The Heroes of Telemark

We’ve now crossed from Sweden into Norway, visiting some more good stuff along the way…..

On Sunday, still in Sweden, we had a look at the Arvika Motor Museum. It wasn’t as big as we’d expected, but we enjoyed it.

There were lots of rally cars, which confused us slightly until we worked out that rally driver Per Eklund is from Arvika, and that most of the cars were his.

The red Saab (from 2000) does 0-60 in 2.2 seconds:

Mark liked this Lotus Eleven RCR 400 which achieved five victories and a third place racing in the UK in 1956:

My favourite was a 1957 Austin A35 pickup. Only 497 were built. Four were imported to Sweden, and all four are still running:

We’d never seen one of these before – it’s a 1915 Detroit Electric Brougham:

These ran on an electric motor producing 10 horse power and were aimed at rich lady drivers and doctors, neither of whom wanted to mess around trying to start a petrol car using a crank handle. Apparently it’s the car Grandma Duck drives in the Donald Duck cartoons!

The motor museum is housed in the old Thermia works in Arvika. Thermia, now owned by Danfoss, produced all kinds of stuff….

… including drying cupboards!

We first came across one of these at a marina in Sweden on our 2017 trip. That one was housed in a proper cupboard rather than just having a shower curtain round it.

We’d turned up at the motor museum on the right day – they were holding a “Rule Britannia” event outside whereby local enthusiasts turned up with their old British cars.

Mark spotted the best one – the owner of an old Land Rover had installed a row of four small framed photos on the dashboard. Maggie Thatcher, a young Prince Philip, the Queen, and…. Boris Johnson. We had to laugh…..

Sunday night was spent at a quiet spot by a lake:

Monday turned out to be pretty much a day of travelling. We crossed into Norway then drove in a broad loop round Oslo. It was pretty uninteresting compared to other parts of Scandinavia that we’ve visited ūüė¶ Oh well, you can’t win them all.

After a night spent near a big ski jump at Vikersund, we continued west and very soon found ourselves back in the kind of glorious scenery that we associate with Norway. Phew!

Our tourist destination for Tuesday was Heddal Stave Church, the largest of 28 remaining stave churches in Norway (it’s thought that at one time there were 1500 or so). The oldest part dates back to around 1150, after which it was extended to its current form around 1250.

Around 30% of the wood is original – although the roof, floor, and some of the big wooden pillars have been replaced over the centuries (replaced with identical new bits of wood), most of the interior panelling is original.

Apparently the church found it quite difficult to get the local population to embrace Catholicism (5 hour services in latin, through which parishioners had to stand, probably didn’t help!). Traditional norse design features were incorporated into the church as a way of making things more understandable to the locals. At the top of each of the pillars inside (very high up – too high for my ‘phone to capture them I’m afraid….) are carved faces, supposedly representing the norse gods – and they’ve been made to look more cheerful the nearer they are to the altar!

The interior panelling was originally painted with depictions of the Catholic saints etc, but was painted over after the reformation in Sweden. They kept the incense burner though – which we were told might have been allowed as a practical measure as rich people would often be buried under the floor of the church (as near to the altar as possible as they thought this would get them to the front of the queue at the pearly gates…) and they most likely ponged a bit!

We did also learn some interesting stuff about the dragons and snakes depicted on the carvings. Apparently, you used pictures of bad stuff to scare off other bad stuff (so carved dragons would keep real dragons away, for example).

All the bad stuff (dragons, trolls and the like) always comes from the north. So women had to enter the church through a side door on the north side and sit on that side of the church, whilst men entered through a door on the south side and sat on the south side of the church. The reason for this is that whilst men were physically stronger than women, women were mentally stronger than men so better able to deal with the nasties from the north. The beams above the south side of the church, where the men sat, had an extra couple of dragons’ heads carved into them as extra protection for the poor feeble menfolk….

Our ticket to the stave church also gave us access to the small open air museum nearby. The houses were quite dark inside, so difficult to photograph – but I did get a pic of this lit part of an intricately decorated wall:

Mark particularly liked the storehouses. We’ve seen quite a lot of these as we’ve been driving around, and many of them are clearly very old.

According to tenth century law, you were within your rights to kill anyone you found stealing from your storehouse…..

As we drove up lake Tinnsj√łen towards our overnight stop, we came across a memorial by a lay-by at the side of the road and then, a short distance later, a railway station and two boats. We were now in Heroes of Telemark country….. it’ll be easiest to explain in chronological order rather than the order in which we came across things….

