Military history


HANNA PEDERSEN was having dinner with her two boys, Ottar and Johan, when the door burst open and the dreadful thing stumbled into the room and groped blindly towards the table. They jumped to their feet and backed away in horror. She nearly screamed, but she put her hand to her mouth and stifled the impulse because of the children. She managed to whisper “Ottar, go and fetch your uncle,” and the elder boy slipped out of the room.

“What do you want?” she said. “Who are you?” But Jan’s answer was incoherent, and he collapsed on the floor. She overcame her terror and revulsion enough then to creep near him and look at him closely to see if he was somebody she knew.

It would have been hard to tell. When he lay still like that on the floor, one would have thought he was a corpse dug out of the snow. He was caked with ice and frozen dirt and dried blood. His hair and his beard were solidly frozen and his face and hands were bloated and discoloured. His feet were great balls of compacted snow and ice. His eyes were tight shut, screwed up with the pain of snowblindness. He tried to speak again as he lay there, but she could not understand anything he said. Distracted with fright she took the smaller boy and ran to the door to meet her brother.

Her brother’s name was Marius Grönvold. He lived in the next house, and when he heard the boy’s anxious frightened story he ran across to see what had really happened. He pushed past his sister and took a single look at Jan. It was enough to show him that they would have to take measure quickly, whoever this man was, if they were to save his life. He had two other sisters who lived nearby, Gudrun and Ingeborg, and he sent the children to fetch them. They both hurried in, and between them all they set to work to bring Jan back to life. They built up the fire, and fed him with hot milk from a spoon, and got off the worst of his clothes and wrapped him in blankets, and lifted him on to a bed. Marius took a sharp knife and carefully cut his boots to pieces and peeled them off. His socks also had to be cut up and taken off in strips, revealing horrible feet and legs in an advanced stage of frostbite, with the toes frozen stiffly together in a solid block of ice. Everyone there knew the first-aid treatment for frostbite: to rub it with snow. The three sisters started then and there to try to save his feet, taking the ice-cold limbs between their hands and kneading the brittle flesh. Jan paid no attention to what they did, because he could not feel anything in his legs at all. He seemed to be slipping off into sleep or unconsciousness.

When the ice began to thaw on the jacket, Marius saw, to his amazement, that it was some kind of uniform, and he had also seen that Jan was armed with a pistol. That meant he was either a German or some sort of Norwegian Nazi, or else someone so actively anti-German that his presence in the house was like dynamite. Whether Jan was going to live or die, Marius simply had to know who he was: everything he did to try to save him, or even to dispose of his body if he failed, would depend on that answer. He asked him where he came from, and when he bent down to hear what Jan was trying to say, he heard the name Overgaard, which is a place at the head of the fjord. He knew that was a lie, because he had seen Jan’s tracks and they came from the opposite direction: and the fact that he tried to tell a lie was reassuring, because a Nazi would be too powerful to have any need to do so.

Marius had heard about Toftefjord and suspected the truth already. He sent the women out of the room, and when they had shut the door he said: “Listen to me. If you’re a good man, you’ve come among good people. Now, speak out.” Jan told him then, in a halting whisper. Marius heard him out, and took his resolve at once. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ll look after you. Go to sleep.” Jan asked him what his name was, and he told him Hans Jensen, which is the same as to say John Jones. He asked where he was, and this Marius told him truthfully: in the hamlet of Furuflaten, where the valley of Lyngdalen reaches Lyngenfjord. In the three days since the avalanche, all Jan’s wanderings had carried him seven miles. Marius also told him that it was the 8th of April, late in the afternoon.

When he was satisfied that he had got the truth, Marius called his sisters in again and told it to them in whispers. They went to work again, looking at Jan with new pity at what they had heard, but with a desperate anxiety for themselves and the children. Nobody whatever must hear of it, Marius had said; and they could hear him saying the same thing, again and again, to the boys.

