Reviews Too Late: The Heavy Water War

by wjw on March 30, 2016

Key Art without svastika_{cb0a46a8-f77d-e311-93fe-b8ac6f1685e8}_lgThe Heavy Water War (UK title: The Saboteurs), streamable on Netflix, is a six-episode Norwegian television production that tells a number of parallel stories: that of the Nazi nuclear program, the British and Norwegian saboteurs who tried to stop it, and the management of Norsk Hydro, the company who owned the heavy-water plant at the center of the story.

It’s unusually authentic for a historical project, as good as Band of Brothers in that regard.  Some characters are composites, but the composite characters allow us to follow the story more easily, instead of swapping the historical personalities in and out to the confusion of everybody.

The German research program is shown through the eyes of Werner Heisenberg, who continues to press for nuclear energy to power the future, and views the creation of a bomb as (1) a nuisance, and (2) a necessary means to a glorious end.

Everyone in Heisenberg’s life— Nils Bohr, other scientists, his wife— keep telling him that he needs to flee this project, if not Germany itself, but he continues doggedly with his researches in expectation of the Norwegian heavy water that will allow him to produce the favorable results that the military demands.

The heavy water is a side effect of an industrial process at a power plant in Rjukan, a power plant owned by Norsk Hydro, which— as the film tells us— is an industrial and energy concern with a budget greater than that of the Norwegian government itself.  The company directors, when their country was occupied, set out on a course so cautious and conservative that it might as well have been called collaboration.

The ambiguities of the Rjukan plant director are well examined— living in princely splendor with his wife in a manse adjacent to the plant, completely isolated from normal human contact but with enormous power over his employees and their families.  The sacrifice of an occasional victim to the Germans seems to have been part of the job.

(When he sees the Germans have lost the war, the director contrives to get himself arrested by the Krauts, so that on his release he becomes a hero of the Resistance rather than a despised collaborator, and lives happily ever after.  No one ever said he wasn’t smart.)

The series goes into great detail concerning the various operations directed against the plant— possibly too much detail for most viewers.  The scientist and commando Leif Tronstadt mounted no less than four operations against the plant:

Operation Grouse, in which a four-man team was sent to scout the area, and ended up stranded for months in a frozen mountain cabin, starving and eating boiled grass.

Operation Freshman, in which the saboteurs were wiped out to the last man without accomplishing their mission.

Operation Gunnerside, in which six saboteurs were dropped to rendezvous with the Grouse group.  The two groups succeeded in sneaking into the plant at night and blowing up the heavy water operation, though this resulted in the Germans deciding to move all the equipment and heavy water to Germany, which resulted in the fourth operation, the

SF Hydro Sabotage, in which the ferry containing the heavy water was sunk in the middle of a lake, killing numerous civilians but dealing a colossal blow to Heisenberg’s program.

There were also a series of American bombing raids, which killed lots of Norwegians but didn’t materially affect heavy water production.

The series goes into considerable detail about these various schemes, and if you’re not really the sort to dig these kinds of details, you might prefer the 1960s film Heroes of Telemark, in which all the allied personnel are combined into the glorious person of Kirk Douglas, and the action much compressed.

The series also stars the gorgeous Norwegian scenery, hours and hours of it.  It’s not the least reason to watch.

I rate it four and a half Lugers.  Give it a shot.

TRX March 30, 2016 at 3:31 am

Alas, one nuclear weapon wouldn’t have saved the Reich. Ten might have helped a bit, but Germany needed a *lot* more than heavy water; they were far behind theoretically, and they had almost no equipment at all. They were barely to the point where Churchill passed Tube Alloys off to the Americans.

There are various processes for separating the desirable isotopes from uranium. All of them were either too slow to do them much good or required more industrial infrastructure than Germany had to spare. But assuming they managed to pull a handful of atomic bombs out of their hat, and that they were able to do it a year or so ahead of the Americans…

Germany’s government and command structure was nicely centered in Berlin. But the Allies had London, Moscow, and Rome… and complete redundant command-and-control structures in North Africa and Italy near the end of the war. And then there was America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which were not “one-major-city” countries like most of Europe. Nuking the District of Columbia wouldn’t have hurt the American part of the war effort much; a political bobble as new politicians moved to new offices, but the war machine was spread out and operating almost autonomously. Much the same applied to the Commonwealth countries, including India, which was a bigger part of the war effort than most military historians give it credit for.

As for the heavy water… the “sink a ferry full of civilians” part went down hard the first time I read about it. It came across less as “most likely to succeed” than “sacrifice any number of innocents to avoid any personal risk.” I’ve read other accounts since, but they all still give me that vibe.

wjw March 30, 2016 at 8:06 pm

Well, yes, the Reich’s atomic hopes would probably have foundered without help from the Norwegian underground. But the allied war planners didn’t know that! The only knew that the Germans were planning to ship heavy water out of Ryukan, they knew what it would be used for, and they knew the Germans had talented physicists like Heisenberg and Diebner. They were so afraid of what might happen that they initiated the largest industrial development project in history, Manhattan.

The civilian casualties were terrible, but this was also a war in which thousands of civilians died every single day, mostly at the hands of the Axis.

War is full of casualties like that, unfortunately, made with incomplete information by people who are terrified out of their wits by what might happen if their judgment is wrong.

mearsk March 31, 2016 at 9:47 am

I watched that a few weeks ago and thought it was pretty good. It was a bit slow, but I thought the story was interesting.

Jerry April 1, 2016 at 8:16 pm

I think that the Chapter 6 rendition of the first two verses of “Danny Boy” are the best that I’ve ever heard, even including the minor mistake in the lyrics. Yes, “Heavy Water” was rather slow and at points tedious, but enlightening as well. WJW’s summary was spot-on, insightful, and even more enlightening. His summary provides a context for the mini-series. “Context” literally means “the words surrounding a word.” Mr. Williams’ words, as usual, not only surround their object, but amplify them. I’m so proud of myself for being a fan of his!

wjw April 1, 2016 at 10:20 pm

Jerry, thank you kindly!

spiralx August 11, 2019 at 11:03 am

Werner Heisenberg. A Nazi scientist who not only didn’t seem to care that he was supporting a murderous totalitarian dictatorship in the making, but was also responsible for the premature and unpleasant deaths of slave labourers in their uranium mines. Another example of intellectual stupidity? Or just a fairly nasty piece of work as a person?

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