What was it like to be a teenager in Norway during the war? Of course, there are many different answers to this question and Anne’s story is just one; a 16 year old girl who was close to the dramatic action on April 9th, experienced the occupation and finally had to flee to Sweden.
The war brought her together with an American who took her to the United States after their marriage in 1947.
She has lived in America almost 60 years but makes frequent summer visits to Norway and maintains close contact with the Scandinavian-American community in the Washington area.
She found that people often asked her about her experiences during the war so she decided to write them down, age remembering youth, – and then used the manuscript for speeches she gives to local groups and clubs
Here is what she wrote:
The most significant day in my life was perhaps April 9 1940 – the day Nazi Germany invaded Norway. I was 16 years old.
My most vivid memory is of being on a train heading for home in Oslo and looking out onto the main road into the capital. There, marching 10 or 12 abreast were German soldiers wearing helmets, long coats and tall, black boots and with rifles over their shoulders. They were marching towards Oslo – my city – to take it by force, just as they were about to occupy all of Norway! They wanted Norway for its ice-free harbours which they needed for their submarines.
It was the moment of truth, because Norway had been a peaceful and neutral nation. Not much money had been spent on defence or arms and, as a small nation we couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to invade us.
In Europe, Hitler’s war was raging and I was attending a small school for girls on the Oslofjord outside Horten, a city about 100 kilometres south of Oslo. In the middle of the night on that fateful April 9, I woke up to the sound of shooting. A big German battleship on its way up the fjord towards Oslo was shooting at a small Norwegian fortress called Oscarsborg.
Oscarsborg was built on a small, hilly island situated in a strategic position in the middle of a narrow section of the Oslofjord. Ocarsborg’s responsibility was delay and possibly stop any enemy intruder from sailing up the fjord to Oslo. That night it successfully damaged and sank the ‘Blücher’, a German battleship carrying crack troops and high-ranking officers and administrators whose task was to take over the Norwegian government. Two of the cannons that sank the ‘Blücher’ were called Moses and Aaron. At the turn of the 20th century, none other than my grandfather, Colonel Georg Stang, then commander of Oscarsborg, was responsible for placing them there!
We girls were told to leave the school immediately since we were so close to the battle zone. We were told to go up into the woods where they thought it would be safer for us. We dressed quickly and left the school. In the woods we encountered German soldiers who had somehow managed to sneak in. (I was later told that the German soldiers had hidden in German ‘merchant’ ships and then were secretly let ashore during the night.) The soldiers said, “Don’t be afraid, we are going to save you from the British!” The German soldiers were, of course, misinformed, because there were no British troops in Norway and Britain was no threat to us.
The German soldiers did not harm us and we were allowed to move on. Further in the woods we met two small groups of Norwegian soldiers, each led by an officer. We could hear the officers telling each other that the Norwegian soldiers under their command had just arrived at boot camp for basic training and had not even been issued weapons yet! Because they were so ill prepared, they had no choice but to surrender.
Leaving the woods, I made my way to a railroad station outside Horten. On the train we heard rumours that Oslo had been bombed. Fortunately this was untrue but all I could think of was that I wanted to get home to my mother! No busses or streetcars were running in Oslo that day and the telephone lines were down. A nice person gave me a lift home to our house outside Oslo. Because the telephone lines were down my mother couldn’t call to tell my worried relatives that I was safely home. So she did a brave thing – she took me in the car and drove down to Oslo where they all lived – to tell them in person. All went well but I remember the shock of seeing German soldiers with their machine guns on almost every corner and the German flag on top of our parliament building and the Royal Palace – symbols of the German power over us.
We were later told that on April 9th, many young Norwegian men had managed to get out of Oslo and into the woods, hoping to join their various military units. The British and French were supposed to come and help but they didn’t come until several days later. They landed on the West Coast of Norway and were defeated by the Germans, mainly because they were so ill prepared. They didn’t expect Norway to be attacked and occupied, I suppose.
The Germans meanwhile radioed our merchant ships abroad and told them to return to Norway. All of them, without exception, ignored this order and went to allied or neutral harbours. We had one of the largest merchant marines in the world at that time and the Germans were very disappointed that all these ships slipped out of their grasp. All these Norwegian ships contributed to the war effort by transporting from the United States food, weapons and everything else that was needed to England and later to Russia. A lot of Norwegian sailors died when German submarines torpedoed their ships.
The Norwegian King and his cabinet escaped from Oslo in the early morning of April 9th. Somebody gave away their position however and German aircraft bombed the cities and small towns along the route of the royal party. Fortunately nobody was injured, they escaped to northern Norway, and later to England. Haakon VII, the King of Norway, became a King in exile.
Our home was situated in the suburbs of Oslo, on the Holmenkollen hill. My grandparents and old aunts came to stay at our house during the first weeks of the war as they felt safer there than in the center of Oslo. They were all in shock, confused and unhappy. Arguments arose about who should have the best beds and who should do which chores. My father was away on a business trip to the USA so my mother was the one who should have made the decisions. But she was a gentle soul who elected to flee the house and work outside in the garden instead. I thought; the world is falling apart and here they are arguing about silly and pointless things!