He came back to the bed when he had made sure that the children understood him, and looked down at the ghastly face on the pillow. He was trying to think ahead. He was also beginning to see the explanation of some strange events which had happened since the storm. The Germans had suddenly searched every house in Furuflaten. They had been through his own house and his sister’s from top to bottom. They were looking for radio sets, they had said; but everyone had thought at the time there was something more behind it, because the place had been searched thoroughly enough for radio sets before. And for the first time, in the last few days, there had been motor-boats patrolling on the fjord, which did not fit in with the radio story. Now, Marius knew what they were searching for. There was the object of all the activity, lying at his mercy on his sister’s children’s bed.

Jan’s luck was still good when it took him to that door. Marius Grönvold was a very unusual man. He was in his early thirties then, still a bachelor, a short strong stocky man with the face of a peasant and an extraordinarily alert and well-stocked mind. His occupation in those days was typical of this contrast: he ran a small farm, and also wrote for the Tromsö paper. His hobbies were politics and Norwegian literature. He knew the Norwegian classics well, and could recite in verse or prose for hours together, and often did so to entertain himself or anyone else who would listen; and he was already a leading member of the local Liberal party, and well on his way to becoming the most prominent citizen in those parts: the sort of man, one might say, who was destined from birth to become a mayor or the chairman of the county council. With these politics and his love of Norwegian history and culture, it went without saying that he was a member of the local resistance group in Lyngenfjord, which was a branch of the one in Tromsö.

To speak of a resistance movement in a place like Lyngenfjord might be a little misleading. There was an organisation, but there was hardly anything it could do. There had never been time when Norway was invaded to call up or train the people in those far-off northern areas. The battle had been fought and lost before they had had a chance to go and take part in it. Ever since then, they had been entirely cut off from the world outside the German orbit. Their radio sets had been confiscated, and the papers they read were censored by the Germans. All that they ever heard of the fight that was going on from England was in occasional whispered scraps of clandestine news passed on from mouth to mouth from somebody who had hidden a radio somewhere or seen a copy of an illegal newspaper. Yet men like Marius resented their country’s enslavement as deeply as anyone: even more strongly perhaps because they had not done anything themselves to try to stop it. It lay heavily on their consciences that they had not been soldiers when soldiers were needed so badly, and that brave deeds were still being done while they could not find any way to test their own bravery. Their organisation was really a kind of patriotic club. None of its members had any military knowledge; but a least they could talk freely among themselves, and so keep up each other’s resolution, and help each other not to sink into the belief that the Germans could win the war and the occupation go on for ever; and they knew they could count on each other for material help as well if it was ever needed.

This was the background of Marius’s thoughts while he worked on Jan’s feet and fed him and kept him warm. The problem which Jan had brought with him was not a mere matter of a night in hiding and a little food. Probably Jan still thought, if he thought at all, that after a good sleep he would get up and walk away; but anyone else who saw him could tell he would be an invalid for weeks, and that walking was the last thing he would do. Marius, turning things over in his mind, could see no end to the problem in front of him, except capture. Furuflaten was a tiny compact community of a few hundred people; and it was on the main road and convoys of German lorries passed through it day and night, and it had a platoon of Germans quartered in its school. He could see the German sentries on the road when he looked out of his sister’s window. He could not think how he could keep Jan’s presence secret. Even to buy him a little extra food would be almost impossible. Much less could he see how he could ever nurse him back to fitness and start him off on his journey again. But there was never the slightest doubt in his mind that he was going to try: because this was his challenge; at last it was something which he and only he could possibly do. If he could never do anything else to help in the war, he would have this to look back on now; and he meant to look back on it with satisfaction, and not with shame. He thanked God for sending him this chance to prove his courage.

Jan was restless and nervous. He kept dozing off into the sleep which he needed so badly, but as soon as he began to relax, he roused himself anxiously. It was a symptom of his feeble mental state. He felt terribly defenceless, because he could not see. He was afraid of being betrayed; but if he had been in his right mind and able to see Marius’s honest worried face, he would have trusted him without the slightest qualm.

