A searing tale from the north of Norway
Author Vincent Hunt talks about researching his book on the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign
It took a savvy Brit with stellar credentials to give voice to the harrowing but little-known story of the Nazi scorched earth campaign that took place 71 years ago in the most northern part of Norway. Vincent Hunt chose to document all parties involved: Russian military, Nazis, Quisling soldiers, the civilian population, and POWS.
As Norway’s northern border touches Russia’s, the Nazis and Russians were battling for control. At first the Nazis were trying to destroy the infrastructure, so that the people would be persuaded to evacuate. But much of the civilian population was not evacuating as Hitler had hoped. So the Nazis then worked on forced evacuation with no compromises. Animals were taken, leaving no food. Many crowded into makeshift shelters, and some even used the overturned hulls of boats. Others hid in caves. It was the only chance for survival in this sub-Arctic climate. (In 1944 a Norwegian mission, led by Colonel Arne Dahl was formed to rescue these “cave dwellers.”)
Hitler gave the order to annihilate everything in the military’s path. The human cost was unbelievable, displacing 50,000 people. One quote from Fire and Ice exemplifies the carnage through statistics. “In two months German army fire patrols destroyed 11,000 houses, 6,000 farms, 4,700 barns, 27 churches, 140 buildings owned by religious organisations, 53 hotels and inns, 21 hospitals and smaller medical institutions, 420 shops, 306 fish factories, 106 schools, 60 local authority administrative buildings, 230 buildings for craft and industry, 108 lighthouses, 350 bridges, 350 boats with motors, thousands of rowing boats and countless numbers of telephone poles. Norge i krig: Frigjøring (Norway at War: Liberation).”
The plight of Northern Norway was heard as far away as Canada. The Maple Leaf reported, “Germans are carrying out ruthless scorched-earth policy, not only to hamper the advancing Russians but also to put those Norwegians who seek to evade evacuation in a well-nigh impossible situation. Invalids and young children are dying by the wayside and those who try to hide from so called ‘voluntary’ evacuation are hunted out and shot. Homes of people are being burned down and their stocks of food taken away in order to compel them to evacuate.”
The north of Norway was liberated by the Russians, six months before the rest of the country, and the rest of the country was unaware. Norwegian locals wanted to make sure that the world knew they were not running from the Russians, but from the Nazis. After the war, any olive branch to Russia was unacceptable as the latter had morphed into the land-grabbing, Communism-spreading Soviet Union. This added to the sublimation of the experiences and horrors Norwegians and others suffered, creating a gut-wrenching suppression of the truth. Hunt has included their experiences in this book.
Some unusual facts about the north of Norway at this time really surprised me and allowed me to better understand this unique place at this unique time. The population of Germans to Norwegians was seven to one. Norwegian civilians divided the German soldiers into two groups—the green or good ones and the black ones (due to the insignia on their hats) as the bad ones. In the summer of 1944, with 24 hours of daylight, the Norwegian civilians became standing ducks. The Germans had to stay out in the open and put out fires caused by the Russia’s perpetual bombardment.
In the aftermath scores of unused munitions dangerously remained, like landmines carelessly left behind in battlefields today. Children often used these as playthings, many times with deadly result. Other casualties of war were the half German half Norwegian children offspring of Nazi soldiers.
The fishing village of Finnkonckeilanever, only accessible by boat, was never rebuilt after the war. This was not due to lack of interest from the villagers, but because the Norwegian government prohibited its rebirth due to the fear of landslides.
Some of those responsible for the scorched earth campaign were brought to Nuremberg for trial. The court’s ruling that it was a “military necessity” caused outrage in Norway.
On a lighter note, someone built their home on top of a concrete bunker that had served as an anti-aircraft gun defense during WWII. Strangely, the Sami reindeer herds were preserved during the conflict, but had to migrate.
It is amazing that this story has remained practically hidden for 70 years. Hunt calls his a book of “social memory.” After seven decades it seems time for those bottled up memories to be brought forth, to have the victims tell their stories to the world and give those afflicted a chance to begin to heal.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview the man who has brought this important part of world history to light.
