I’ve just got back from Oslo, where my first Jack Tanner novel, The Odin Mission, has just been published, and while I was there I got to meet Gunnar Sonsteby, who for those of you who don’t know of him, is the Norway’s most famous and most decorated war hero. Not only was Gunnar involved in the fighting retreat made by the Norwegian Army from Oslo all the way up the centre of the country, he was later one of the leading resistors to the Nazi occupiers, commanding the Oslo Gang and carrying innumerable sabotage operations.
Amongst the Oslo Gang’s biggest raids were the theft of printing plates for kroner from the Norwegian Central Bank, destroying more than forty German aircraft, important machine tools at a German controlled armaments factory, stealing 75,000 ration books, and blowing up a number of trains, guns and starting an inferno at an oil storage depot in Oslo.
Yet although it is these spectacular acts of sabotage that provide the most exciting stories, Gunnar was quick to tell me that the most important work he carried out was intelligence gathering. ‘That was vital,’ he said. ‘Our intelligence work was our greatest contribution.’
He struck me as being well suited to this kind of work. Being in the resistance in the Second World War meant becoming an outlaw – literally outside the law, a man hunted by the Nazi regime. Gunnar had to constantly move from one safe house to another. He maintained forty different aliases. This meant living under incredible levels of tension. ‘You were never safe,’ he said. ‘I felt on edge all the time.’ His biggest fear was being caught alive and then giving everything away under torture. ‘I knew everything,’ he said, ‘and I am not sure I could have withstood torture.’ For this reason he always carried at least one but preferably three grenades on him at all time – ‘two to throw at the enemy and one for myself.’ ‘You would have killed yourself?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, for sure,’ he replied.
Fortunately, Gunnar never had to resort to such drastic measures. ‘They had photos of me,’ he said, ‘but they had never seen me, so they did not really know what I looked like.’ He became a master of disguise, always moving by day, rather than night, when he would be less conspicuous. The Gestapo never, ever caught him.Certainly, becoming part of the resistance was far from glamorous. The Nazis were always good at materially raping any country they occupied and Norway was no exception. Rationing was severe and living conditions extremely harsh, even without living outside the law. Most were hungry all the time, which sapped energy. Basic things such as clothes were hard to come by. Gunnar told me he never really felt afraid, but most did. Norway fell in 1940 – leaving those who chose to resist facing long, hard years of war and terror. No wonder, then, that Gunnar was awarded the Norwegian War Cross with Three Swords – effectively two bars – as well as a DSO from Britain.
The Norwegian resistance came under the overall command of the Milorg organization and in 1942, Gunnar established links with SOE in Britain. The following year, he escaped to Scotland for training and became ‘Agent 24’, later becoming the contact for all SOE agents operating in Norway. Early in 1945, he returned to England and visited London for discussions about the end of the war.
When the war was finally over, Gunnar went to America and to Harvard University. I wondered whether the leap from being the most hunted man in Norway and living as a freedom fighter to a student in the United States took a bit of adjusting but he said, ‘No, not at all. Why should it?’ I got the impression this kind of phlegmatic attitude had held him in good stead during the long, hard years of the war.
He’s understandably a national treasure in Norway. Small, with sharp, keen features, his obvious intelligence is immediately apparent. There is a statue of him in the centre of Oslo – near to one of Churchill – unveiled by King Harald, while he was recently portrayed in a film called Max Manus: Man of War, which was a huge hit in Norway.
I have to admit that meeting men like Gunnar is very humbling. He was, and remains, an inspiration.