Marius, in fact, was watching over him with something very much like affection: the feeling one has towards any helpless creature which turns to one for protection. He had already promised his protection in his own mind, and in the best words he could think of, and it upset him that he had not succeeded in putting Jan’s fears to rest. He wanted to find some way to soothe him and make him believe in his friendship; and on an impulse, when the women were not listening, he took hold of Jan’s hand and said very emphatically and clearly: “If I live, you will live, and if they kill you I will have died to protect you.” Jan did not answer this solemn promise, but its sincerity had its effect. He relaxed then, and fell asleep.

He slept so deeply that even the massaging of his hands and legs did not disturb him. His legs were the worst. Marius and his sisters worked on them in turns for the whole of that night and the following day, trying to get the blood to circulate. Quite early, they invented a simple test to see how far up they were frozen. The pricked them with needles, starting at the ankles and working upwards. When they began, the legs were insensitive up to the knees. Above that, the needle made them twitch, although even this treatment did not disturb Jan’s sleep. But as they rubbed the legs, hour by hour, they came back to life, inch after inch, and showed a reaction lower and lower down. Jan did not wake at all during the first night and day after he came in. When he did, even his feet were alive and he woke with a searing pain where they had been numb before. Hanna Pedersen gave him a little food, and then he went to sleep again.

Although their efforts seemed to be succeeding, Marius and his sisters were all afraid that there might be some better treatment for frostbite which they had never heard of; and so it happened that the first time Marius invoked the organisation was to ask for a doctor’s advice. He went first of all to Lyngseidet: a journey of twenty minutes by bus, which covered the whole of the distance which had taken Jan four days. His object there was to talk to the headmaster of the state secondary school, whose name was Legland. There were two reasons for seeing him: one was that he was the member of the organisation who had direct contact with the leadership in Tromsö; and the other was that most of the people of Lyngenfjord were in the habit of going to him when they were perplexed or in trouble. Herr Legland was a patriarch, revered by all his neighbours. The more intelligent of them, in fact, had all been his pupils, for he was an old man by then, and his school served the whole of the district. It was from him that Marius had learned his love of literature as a boy, and he regarded him as the wisest man he knew. Besides, he was a patriot of the old uncompromising school of Björnson and Ibsen. To him, the invasion of Norway was a barbarous affront, a new dark age. His buildings in Lyngseidet had been requisitioned as a billet for German troops: a symbol of the swamping of the nation’s culture by the demands of tyranny.

When Marius sought out this shrewd old gentleman and told him his story, he gave his approval of what Marius and his family had done, and he agreed with what he proposed to do. It went without saying that he would give his help. At the bottom of all the ideas which Marius had thought of up to then was the difficulty, and the necessity, of keeping Jan’s presence secret from the people of Furuflaten. It was not that there was anyone really untrustworthy there; but there were plenty of gossips. As soon as it leaked out at all, the whole village would know about it as fast as exciting news can travel; and then it would only be a matter of time before the Germans found out about it too. Nobody would tell them; but living right in the centre of the place, in the school, they had a good idea of what went on there. They only had to keep their eyes open; it was a most difficult place for keeping secrets. The houses are widely spaced on each side of the river which runs out of Lyngdalen, and along the road which runs close beside the shore. There are hardly any trees, and from the middle one can see almost every house and most of the ground between them. It would only need a few too many neighbours calling at Marius’s house, out of curiosity or with offers of help, for the Germans on watch at the school, or patrolling the road, to notice that something unusual was happening.

From this point of view, to get a doctor to come and look at Jan would be very risky. Marius’s house was the farthest up the valley, and the farthest away from the road. The doctor would have to leave his car on the road and go on skis for half a mile, all among the houses; and of course as soon as he had gone, they would have everyone up there kindly inquiring who was ill. If the worst came to the worst, they would have to try it; but at present all they needed was advice and some medicine, if there was any medicine that was any good.

This meant sending a message to Tromsö. If they asked the local doctor, or got a prescription made up at the local dispensary, they would have to say whom it was for, and have two or three outsiders in the secret; but in Tromsö inquiries like that could be made without anyone knowing exactly where they came from.

