The two RAAF pilots who helped try to stop Hitler’s bomb

On March 15, Australia’s SBS television channel will air the first part of the six-part series The Heavy Water War, a drama co-produced by Norway/Britian/Denmark that recounts the Nazi Atomic programme – or more specifically, three elements of that programme:

1. The Nazi programme to build the bomb.
2. The owners of a Norwegian plant at the Vermork Hydroelectric Plant which produced deuterium oxide, or heavy water. The plant’s supply of heavy water to the Nazis was critical to their enrichment of radioactive materials needed to build an atomic weapon.
3. The joint British-Norwegian commando raid to destroy the Heavy Water plant in Norway

I’ve yet to see The Heavy Water War, but it’s coming with quite some critical acclaim, so I will catch it on SBS On Demand  when it becomes available. For folks in not-Australia, consult your local programming for where you can watch it.

It’s not entirely an uncovered chapter of the War – the Heroes of Telemark gave it a screen treatment in 1965, and there’s been plenty of books written to the mission. The Allied mission to destroy Vermork typically focuses on two areas – how essential the plant was to the Nazi atomic program, and the extreme efforts that Allies went to stop it. The latter topic deserves some attention, especially seeing as two Australians  played a key role in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the plant.

Vemork_Hydroelectric_Plant_1935

The Vermork Hydroelectric Plant in 1935. The front building was the site of a heavy water production plant. (WikiCommons)

For the Allies, the key issue in destroying the plant was its location in mountainous terrain in southern end of Norway, occupied by German forces. To destroy Vermork would either take an airborne bombing raid; or a land-borne strike with Sappers. The initial Allied  efforts centred on the latter, beginning with Operation Grouse, where the British Special Operations Executive trained four Norwegians for an airdropped insertion to reconnoiter the plant. This delivery was carried out successfully in October 1942.

The next step would be to land a party of trained Sappers in Norway who could contact the Operation Grouse team, infiltrate the plant’s defences, destroy the equipment that produced heavy water, and then ski to safety in neutral Sweden. These Sappers trained at facilities across Britain before launching their raid on the evening of 19 November 1942, under the name Operation Freshman.

To get to Norway, the Sappers would travel in a pair of Horsa Gliders, with each Glider being able to carry 15 passengers (along with the necessary explosives and survival equipment required by the Sappers). Each Glider would be towed by a four-engine Handley Page Halifax, a bomber in the service of the Royal Air Force which had found use as a glider tug on a number of long-range missions throughout the war. This would be the first time the Gliders would be used by the British for an airborne operation during the war.

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A rope is attached between a Horsa (background) and the tail of a Halifax (foreground).

One of the Horsa Glider in Operation Freshman was flown by a pair of Royal Australian Air Force pilots – Pilot Officer Norman Davies, 28 years old, of Melbourne; and Pilot Officer Herbert Fraser, 28 years old, of Bendigo.

I’ve made a very cursory look for information on both of these gentlemen, but have turned up very little beyond the information about their family, their service numbers, and sadly, their fatal mission.

 

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A Horsa is towed into the air by a Halifax

 

For the time, Gliders were considered an effective and inexpensive means of delivering troops in large quantities. Transport aircraft as we known them today hadn’t quite evolved at that point of the war; the Douglas C-47 Dakota was available to the Royal Air Force in limited quantities, and most transports of the time lacked the ability to operate onto semi-prepared or improvised landing strips with large items of equipment. Gliders were light and irrecoverable, which increased the options for where they could land and disembark troops. Today, the airlift role of Gliders is typically undertaken by helicopters or fixed-wing transports with better rough-field performance. Alternatively, today’s transport aircraft can airdrop troops and equipment by parachute with greater effect than what was possible in 1942.

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An illustration of the Horsa’s size.  With a wingspan of 27m, an empty Horsa weighed 3800kg, or 6900kg fully-laden.

