneath the five men. Their only choice was to swim. At the moment Jan delivered himself to the glacial waters, the sock and rubber boot on his right foot got caught in the splintered boat and went down with the dinghy. The frozen waters instantly permeated their uniforms and underclothes. The piercing cold jolted their flesh while the ice floes barred them from the shore. In their efforts to thrust floes aside with their bare hands, the ice forced the men backwards away from the shoreline. It was quicker to swim around the ice than it was to pass through it....
"Jan mustered his strength and crawled up the steep slope by the waterfront. He managed to crouch on a hillock behind a rock some yards higher up. Jan's right foot was bare, and yet the hardened snow did not appear to be any colder than the water. His uniform, heavy with saltwater, soon become rigid and creaked each time he moved; he was being encased in ice.
"The rock was his only refuge from the dangers around him. Per Blindheim dragged himself toward a rock, but a bullet penetrated the back of his head and he fell backwards halfway into the water. Dead.
"As fate would have it, the Germans suddenly noticed where he crouched. Tumbling down the hill towards him, they opened fire 150 feet away. Surprisingly, they ran past him towards the Idrupsens' house further down on the eastside, then towards the water's edge, blocking him from using that way as an escape route. To the left Jan now had four pursuers, behind him the warship and the water, and to the right, a path which led straight toward the Germans who had subjugated the crew. Only a few feet from him lay his dead friends.
"Rushing through the deep snow, the Germans discovered him. Most likely they had intended to creep toward Jan at the water's edge and subdue him where he had hidden behind the rock. Astonished to see him 120 feet behind them on the way up the steep incline, they quickly turned and rushed toward him, demanding that he stop and surrender. Jan kept running. When Jan reached the ravine, he began clawing his way up the nearly vertical mountain, but the powdery snow had no favorites. Using the heavily intertwined underbrush, Jan pulled himself up a few feet, only to slip backwards and start anew. Only a few feet away, and yet so far, a large rock jutted out above him. Exerting all his strength, Jan threw himself behind the stone and pulled out his pistol.
"Swiftly he popped his head out from behind the rock, aimed at the soldiers, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He pulled the trigger again, and again and again. The pistol that had been at his side during the swim remained silent, crammed full of ice. The shouts from the German soldiers grew louder as they approached Jan's hiding place. With fingers blue and clumsy from cold, he feverishly dislodged the magazine and removed the first two cartridges.
"Should the pistol not work this time, his life would end. Anew he swiftly popped his head out and fired. Relieved, Jan heard the pistol go off. The nearest soldier, a lieutenant in Gestapo uniform, received two hits. His arms shot heavenward and he fell backward into the snow. The soldier following him was wounded, but not mortally. The last two soldiers turned around in panic. They alternately ran and rolled down the steep slope toward the water and disappeared from sight."
And this is only the beginning of Jan Baalsrud's two month long ordeal. Fortunately for him, brave Norwegians endanger their own and their family's lives to shelter him and move him forward, but he must still reenter the freezing waters several times and make his way over mountain ranges, all the time avoiding German patrols, to reach neutral Sweden.
"Here is just one more of his adventures: "Jan had no idea he was climbing the lower part of a precipitous mountain stretching upward 500 feet. The mountain was encircled by other snowy giants, except where it butted up to the Lyngsdalen Valley from where Jan had come. Some were over 5000 feet high. No matter where he turned, the snow and fog engulfed him and he could not get oriented in this murky gray and white world. Jan's body was numb. His blood felt as if it had turned to ice.
"The precipitous mountain he faced was weighted down with deep, loose spring snow. Jan could not see it. Suddenly snow, ice and dirt broke loose and moved down the mountain, slowly at first, then rushing madly toward Jan. There was no escape. The avalanche roared downhill, deafening and awe‑inspiring. Helpless, Jan did not know in which direction to move nor did he grasp what was happening.
"The mountain of snow swept him off his feet, catapulting him down, backwards, sideways, then head first. Tossed like a rag doll, Jan flipped, jerked, and was propelled ever downward until he landed on the valley floor he had crossed a short while earlier.
"All went black.
"Jan opened frost‑covered eyelids. His breathing was shallow and came in short spurts. As if through a foggy glass, all he could see was white snow wherever he looked. His mind was vacant. The snow masses enveloped him. Only his head and one arm were free.
"Slowly his consciousness returned. He knew he must have received a terrible blow to his head, but he did not know how long he'd been unconscious. Nausea swept over him and he was clammy and disoriented. Struggling to free himself from the snow masses, Jan discovered both of his ski poles were gone, and one of his skis. The other ski was broken in half, with part of it still fastened to his boot. His mitten and cap were gone. Red spots dotted the snow. Jan touched his face. He looked at his fingers, covered with his own blood. Where was his knapsack? Gone, and all the food with it. Jan was isolated in a world of snow and ice. The part of his face that had rested against the snow was scraped and bloody. It burned and stung. The avalanche had also robbed him of his mittens. His hands were turning blue."
The exploits of this book put those derring-do shoot'em-up movies and video games to shame. The Norwegians of this true story tell us what heroism is really all about.