What drew a Brit to document this dark story about Norway?
Chance. I was making a series of tourist journeys across Norway in the mid-2000s with a friend who was working in Scandinavia, and we kept setting the bar to go to extreme places, so one month we’d go to Longyearbyen, the next we’d go to the Nordkapp—and one afternoon in 2006 I was standing by the white church in Honningsvag reading about the town being burned to ashes and the people returning to find everything destroyed, and how they all lived in the church for months while they rebuilt the town from scratch using prefabs and whatever they could lay their hands on. I was making a series of Ballad-style radio programs at the time, recording in-depth interviews with elderly people about the detail of their memories and I began wondering what this must have been like, rebuilding your home in such an unforgiving sub-zero wilderness.
Around that time (2006–2010) I was in the USA a lot making programs about the music of the Mississippi and the West Coast and one night in Seattle I went to the bookshop and started consciously looking for books about the scorched earth destruction of the north of Norway. The story wouldn’t go away, and I wanted to nail it … but there was nothing. I searched online and again nothing … though I found the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi generals. Eventually a realization dawned on me. Maybe it was down to me to write this book?
How long did this project take from start to completion?
It took about two years. A year to research what was out there, to find interviewees and plan a trip, a few weeks on the road gathering the Norway stories documentary-style, then a couple of months assembling everything that was in my head, transcribing the interviews, and writing the book. And a long, long wait for the publisher to bring it out for the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s scorched earth order in October 1944.
How was this story different from others you have covered?
It was hard to get started at first. There wasn’t an obvious way in. No one had written a book about the scorched earth burning and evacuation that would open up the path for me—at least I didn’t think so.
So I began looking for what was out there already. I went through the texts of the Nuremberg trials and took stories from there, like the burning of the remote fishing village of Finnkonckeila and the methods of the German fire squads in clearing villagers out and torching the houses. That led me to planning a route across the north that started in Kirkenes, and that’s where I had a lucky break. I discovered a book by a lady called Bjarnhild Tulloch who lived in the Shetlands and who’d grown up in Kirkenes during the war. She’d written a book called Terror in the Arctic about her experiences. I tracked her down and gave her a call and suddenly the door to my book opened. Mrs. Tulloch put me on to some of her friends, who in turn suggested other people to speak to and suddenly I was on the word of mouth inside track, which is my preferred way of working.
Within hours of me arriving in Kirkenes, my hotel room was filled with people telling me what the war had been like in Kirkenes—the parents driven crazy by the bombing, the children fleeing west as the Germans set fire not only to the houses but also to the sheep, machine gunning the cows and so on, people surviving on cloudberries, etc.
I heard stories of children after the war playing with ammunition dumped by the Nazis in their hurry to escape, and sometimes the children were blown to pieces by shells they were burning on beaches. And then I came across—again by chance—a man who’d been part of the “Norwegian police”—a volunteer commando squad made up of Northern boys who’d fled across to Sweden and wanted to play their part in the fight against the Germans. This man, Gunnar Jaklin, was Army officer, journalist, and founder of the Tromsø Defense Museum, a goldmine of stories from the war.
He’d been inserted into Finnmark once the Germans had retreated to help keep order for Colonel Dahl, the commander of the Norwegian military mission designed to assert Norwegian sovereignty so the Soviets wouldn’t feel they needed to advance further west past Tana, having liberated Kirkenes.
How was it similar?
War brings the worst out in people wherever it touches the world. The price of human life is devalued and once men become killers they can never go back. The brutal Reichskommissar in Norway, Josef Terboven, ordered the village of Telavag wiped out in 1942 for helping Resistance agents who had killed two Gestapo agents.
But even the Nazis baulked at the behavior of the Norwegian Quisling paramilitary volunteers known as “the Hirden” who took part in a massacre of Yugoslav political prisoners three months later at a camp at Beisfjord. I found the stories of the death camps in the valleys around the Lyngen Line quite sickening and especially of the men who were reduced to cannibalism—but at least the mayor there is honest enough to want to preserve all the history, both good and bad. Only by remembering the past can we learn from it.
What shocked you the most, when you were researching?
