Chances are, you haven’t heard of Birger Stromsheim, the WWII spy and hero who basically lived an action movie. He died on November 10 in Oslo at the age of 101, nearly 70 years after parachuting into his own country with five other Norwegians to blow up a Nazi facility, throwing a huge wrench into Germany’s plan to build a nuclear weapon.
Here is a man whose mission to disrupt the nuclear ambitions of Nazi Germany sound like they belong to a James Bond film. One February night in 1943, Stromsheim and five others parachuted into the remote and frigid Telemark region of their own home country. Armed with explosives and skis, they ventured to the German-controlled Norsk Hydro facility where Nazis were trying to produce heavy water, a crucial ingredient in the building of the atom bomb. Stromsheim was one of the demolition experts on the team, reports the NY Times.
A former Norwegian soldier, Stromsheim became a member of Special Operations Executive, the clandestine spy-ops organization, and partner to the US-based OSS. These two organizations were WWII “prototypes” for our modern day MI6 and CIA, respectively.
The mission had little hope. After all, it was the second attempt to disrupt the Nazis plans. A few months earlier, another group of four Norwegians were left stranded in the harsh climate, subsisting on a diet of lichen scraped from rocks and the occasional deer after their British team leaders were captured, tortured, and killed.
Stromsheim’s team met up with their stranded countrymen and set about completing the mission. Stromsheim was 31-years-old at the time and was respected for his battle-calm and explosives knowledge.
“We didn’t think about whether it was dangerous or not,” Joachim Ronneberg, the leader of the mission, recalled in an interview in The Telegraph of London in 2010. “We didn’t think about our retreat.”
Stromsheim’s team broke into the facility, set the dynamite on a 30-second fuse, and escaped.
“They didn’t reckon that they would get out alive,” Mr. Stromsheim’s son, also named Birger, recalled in an interview for this obituary. “They weren’t sure of that. They were scared in some ways, but there was no panic.”
The team escaped, and the Nazis searched for the saboteurs days after the explosion. Stromsheim’s team managed to slip out, their mission complete, long before the Nazis even knew what hit them. Not a single shot was fired.
Fun fact: In 1965, Hollywood made a movie called The Heroes of Telemark starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris based on Stromsheim’s exploits. The film included chases, shootouts, and even love scenes. Despite being one of the few people alive who was able to watch a film based on his own life, Stromsheim mocked the film as unrealistic. Action-packed though it was, the real story was a lot more impressive: After all, the mission was successful, and the team avoided detection.
“He saw that,” Mr. Stromsheim’s son said. “He didn’t like it. It was too glamorous.”
What a guy. Mr. Stromsheim, this one’s for you: