On the morning of April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Norway (and Denmark).
Norway was a neutral country and to this effect did not have a strong military defence. The takeover was swift and efficient. The Norwegians were on their own, with their bigger Scandinavian neighbour refusing to offer any assistance. This would cause a rift in relations between Norway and Sweden for decades to come, although in their defence Sweden did take on tens of thousands of fleeing Norwegian refugees.
The occupation of Norway was strategically important since Germany depended on the Swedes for steel and the easiest point of access was across the North Sea via the coastal Norwegian town of Narvik. And of course, having a stronghold on Norway meant a successful attack bid on the UK would be feasible.
However, while nice in theory, all this sparked a resistance movement initiated by a group of ever-resourceful students all in their late teens and early 20s.
They set up base in a tiny hidden room, tucked away three levels up, in an old warehouse shed on the wharf here in Bergen. The room remains there today, and their intelligence headquarters has been painstakingly restored exactly as it stood 70 years earlier.
It’s now Norway’s smallest museum.
The room is still, even now, impossibly difficult to find. The Germans couldn’t find it after repeated sweeps, and likewise today, with the secret door closed, it simply cannot be seen.
The door was thick solid timber, and one of the students engineered an ingenious locking mechanism. Unlocking required using a rusty bent inconspicuous wire hanging nearby and connecting it to two similar inconspicuous ‘nails’ on the door. This closed the electrical circuit on the other side and caused the door to unlock.
The resistance fighters named themselves the Theta Gruppen. They set up an elaborate network of spies, reporting the movements of German naval ships, and other militaristic actions back to the UK. They had a telegraph radio, and an elaborate encryption system, using a song-book as the one-time pad – song numbers and verses representing letters – no enigma machine for them!
Their most significant finding was of battleship, Admiral von Tirpitz, stealthily making its way up the Norwegian coast.
The Germans were able to ascertain there was an intelligence base in Bryggen, and made a full sweep multiple times, but simply could not find the room. Bryggen comprises a series of large wooden ware-houses several levels high with a complex staircases between them. Finally on the last sweep the Germans sent men up on the roofs of the buildings. These roofs are hundreds of years old, and while they can take snow, weren’t really designed for German troopers. One of them fell through the roof, right into the centre of the intelligence room.
The game was up.
After the German’s discovery the group was disbanded, some fleeing to the UK and the less fortunate ones were arrested, and set off to labour camps. Three would die there.
However they continued to operate throughout the war.
In 1983 the original group came together to open the museum.
Today we received a full historical account by the son of one of the original Theta group.
It’s an amazing place to visit.
If you can find it.