A World War II thriller

The race to rescue Norway’s gold

a fishing boat sailing in a fjord with mountains in the background

Photo: Thorvald Boye / Krigsarkivet / NTB
A fishing boat on its way north was part of the mission to rescue Norway’s monetary gold stock.

RIGMOR SWENSEN
Norwegian-American Historical Association

The Norwegian TV series Atlantic Crossing aired on PBS in spring 2021, telling the story of the flight to safety of Crown Princess Märtha and her three children during World War II. Parts of the series are fictionalized, but most of the basic facts about the war are accurate. 

There is a parallel story related by Asbjørn Øksendal in the book Gulltransporten (Gold Transport), published in Norwegian in 1974. It follows the trail of Norway’s gold from the vault in Oslo to London and on to its final destination in Canada. The book tells a memorable story of the determination of ordinary citizens to send the treasury to safety. These funds would maintain the government in exile that King Haakon established in England.

In 1940, the National Treasury of Norway had gold worth NOK 240 million (about $54 million at the time). Some of this gold was already in the United States. With rumors of German aggression in the wind, Norges Bank Director, Nikolai Rygg, had been making plans to secure the NOK 120 million, that by law, remained in Norway. 

Rygg ordered the Oslo vault to be rebuilt to sturdier specifications and that a vault be installed in the basement of the Lillehammer branch, with new combination numbers committed to memory by the bank’s manager, Andreas Lund. Meanwhile, the gold remained in the modernized main vault of the Norges Bank headquarters in Oslo.

In 1938, Rygg began to have the gold packaged according to international standards, ready for transport. The gold was packed into 818 18-pound crates, 685 55-pound crates, and 39 barrels of gold coins, weighing 175 pounds each: a total of 53 tons. At that point, however, no evacuation plan had been devised.

Then, in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, and World War II began. Norway declared itself neutral. For that reason, an unprepared Norway was taken by surprise when German ships entered the Oslo Fjord on April 9, 1940. The lead ship, the Blücher, carried 850 men, 1,400 soldiers, and Gestapo officers, with the intention of capturing the royal family, taking over all media, assuming control of the railroad stations, and seizing the treasury. 

Oscarsborg Fortress, located on the Oslo Fjord, had an underground torpedo facility, one of the few Norwegian defense installations unknown to German intelligence. Birger Eriksen, commander of Oscarsborg, and a skeleton crew stood watch the night of April 9 and fired the torpedoes. At 4:30 a.m., the Blücher sank. The remaining naval force beat a retreat down the fjord. This bought enough time for the royal family and the government to escape.  

Blücher

Photo: Krigsarkivet / NTB
On April 9, 1940, the German warship Blücher was sunk in the Oslo Fjord outside of Drøbak.

In Oslo, Bank Director Rygg realized he could not wait until morning to evacuate the gold. Twenty-six trucks, supplied by local businesses, pulled alongside the bank. Bank officers and staff, unused to heavy work, did their best, as they lifted and carried the heavy weights, while cannons thundered in the fjord and planes emblazoned with swastikas threatened overhead. At the same time, German troops had landed at Fornebu Airport, and were marching up Drammensveien.

In the early morning hours, 26 trucks set out. Destination: Lillehammer. The drivers swerved down the slushy roads thick with evacuees fleeing for their lives. The frightened people could not understand why the trucks sped past them, not offering them a ride. At times the drivers swung into the forest to avoid the Luftwaffe.

Bank Manager Lund, his staff, and the truck drivers loaded the gold into the hidden vault in Lillehammer. Lund alone knew the combination of the new vault which he had memorized. Despite constant bombing, the gold remained safe in Lillehammer for the next 10 days.

Then, on April 14, 200 German soldiers parachuted into the Dombås area northwest of the city. Finance Minister Oscar Torp announced the plan to eliminate the paratroopers and transfer the gold by rail through Gudbrandsdalen to Dombås and on to Labor Party activist Fredrik Haslund in Åndalsnes, where it would be loaded on to British ships. The second battalion from Møre Infantry captured or killed at least 150 German soldiers, leaving the railroad open for transport.

The night of April 18, Lund dialed the combination of the new vault, but it had only been opened once and would not open. He kept trying the numbers, becoming more nervous as time passed. After half an hour, the door finally swung open. The chests, marked “NB,” were moved by flashlight and loaded onto rail cars. Soldiers with bayonets stood guard at the station, among them Nordahl Grieg, the famous playwright, who was to accompany the treasure to its final destination in Norway. Grieg and Haslund would be leaders in the evacuation.

Image: Mattea Bertling
The route from Oslo to Åndalsnes is 273 miles.

The cargo arrived in Åndalsnes early on April 20. Because of the intense bombing of that city, the train was moved to Romsdalshorn. It remained on a rail lay-by during the day; the Germans were bombing anything that moved. The gold had been divided into three parts to minimize the possibility of losing the entire amount should the enemy destroy one of the ships. In the darkness of the brief night, 200 crates were loaded onto the British ship HMS Galatea, which set sail that morning.

