Valor Friday

| April 29, 2022

Captain Gunnar Sønsteby

On 9 April 1940, the Nazi German Wehrmacht launched an invasion of Norway. This was just a few months after the Invasion of Poland which set the world to war, just days before the Battle of France that would see that country fall to German control, which itself was followed by Operation Barbarossa (the Invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis). Book-ended by these much larger and more consequential battles, the Invasion and Occupation of Norway can easily be overlooked.

The arctic country of Norway has always been slight in population, particularly given its size. At the outset of the invasion, she only had 50,000 men in uniform to defend the homeland against a force of Germans, emboldened by their significant Blitzkrieg victories, that outnumbered them two-to-one. Strategically, Norway was important to the Germans for their raw materials, namely iron but also for oil and lubricants.

In response, the Allies, to which Norway was allied, sent a contingent of about 38,000 British, French, and Polish troops to reinforce the Norweigians. It wasn’t enough. Two months after the invasion started, the Allied expeditionary force and as many Norwegians as possible, were evacuated from the country. This included King Haakon IV and his son the crown prince who would set up a government-in-exile.

As would happen in other occupied countries, the people of Norway immediately set about creating an underground network of spies and direct-action operatives to thwart the Nazis’ plans. In addition to the iron ore the German war machine needed, Norway became a large source for the heavy water used in nuclear/atomic research. Resistance spotters played key roles in the sinking of the famed Kreigsmarine battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz.

This was in contrast to the Nazi-puppet government famously run by a man whose very name has become synonymous with collaboration and treason, that of Vidkun Quisling.

Among the men of the resistance movement was Gunnar Sønsteby. He was part of the direct-action wing of the resistance and conducted highly dangerous sabotage operations.

Only 22 years old when the Germans took over his homeland, Sønsteby was born in Rjukan. He remained there throughout his youth, graduating primary school at Rjukan. Several of his classmates also would later join the resistance movement. One of them was Knut Haugland, who after his heroic exploits in the war would be on Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki (the 1947 expedition that proved South Americans could have sailed across the Pacific to the Polynesian Islands in pre-Columbian times).

After graduating from High School Sønsteby attended university where he completed his compulsory military service. Working a series of odd jobs and employed as an accountant in 1940, he watched as his country was invaded. After two months of fighting, the country surrendered. Sønsteby soon joined the resistance movement.

He initially fought in a ski-borne infantry formation and participated in underground press. Sønsteby was then brought into the British Intelligence Service’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Stockholm in 1941. The SOE was the British inspiration for the American OSS, which became the CIA in the post-war years.

Sweden was neutral before and during World War II. While the Nazis and Russians invaded and fought over all the territory around them, they remained free. Though the Swedes did allow the Wehrmacht to use Swedish railways between Norway and Finland as the Nazis reinforced the Finns against the Russians. Later in the war, the Swedes allowed the Allies to use their air bases.

At the SOE, Sønsteby would be known as “Agent 24”. Later he earned the codename, “The Chin.” In 1942, while in Stockholm, he was arrested and detained for three months by Swedish police. Somehow he was able to secure his release by convincing them he was not the Gunnar Sønsteby they wanted.

Sønsteby then returned to Norway, where he was captured by the Gestapo. Escaping the Nazi secret police, he fled to Sweden. From Sweden, Sønsteby went to England where he received additional irregular military training. He and his comrades would, upon their return to Norway, be organizing, advising, and training the local resistance forces. Sønsteby and his men would also be the resistance’s link to the outside world, coordinating with the Allies.

Parachuting into occupied Norway in October 1943 he joined and coordinated with the Milorg (military organization) which was the organized resistance in Norway. Later that same month, Sønsteby took command of the new “Oslo Gang” of saboteurs.

Ranked as a captain, Sønsteby was also the SOE point man for all their agents in eastern Norway and head of the Norwegian Independent Company 1. Among the many covert actions undertaken, Sønsteby’s men stole the plates for printing Norwegian kroner from the Norwegian Central Bank, sending them to the government-in-exile in London.

Sønsteby’s Oslo Gang was a group of ten irregulars that was the dominant sabotage group in the Norwegian capital from May to September 1944.

Their first sabotages were against the organizations that would register young men and women for labor duties. On three successive operations they twice destroyed the machines used in sorting documents and then destroyed the office itself.

Over the summer, thousands of young people fled Oslo and went into the woods to avoid being drafted for labor details. The Nazis, in retribution, attempted to deny their food by withholding ration cards. In response, Sønsteby’s Oslo Group conducted an armed robbery in which they held up a truck filled with ration cards. They liberated 75,000 ration cards in the operation.

In June 1944 Sønsteby and his men destroyed two sulfur acid factories, denying the Germans a critical component for explosives. In August they attacked a bus factory, destroying 25 Messerschmidt fighters and 150 aircraft engines. They even re-damaged a locomotive that had been sent to Oslo for repair.

After D-Day, Sønsteby focused his efforts on bombing railways, preventing the Germans from expeditiously moving troops back west. They also took out a fuel storage depot in Oslo harbor, destroying oil and specialized lubricants needed by the enemy.

For Sønsteby, operating right under the nose of the Gestapo necessitated he become a master of disguise. He operated under a series of aliases, as many as 30 or 40. It wasn’t until near the end of the war that the Germans even learned his true identity. Even with that, they were never able to capture him.