I was deeply shocked at the scale and the suffering of the Soviet POWs in the north of Norway. More Soviet POWs died in Norway than any other group in Norway during the war. They were forced to build the coastal defenses, the roads, the railways. They were badly treated, kept in unheated buildings, malnourished. When they got sick they were dumped in camps to die, which they did—some were reduced to cannibalism, cutting chunks off fellow prisoners who had died in a desperate attempt to stay alive. I was so shocked at what I read that I went to the Public Records Office in London to get out the original military files to confirm that all these details were true. They were. Names, grave sites, inquest details: everything.
I was also shocked at the way Norwegians treated the children of German-Norwegian relationships after the war—branding the mothers “tyskerhore” and abusing the children sexually, physically, and mentally. I guess it’s understandable, but it’s not easy reading. The girl from Abba is perhaps the most famous example of this.
The entire town of Kirkenes sheltered in the iron ore mine at Bjornevatn when the Soviet offensive reached Norway and the story went that 10 babies were born during this time. I can name them all for you… but actually it was 11, and that fact only came out last October. One mother kept her baby secret for 70 years because the father was German. Still, reading how some of these kids had swastikas gouged into their foreheads and were abused—and still are, apparently—I’m not surprised.
One of the most striking questions for me was how had such awful things happened here when the landscape is so, so beautiful?
I found some pictures by the British war artist Stephen Bone, who had been sent to exactly the same places in the north of Norway as I traveled through. His pencil and chalk sketches of the camps the Soviet POWs were kept in—shallow bunkers scraped into the frozen earth covered with scraps of wood and cloth—show how pitiful their last days were.
What was the most surprising positive thing you experienced, while you were researching?
he idea of the book is that it’s me walking, Norwegians talking, and once the Norwegians realized that I would simply tape the conversation and write it up, they were very forthcoming. I got a very strong feeling that no one had ever asked people in the north about their wartime experience before. Certainly many made a clear distinction between “the north” and “Oslo.”
But people were very generous with their time and very helpful. The airline Wideroe was kind enough to help me with a flight pass across the north which was very generous, and the hotel groups Radisson and Rica gave me a press discount. As my trip was self-funded and Norway is so expensive, this all helped!
It meant I could get to more remote places like Hopseidet and talk to Mette Mikalsen, whose father, brother, and uncle were shot by German commandos two days before the war ended and her mother raped in front of her. She’s still understandably upset about that, 70 years later, and went ahead with our interview knowing all that pain would come out again. No one was ever brought to justice for that, and it’s perhaps that that hurts her the most.
Another interview in the book is with Norway’s most famous film director, Knut Erik Jensen, who was a child during the scorched earth burning. He gave up an entire afternoon to talk to me in Honningsvag and to tell stories from the time. He did a huge amount of research into his Oscar-winning six-film series about Finnmark’s scorched earth burning and has a vast archive. He pulled out a book that accompanied his series and he knew every single person in the photographs.
That sense of a community that was forcibly scattered, of a dark force smashing everything they and their ancestors had created in such an inhospitable environment was a very powerful feeling. Not having shelter in the remote north when the weather turns rough and cold is as good as a death sentence.
The towns in the north are a triumph of human endeavour and cooperation and there were times, especially when a local hotel owner lent me his battered old car to drive through the mountains from Gamvik to Hopseidet, when I felt a little vulnerable! It certainly makes you appreciate a warm hotel room.
Do the British have an awareness of this story from WWII?
The short answer is no. British people love Norwegians for their bravery, hardiness, and determination. They know about the Shetland Bus and the bravery of the Resistance, and everyone my age in Britain (born in 1963) grew up with the story of the heavy water plant and the Heroes of Telemark. The Tirpitz is another story everyone knew about, but more really from the perspective of the Tallboy bombing and the pinpoint accuracy involved rather than it being part of a wider story of Tromsø and the north. And that’s about it.
Everyone knows about the hardship of the Arctic convoys which Winston Churchill called “the worst journey in the world.” It’s taken 70 years for those guys to get medals, and in a way that’s similar to the lack of recognition of the Alta Battalion. But I don’t think many people know anything about the scorched earth burning of the north, or the forced evacuations, or the Soviet PoWs, or the bombing of the MS Rigel that was sunk by the Allies with all those prisoners on it.
