Resistance fighter best known for heavy water plant sabotage dead at 99
Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg was born Aug. 30, 1919, and died in his sleep on Oct. 21, 2018, at age 99. The Ålesund native was a Norwegian resistance fighter. He is most famous for conducting the heavy water action at Vemork in February 1943.
Many believe this was one of the most important sabotage actions performed during World War II. The goal was to prevent Germans from using the heavy water produced at Norsk Hydro’s Rjukan plant to develop an atomic bomb.
On the basis of the heavy water action and other assignments, Rønneberg received several Norwegian and foreign awards, including the War Cross with Sword and St. Olav Medal with Oak Branch (denoting that it was awarded for “personal effort for Norway during the war”).
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg called Rønneberg one of the country’s foremost resistance fighters.
“I have today received the message that the war hero Joachim Rønneberg is dead at 99 years old. He was one of our foremost resistance fighters during the war, among other things, as head of the Vemork action. His courage and bravery contributed to what has been called the most successful sabotage campaign on Norwegian soil during the war.
Rønneberg has also been important in telling the story of the fight against occupation power, and of the values Norway stands for,” Solberg said in a statement.
“He had a central role as a living witness to history,” said Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen. “Joachim Rønneberg went ahead and took up the fight for what we are and what we believe in,” he added.
Rønneberg was awarded the War Cross, and in 2015 he received the Armed Forces’ Honor Cross for his efforts to convey war history.
“He played a central role as a witness of history and was an important source of information in the post-WWII period,” said Bakke-Jensen.
Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen called Rønneberg “one of our very best.”
“He stood out as an emerging young leader when Norway needed one. His efforts during the heavy water action are unique and known far beyond the country’s borders,” said the defense chief.
According to Bruun-Hanssen, Rønneberg “also inspired many of our other leaders and soldiers in the Armed Forces. He constantly reminded us that freedom is not free.”
After the war, Rønneberg lived in his hometown of Ålesund and worked as a journalist and editorial director at NRK’s Møre og Romsdal division. He finished his career as editor in 1987.
Until recently, Joachim Rønneberg was an important community voice. In an interview with Aftenposten from September 2016, he explained what he thought about Norway’s defense.
Rønneberg had been reticent and careful in talking about what he experienced during the war years. Even though he was often asked about it, the heavy water saboteur long held the secrets of the second world war for himself. It was not until the 1970s that he decided to start sharing the stories.
“Gradually I realized that people had a right to answers. It is important that we all know what has happened. Then it’s easier to make the right choices in the future. Those who grow up today must understand that we must always be willing to fight for peace and freedom,” Rønneberg previously told NRK.
He has subsequently been known for his work in educating children and young people about the dangers of war.
Rønneberg was also a well-known international name, and was interviewed by The New York Times (further reading).
In the documentary The Last Saboteur (Den siste sabotøren), Rønneberg spoke openly about his childhood in Ålesund, about what he was involved in during the war and the following years.
This article was published in Norwegian in Aftenposten.
• “WWII Hero Credits Luck and Chance in Foiling Hitler’s Nuclear Ambitions,” by Andrew Higgins, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2015: www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/world/europe/wwii-hero-credits-luck-and-chance-in-foiling-hitlers-nuclear-ambitions.html.
• The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, by Neal Bascomb, published in 2016. Review by Timothy J. Boyce: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/living-in-history-for-a-hundred-years.