Norway’s Joachim Ronneberg, who led a daring covert operation to destroy a Nazi nuclear arms factory during World War II, died on Sunday at age 99, according to The Guardian.
Ronneberg was a 23-year-old agent of Britain’s Special Operations Executive agent during World War II. The SOE was Britain’s intelligence and sabotage agency during the war, and they tasked Ronneberg with taking a five-man team to destroy a heavily guarded Nazi factory in Telemark, Norway, that was producing heavy water, a key ingredient of the Nazi nuclear weapons program.
Under the code name Operation Gunnerside, Ronneberg led the daring raid in February of 1943, and in Ronneberg’s own words, the operation went “like a dream.” The team parachuted onto snow-covered mountains deep in enemy territory, where they would rendezvous with a small team of black ops commandos before traveling to the factory on skis.
The team was able to penetrate the heavily-guarded factory and made it to the production line without a shot being fired. Once the charges were set, the team faced an increased risk of detection, forcing Ronneberg to make a key life-or-death decision. Ronneberg heroically cut the length of the fuse on his charge to ensure that the explosion would occur within seconds rather than minutes. This increased the operation’s chance of success, but greatly decreased the team’s chances for escape.
The charges did explode, destroying the factory’s production line and dealing a heavy blow to the Nazi’s nuclear aspirations. In the ensuing chase, Ronneberg and his team had to ski hundreds of miles across the mountains. Ronneberg, wearing a British uniform, had no room for error. He ultimately made it to neutral Sweden and returned home a hero.
The story of Operation Gunnerside has been recounted numerous times in books, documentaries, films, and television. The story was told in the 1965 Anthony Mann film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, and Michael Redgrave.
Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, said Ronneberg was “one of our finest resistance fighters” whose “courage contributed to what has been referred to as the most successful sabotage campaign” in Norway’s history.
In Ronneberg’s hometown of Alesund, 235 miles northwest of Oslo, the town flew its flags at half-mast to honor his memory. People of the town laid flowers at the foot of a sculpture of Ronneberg that has stood in Alesund since 2014, depicting him in uniform and walking up a rocky path, and inscribed with the names of all the men who participated in the heroic raid.
“We must not forget what he stood for and what he has passed on to us,” said Alesund mayor Eva Vinje Aurdal.