Luckily, the road to Tromsö was still open, though as soon as the spring thaw set in it would become impassable for two or three weeks. To send a private car would be difficult, because the driver would have to give a good reason for his journey at every roadblock he came to; but people had noticed that the Germans never bothered much about a bus. If it was one which ran a regular service on the road, so that they knew it by sight, they usually let it through without questioning the driver. One of the local bus drivers was a member of the organisation. Marius and Legland asked him to do the job and he agreed. One of the bus company’s buses was put out of action, and the driver set off in another to fetch a spare part to repair it.

The arrival of this man in Tromsö was the first indication the leaders had had that there was any survivor from Toftefjord. Legland sent the driver to Sverre Larsen the newspaper editor, whose right-hand man Knudsen had been deported. Naturally, his message was only verbal. Larsen did not know the driver, and the organisation was still more than usually wary and on edge. Larsen refused to commit himself, and told the driver he could come back later in the day. But as soon as he had gone, he set about checking the man’s credentials through the organisation’s chain of command; and by the time he came back he had made sure that he was not a German agent, which he very well might have been, and had already consulted a doctor and a chemist about frostbite. Both of them said there was nothing to be done which had not been done already except to alleviate the pain, and the chemist had made up a sedative. Jan got the first dose of it that evening.

In the meantime, Marius had moved Jan from his sister’s house and hidden him in a corner of his barn. He knew it would not make any difference where he put him if the Germans came up to his farm to search, but at least the barn was safer from casual visitors and family friends. These were a constant worry. Jan had come to the house on a Saturday. On a fine Sunday in spring the people of Furuflaten are in the habit of skiing a little way up the valley by way of a constitutional; and that Sunday the valley was full of Jan’s tracks, which led in the end, plainly enough for anyone to see, up to Henna Pedersen’s door. For anyone to go about on foot was unheard of, and foot tracks instead of ski tracks were the very thing to set people talking. To forestall inquiries, Marius went out and inspected his farm early that Sunday morning, leaving his skis at home, and mixed up his own footsteps with Jan’s. He thought out some story to explain why he had done such an eccentric thing. It was a thin story, but good enough to put people off the idea that the tracks had been made by a stranger. They would merely think that the man of the house had taken leave of his senses.

At that stage, the Grönvold family were the only people in Furuflaten who were in the know: Marius, his three sisters and the two small boys, and Marius’s mother. Hanna’s husband was away at the fishing, and Marius had the added worry of having no other man in the family to talk to. His sisters never relaxed their efforts to nurse Jan back to health; but women in the far north are not often consulted by men in matters of opinion, and Marius could not help being aware that Jan’s sudden arrival had been a serious shock to them all. His mother, in particular, was far from strong, and he was seriously troubled by the strain which it put on her. In fact, it must be a terrible thing for an elderly woman to know that her family is deeply involved in something which carries the death penalty for them all if they are caught. At one moment near the beginning she was inclined to oppose the whole thing, though of course she had no clear idea of the only alternative; but Jan had told Marius by then about his father and sister in Oslo, and Marius put it to her from Jan’s father’s point of view. “Suppose I was in trouble down in Oslo,” he said, “and you heard that the people there refused to help me.” In these simple terms she could see the problem better. It made her think of Jan as a human being, a Norwegian boy very much like her own, and not just as a stranger from a war which she had never quite understood. She gave Marius her consent and blessing in the end. Yet it is doubtful whether she ever quite recovered from the nervous tension of the years after Jan arrived there: for the strain did not end when Jan finally went away. Till the very end of the war the risk remained that some evil chance would lead the Germans to discover what she and her children had done. In the upside-down world of the occupation, the Pharisee was rewarded, and the good Samaritan was a criminal. People who acted in accordance with the simplest of Christian ethics were condemned to the life of fear which is normally only lived by an undiscovered murderer.

