Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Deluge and Cronkite
Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of The Longest Winter
–Martin Dugard, #1 New York Times bestselling author
–Scott McEwen, #1 New York Times bestselling author of American Sniper
SABOTAGE: THE MISSION TO DESTROY HITLER’S ATOMIC BOMB
A stunning adventure involving Nazis, nukes, fighting, failure, and everyday heroes, from the author of the award-winning The Nazi Hunters.
Neal Bascomb delivers another nail-biting work of nonfiction for young adults in this incredible true story of spies and survival.
The invasion begins at night, with German cruisers slipping into harbor, and soon the Nazis occupy all of Norway. They station soldiers throughout the country. They institute martial rule. And at Vemork, an industrial fortress high above a dizzying gorge, they gain access to an essential ingredient for the weapon that could end World War II: Hitler’s very own nuclear bomb.
When the Allies discover the plans for the bomb, they agree Vemork must be destroyed. But after a British operation fails to stop the Nazis’ deadly designs, the task falls to a band of young Norwegian commandos. Armed with little more than skis, explosives, and great courage, they will survive months in the snowy wilderness, elude a huge manhunt, and execute two dangerous missions. The result? The greatest act of sabotage in all of World War II.
“This is an exciting and impeccably researched story of science, spies, and commando raids — page-turning non-fiction at its best.” –Steve Sheinkin, Newberry Honor award winner and author of BOMB: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
“Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress is a riveting, high-action World War II thriller with nothing less than the fate of Planet Earth on the line. Just imagine the horror if Hitler had gotten the atomic bomb? Written with great verve and historical acumen, Bascomb hits the mark of excellence. Highly recommended!” –Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Deluge and Cronkite
“What would have happened if Hitler had managed to develop nuclear weapons…? In The Winter Fortress, Neal Bascomb brilliantly tells the extraordinary true story of arguably the most important and daring commando raid of WWII: how an amazing band of men on skis made sure Hitler never got to drop the ultimate bomb.” –Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of The Longest Winter
Author Q & A
What inspired you to write this story?
Richard Rhodes. Many years ago, I devoured his history of the making of the atomic bomb. Ever since, I’ve tried to find my way into writing about it. At one point, I considered writing a novel, specifically focusing on an American plot to kill Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was at the center of the Nazi program. This never took off, however. Then I switched to an idea about a television series. Set at Los Alamos, it would be a fascinating drama. Then I learned a show was already in the works. Then I recalled this little vignette about the sabotage of Vemork. I investigated—again thinking it might serve as the good basis of a novel. I investigated more and realized that it was such a rich story that I’d be a fool not to write in the way I know best how, as a non-fiction narrative. Boy, I’m glad I did.
What surprised you the most in researching and writing?
From the start, I thought this was a story of action: commandos parachuting into enemy-held territory, a perilious attack on a highly-secured compound. In some ways, a historical version of the kind of operation that Navy SEALS are often heralded for executing. Yes, there are definitely moments of such high drama, but the narrative is much more character focused than I suspected it would be. This is really a tale about how a ragtag group of soldiers survive together in the wild for months at a time. How do they maintain their cohesion and morale? How do they persist in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. It’s a fascinating study of character and teamwork.
What is unique and new in this history?
In almost every telling of the attacks on Vemork, the focus centers on the saboteurs and the British officers who led from London. Scarce mention–and at times, none at all–is made of Dr. Leif Tronstad. From start to finish, he was the mastermind of the operation, and his story is one of the most dramatic ones of the whole history. It’s astonishing he has been given such short shrift. I would say the same of Einar Skinnarland, who was an underground spy for over three years. Without his intelligence and assistance, these actions would have been a failure. I’m proud to have reestablished their position in the history, and I was only able to do that thanks to voluminous primary materials (thousands of pages of diaries, letters, reports), some of it that has never seen the light of day, given to me by the Tronstad and Skinnarland family. Further, I made great steps into establishing the Germans side of this story, specifically with Dr. Kurt Diebner. When folks think of the Nazi bomb program, they think Heisenberg. Compared to Diebner, he was a bit player.
What, if any, relevance does The Winter Fortress have to today?
There’s no doubt that special operations forces are being called on more and more by armed forces around the world. And make no mistake, the Kompani Linge commandos were the predecessors of the Navy SEALS and their like. In addition, the threat of new nuclear states persists. Think Iran. Think North Korea. Of course, the Allies were at war with Nazi Germany, so any and all action was warranted to eliminate their atomic bomb program. But how, when, with what planning and intelligence, and at what sacrifice, was this action taken by the Special Operation Executive and its Norwegian agents. One imagines that similar questions/scenarios are being hashed out by the American government in case one state or another (or perhaps more frighteningly, some rogue organization) obtains a bomb. Perhaps it’s worth looking at the decision tree that led to the attacks on Vemork.
What was the most fascinating experience you had while working on this book?
Let’s start with the oddest. How about wearing the wool longjohns of one of the saboteurs on a cross-country ski tour through the Vidda? Turns out we’re the same size. Courtesy of the Hauglands and other generous hosts, I spent a couple weeks in Rjukan, retracing the steps of the saboteurs, living in old cabins buried in snow, firing the same weapons they used at the time. My little commando course in Norway. Can’t say I’m much of a cross-country skier, but I definitely won some idea of the conditions they faced in wintertime—and the sheer beauty of the area as well. Couple this with burying into archives at the Vemork plant that few, if anybody, had ever seen was also exhilirating.
Why do you write these kinds of stories?
On the surface, my choice of subjects is definitely a grab bag. Architects in a skyscraper war. Running the first four-minute mile. A Russian mutiny on the Black Sea. High School kids building robots. A hunt for a Nazi war criminal. But, if one looks deeper, each of these stories center on individuals who set an almost impossible goal and defy the odds in achieving it. A long time ago I read a 1920s book called I DARE YOU by William Danforth. It was a very early rah-rah, you can do anything kind of self-help book. In hindsight, many of its tenets are a bit silly, but the book taught me how much we can be moved by stories. Those I tell inspire me—and I hope they inspire others too.