Sønsteby credits his ability to evade capture by doing much of his work himself and on procuring his own identification documents. Sønsteby was a “master forger”. It was said he “could replicate the signature of Nazi police chief Karl Marthinsen.”

Through his time in occupied Norway he used between 20 and 30 different safe houses. He never stayed in one location for longer than a couple months and was at some for as few as a night.

Sønsteby was described as having nerves of steel. He said, “I was so cold, that some time I didn’t react the way I should have.” As punishment for his elicit activities, the Nazis arrested Sønsteby’s father, holding him in custody for almost two years. From February 1943 until December 1944, during Sønsteby’s most active time antagonizing the German occupiers.

Is coldness is probably best exhibited by his response to the question of assassinations of informants. At 80 years of age, with decades to reflect on it, he replied quite simply, “Of course wrong decisions were made, also by the Resistance Movement. But one must remember that war was going on. It did happen that we had to kill without being sure that the person concerned was an informant. But the decisions were correct—there and then.”

By war’s end, the Oslo Group’s ten or so men had suffered three men killed in action. Gregers Gram, Edvard Tallaksen, and Roy Nielsen were all killed by the Germans. Some of the remaining men served as guards when Crown Prince Olav returned to Norway from exile on 13 May 1945. They also served as honor guards upon the return of King Haakon VII when he too returned triumphantly the following month.

Sønsteby himself led the cortege for the Crown Prince on his return and served as the Crown Prince’s bodyguard at the homecoming of the King and the rest of the royal family.

After the war, Sønsteby refused offers from both the British and Norwegian governments’ intelligence services to continue serving. “I didn’t want any more war,” he explained. “I had had enough. I’d lost five years of my life.”

Instead Sønsteby made his way to Boston, worked for the government, and attended Harvard Business School. He then went to work for Esso Oil Company, then returned to Norway in 1949. He worked in many high-level positions in private business before he retired in later life.

After retiring, Sønsteby would give speeches in the hopes of passing on the lessons of the war to future generations. He said of this mission, “As long as I live, I will tell the important facts. The historians can analyze, but I was there.” He was considered a living encyclopedia by some, and would engage in fiery debates with those who equated our modern democracies with the autocratic governments he fought. Harald Stanghelle wrote that Sønsteby was said to have no stomach for “historyless historians and ignorant journalists.” Stanghelle also said that Sønsteby minimized his own contributions to the war, saying that the merchant marines had done more for the liberation of Norway than he had.

At Sønsteby’s death in 2012 at the age of 94 he was given a state funeral. In attendance were the King of Norway, the country’s Prime Minister, the current and seven past Ministers of Defence, and the Chief of Defence. Twenty-four soldiers of the King’s Guard served as the honor guard.

War Cross with Sword (Sønsteby’s medal had three swords on it)

Sønsteby’s accomplishments during the war led to many awards and decorations. He was the first, and so far only, man to receive Norway’s highest award for combat bravery three times. He received the War Cross with Sword and then received two additional swords to represent two subsequent awards. The War Cross with Sword is awarded for “Extraordinary brave actions or extraordinary leadership during combat.” Only 290 War Crosses with Sword have ever been awarded. Many of those (126) have been awarded to non-Norwegians. Which means that Sønsteby is one of only 164 Norwegians to have received the honor.

Commander’s Neck Medal of the Order of St Olav

Sønsteby was a Commander of the Order of St Olav. This is the highest civil honor of the Kingdom of Norway and ranks behind only the War Cross with Swords in order of precedence. He received the Police Cross of Honor, the Defence Cross of Honor, as well as several service medals and royal anniversary medals.

Distinguished Service Order

From the government of the United Kingdom, Sønsteby was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. The DSO at the time was the second-level award for combat gallantry for commissioned officers. The UK also gave him service medals such as the 1939-1945 Star and the Defence Medal.

Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm

The United States gave Sønsteby the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm. The Medal of Freedom was the highest civil honor of the Executive Branch of the US government. It could be awarded without palm or with bronze, silver, or gold palm. The palms are considered to be higher grades of the medal. The Medal of Freedom was replaced in 1961 by the similarly named Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) awarded Sønsteby the SOCOM Medal, which recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions to, and in support of, special operations. He was the first foreign recipient and to date is one of only six non-American awardees.

Sønsteby was survived by his wife Anne-Karin and three daughters. Anne-Karin passed away in 2020 at the age of 88. She had worked at the Norwegian Home Front Museum. No doubt educating people on the amazing exploits of her husband.

Sønsteby is remembered as Norway’s most-decorated man of World War II, their greatest hero of the resistance, and is one of Norway’s most revered military figures. Monuments to his honor can be found in several places in the country.

Category: Historical, Real Soldiers, Valor, We Remember

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Anonymous

Hear, hear! In short:
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Last edited 3 months ago by Anonymous
President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Could hear them coming down the hall

USAFRetired

Mason

Thanks much for this weeks installment. It is a damn shame that the traitor Quisling name is better known than Capt Sonsteby

2banana

So then…why a bank robbery to steal 75,000 ration cards?

“Sønsteby credits his ability to evade capture by doing much of his work himself and on procuring his own identification documents. Sønsteby was a “master forger”. It was said he “could replicate the signature of Nazi police chief Karl Marthinsen.”