A forgotten World War II hero

Gunvald Tomstad of Flekkefjord, Norway

gunvald

Photo courtesy of Marit Tomstad
Odd Kjell Starheim, friend of Gunvold Tomstad, sends messages from the“secret” communications room at the Tomstad farm.

TANJA K. EIE
Ithaca, N.Y.

In September 2018, I was in Norway for the second time that year. I had just been there with my son, Wesley, in late June and had no plans of returning, but an opportunity presented itself that I couldn’t refuse, so off I went again just two months later.

After settling in and visiting family and friends, I felt like a little adventure and borrowed a bicycle to ride from the town of Drangeid, where I was staying at a friend’s house. It is just a few miles outside the town limits of Flekkefjord, so I rode into Flekkefjord and the surrounding areas to explore and see things from a different perspective.

As I rode through the center of town along Brogaten (Bridge Street), I turned down a side street called Kirkegaten (Church Street) and planned to ride straight down to the fjord and brygge (boardwalk) when I saw a memorial plaque of a soldier named Gunvald Tomstad that I never noticed before on my many stays in Flekkefjord. Curious, I stopped and got off the bike and walked over to get a closer look. It read:

GUNVALD TOMSTAD
1918 – 1970
FOR HANS INNSATS
I MOTSTANDSBEVEGELSEN
1940 – 1945
REIST AV FLEKKEFJORD KOMMUNE

[Translation: Gunvald Tomstad (born 1918 and died in 1970). For his efforts in the resistance movement, 1940 – 1945 (during WWII and the German occupation of Norway). Erected by the town of Flekkefjord.]

I wondered why I had never heard of this brave man, right here in Flekkefjord, why my father or grandfather never mentioned him. As a history buff with a degree in history, I became most intrigued about Gunvald and felt compelled to learn more and why he seemed to be this “unsung” and forgotten hero.

With my cell phone, I searched Gunvald’s name and found a little more information about him and his war efforts, and I came across the name of the road where his home was, along with a black and white photo of it. So, I set out to find his home to see if it was still standing—the old farmhouse where, not only did he grow up, but began his resistance against the Nazis and conducted his clandestine operations and communication with the British, and ultimately, raised his own family in, after the war. I just didn’t know what I would find, whether it was in ruins or had changed drastically.

I got back on my bicycle, plugged in the name of the road, Hellebakken, and followed the GPS on my phone. After about only 2 miles, I saw the sign to Hellebakken, and then the very steep incline up the hill! I had to hop off the bike and walk up a good mile, at least. When I reached the top, I turned around a saw the most spectacular view of the fjord and thought that this definitely would have been a good lookout point to spot German ships on the Norwegian coastline or coming into the fjord.

I continued to walk a little bit farther, then I spotted a bright yellow, traditional-style home, a sørlandshus (southern house) to the right, with a beautiful garden surrounding it. I took my phone and looked at the black and white photo of the house again and began to compare it—it was, no doubt, the same house. It had to be!

I opened the camera on my phone and took a picture of it, and just as I did this, a woman appeared at the front door and started down the steps. She asked me (in Norwegian) if I was lost, and I responded, “No, I don’t think so. I was looking for Gunvald Tomstad’s house. I just learned out about him and his brave actions and contributions to the resistance movement during World War II. I was completely moved and in awe of this man who hails from my father’s hometown of Flekkefjord, and I just wanted to see his home and where everything took place. I’m sorry for disturbing you.”

“Well, you found it,” she said, “You’re not bothering me at all. Please come in and have a cup of coffee with me if you have time.”

And so I did …

tomstad

Photo: Tanja K. Eie
The farmhouse on Hellebakken in Flekkefjord, where Gunvald Tomstad ran his clandestine operations during WWII, is still the home of his daughter, Marit.

A surprise part

Marit Tomstad is the eldest of three of Gunvald Tomstad’s children and still lives in the house. She welcomed me inside and we chatted over coffee and cookies, just like old friends. She asked about me and my family and said she knew of my grandparents, Thor and Gudrun Eie, as respected members of the community. It also turned out that we both enjoy making stained-glass art. I looked around the living room and saw photos on the wall of Gunvald and his wife, as well as the three children. I couldn’t believe I was inside the home of this great World War II hero that I had just learned about moments ago and having a conversation with his eldest daughter!

