The good article by Joseph Reader and Charles Clark (Physics Today, March 2013, page 44) about the history of nuclear physics brought back some pleasant memories of Ferdinand Brickwedde (1903–89). He was a Pennsylvania State University physics professor who lived just across the street from my family in State College. It was amazing to listen to him tell about how he and Harold Urey discovered deuterium in 1931. Brickwedde retired from his professorship in 1968.

I have minor corrections to Reader and Clark’s account. They incorrectly write that Allied bombing forced the Germans to abandon the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant in 1942.

Leif Tronstad, a professor of physics at the Norwegian Technical University in Trondheim before he escaped to Britain during World War II, saw early on the possible dangers of Adolf Hitler’s obtaining a nuclear bomb. Tronstad warned the Allies that heavy water from the Norsk Hydro factory at the Vemork hydroelectric power plant at Rjukan could be used in Hitler’s experiments toward making a nuclear bomb.

The British First Airborne Division, using two Halifax bombers each pulling a Horsa glider plane with paratroopers on board, attempted to destroy the factory in November 1942. The Allied raid, called Operation Freshman, failed when three of the four planes crash-landed in bad weather and survivors were executed by the Germans; 41 British soldiers died altogether.

Tronstad next planned a raid by Norwegian commandos. Four paratroopers who had been sent prior to Operation Freshman as an advance party for the British raid would be joined by six more, as part of Operation Gunnerside. The two groups of Norwegian soldiers joined forces and made a successful attack on the factory on the night of 27–28 February 1943. With one man serving as lookout, the remaining nine crept along the un-mined railway track up to the factory and blew up the heavy-water production cells and tanks containing 900 liters of heavy water. Not one shot was fired in that successful second raid, and nobody was killed or injured. Afterward, several of the Norwegian soldiers skied cross-country for two weeks and escaped to Sweden; the others remained in Norway.

In the 1948 Norwegian documentary film The Battle of the Heavy Water, several of the military personnel appeared as themselves. The British adventure film The Heroes of Telemark was made in 1965, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, but it did not accurately depict the operation. Reader and Clark therefore should not have cited that film as a historical reference.

Commemorative medal issued by the Norwegian Home Guard's Chief of Defense for the 70th anniversary of the successful Operation Gunnerside raid on the Norsk Hydro heavy-water facility, 27–28 February 2013. Medal maker: Per Hauge.

Commemorative medal issued by the Norwegian Home Guard's Chief of Defense for the 70th anniversary of the successful Operation Gunnerside raid on the Norsk Hydro heavy-water facility, 27–28 February 2013. Medal maker: Per Hauge.

Close modal