Imagine you’re living on the outskirts of a small rural village or in an isolated farmstead – in Nazi occupied Norway, north of the Artic circle. On a bitterly cold, dark, mid-winter evening there’s a knock on your door. You open it to find a wounded and disheveled stranger, close to exhaustion. He’s on the run from the Nazis. He needs you to feed and shelter him. You know that if you do, you will be tortured and killed if found out. Not only you, also your children – who are sleeping upstairs – could also be killed to make an example of “collaborators” or transported to a ‘labour’ camp.
What would you do?
This is the recurring real-life dilemma faced by housewives, fishermen and villagers when Jan Baalsrud lands on their doorstep in this month’s book, it’s We Die Alone by David Howarth.
Jan Baalsrud is not a fictional character. He was a Norwegian commando sent from England as part of an under-cover sabotage mission to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance during World War II. The mission goes horribly wrong when, having sailed from Scotland to a remote bay north of Tromso, the leader of the mission reveals their identity to a local store owner who they have been told is a trusted contact. Too late they realize that their contact has died a year earlier and the new owner of the store, who has the same name, is terrified. The message on a poster in his own shop: “Contact with the enemy is punished by death” is no idle threat. He calls a friend in the Department of Justice. Next morning a German gunboat sails into the bay.
The ensuing battle results in 11 of the 12-man commando unit being killed or captured (and subsequently executed). Only Jan – wounded and minus a boot – escapes into the adjoining snow-covered hills.
So begins Jan’s epic 68-day escape journey across artic Norway to eventual safety in neutral Sweden. Actually, epic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Add heroic, superhuman and phenomenal and we get a little closer – but it is difficult to find the superlatives to truly do justice to what Jan Baalstrud endured over these 68-days.
Evading capture was only one of his many challenges. The harsh conditions of the Artic mountains presented an even more formidable threat. Caught in an avalanche, he survives a 300ft fall that leaves him concussed, hallucinating and snow-blind. He suffers severe frost-bite and starvation. Unable to walk because of a gangrenous leg, he endures days on a mountain lying in a hole in the ice under a boulder – his “snow grave”. His physical perseverance is phenomenal, but even more impressive is his mental resolve and determination – superhuman is what comes to mind. What other word adequately describes the level of resolve required to methodically amputate his own toes to rid himself of gangerene while lying, wet and cold, under a rock? Or to doggedly maintain a daily routine of basic survival tasks when convinced that he has been abandoned?
Jan’s courage and bravery are without any doubt exceptional and deserving of fulsome admiration, even adulation. But it is those who help him – the housewives, fishermen and
villagers mentioned above, the ordinary Norwegians on whose doorstep Jan appears – who truly deserve the accolade of ‘heroic’. With the sole exception of the aforementioned shop owner, every single person who Jan seeks help from gives it willingly. They hide him, provide him with food from their meagre war rations, haul him in a stretcher up a mountain, drag him in a sled across a treacherous plateau – all the while putting themselves in mortal danger of being caught and executed and endangering their families. And when Jan reaches safety in Sweden, they remain with this danger still hanging over them like a sword of Damacles. For two more years they continue to live with the constant threat that an inadvertent word or an accidental comment might alert the Germans to their ‘treason’. Jan’s courage and bravery was motivated by a powerful desire to survive. The bravery of the men and women who ensured his survival was selfless. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Without doubt they are the real heroes of this amazing story.
And the most amazing thing? It’s NOT fiction – it all actually happened. These were real people who acted with astonishing bravery and selflessness to help a stranger who could not have survived without their help. In this instance, truth is not only stranger than fiction but also much, much more wonderful.
The author, David Howarth, had a direct connection with the story. He was one of the commanding officers of the secret naval base in the Shetland Islands from which the boat that brought Jan and his ill-fated comrades to Norway embarked. After the war he re-traced Jan’s escape route with him and interviewed the people who helped him. This first-hand knowledge is evident throughout – and adds to the readers sense of witnessing inspiring real-life events.
Written in 1955, this was the third of 18 books on military history written by the English author, the others included Sledge Patrol (1951), Shetland Bus (1951), Thieves Hole (1954), Dawn of D-Day (1959), Sovereign of The Seas (1974), The Dreadnoughts (1979) and Nelson: The Immortal Memory (1988). We Die Alone was made into a movie “Ni Liv” (Nine Lives) in 1957 and inspired a 5-part Norweigan TV series in 2012.
The book retains a freshness and immediacy largely due to Howarth’s fast-paced, journalistic writing style. There are a few ‘time-warp’ issues that reflect attitudes that would not be tolerated today but were almost universally accepted at the time – e.g. some comments on the Lapps generate a ‘gulp’ in today’s reader – but these do not detract from the inspiring humanity of the story.
Read this book. It’ll restore your faith in human nature. And as we face into months of ear-bashing by Donald Trump’s hate-filled invective we need to be reminded that we have the capacity for empathetic heroism.