Military history


ESCAPE STORIES end when freedom and safety are reached, but this story can hardly be ended without telling what happened to the people in it after it was all over.

Jan and Marius and the Mandal men had dreamed so long of the Swedish frontier that they had never thought much about what would happen on the other side of it. Of course they all knew it was a very long way from the border to a town or hospital, but to travel in a country where there were no Germans seemed so absurdly easy that none of them worried about the distance.

But as it turned out it was quite a long time after the hectic dash across the lake before Jan was put to bed in a Swedish hospital. Once the tension was over, his memory went to pieces. He remembers a day which he spent in a hut with a lot of Lapps, and another day in a canoe going down a fast river of which one bank was Finland and therefore controlled by the Germans, and the other Sweden. Eventually the river led to a telegraph station, where the operator sent an urgent message to the Swedish Red Cross.

That excellent organisation sent an ambulance seaplane, which made a perilous landing on a stretch of the river where the ice was still breaking up. Before the plane could take off again, a squad of men had to break more of the ice to give it a longer run. The take-off was the last of the experiences which Jan recollects as having scared him out of his wits. After it, he had a complete blank in his memory until a doctor told him he had been in hospital for a week.

In hospital, he had the very unusual satisfaction of being asked what surgeon had amputated his toes, and of saying with a casual air that he had done it himself; and later he had a satisfaction which was even greater, when he was told that his operation had saved his feet. The decision about his feet remained in the balance for a long time. He very nearly lost them when the doctors first unwrapped them; but they called in a specialist who decided to try to redeem them, and after three months’ treatment they were declared to be safe.

As soon as he woke up in hospital, he began to try to get a confidential report of what had happened through to London. It was not very easy. As Sweden was neutral, there were naturally Germans and German agents around, and if his report had got into the wrong hands, of course it would have been a death warrant for the people in Norway who had helped him. He was worried too by the recollection that the Swedes had only let him out of prison three years before on condition that he left the country, so that they had every right to put him in again. But some of his story had filtered across the border, and no doubt the Swedes who heard rumours of it felt he had earned the best treatment they could give him. They let him get in touch with a secretary in the Norwegian embassy, and to her he dictated all that he could remember of the story.

In England, we already knew, of course, that the expedition had come to grief, and vague reports had come through of what had happened to the Brattholm. There had been a long, sarcastic and gloating story in the Deutsche Zeitung about the brave and ever-vigilant defenders who had won the battle of Toftefjord, and this German view of the affair had even been quoted in brief in the London papers in early June, while Jan was still lying unconscious. But Jan’s report gave the first news of the unlucky chance which had betrayed the landing, and it was also the first indication we had that one of the twelve men who had sailed from Shetland had survived.

Jan himself flew back to England in the autumn, after being away from his unit for seven months. In some ways, his return to war-time London must have been a disappointment to him after he had dreamed of it for so long. When the welcoming drinks and the official compliments were over, there was hardly anyone he wanted to talk to about what had happened to him. The Linge Company in which he had been trained was a company of adventurers, and nobody in it talked much about personal experience: for one thing, everybody in it was waiting his own call to go to Norway and knew it was best not to be burdened with other people’s secrets. The few staff officers to whom Jan could talk freely had already seen his report and were busy with other plans, and anyhow were sated with stories of desperate adventure. There was nobody who could share the pictures which were still so vivid in his own mind: pictures of endless snow, the cold, the glaring nights, the procession of faces of people who had offered their lives for his and whose names he had never known, the sound and smells of the northern wastelands, the solitude and hopelessness and pain. In the busy, grey autumnal streets of London, these things began to seem like a private dream: a dream which was overcast and darkened by anxiety, because he did not know what had happened in those desolate valleys after he got away, so that he was haunted, for the whole of the rest of the war, by the thought that his own life might have been bought at the cost of appalling reprisals. To help himself to live with this burden of worry, he threw all his energy into the routine of army life, and into training himself to walk and run without losing his balance, and getting himself fit again in the hope that he would be allowed to go back to Norway.

But if nobody in England could share in Jan’s anxiety, it had its counterpart in arctic Norway. For month after month, in Furuflaten and Lyngseidet and Mandal, Kaafjord and Tromsö and the islands, all the people who had helped to save him went about their daily business in the constant fear that something would still be found out which would give them away to the Germans. But time passed and nothing disastrous happened, and the fear very slowly faded; and in fact the Germans never discovered anything, and nobody was ever punished for Jan’s escape. Furuflaten and Lyngseidet survived the war intact, but Mandal, on the other side of the fjord, was the very last of the places which the Germans destroyed in a futile “scorched earth” policy when their retreat began. The people were driven out and every house was burnt to the ground. For a long time the valley was deserted. But now, it has spacious new houses and its people have returned. The valley is still as remote as ever: it still has no road: but its placid life has begun again, and Herr Nordnes has a new generation of pupils in a new school, the sons and daughters of the men who went up to the plateau.

As I write, the midwife of Ringvassöy is still at work; the same people live in the cottage in Toftefjord; and old Bernhard Sörensen, who rowed Jan across the sound among the searchlights, still thinks nothing of getting his feet wet at 82. But his son Einar died some years ago, and the two grandsons who made Jan tell them a story are grown up and have gone to work in town, so that Bjorneskar is a lonely place for the old man and his wife.

The village of Furuflaten is very prosperous. Marius has formed a partnership with three other local men, one of whom is Alvin Larsen, who was with him that awful night when they dragged the sledge up Revdal. They are building contractors, and they have also put up a factory in the village, just by the place where they hauled Jan across the road below the schoolhouse. In the factory they make concrete blocks, and a special kind of arctic prefabricated house, and, most unexpectedly, ready-made trousers. The business is growing: they are starting on jackets to match the trousers, and there is no end to their plans.

Marius, I am glad to say, married Agnethe Lanes, whom he treated so roughly on the night they climbed up to the plateau. They are bringing up a family in a new house they have built beside the log cabin where Jan stumbled in at the door. Marius is beginning to worry about his figure, but he still has his quiet irresistible chuckle, and I think he always will have.

As for Jan, he got his own way in the end and was sent over again to Norway as an agent, sailing once more from the base in the Shetland Islands. So it happened that he was on active service there when the capitulation came. In the midst of the national rejoicing and the hectic work of accepting the surrender of the Germans, he picked up the telephone and asked for his father’s number, and heard at last that his family was safe and well. When he was free to go to Oslo to meet them, his schoolgirl sister, Bitten, for whom he had worried so long, astonished him by being twenty and having grown up very well, as he saw at a glance, without the benefit of his brotherly hand to guide her.

Jan is a married man now. Hi wife Evie is American. Jan and his father work together again, importing mathematical and surveying instruments from abroad. To meet Jan, absorbed in theodolites and his family affairs, in his house in the pinewoods in the outskirts of Oslo, you would never guess the story which he remembers. But you would see for yourself that it has a happy ending.

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