The Operation Freshman mission was risky. To get to Norway, it would require a five-and-a-half flight from Scotland, pulled through the air by a Halifax. Fuel restrictions meant the Halifaxes would need to fly at a constant speed and altitude, hauling the Horsa through any weather or turbulence they encountered during their journey. Unpressurised and limited to a speed of 240km/h, the Horsa’s crew would have to hold position slightly above the Halifax until the tow cable was ‘cut’ at the destination.

HORSA ALBERMARLE

The view of a Horsa being towed by an Albermale transport aircraft

The Horsa’s crew would then glide from 10,000 feet – at night and in mountainous terrain – to a lake-side clearing, where the Glider would land on belly-mounted skids and come to a stop where they lay. Today’s transport aircraft are guided by radar altimeters, night-vision and infra-red equipment, and other guidance systems. Davies and Fraser would have one chance to land their Sappers at their destination. Once on the ground, the two RAAF pilots would have had to accompany the Sappers on the raid, or attempt to escape to Sweden themselves (more than likely the former). This would probably make them the first two Australians servicemen to be deliberately landed in Occupied Europe – although I’m happy to be corrected.

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The rudimentary flying controls of a Horsa. The towing aircraft supplied the power, navigation, and radio contact; the Horsa’s pilot just had to keep their Glider in the air behind the tug.

With the hindsight of history, the results of Operation Freshman are fairly predictable, even if the events surrounding the mission are somewhat unclear. What we do know is that the communication line between the Halifax and the RAAF-crewed Horsa broke down during the flight. Over Norway, heavy cloud and snow prohibited efforts to find the landing site, which was further complicated in a breakdown in the radio equipment used to pinpoint where the Halifax crew needed to cut the Horsa free of its towline. Before they could return home, the Halifax crashed into a mountain at 10.45pm, killing all those on board the aircraft immediately.

The shock of this crash released Davies and Fraser’s glider from its rope, but only allowed them sufficient time to make a crash landing. Both Australians were killed in the impact, along with one of their passengers. A number of those on board who survived the crash made their way to a nearby house, but ultimately all remaining Sappers from that Horsa were collected by the Germans within a few hours, and summarily executed.

The other Halifax/Horsa combo faired little better – the icing conditions caused their tow cable to break near the target, forcing down the Horsa and leading the Halifax to return to Scotland. The Horsa’s crew and several Sappers died in the crash; the remainder were captured and, days later, executed by the Gestapo.

Whilst the Germans were now aware of the Allies interest in destroying the heavy water plant, it did not deter future raids. In Operation Gunnerside, Halifaxes returned in February 1943, this time foregoing the Horsas and carrying Sappers themselves. Delivered by parachute into Norway, the Sappers linked up with the team from Operation Grouse. They mounted a successful attack on the plant, and subsequently escaped into Sweden. Later in the war, raids by United States Army Air Force bombers would largely destroy the plant.

In the context of the War, the effort to destroy the plant at Vermork is viewed as a success, preventing the Nazis from having a supply of heavy water that would have allowed them to construct an atomic weapon. Within that success however is contained a failure, one that would ultimately inform the conduct of the follow-on raid, not to mention future airborne operations conducted by Allies later in the war.

Operation Freshman perhaps illustrated the limitations inherent of the Horsa Glider, which would later go on to successfully deliver Allied troops and vehicles into Occupied France on D-Day; and to mixed results during Operation Market Garden, an effort to land Allied paratroops in Holland with the purpose of seizing bridges along the Rhine (which was ultimately a failure).

The Heavy Water War does cover Operation Freshman briefly. The memory of Davies and Fraser, along with the Sappers who died in their mission on 19-20 November 1942, survives in a war cemetary in Norway. Quite a number of historians, preservation groups, and other associations have also documented the fateful mission. I can’t help but wonder what the two Australians thought they were getting themselves into as they climbed into a Horsa Glider loaded with Sappers and explosives, their lives taking them across the world from Victoria to Scotland, and putting them on a mission to stop one of the most destructive weapons in history from being created by the Axis.

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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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