The two boys were a further worry. To send them to school every day when they knew what they did was a heavy responsibility to put upon children. Some children often can play a secretive role in a matter of life and death as well as anyone older; but to go on doing it for long will wear them down.

Jan lay for nearly a week in the barn. For four days he was never more than semi-conscious; and that was just as well, because he could not have moved in any case, and when he did rise out of his drugged sleep the pain of his feet and hands and his blinded eyes was bad. But he was certainly getting better. Towards the end of the week his eyesight was coming back. He began to see the light of the barn door when it was opened, and then to recognize the faces of the people who came to feed him. By that time, also, it looked as if his feet would recover in the end, though he was still a long way from being able to stand on them or walk. Most important of all, his brain had got over the concussion, and his power of thought and his sense of humour had come back: he was himself again. He and Marius began to find they had a lot in common. Their experience and background could hardly have been more different within a single nation: one the arctic farmer and country-bred philosopher, the other the town technician; one cut off from the war, the other entirely immersed in military training. But Jan’s sense of comedy was never far away, and Marius, though he was a serious-minded man, was irrepressible when he was amused. He listened to Jan’s stories of England and the war with the greed of a starving man who has an unexpected feast spread out in front of him, and when Jan told him about the many ridiculous aspects of army life, it made him laugh. When Marius laughed, it was as if he would never stop. It was an odd infectious falsetto laugh which started Jan laughing too; and then Marius, squatting beside him in the hay in the darkened barn, would rock with renewed merriment and wipe away the tears which poured down his cheeks, and they had to remind each other to be quiet, in case anyone heard the noise outside.

But although there were these moments when Marius enjoyed Jan’s company, he remained a most serious danger as long as he stayed on the farm. There was an alarm every time someone was sighted climbing the hill from the village, and every time the Germans in the schoolhouse made some slightly unusual move. He had to be taken away from there as soon as he was fit enough to go, and Marius had thought of a place to put him.

The opposite shore of Lyngenfjord is steep-to and uninhabited. There had once been a farm over there: just one in a stretch of eight miles. But it had been burnt down a long time before, and never rebuilt. One small log cabin had escaped the fire and was still standing. It was four miles from the nearest house, either along the shore or across the water, and so far as Marius knew, nobody ever went there. If any safe place could be found for Jan, that seemed the most likely. The name of the farm had been Revdal.

To get Jan across there was more than Marius could manage with only the help of his sisters, because he would have to be carried all the way down to a boat and out of it again at the other side; and so at this stage he began to bring in other members of the organization from the village. He chose them on the principle that no two men from one family should be mixed up in the affair, in case something happened and another family besides his own was entirely broken up. In the end, he let three of his friends into his secret: Alvin Larsen, Amandus Lillevoll and Olaf Lanes. All of them had known one another since they were children. When he told them about it, one by one, they all offered eagerly to help.

They agreed to make the move on the night of the 12th of April. In the fortnight since Toftefjord, the nights had got quite a lot shorter: uncomfortably short for anything illegal. To avoid disaster, the first part of the journey would have to be planned with care and carried out without the least delay. This was the half-mile from Marius’s barn to the shore.

Marius had lived there all his life, but it was a new experience for him, as it would be for most law-abiding people, to plan a way out of his own home which he could use without being seen. It was extraordinarily difficult. Jan would have to be carried on a stretcher, and the two sides of the valley set limits to the routes which could be used, because they were both too steep to climb. On the other hand, the triangle of gently sloping ground between them was in full view of the houses, and the paths which crossed it led from door to door. There were two principal dangers, the German garrison in the school and the sentry who patrolled the road. But what worried Marius almost more than these was the thought of meeting a series of neighbours and having to stop to give endless explanations. To carry a man on a stretcher through one’s village in secret at dead of night is a thing one cannot explain away in a casual word or two.