The plan had been to ship the remaining gold from Åndalsenes on another vessel. However, the city was burning to ashes. Haslund asked Kristian Gleditsch, who had arrived in town to aid in the effort, to drive the paper money (NOK 12 million) to Molde in an old fish delivery van. But most other freight trucks had been requisitioned for moving ammunition and English troops, so Haslund borrowed an army jacket and drove back down into the city, requesting volunteers. An hour later he returned with a military transport chief and 24 trucks. Within hours, the caravan was on its way.

The Germans continued bombing. Often the drivers slid under their trucks for protection. Haslund and Grieg took refuge in overgrown hedges and once in a farmhouse. They entered to find it full of English soldiers with their faces pressed to the floor. These soldiers reported that 10,000 English troops were on their way to Åndalsnes and other Norwegian ports. 

 The trucks, with 34 tons of gold, ran on roads close to the shore, and bombs caused great waves of sea spray to hit the windows. Melting ice carved deep ruts in the road. The Luftwaffe strafed anything to be seen during daylight with the result that Molde, the City of Roses, was bombed to smithereens. Late on April 29, the king, the government, and 756 crates plus 39 barrels of gold escaped Molde aboard the British HMS Glasgow. The pier took fire. Bombs fell like shooting stars on every side. The captain felt he could wait no longer, and the beleaguered ship sped out of the harbor, leaving a cache of gold behind.

Greig and Haslund directed a local fjord boat Driva to take the remaining 301 large crates and 246 smaller crates, as well as a number of refugees aboard, and head north to Tromsø. German bombs dropped everywhere, and Driva darted in and out of skerries and holms in the fjord, outmaneuvering the German bombs. Finally, the captain beached the boat. With Driva out of service, five fishing boats, Heimdal, Barden, Svanen, Leif, and Gudrun arrived, and the unloading and loading began again.

The late spring sunlight limited sailing hours. In the darkness, the fishing boats hugged the shore. Finally, they reached the fishing village Titran on the edge of Frøyfjord, in German occupied territory; there could be spies anywhere. Word had spread that a Norwegian torpedo boat with Germans in Norwegian uniforms patrolled the area.  However, observers had actually seen British warships in the area. Grieg and Haslund decided they had to take a chance on contacting one of the ships. They asked the Norwegian Home Guard for an expert willing to brave the tough waters of the Norwegian Sea. Alf Lars was chosen the best man with the best boat for the job.

Larsen and his son, Georg, disguised the deck for fishing and left the hatches open showing they had nothing to hide. At 6 p.m., Gleditsch and Grieg, in fishermen’s gear, boarded Larsen’s vessel Roald. To their dismay, they did not encounter a British warship and continued east to Sauøya where they were to meet Haslund and the five gold transports. The flotilla had not arrived, and four anxious men learned that the city of Namsos was in flames and all English troops had withdrawn.

Meanwhile back in Titran, Haslund feared the Germans had spotted the boats. He determined to move around the island to Dyrvik. Haslund showed the letters from the foreign ministry to the police chief, explaining he needed two sturdy fishing boats to ferry a heavy cargo to Tromsø, avoiding Namsos.

During the night, volunteers loaded the Alfhild and Stølvåg; Grieg joined the crew aboard Stølvåg. Civilians gathered provisions from merchants across the islands, and the journey continued. The captains had orders to sink the ships if the Germans attacked, preventing them from using the gold to pay for munitions. All went well.

The night of Monday, May 5, Larsen steered the Roald from Sauøya. The Alfhild and Stølvåg followed at intervals that would allow the last boat to escape in case of discovery. A German plane flew over but showed no interest in the boats. At noon, Larsen sailed into Vikna, and the two gold boats soon followed. 

The Roald turned south and Alfhild and Stølvåg sailed onward, occasionally being delayed for hours by local police, and passing through the narrow fjords, where German planes were loath to fly. At Andefjord, Haslund spied the periscope of a German submarine. The Stølvåg sped toward land seeking shelter. Suddenly, a British destroyer shot into the sea.  Sounds like thunder pierced the air as the submarine exploded. It had been pursuing the British ship, therefore had paid no attention to the gold boat. Saved by the British, the gold boats continued on their way to Tromsø.

The HMS Enterprise left Tromsø with the cargos of the Alfhild and Stølvåg aboard, reaching Plymouth on May 29. The gold was then transferred by rail to the Bank of England in London.  By June 15, the gold was on its way to Canada and the United States.  

The gold supported the Norwegian government in exile. Ten tons of gold coins were returned to Norway in 1987.

This article originally appeared in the June 4, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Rigmor Swensen

Rigmor K. Swensen is a teacher, translator, and author of educational materials. She was project director of the Ellis Island exhibit “Norwegians in New York 1825-2000” and is currently co-chair of the Norwegian Immigration Association.

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