Joachim Roenneberg, a Norwegian war hero who, during World War II, single-handedly destroyed Nazi Germany’s nuclear ambitions, has died, the Norwegian government confirms via ABC News Australia. NOTE: Roenneberg’s name is alternately spelled “Joachim Rønneberg,” retaining the original Nordic letter “ø,” in some sources. For simplicity’s sake, he will be referred to by the Anglicized spelling of his name (“Roenneberg”) for the remainder of this article.
The 99-year-old man had been living a quiet life in his native Norway, where he was widely regarded as one of the Scandinavia country’s most important war heroes. He owed it all to an indescribably dangerous nighttime raid that took place back in 1943 when he was just 23-years-old.
At the time, the tide had already begun to turn against the Germans, but nevertheless, the war continued to rage across northern Europe. Hitler’s men had already been suspected of developing a nuclear weapons program, and Roenneberg, a fresh-faced 23-year-old, was picked by the British to lead a team that would destroy a facility known to be housing components that could be used in nuclear weapons.
Joachim had fled from Norway to Britain to escape the Nazis, where he was trained in covert operations and assigned to a special commando unit, according to NPR News. And on the night of February 27-28, 1943, Roenneberg and his team traversed the snow-covered mountains of Germany, on skis, for what was almost certainly a suicide mission.
Before him and his squad was the Vemork hydroelectric power plant, where the Germans were storing so-called “heavy water,” or D20 (deuterium oxide) – a component that could be used in building atomic bombs. Using skis, the team infiltrated the plant.
Roenneberg and his team infiltrated the facility without being seen, set off the bombs that would destroy the facility, and were long gone before anyone would even notice anything was amiss. Joachim would later say that, so high were the stakes at the time, that he deliberately cut the fuses to his bombs from several minutes to several seconds, for fear the Nazis would have time to notice them and neutralize them. Of course, that also meant that the team would have less time to escape.
Fortunately, even as the bombs were going off, the German guards thought nothing was amiss, assuming the heavy snow had set off a landmine. By the time anyone noticed, the men had escaped, on skis, into Sweden, before making it home to Norway. In the process, they eluded “thousands” of German troops looking to capture them, likely to be tortured and killed.
After the war, Roenneberg settled for a career in broadcasting and politics. He died on Sunday, likely of old age.