At the turn of the twentieth century, this area was pretty much a backwater. The small population lived from a variety of activities – timber, farming the small amount of arable land etc – and many had emigrated to the USA in previous decades.

Then Norsk Hydro came along. They built what was at the time the biggest hydroelectric plant in the world to harness the Ryukanfosse waterfall at Vermork. Housed in a beautiful granite-clad building, the plant produced 145,000 hp when it opened in 1911.

The electricity was used to power a saltpetre works constructed a few miles down the valley at Ryukan, where a town soon sprang up to house the growing workforce.

The power plant building is now a museum (having been replaced by a more modern hydroelectric plant housed inside the mountain in 1971) so we got to look around. The machine hall is very impressive:

Over time, Norsk Hydro’s operations in the area expanded and new chemical plants were opened. In 1929, a hydrogen plant was opened at Vermork, housed in a gruesomely ugly edifice built slap bang in front of the original granite work of art…. (this building was demolished in 1977, although in the last couple of years, excavations have revealed that the basement – as explained below, the part that everyone’s interested in – remains pretty much intact).

Heavy water was discovered in 1932, and in 1934, Norsk Hydro started producing heavy water in the basement of the hydrogen plant. Production increased from 70kg in 1935 to 112kg in 1940 – so eyebrows were certainly raised when IG Farben placed an order for two tons of heavy water in January 1940… After the German occupation of Norway, attention turned to stopping the supply of heavy water from Vermork (then still the world’s only commercial producer) so as to hinder the German nuclear programme.

A “Heroes of Telemark” exhibition and films in the museum told the story….

1) A British attempt to fly in troops to attack the plant in November 1942 went horribly wrong when three of the four planes involved (two gliders carrying the troops plus one of the tow planes) crashed and the survivors were executed by the Germans…. All in all, 41 servicemen died…..

2) In February 1943 came the attack immortalised in the 1965 Kirk Douglas film “The Heroes of Telemark”, one of the few war films I’ve actually seen. Members of the Norwegian resistance managed to get into the plant and detonate explosives in the basement where the heavy water was produced. Not a shot was fired, and they all got away safely. A lot of the footage in the museum was taken from a 1948 Norwegian film called “Operation Swallow: the Battle for Heavy Water”, which seemed like it would be the more accurate depiction as nine of the original saboteurs played themselves in the film…..

3) It took the Germans six months to get the heavy water plant back into production, but they did it. In November 1943, the plant was bombed. 912 bombs were dropped and 21 civilians killed when an air raid shelter was hit.

4) The Germans now decided that they’d had enough and that it would be best to move production to Germany. The remaining stocks of heavy water were to be transported from Vermork.

Back when the hydroelectric plant and saltpetre works had been constructed, a railway line was built down the valley to Lake Tillsj√łen. Trains carried the chemical products from the various plants to the lake, where the railway wagons were loaded onto ferries for the 19 mile journey down the lake, after which they’d join another railway for the trip down to the the coast. Passengers were also carried by the service.

The first ferry, the SF Rjukanfos, was delivered in 1909 but proved too small. The second and third ferries, the SF Hydro and SF Ammonia, entered service in 1913 and 1929 respectively. We saw the station building and SF Ammonia down at the lake – guided tours seem to be available but the last one was on 09 August so we’d missed it (it’s a very short summer season here)!

In February 1944, the barrels of heavy water destined for Germany were loaded onto the SF Hydro.

Unknown to the Germans, the Norwegian resistance had placed explosives on board to sink the ship at the deepest part of the lake in order to stop the heavy water it was carrying reaching Germany.

The memorial we’d seen by the road on Tuesday afternoon was to the fourteen Norwegians and four Germans killed when the ferry sank (twenty eight people survived).

Blimey. That lake is surprisingly deep by the way – over 430m deep at the point where the DF Hydro went down. The wreck was found in the 1990s. Two barrels were recovered and it was confirmed that the ferry was indeed carrying the heavy water when it went down.

Amazing stuff…..

We’re planning something a bit more sedate for the next few days (stave churches, canals, seaside….) before we hit the big city, Oslo.


  1. Love the Grandma Duck car! Very sweet. Think SOK needs a sticker ūüôā

    Your description reminded me that I’ve also seen the Telemark film, it’s an amazing story.

    A challenge for you: what’s the most expensive (compared to the UK) everyday item you can find in Norway? Excluding alcohol…

    Liked by 1 person

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