War hero hailed as NATO flexed muscle

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It was perhaps only fitting that the funeral ceremony for Norway’s last surviving “Hero of Telemark,” Joachim Rønneberg, was held on Tuesday at precisely the same moment that NATO forces training in Norway were putting on a highly public display of strength. The two events differed vastly in character, but both stressed the same message about the need to defend Norway from any threat to its democracy and independence.

Norway’s Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen spoke at World War II hero Joachim Rønneberg’s funeral in Ålesund on Tuesday, while NATO carried mounted a display of strength near Trondheim. The two events, occurring simultaneously, were all about defending Norway, PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), keen to broadcast both events live on national TV, had to make a choice. Rønneberg’s funeral services from the venerable Borgund Church in Ålesund received prime billing on NRK1, the state broadcaster’s main channel. The NATO exercises playing out farther up the coast in Trondheim were aired on NRK2.

It was a remarkable collision for those wanting to follow both events as they unfolded. Rønneberg’s funeral ran much longer than the NATO exercises, though, because of all the strong and moving tributes to the last “Hero of Telemark” who died last week at the age of 99. Rønneberg led the dramatic sabotage action in the winter of 1943 that helped prevent Nazi German occupiers from producing and transporting the heavy water needed by Hitler to make his own atomic bomb.

Sitting in the front row at the church that dates from before the Middle Ages was a man who also had to make a choice on Tuesday because of the two major events going on simultaneously. Norway’s highest military officer, Admiral and Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, opted to attend and speak at Rønneberg’s funeral at a time when he otherwise would likely have been expected to observe the biggest NATO exercise ever held. Given Rønneberg’s stature in Norway and internationally, Bruun-Hanssen seemed to make a wise choice.

Joachim Rønneberg led the famous sabotage action in Telemark during World War II. He’s shown here being hailed by modern-day special forces in 2013, 70 years after Rønneberg and his team became national and international heroes. He died last week at the age of 99.PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

“Joachim was an inspiration for Norway’s entire defense community,” Bruun-Hanssen said, not just the special forces who viewed him as a hero indeed. He characterized Rønneberg as a patriot, a solid officer and champion of a strong defense, who also was a “warm and reflective person, unusually humble when it came to himself.” The operation he led that arguably changed the course of world events has been closely studied for decades after, both within Norway and abroad, and inspired several books, documentaries and films including the classic “Heroes of Telemark” starring Kirk Douglas. Rønneberg reportedly was not impressed by it, but millions of others who saw it around the world were.

“Joachim Rønneberg was a genuine hero who was willing to sacrifice everything for us,” said Finance Minister Siv Jensen, who represented the government at Rønneberg’s funeral. The state has also accorded Rønneberg the honour of covering all funeral expenses, and Crown Prince Haakon was in attendance as well.

Admiral and Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, Government Minister Siv Jensen and Crown Prince Haakon, listening to one of the many tributes made to Joachim Rønneberg at his funeral on Tuesday. Jensen, speaking on behalf of the government, called him “a genuine hero.” PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“He didn’t like being called a war hero, but that’s exactly what he was,” Jensen added. She noted how Rønneberg had led “the most spectacular operation carried out behind enemy lines. It’s now up to us to carry on his fight for freedom and independence, a fight that’s worth continuing.”

Exactly that was being showcased as she spoke, with NATO soldiers putting on a major display of force in the air, at sea and on land. In unusually good weather for this time of year, with sunshine and blue skies framed by snow-capped mountains in the background, Dutch vessels, US bomber jets, Norwegian fighter jets and French solders were among those showing how defending troops can be put ashore by landing craft or dropped by helicopter to fight any invading forces. The demonstration of strength involved more than 3,000 of the 50,000 now in Norway for NATO’s huge Trident Juncture exericise, along with around 20 warships, 42 fighter jets, 12 tanks, helicopters and many other vehicles.

The NATO forces were well aware that Russian officials were able to watch everything as well, as clearly proud military commentators conversing with NRK program hosts suggested any enemy may want “to avoid coming to Norway. This is what we’re able to do.”

While mourners were paying tribute to war hero Joachim Rønneberg, NATO was simulating defense of an invasion just outside Trondheim. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, ambassadors from all NATO countries, military brass, Norway’s defense minister and other invited guests and media were observing it all as well, as the rural area around Byneset outside Trondheim was turned into a war zone. The exercise has caught criticism in Norway and prompted organized protests over the weekend, while Stoltenberg told NRK that the entire exercise “shows that NATO is there for Norway,” should the country ever be invaded again.

Rønneberg would likely have agreed with Stoltenberg, and appreciated the NATO performance. He experienced all too well how Norway was utterly unable to defend itself from invading Nazi German forces in 1940. He was, as John Andrews of the Special Forces Club in London noted while speaking at the funeral, “that special type of person who steps forward” at times of need. Andrews, who traveled from London to pay the club’s respects to Rønneberg, attributed that to “the spirit of resistance,” noting that “governments never win wars, people do.”

Others paying tribute to Rønneberg included the head of NRK, where Rønneberg worked for decades after the war until retiring in 1989. “He understood the power of radio,” said NRK chief Thor Gjermund Eriksen. “He knew that we must remember and understand our history.”

One of Rønneberg’s fellow resistance fighters from World War II, August Rathke, made an especially memorable tribute to the last of the “Heroes of Telemark,” ending with the words, “We’ll meet again.” PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Perhaps the most stirring tribute was made by 92-year-old August Rathke, also a resistance fighter during World War II. He represented Lingeklubben at Rønneberg’s funeral, a club formed by Norwegian members of a British military division set up by Special Operations in July 1941. Formally called Norwegian Independent Company No 1 (NORIC 1), it was known as Kompani Linge named for its first chief, Captain Martin Linge. The operation Rønneberg led at Vemork in Telemark was its most well-known.

Joachim Rønneberg, posing for an unknown photographer durng World War II. PHOTO: Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum

“Til kamp for Gamle Norge! (In defense of Old Norway!)” Rathke declared in a loud, firm voice, speaking without notes. “Always prepared by Linges kompani against the Nazis … we put our lives at stake … we want a country that is saved and free, that is our fathers’ heritage, our king’s motto is mine and yours.” He was quoting from the “Linge song” that also “tells us about Joachim, and the greatness, the content of his life.” Rathke spoke of how Rønneberg set up the Linge Club shortly after the liberation of Norway in May 1945, for veterans of both Kompani Linge and the “Shetlands gang” that risked their lives to smuggle people and goods back and forth from Norway’s west coast to the Shetland Islands in the UK.

Rathke was only 20 when he joined Kompani Linge in early 1945 after taking part in resistance efforts in the Bergen area. He became a member of the club and laid down a wreath Tuesday “as a ‘thank you’ to Joachim, and a final greeting from this world: We’ll meet again!”

To see NRK’s full coverage of Rønneberg’s funeral, click here and scroll all the way down to the video at the bottom of the page (external link to NRK’s website, in Norwegian except for the tribute by John Andrews from the Special Forces Club in London and some remarks by the mayor of Ålesund.)

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund