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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Norway hails its greatest war hero

It didn’t take long before ordinary Norwegians spontaneously started paying their final respects to their country’s greatest war hero, Gunnar Sønsteby, after his death was announced on Thursday afternoon. Sønsteby was Norway’s most decorated citizen and spent much of his life sharing his experiences from World War II with future generations.

Norwegians started placing flowers with messages and lighting candles around the statue of Gunnar Sønsteby shortly after news broke that the war hero had died at the age of 94. PHOTO: Views and News

The mild-mannered man who often carried out his wartime resistance attacks on a bicycle was best known by his code name Kjakan (The Chin). He was behind many of the sabotage actions that caused constant aggravation for the occupying Nazi forces in Norway during the war.

Sønsteby died after several months of illness at the Hovseter nursing home in Oslo on Thursday. He was 94.

“He had a long and rich life, and he meant a lot to many people, including the Royal Family,” said King Harald V on Thursday afternoon. He and Queen Sonja received word of Sønsteby’s death while in Poland, where they’re in the midst of their first state visit of the year.

“Sønsteby was Norway’s most decorated resistance fighter, but he did much more than that,” King Harald told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “He constantly sent out the message ‘never again,’ and spent so much time speaking in schools.” Several other Norwegian officials, including Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide, noted how Sønsteby was committed to passing on much knowledge and wisdom from the war to the next generations.

Gunnar Sønsteby, 1918-2012. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Sønsteby was noticeably absent from Liberation Day ceremonies earlier this week, and it had been reported earlier that he was seriously ill. He was far from forgotten during observances on May 8th,  however, when the government now also honours Norwegian veterans. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg made special mention of Sønsteby in his remarks at Akershus Fortress and Castle on Tuesday, while Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen presided over the unveiling of another statue to Sønsteby, this time in his hometown of Rjukan in Telemark County, where resistance fighters pulled off perhaps the most spectacular act of sabotage that’s widely credited with preventing Hitler from developing an atomic bomb.

“We have lost one of our greatest resistance fighters and heroes,” Stoltenberg said on the national nightly news on NRK, which was expanded to pay tribute to Sønsteby. Stoltenberg said he would also remember Sønsteby “as warm, kind, with lots of humour” and a man “who always wanted to look to the future,” while not forgetting the past.

Both Stoltenberg and Eide had meetings with Sønsteby as late as this winter, to discuss defense policy. “He was still very engaged, very interested,” Stoltenberg said. adding that “it was natural to thank him (at the Liberation Day ceremonies earlier this week) for all he had done for this country.”

Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sønsteby was born on January 11, 1918 in Rjukan but his family moved to Oslo in the 1930s. He had started working as an accountant before the war but later became the leader of the so-called “Oslo Gang” along with another late resistance fighter, Max Manus, after German forces invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. He was an active saboteur, continually frustrating the Germans who never managed to capture him during the five long years of occupation.

One of Gunnar Sønsteby's many false IDs during World War II. He said later that because he looked so "average," he could better elude the Gestapo. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

He was a master of disguise, best known as “Kjakan” but also operating under the code names of “Agent 24,” “Erling Fjeld” and dozens of other identities. He was the contact for all special operations agents in eastern Norway during the war and among his daring acts of sabotage was the bombing of the forced labour office in Oslo, which halted the Nazis’ plans to send more young Norwegian men to the Eastern Front.

He was also behind the theft of 75,000 ration books to put more pressure on the occupiers, along with the destruction of sulfuric acid manufacturing facilities west of Oslo. He most recently confirmed his involvement in the bombing of Victoria Terrasse in Oslo, where the Gestapo maintained its headquarters and where Norway’s Foreign Ministry is located today. That attack, on New Year’s Eve 1944, cost the lives of 78 Norwegian civilians but was viewed as important in breaking down the Gestapo’s power in Norway at the time.

Shortly after the the death of Norwegian war hero Gunnar Sønsteby, flowers adorn his statue, which stands near another of Sir Winston Churchill, seen in the background. PHOTO: Views and News

Sønsteby studied at the Harvard Business School in the US after the war and launched a private business career after returning to Norway. He spent much of his time, however, speaking in schools all over the country and promoting class trips to former concentration camps on the European continent. He also was a frequent speaker before various organizations and was always keen to share his wartime experiences.

King Harald knew Sønsteby since he was a child returning from exile during the war. When Sønsteby turned 90, King Harald attended a reception in his honor at the Akershus Fortress and Castle, which also is the site of Norway’s Resistance Museum.

Sønsteby told newspaper Dagsavisen last spring that he was optimistic about the future, not least Norway’s democracy. That was before Norway was hit by terrorist attacks on July 22 that were carried out by a young Norwegian man, to which Norwegians responded with rose parades, song and spoken commitment to their democracy.

A steady stream of Norwegians spontaneously paid homage to Sønsteby well into Thursday evening, despite a steady, cold rain. They left flowers and hand-written notes at his statue at Solli Plass in Oslo, and lit candles. One note addressed to “Kjære (Dear)  Gunnar” in a child’s handwriting, thanked Sønsteby “for everything,” and proclaimed that “I am your biggest fan.”

Sønsteby had many other fans. “He was an outstanding man,” Prime Mininster Stoltenberg told NRK. “He wrote history.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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