The Search for Thor
By Randi Millman-Brown
Thor Jensen, 36, moves from Oslo to Hammerfest. He is promoted to bank manager, becomes engaged, and takes a one-month hiking trip through occupied Finnmark in 1941. By the end of the year, he is dead, leaving behind a mystery, a diary, and many questions. This column chronicles his great niece’s attempt to solve that mystery.
It’s been a couple months since I’ve written about my search for Thor. My research has led me to consider the possibility that the woman he was engaged to, Ruth Haagensen, might have been a spy. I began investigating the role of female spies during WWII in general, and in Norway in particular. There are several recent books written about female spies, but none of the women in them are Norwegian. Here are a few books that tackle this subject area. The first four books on the list were all published in 2019.
1) D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, by Sarah Rose
2) A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell
3) Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, by Lynne Olson
4) Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, by Larry Loftis
5) Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, by Judith Pearson
6) Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II, by William Stevenson
7) A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, by Sarah Helm
8) Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue (Women of Action), by Kathryn Atwood
9) Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS, by Elizabeth P. McIntosh
And most interesting:
10) Kvinner i Norsk Motstandsbevegelese (Women in Norwegian Resistance), by Elisabeth Sweden published in 1991
When I began researching all of the resistance groups in Norway, the most intriguing was the organization known as the XU. As I wrote in my previous article:
XU (X for “unknown” and U for “undercover agent”) was a clandestine intelligence gathering organization that by 1945 had abbout 1,500 members throughout Norway. Most were students from the University of Oslo, which Thor had attended. Most information about this group was kept secret until 1988.
On Wikipedia, the entry for the XU shows a list of only 24 members out of a possible 1,500, and only two women among the 24. I was hoping to find the rest of the list of members and wrote to the archivist at the Resistance Museum in Oslo. The archivist wrote back that he had never seen such a list. I then tried to locate the email address or contact information for the authors of the book that was referenced in the Wikipedia entry, XU—I Hemmeleg Teneste 1940-1945 by Einar and Svein Saeter (the title translates to “In Secret Service”). I discovered that Einar Saeter passed away in 2010 but that his son Svein works as a journalist and writer. I was able to contact him via a Norwegian website for authors (www.forfatterkatalogen.no).
In our correspondence, I learned that the 1,500 members mentioned was a guesstimate and that most of the members of the XU didn’t know anything about XU itself, its structure, its name, or even other members’ names. I assume that this estimate is probably fairly accurate as Einar Saeter was himself an XU agent (and on the list of 24). The organization’s rule was that each agent was to know as little as possible: “just enough to do his or her job within their cell.” Most former agents also signed confidentiality agreements and never talked about their efforts during the war. Apparently, the XU excelled in this; the organization was never discovered by the Gestapo.
There were women working for the resistance who were not members of the XU, Solveig Bergslien for example. She worked in the Stavanger police department and provided information to leaders of the resistance movement. She stole passport forms that allowed the home front to make false documents for refugees and others. She was also an illegal radio transmitter in the Stavanger area. She was arrested by the Gestapo on Nov. 21, 1943, and died four days later, at the age of 24. The cause of death was never officially determined.
Clearly, this is an area that is ripe for continued research and investigation. In England, the SOE (Special Operations Executive) had 3,200 female agents in an organization of about 13,000, almost 25%. If the XU had the same percentage of female agents, that’s about 375. As of today, I know the names of two of them: Astrid Løken and Anne-Sofie Østvedt.
The reason I think Ruth could have been a spy (or at least was in contact with other female spies) is primarily because of the timing. Ruth and Thor met on a random hiking trip in Finnmark while the entire area was occupied with German soldiers. They then became engaged within a two-week period. Thor died two weeks before they were to be married. The circumstances seem too significant to ignore.
Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.