Knut Haugland: Incredible Norwegian SOE Officer
23 September 1917 - 25 December 2009
Knut Haugland DSO MM, the Norwegian commando and explorer who died on Christmas Day aged 92, took part in two of the most adventurous and celebrated exploits of the last century – a daring raid on a suspected Nazi atomic weapons plant in war, and Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition in peace.
Haugland, who was the last survivor of the six-man Kon-Tiki crew, had met Heyerdahl in 1944 at a special forces training camp in England, and was selected to join the expedition on the basis of the experience he acquired during the conflict as a radio operator.
In typically nonchalant fashion, Heyerdahl had written to Haugland, whom he thought was bound to be "fed up hanging around at home by now, and would be glad to go for a little trip on a wooden raft", to invite him on board.
'Am going to cross the Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru,' the invitation ran. 'Will you come? Reply at once.' The response was positive.
The six man crew set off from Callao, Peru, on April 28 1947 and sailed westwards along the Humboldt current. Their vessel, built using only the materials and technologies available in the pre-Columbian period, was the Kon-Tiki – a raft composed of nine balsa tree trunks, each 45ft long by 2ft in diameter, lashed together with hemp ropes.
The explorers lived off water stored in bamboo tubes, coconuts, sweet potatoes, bottle gourds and fruit, and the fish, dolphins and sharks they caught. After sighting islands in French Polynesia, the raft struck a reef on August 7 and was beached on an uninhabited islet off Raroia in the Tuamotu group. Kon-Tiki had travelled a distance of some 3,770 nautical miles in 101 days at an average speed of 1½ knots.
In his best-selling book about the voyage, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahl recalled the radio slowly drying out after being soaked in the shipwreck, and Haugland using the hand-cranked emergency transmitter to send out an "all well, all well" message in time to head off a large-scale search.
Kon-Tiki had not only conquered the vast, lonely Pacific Ocean, but rekindled the spirit of adventure in the dismal days after the war: in the subsequent Oscar-winning film, Haugland played himself.
He was involved in two of the expedition's most dramatic incidents. The first came when he was enjoying a leisurely swim near the raft, only for his crewmates to spot 'a shadow bigger than himself coming up behind him'. Thoughtfully keeping their warnings 'quiet' so as 'not to create a panic' the men alerted Haugland to his unwelcome companion, and 'Knut heaved himself towards the side of the raft'. A race then ensued between man and shark which ended with Haugland lurching on board just as the beast passed 'beneath his stomach'. 'We gave it a dainty dolphin's head to thank it for not having snapped,' Heyerdahl recorded.
The second incident occurred later, when Haugland averted the disaster that haunted all the Kon-Tiki's men. That was to fall in and find that currents prevented a return to the raft, which – obviously unpowered – would simply drift slowly out of view, condemning the man overboard to his fate.
When crewman Herman Watzinger did fall in, all rescue efforts appeared doomed until Haugland leapt into the water bearing a lifebelt attached to a long rope. The two men then swam towards each other and were hauled on board by the others. 'We had a lot of nice things to say to Knut that day, Herman and the rest of us too,' wrote Heyerdahl.
Knut Magne Haugland was born on September 23 1917 at Rjukan in the Norwegian province of Telemark. After qualifying as a military radio operator, in 1940 he saw action against the Germans near Narvik as part of the Norwegian campaign.
After the Germans had overrun his country, Haugland found work in the Hovding Radiofabrik in Oslo, where he started covert work in the Norwegian resistance movement, but in August 1941 he was briefly arrested by Quislings, escaped and fled via Sweden to England.
Haugland joined the so-called Norwegian Independent Company, formed to carry out commando raids in occupied Norway, which became one of the most decorated military forces during the Second World War.
He was selected by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train with three others for Operation Grouse, the raid on a hydroelectric power station near his hometown where the Allies suspected that heavy water, a key component in the atomic weapons process, was being produced in order to build a Nazi atom bomb. His presence created such awe among SOE personnel that Leo Marks, SOE Codemaster, recounts in his wonderful book From Silk to Cyanide that he was utterly in thrall to Haugland, and this from a man whose business it was to work daily among SOE's intrepid secret agents!
He parachuted with three others onto the Hardangervidda plateau on October 18 1942. But a planned rendezvous with British engineers never materialised after the Britons' gliders crashed and the survivors were tortured and executed.
As a result the Germans were alerted to Allied interest in heavy water production, but Haugland was ordered to wait on Hardangervidda, where his team subsisted on moss and lichen and, just in time for Christmas, a wandering reindeer. In sub-zero temperatures he kept in contact with the British using a radio to which he improvised spares using a stolen fishing rod and an old car battery. Every night at 1am he would make contact, often unable to control the chattering of his teeth, using the password 'three pink elephants'.
It was February 1943 before Operation Gunnerside (named after a grouse moor owned by Sir Charles Hambro, head of SOE) was mounted. Six Norwegian commandos were dropped by parachute, and after a few days' search, met up with Haugland for a new assault on the hydroelectric plant.
The heavily defended plant was now surrounded by mines and floodlights and accessible only across a single-span bridge over a deep ravine. The Norwegians climbed down the ravine, waded an icy river and climbed a steep hill where they followed a narrow-gauge railway and entered the plant by a cable tunnel and through a window. In the ensuing sabotage hundreds of kilograms of heavy water was destroyed. Though 3,000 German soldiers searched for the saboteurs, all escaped. The Nazi heavy water project never recovered.
Haugland hid on Hardangervidda for two months before going to Oslo to train radio operators for the Norwegian resistance. Despite being known to the Gestapo, he twice used the clandestine sea crossing known as "the Shetland bus" to reach Scotland. In autumn 1943 he visited London for supplies and training in new code techniques and returned by parachute.
In November 1943 he was arrested, only to escape, and his luck and courage held firm again the following year, when, on April 1, one of his transmitters, hidden inside a chimney at the Oslo Maternity Hospital, was located by direction-finding techniques. 'The whole building was surrounded by German soldiers with machine-gun posts in front of every single door,' Heyerdahl wrote later. The head of the Gestapo was standing in the courtyard waiting for Knut to be carried down.
'Knut fought his way with his pistol down from the attic to the cellar, and from there out into the back yard, where he disappeared over the hospital wall with a hail of bullets after him.' On the run, Haugland managed again to escape to Britain and did not return until war's end.
Haugland was twice awarded Norway's highest decoration, the War Cross with Sword, and was awarded the British DSO and MM, the French Croix de Guerre and Légion d'Honneur, and, postwar, the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav.
L-R: DSO, Military Medal, War Cross with Sword, Legion d-Honneur, Order of St. Olav, Croix de Guerre, Medal of Freedom
After the Kon-Tiki expedition Haugland returned to the military. He served in the Norwegian army in Germany (1948-49), in the ministry of defence until 1952 and then transferred to the air force where he headed the electronic eavesdropping service in Norway, an important position during the Cold War.
Haugland was director of the Norwegian Resistance Museum from 1963 to 1983 and director of the Kon-Tiki Museum from 1947 to 1990.
He was unhappy with the depiction of his wartime exploits in Anthony Mann's highly fictionalised 1965 film, The Heroes of Telemark, which starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, and in 2003 he made a BBC documentary with Ray Mears, The Real Heroes of Telemark.
He, however, refused to call himself a hero, saying: 'I never use that word about myself or my friends. We just did a job.' He preferred to remember those who died on the missions which he survived.
Knut Haugland, married, in 1951, Ingeborg Prestholdt, who survives him with three children.
We salute the heroes of the Norwegian Resistance!