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Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Operation Gunnerside

The threat of an atomic Germany was the driving force behind the race for the Allies to develop their own nuclear bomb capability. It also drove to them to conceive of Operation Gunnerside, a clandestine operation to destroy the heavy water plant at Vemork, Norway. Heavy water is a necessary component for efficient nuclear fission reactions, and thus was highly prized by the Germans, who had invaded and taken over Norway in April of 1940. The Vemork Plant was the only factory capable of producing heavy water, and thus became a crucial target for the Allies. Operation Gunnerside, which was undertaken on February 27, 1943, has been called the most successful act of sabotage of World War II. To read a full article on the archaeology of the site, go to “The Secrets of Sabotage.”  

  • The men of Operation Gunnerside were Norwegians who had been trained by the British Special Operations Executive at Drumintoul Lodge in Scotland’s Cairngorms Mountains. All the men returned to the United Kingdom from their mission safely.
  • To celebrate the upcoming seventy-fifth anniversary of Gunnerside, archaeologists from the Telemark County Council began a project to both excavate the heavy water rooms at the Vemork Plant, which had been closed since 1971, and then demolished six years later. Their first challenge was to remove the nearly 15,000 cubic feet of building rubble more than 30 feet deep that lay on top of the plant.
  • The heavy water production facilities were located in the plant’s basement, and the saboteurs had very little time to plant their explosives before they detonated and to escape the room. They exited using this staircase that was cleared by archaeologists working their way down to the basement.
  • Although Gunnerside destroyed Vemork’s heavy water production capacity, as well as its supply of heavy water, it was only temporarily out of commission. The Germans rebuilt the heavy water room and the cells used to isolate the liquid, seen here. Nevertheless,  the delay caused by the rebuilding after Gunnerside put the German production schedule behind, and they were unable to manufacture a nuclear weapon before the war came to an end.

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