Marius made a reconnaissance, looking at his home from this unfamiliar point of view. There turned out to be only one possible route, and that was the river bed. The river, which is called Lyngdalselven after the valley, runs down through the middle of the village and under the road by a bridge about two hundred yards from the shore. It has a double channel, one about fifty feet wide which carries the normal summer flow, and another much wider flood channel which only fills up during the thaw in spring. That mid-April, the thaw had not yet begun, and the whole of the river was still frozen. The flood channel has banks about fifteen feet high, and Marius found that close below them, on the dry bed of the river, one was fairly well hidden from view. There was one snag about it. The nearest of all the houses to the channel was the schoolhouse where the Germans lived. It stands within three or four paces of the top of the bank. But even so, it still seemed that this was the only way. Looking out of the schoolhouse windows the troops could see almost every inch of the valley mouth. The only place they could not see was the foot of the bank immediately below their windows.

When dusk began on the night which they had chosen, they all assembled in the barn. Two men were to go with Marius and the stretcher. His sister Ingeborg had volunteered to go ahead of it to see that the way was clear. Another man was to climb to the top of a high moraine on the other side of the river, where he could watch the sentry on the road. A rowing-boat with a sail had already been hauled up on the beach at the river mouth. Jan had been wrapped in blankets and tied to a home-made stretcher, and they had a rucksack full of food and a paraffin cooker to leave with him in Revdal. They waited nervously for the long twilight to deepen till it was dark enough to go. It was after eleven when Marius gave the word.

It was a breathless journey. For once, they could not use their skis. To ski with a stretcher down steep slopes among bushes in the dark could only end in disaster, at least for the man on the stretcher. But to carry his weight on foot in the deep snow was exhausting work, even for such a short distance. They started by climbing straight down to the river, and when they got to the bottom of the bank without any alarm they put Jan down in the snow for a few minutes and rested. The lookout left them to cross the river and go up to his point of vantage, and Ingeborg went ahead to see what was happening at the school, and to tread out a path in the snow. It was very quiet, but there was a light southerly breeze which hummed in the telephone wires and stirred the bare twigs of the bushes; it was not much, but it helped to cover the sound of their movements. When they had got their breath they bent down and picked up the stretcher and set off down the channel towards the school.

It soon came in sight. There were lights in some of the windows which cast yellowish beams on the trodden snow outside it. One of them shone out across the river channel, but close in, right under the wall of the building, the steep bank cast a shadow which looked like a tunnel of darkness. The stretcher bearers approached it, crouching as low as they could with their burden, keeping their eyes on Ingeborg’s footsteps in front of them in case they should stumble, and resisting the impulse to look up at the lights above them. When they came to the fence of the playground, they crept closer in under the bank. In an upward glance they could see the edge of the roof on their right, and the beam of light lit up some little bushes on their left, but it passed a foot or two over the tops of their heads. The troops in the school were not making a sound, and the men were acutely conscious of the faint squeak and crunch of the snow beneath their tread. The silence seemed sinister. It made the thought of an ambush come into their minds. But in thirty seconds they passed the school: and there was the road, fifty paces ahead of them.

This was the place they had feared. With the school behind them and the road ahead, there was nowhere for four men to hide themselves. It all depended on luck: how long they would have to wait for the sentry, and whether a car came past with headlights. But Ingeborg was there, behind a bush at the side of the road, where she had been lying to watch the sentry, and she came back towards them and pointed to the right, away from the river bridge. That was the way they wanted the sentry to go, the longest leg of his beat. At the same moment, there was a tiny spark of light on the top of the moraine; the watcher there had struck a match, and that was the signal that the sentry was nearly at the far end of the beat and would soon be turning round. It was now or never: they had to go on without a pause. They scrambled up on to the road. For a few seconds they were visible, dark shadows against the snow, from the school and the whole of the beat and a score of houses. Then they were down on the other side, among bushes which gave them cover as far as the shore. The worst of the journey was over.

When they had hauled the boat down the beach and bundled Jan on board it, they rowed off quietly for a couple of hundred yards, and then set the lugsail and got under way, with the breeze on the starboard beam and a course towards the distant loom of the mountains across the fjord, under which was the cabin of Revdal.

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