The Heavy Water War
Beating Hitler to the Bomb
- John Sadler
15th January 2024
During the course of the Second World War, the Allies mounted a series of attempts to prevent Germany from manufacturing heavy water by utilising hydroelectric plants in occupied Norway. These efforts comprised a mix of bomber and commando raids. The overall aim was stop Nazi Germany building a nuclear bomb. In fact, Hitler was never as close as the Allies thought, but the idea that his regime could construct and deploy a device was the ultimate Domesday scenario, one that would have tilted the balance in favour of the Nazis. The mere threat might have been sufficient to force a negotiated peace with the perceived reality of a Nazi bomb hanging over the world like a nuclear-powered sword of Damocles.
Production, and therefore Allied aims, centred on the Vemork Power Station standing by the Rjukan Waterfall at Telemark. A series of daring raids, Operations Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside, neutralised the plant’s capacity. In Operation Freshman, every single glider-borne paratrooper was either captured or killed. In February 1943, a force of SOE-trained Norwegian commandos succeeded in sabotaging the plant’s production capacity. Further manufacturing effort was abandoned, and the Nazis attempted to transport the heavy water they had about the ferry SF 'Hydro'. The Norwegians managed to sink the vessel in the deep waters of Lake Tinn. The stakes in any special forces raids in history have never been higher.