What has been the reaction in Britain?
The reaction has been very good. I’ve sold quite a lot of books and had very good attendances at my speaking events and many people have stayed for a chat later. They know about all the stories I mentioned above but the scorched earth destruction is something that’s new to them. That was one of the reasons I wrote the book—because there’s nothing about that time in the English language.
Have you had a chance to speak about the book in Norway?
I wanted to when it was published last year but I found there was a strange lack of interest in the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the north. There seemed to be nothing official planned until very late, so I shelved the idea as I’d be funding that trip myself—and then the King and the Russian Foreign Minister went to Kirkenes. So at least the liberation was marked at a high level.
I’m hoping we might make some progress with a Norwegian translation—I’ve had lots of requests—and I’d like to go back in 2016 and do some book readings, literary festivals, and events. One thing I’d like to do is speak at the Narvik Peace Center when it opens next year, as that’s doing very important work remembering the reality of what happened to the people in the towns and the prisoners who toiled and died building those roads, railways and fortifications. And I’d like to work with Norwegian musicians and artists to set some of these stories to a visual and musical landscape.
You did speak to Det Norske Klub in London. What was their reaction?
They were a great audience. But many of them were from the south, and I found that “they’re all communists in the north” attitude coming through occasionally in conversations.
Can you speak a little about the American academic reaction to your project?
I had generous help from Jeff Sauve, archivist at the Norwegian American Historical Association in Minnesota, and he helped me piece together the stories of fundraising by the organization American Relief for Norway Incorporated, or ARNI. Activists like Reidar Rye Haugan and wife Hermana helped highlight in America what was happening in Nazi-occupied Norway.
Haugan had moved to New York in 1915, aged 21, and then got a job on the largest Norwegian-language newspaper in America, Skandinaven, based in Chicago. He worked his way up to editor and founded ARNI just ten days after the Nazi invasion.
You learned a lot about Norwegian-American support for Norway during the war. Can you speak about what you learned?
These were difficult times for Norway, and the American community received news at second or third hand but responded generously, raising a vast amount of money to buy technical gear, medical equipment, clothing, and so on.
There’s also the story of prominent Norwegians in America who helped raise money, like the Nobel Prize-winning writer Sigrid Undset who fled to Sweden when the Nazis invaded. Her son was a lieutenant in the Norwegian Army and was killed in clashes with Nazi troops in May 1940. She campaigned tirelessly to help her homeland, speaking at rallies and Norway Day ceremonies. In May 1945 in New York she told Americans: “The Germans have tried to break our stubborn people ever since  by torture, tyranny, by hunger and cold and systematic looting and ruin inflicted upon Norway. Norway is grateful to you for helping us get to our feet again after we have been under the German military boot for five years of hell.”
The story of Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie—possibly Norway’s most famous international sportswoman ever—is also strange. She won 10 world championships between 1927 and 1936, six European championships, and three Olympic golds and signed film contracts that made her, at one point, the highest paid actress in the world. She’d met Hitler at the Winter Olympics in 1936 and when the Germans invaded Norway sent orders that the picture of her with Hitler be left on display in her home in Oslo. The house was left untouched. She was strangely reluctant to get involved in the fundraising for a Norwegian flight training school in Canada and attracted negative publicity she could never quite overcome later.
How do you feel your book will be relevant to the non-Norwegian American audience?
The book is full of stories of heroism that transcend nationality. The exploits of Norwegian-American pilot Bernt Balchen, one of the first polar explorers with Amundsen, are compelling stuff. He bravely waited for the worst weather possible to fly supplies out of Stockholm to the Resistance in Norway to reduce the possibility of being spotted by the Luftwaffe. Once safely back, he’d drive to the border, slip across into Norway and go to Oslo to meet Resistance leaders to make sure they were getting what they wanted. There are the partisans on the northern coast who operated in cells of three, hiding themselves in caves and reporting on German troop and shipping movements into and out of Kirkenes, the main supply town for the Nazi front line in the far north west of Murmansk. Unfortunately the Gestapo twigged that the submarine and air attacks on their shipping could not be a coincidence, and they combed the coast and killed all the partisans and the villagers who were helping them. In another incident, 11 partisans were beaten to death by German guards having been forced to dig their own graves at the side of the 9.
