Saturday 17 March 2018

Knut Haugland

Courageous Norwegian resistance fighter, explorer and the last survivor of the Kon-Tiki Pacific ocean expedition

KNUT Haugland, the Norwegian commando and explorer who died on Christmas Day aged 92, took part in two of the most celebrated exploits of the last century -- a daring raid on a suspected Nazi atomic weapons plant in war, and Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition in peace.

Haugland, who was the last survivor of the six-man Kon-Tiki crew, had met Heyerdahl in 1944 at a special forces training camp in England, and was selected to join the expedition on the basis of the experience he acquired during the conflict as a radio operator.

In typically nonchalant fashion, Heyerdahl had written to Haugland, whom he thought was bound to be "fed up hanging around at home by now, and would be glad to go for a little trip on a wooden raft", to invite him on board.

"Am going to cross the Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea Islands were peopled from Peru," the invitation ran. "Will you come? Reply at once." The response was positive.

The six-man crew set off from Callao, Peru, on April 28, 1947 and sailed westwards along the Humboldt current. Their vessel, built using only the materials available in the pre-Columbian period, was the Kon-Tiki -- a raft composed of nine balsa tree trunks, each 45ft long by 2ft in diameter, lashed together with hemp ropes. The explorers lived off water stored in bamboo tubes, coconuts, sweet potatoes, bottle gourds and fruit, and the fish, dolphins and sharks they caught. After sighting islands in French Polynesia, the raft struck a reef on August 7 and was beached on an uninhabited islet off Raroia. Kon-Tiki had travelled a distance of some 3,770 nautical miles in 101 days at an average speed of 1.5 knots. In his bestselling book about the voyage, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahl recalled the radio slowly drying out after being soaked in the shipwreck, and Haugland using the hand-cranked emergency transmitter to send out an "all well, all well" message in time to head off a large-scale search.

Kon-Tiki had not only conquered the vast Pacific Ocean, but rekindled the spirit of adventure in the dismal days after the war: in the subsequent Oscar-winning film, Haugland played himself.

He was involved in two of the expedition's most dramatic incidents. The first came when he was enjoying a leisurely swim near the raft, only for his crewmates to spot "a shadow bigger than himself coming up behind him". A race then ensued between man and shark which ended with Haugland lurching on board just as the beast passed "beneath his stomach". "We gave it a dainty dolphin's head to thank it for not having snapped," Heyerdahl recorded.

The second incident occurred later. When crewman Herman Watzinger fell in, all rescue efforts appeared doomed until Haugland leapt into the water bearing a lifebelt attached to a long rope. The two men then swam towards each other and were hauled on board by the others. "We had a lot of nice things to say to Knut that day, Herman and the rest of us too," wrote Heyerdahl.

Knut Magne Haugland was born on September 23, 1917, at Rjukan in the Norwegian province of Telemark. After qualifying as a military radio operator, in 1940 he saw action against the Germans near Narvik as part of the Norwegian campaign.

After the Germans had overrun his country, Haugland found work in the Hovding Radiofabrik in Oslo, where he started covert work in the Norwegian resistance movement, but in August 1941 he was briefly arrested by Quislings, escaped and fled via Sweden to England.

Haugland joined the so-called Norwegian Independent Company, formed to carry out commando raids in occupied Norway, which became one of the most decorated military forces during the Second World War.

He was selected by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train with three others for Operation Grouse, the raid on a hydroelectric power station where the Allies suspected that heavy water, a key component in the atomic weapons process, was being produced in order to build a Nazi atom bomb.

He parachuted with three others onto the Hardangervidda plateau on October 18, 1942. But a rendezvous with British engineers never materialised after the Britons' gliders crashed and the survivors were tortured and executed.

Haugland was ordered to wait on Hardangervidda, where his team subsisted on moss and lichen and, just in time for Christmas, a wandering reindeer. In sub-zero temperatures he kept in contact with the British using a radio for which he improvised spares using a stolen fishing rod and an old car battery. Every night he would make contact, often unable to control the chattering of his teeth, using the password "three pink elephants".

It was February 1943 before Operation Gunnerside was mounted. Six Norwegian commandos were dropped by parachute and met up with Haugland for a new assault on the hydroelectric plant.

The heavily defended plant was now surrounded by mines and floodlights and accessible only across a single-span bridge over a deep ravine. The Norwegians climbed down the ravine, waded an icy river and climbed a steep hill where they followed a narrow-gauge railway and entered the plant by a cable tunnel and through a window. In the ensuing sabotage, hundreds of kilograms of heavy water was destroyed. Though 3,000 German soldiers searched for the saboteurs, all escaped. The Nazi heavy water project never recovered. In November 1943 he was arrested, only to escape, and his luck and courage held firm again the following year, when, on April 1, one of his transmitters, hidden at the Oslo Maternity Hospital, was located by direction-finding techniques. "The whole building was surrounded by German soldiers with machine-gun posts in front of every single door."

Heyerdahl wrote later: "Knut fought his way with his pistol down from the attic to the cellar, and from there out into the back yard, where he disappeared over the hospital wall with a hail of bullets after him." On the run, Haugland managed again to escape to Britain and did not return until war's end.

He, however, refused to call himself a hero, saying: "I never use that word about myself or my friends. We just did a job." He preferred to remember those who died on the missions that he survived.

In 1951, Knut Haugland married Ingeborg Prestholdt, who survives him along with their three children.

Sunday Independent

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