On February 27, 1942, nine saboteurs scaled a cliff in the middle of the night to blow up a Nazi-controlled heavy water plant in Norway. Hollywood turned the story of the attack into The Heroes of Telemark, a sappy action-movie-on-skis starring Kirk Douglas. The true story is both more complicated—and more compelling. Using rarely viewed Norwegian records, eyewitness accounts, and his own travels in Norway, Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission To Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb sets this daring sabotage mission in the context of the high-stakes race between the Germans and the Allies to create a nuclear weapon.
Speaking from his home in Seattle, Bascomb explains how geography made the Vemork plant so hard to attack; how two of the greatest German physicists of the age, Einstein and Heisenberg, ended up on opposite sides of the race to create a nuclear bomb; and why the Norwegian commandos who blew up the plant were ordinary men, who did extraordinary things.
Vemork is about 100 miles west of Oslo, on the edge of this ice-bound precipice. It was the only plant in the world that produced heavy water, which was the key ingredient in the German atomic bomb research program. They needed heavy water to create a nuclear reactor, which was the stepping-stone to producing plutonium, and then an atomic bomb. The Allies did not know how far along the Germans were [in their researches] but the one thing they did know was the Nazi concentration on heavy water. So they took that one spot, and hit it…..[ ]