After about an hour, there was a knock at the door. Marit got up to open it and in walked a man and a woman. In Norwegian, they both said, simultaneously, “Gratulerer med dagen!” Happy Birthday! I thought, “Oh no, it’s Marit’s birthday, and I’m here intruding on her special day!” She didn’t mention that it was her birthday. She introduced the couple to me as her brother and sister-in-law. Now, I’d met two of Gunvald’s children in the same day! What were the chances of this?

I thought that I should leave and let this family celebrate Marit’s very special 70th birthday and politely excused myself, but they insisted that I stay for birthday cake and more coffee. The four us continued to have interesting conversations, and they were more than happy and proud to talk about their father. They let me know that a book had been written about their father called, Det Største Spillet, by Per Hansson (The Biggest Game or Gamble), and a movie was also made in the 1960s based on the book. Marit lent both of these to me. The book was quite good, and although the movie wasn’t well done, it was neat to see that a lot of the scenes were filmed on the Tomstad’s farm, which I was able to recognize after being invited there a few more times. Marit and her brother had informed me that they, along with their other sister, were writing a book based on their own personal accounts of their father’s life.

tomstad

Photo: Tanja K. Eie
A stone raised to war hero Gunvold Tomstad in Flekkefjord, Norway.

 Toward the end of my visit, Marit asked me if I wanted to see the “secret room” upstairs. I asked what she meant by “secret room” and she said it was where Gunvald had his communications equipment and he and his good friend, Odd Kjell, did all their planning during World War II—it’s where all the “magic” happened. Of course, I jumped at the chance and did not hesitate to say yes!

All four of us went upstairs and Marit’s brother opened the door to the room and let me pass through first. It was a very small room and the first thing I saw was this monstrous outdated equipment with dials and levers against the wall on the left. It was definitely from the 1930s or 1940s. This was the equipment they used to communicate with the British with the intel they gathered from the Nazis and to notify them of passing Germans ships, so they could be bombed. Then, straight back was Gunvald’s desk, just the way he left it, with books piled high. The pistol he used to protect himself was also still lying there.

After my extraordinary visit came to an end, I thanked them all for their hospitality, their stories, kindness, and generosity, and I was invited back “any time” by Marit. I rode the bicycle slowly back down the steep hill, having to occasionally get off because I was going too fast and was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop, especially around the dangerous curve where Gunvald had crashed on his motorcycle and broke his foot during the war. I pedaled all the way back to Drangeid without stopping. I couldn’t wait to start reading the book Marit had lent me and to watch the movie!

A war hero remembered

After hearing firsthand stories from Tomstad’s family and reading the book, this is what I learned:

Gunvald Jørg Tomstad was a major agent of the British SIS, and a Norwegian resistance member during World War II. From 1941 to 1943, he was a double agent while also operating a clandestine radio transmitter out of his home in Flekkefjord. The locals called him the most dangerous Nazi in all of southern Norway, not knowing that it was just a cover. Members of his community detested and feared him and even tried to kill him. Only a few Norwegians (those closest to him) knew his true mission, and most of them were also part of the resistance.

His home became a gathering place for the Gestapo and Norwegian Nazi sympathizers. The Gestapo and Nazis who visited Gunvald’s farmhouse did not know that their secrets were being transmitted by radio from a little room on the second level of his house. The radio sent information that helped destroy one of the world’s largest battleships, the Bismarck, and let London know about the ship traffic, military concentrations, and so much more. He kept this up for two stressful and agonizing years. When the Gestapo became suspicious, Gunvald escaped in the nick of time, fleeing through Sweden to England. After his return to Norway, he married Tordis “Fie” Rørvik, who stuck by him throughout the war, and they had three children.

This is a true story of patriotism and courage that came at tragic personal cost to Gunvald, who would later suffer from PTSD, ulcers, and paranoia. He died at the very young age of 52 in May 1970. Unfortunately, even after Norway recognized Gunvald as a hero and not a traitor, many are still unaware of his contributions and do not even know who he was. This is heartbreaking to me. So, it is my hope that this article will give him the recognition that he deserves!

 

This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

The Norwegian American

Published since May 17, 1889 PO Box 30863 Seattle WA 98113 Tel: (206) 784-4617 • Email: naw@na-weekly.com

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