Friday, February 21, 2014

Beyond the Call of Duty

A True Story of Survival 

The incredible WWII survival story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini has recently been hurled into the pantheon of legend thanks to the mega-bestseller Unbroken--and rightfully so.  But Zamperini's tale is certainly not the only story of endurance during this global conflict.  Today's article concerns the amazing exploits of Norwegian commando Jan Baalsrud and the extreme hardships he endured in early 1943.  Our guest post is by author and filmmaker Seán Ó Cearrúlláin, whose documentary Beyond the Call of Duty: The Baalsrud Story, seeks to convey this dramatic episode of the Second World War.

Have you ever heard of “Operation Martin”? For seven decades this obscure but compelling mission has been omitted from most histories of the Second World War--until now.

On an ill-fated covert commando mission of sabotage and infiltration, a group of Norwegian Elite Commandos and sailors with a Special Operations Executive agent aboard the fishing vessel Brattholm set sail for Arctic Norway from the Shetlands. They braved the fierce North Sea, German U-boats, and patrol planes to embark on a daring attack of a German air control tower near Bardufoss.  In doing so, they hoped to ease the suffering of the P.Q. (outbound) Convoys shuttling between Iceland and the Eastern Front.  “Operation Martin” never had its intended day in the history books.  Instead, what transpired was nothing short of breath-taking and dumfounding. 

Believing the area of Arctic Norway they were to land on was more or less free of German activity, they soon discovered their intelligence was wrong. German patrol ships were scattered throughout the area.  Thus, an alternate hiding place for their tons of explosives, radio equipment, and secret documents was sought after.

Unfortunately for the commandos, their first Norwegian contact in their home county quickly turned German informant on them. Fearing for his life and German reprisals, he reported the presence of the fishing vessel from England with saboteurs on board.  The local Sheriff subsequently reported this up the chain to Gestapo officials at Tromsö.  Within little time, a German Schnell patrol ship arrived in the sound where Brattholm was docked.  The German shelling rained down upon the Norwegians with an intense fury. 

Everyone on board was eventually forced to abandon ship.  The commandos set forth preparing demolition charges for their doomed vessel.   So great was the quantity of explosives on their own ship that they hoped the blast would also sink the oncoming Nazi boat.  At the last minute there was a puff of smoke, but no massive detonation. As the frustrated commandos began rowing toward shore and the Germans continued to inch closer, their cache of weaponry finally erupted in a huge explosion that send shockwaves rippling through the fjord--shattering the few windows within miles of the site.

But the troubles of the commandos was not yet over.  As they attempted to land onshore, the Germans began to unleash small arms fire upon them.  One was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly.  Two others were respectively wounded in the leg and stomach while another slipped on the waterlogged landscape and injured.  Only one commando amongst them managed to scurry up the gully and escape.   He was wet, exhausted, and missing his right boot and sock after being wounded.  His name was Jan Baalsrud--and his story is the stuff of legends.

Baalsrud was shot in the right foot and lost his big toe.  Bereaved by the loss of his comrades and in excruciating pain from his wound, the barefoot man then had to evade fifty German troops in the bitter cold.  As the intense pursuit continued, Baalsrud removed his sidearm from his holster--killing a Gestapo officer and wounding another with a few lucky shots.  The small shootout bought the distressed commando some much needed time.

Baalsrud's journey was far from over.  It would be another two months before he reached the safety of Sweden.  In that time he traversed numerous islands in the archipelagos of Troms.  He received help from strangers who willingly placed their own lives on the line without question.  Despite occasional aid, Jan was not spared from the dangers of this howling wilderness.  He went temporarily snow blind and delirious, starved and dehydrated.  He survived an avalanche, only to be paralyzed from frostbite and gangrene.  Fearing a spread of the infection, Baalsrud removed a blunt knife from his kit and proceeded to cut the gangrene from his swollen toes without antiseptics or anesthesia.  Writhing in pain, Jan later amputated eight out of his nine remaining toes.  During these endless days of isolation, Jan Baalsrud had become a shadow of his former self.  All seemed lost.

But deliverance finally arrived at this trying last minute.  The resistance team of Marius Grönvolld discovered Baalsrud in his sorrowful state and evacuated him.  He was relocated to Sweden by Lapp Reindeer Herders.  At the end of his perilous journey Baalsrud weighed a mere eighty-some pounds.

Returning to Scotland took another seven months of recovery and travels.  Baalsrud soon after wrote a detailed and compelling report to London, where his invaluable information on the region was distributed to the resistance in their war against Nazi occupation.   In 1957, Baalsrud's saga was made into the film Nine Lives.  He passed away in 1988, having lived an amazing life.

Just how does one man survive all this, what sort of mindset must one have to endure such incredible hardship?  I’m looking to make a documentary on this compelling and meaningful story. Please visit my website if you would like to contribute to the cause or learn more about "Operation Martin."  The story is certainly one worth telling.

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