The book is full of human stories, and one of the stories that touched me the most was that of Erika Schone, a 23-year-old German Luftwaffe girl, posted to Banak airfield to support operations there. She had a sister in Germany who’d just had a baby and she’d send back little jackets, slippers, and mementoes of Norway for birthdays and Christmas and so on. In her last letter home she told her sister how much she’d grown to love Norway. “After the war has ended, I will go back to Norway, because it is so beautiful. If I do not survive, I will be buried there.”
A few days later, in October 1944, she climbed aboard a Condor transport plane taking nurses, medical staff, wounded soldiers, and ground support auxiliaries—mostly women—which tragically was vastly overloaded. As it turned over a fjord, one wing broke off, and the plane plunged into the lake and caught fire, killing all 51 onboard.
Years later, the family of Erika Schone contacted war historian and activist Roger Albrigtsen who runs the archive site www.fkfl.no out of Lakselv and asked him if he might take a photograph of Erika’s grave in Narvik. He traveled to the German cemetery there and placed a rose on Erika’s grave before taking a picture and sending it to them. The family were so touched they struck up a conversation, showed him Erika’s belongings, and told the family stories: how, for years afterwards, her father used to scan the skies hoping his daughter would come back one day. She has a grave in Germany, but of course, she’s not in it. She’s still in Norway.
This is one of the legacies of the war that stays with me: the love people have for each other is the thing that shines through this story … and the aching loss people feel when their loved ones are taken from them. It had me in tears, that story—and still does.
Is there anything you wish to add?
It was a privilege meeting all the people who talked to me and I could not have hoped for a better result in terms of the stories people told me. I loved Norway anyway, having visited there a dozen times, but I really noticed the geographical difference between the bleak but beautiful windswept north and the lush green of the southern fjords. I won’t forget that journey, as long as I live, although I’d like to go back again and again. I also read, on the recommendation of Knut Erik Jensen, Knut Hamsen’s strange and disconcerting novel Hunger while I was traveling across Norway. I wonder if that’s something that Norwegian Americans are familiar with? He was part of the story: a Nazi sympathizer. As Norwegians said to me, “Terrible man, great writer.”
In the future, I’d like to take this story to Norwegians all across the U.S. and especially in the Mid-Western Norwegian communities so people realize what really happened to their grandparents and great-grandparents. Some really dark stuff happened in Norway during the war, and Norwegians don’t always come out of it well—the Quisling period isn’t great, by any means, and the way the children of German-Norwegian relationships were treated is quite heartbreaking. The “lebensborn” fought for their rights for decades, and the treatment they received is pretty bad.
I was surprised though at how dark this story was and how two Norways—north and south—seemed to emerge from the war. Now Norway is a rich gas power it would be nice if some of the money went to celebrating the experiences of the people of the north in the war because, judging from what they said to me, there seem to be two Norways… that of the south, with the power, the history, and the money… and that of the north, with the houses burned to the ground, the communist partisans winkled out and executed, and the children sent to Sweden while the north was rebuilt with prefab homes designed in and imposed from Oslo.
Since so much time has passed, it has been left for those who are living to speak for the dead. This book serves as a monument, museum, and mausoleum. Hopefully, it will be the impetus for more concrete preservation.
That is the hope of Mayor Steinnes, from Storfjord. “I’m not an expert on history but this is our history… After the war people wanted everything to go away, but it gets more important every year that we do something about preserving this. We must have a museum here and rebuild the installations so people can visit… Now we’ll have everything out in the open and we’ll work with our history. We’ll gather the stories from the people who live around here and we’ll tell the history from the Second World War. And we hope the Norwegian government will give us some money so we can use it in the project.”
Hunt’s book is wonderful in its own right. But it is also significant because it is bringing awareness to this long-hidden story.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.