The day after the invasion we heard rumours that several hundred French and British airplanes were coming to bomb Oslo. Thousands of people streamed out of the city, many of them past our house to seek safety in the neighbouring hills and woods. At the end of the day, when they discovered that nothing would happen, the turned around and walked slowly, dejectedly, back to town. This day, April 10th, was later called “panic day.”
One day a relative came to us distraught and in tears. She told us that her fiancé had been killed. My mother insisted that she should stay with us until she got over the worst of her grief.
The Germans were confident of winning the war. They marched through the streets of Oslo singing: Wir fahren gegen England – We are going to England. They were planning their invasion of England but, as you know, they did not succeed thanks to the superiority and bravery of the RAF. After a while the Germans stopped singing about invading England because their superiors switched their plans towards Russia – and their eventual defeat.
In the days following the invasion Oslo’s airport, Fornebu, was bombed many nights in a row by the British. It was very exciting for us teenagers who were rooting for the seemingly small silvery planes that came in high above us in the middle of the night. We could hear their zzzz sound and the bombs exploding. Then we saw the airport and the German war planes go up in flames. Next the German anti-aircraft cannons, with their awesome multicoloured rounds lit up the sky. Fortunately the British planes usually made it back home. Finally, after the bombs had fallen and the anti-aircraft guns had ceased firing, the air raid sirens would sound! A little late, don’t you think?
It took the Germans three weeks to take Southern Norway and two months to take all of Norway including the far north. Things were, as you can understand, quite confused. Sweden stayed neutral and at peace, mainly because they permitted the Germans to transport their soldiers and war material through Sweden in railroad cars marked with Red Cross flags. Sweden didn’t have much choice – they had no army to speak of so the Germans knew they could occupy Sweden any time they wanted.
Quisling, a traitor and supporter of the Nazis, had declared himself Prime Minister. Quisling and his followers helped the Germans discover and arrest Norwegian patriots. The Germans used Norwegian citizens as hostages and threatened to kill them if Germans soldiers were killed or if sabotage was directed against the Nazi occupational forces.
Then there were the resistance fighters; men or women, rich or poor, farmers, labourers, engineers, clergymen, doctors, lawyers – from all segments of our society. They had many different tasks: sending and receiving coded messages to England, forging documents, organizing escapes to Sweden, or England – and many more. Members of the resistance used fake names so that they could not betray each other if captured and tortured. After a while, all the radios in Norway were confiscated. Groups of resistance members listened to their ‘illegal’ radios and from BBC reports printed small, easily concealed ‘newspapers.’ It was a tremendous boost to our morale to read and pass on these news sheets. German propaganda told us that Germany was winning the war but the ‘newspapers’ told us otherwise.
Some members of the resistance were captured of course. They were usually tortured and then sent to concentrations camps – either in Norway or to Poland and Germany. At the end of the war, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, negotiated with Hitler to have many of these prisoners freed and sent home. But many more never came back from the concentration camps.
What about the ordinary people who struggled through five years of German occupation? The German soldiers were quite well disciplined and we seldom heard of any rape or murder. But the SS-Troops – that was another story because they were known to interrogate and torture people.
Everyday life was a struggle to get enough to eat and enough clothes to keep warm. Food was rationed and we stood in line for hours for black bread, fish and vegetables. Meat was non-existent except sometimes horsemeat. When all the good fish was gone only fish sausages were left (ugh!), no butter, no coffee, no tea and only skimmed milk. People learned to grow vegetables, including potatoes, in their lawns – or they rented garden plots. Occasionally meat, eggs and butter could be obtained on the black market.
We would drive into the countryside and negotiate with farmers that we had known for many years. Of course, we had to pay black market prices because we were in competition with other city folk. Before the war some of these farmers had rowed across the lake by our mountain cabin to sell us cheese and butter. Mother had always bought from them. Now she had to row across the lake to them and beg them to sell their produce to her! The shoe was on the other foot. The farmers told the Germans that wolves had killed their sheep, or some other lie. Then they sold the meat to the people from the city. The reason for the food shortage was that Norway had always imported grain and foodstuffs from North America. Now we had a whole army of Germans to feed in addition to our own population – and the lifeline to North America was cut.
Heating was another challenge. Oil and coal had always been imported. Now we had to heat with wood. We installed pot-bellied stoves and locked off a few rooms to preserve heat. I remember doing my homework near the stove in the living room.
Most depressing of all was perhaps the darkness. We had to have black curtains in front of the windows at night and there were no streetlights. This “blackout” was imposed all over Europe so that enemy planes could not see where to bomb. Norway has naturally long, dark winters and the “blackout” made them even longer and darker.
Another of life’s difficulties, especially for a teenager, was the lack of clothing. I had one nice dress for Sundays and one for school or weekdays. After three years without being able to buy anything new, they became very threadbare! One day I bought myself a pair of pretty wooden shoes with a red top. The top was made of paper so I had to take these shoes off when it rained. In winter we wore old boots inherited from acquaintances and old, worn-out coats.
Once I remember going to a restaurant and buying a beautiful-looking cake. Then I discovered it was made of black bread and what I thought was cream was really whipped egg-whites! Stews were usually made of vegetables only – no meat. Taxis, and cars (that had to have special permits), used charcoal instead of gasoline. The charcoal was carried in a container attached to the back of the car.
The Germans took over my school – Ris High School –as a prison for Russian POW’s. We had to walk about 45 minutes to another school. Since two schools used the same building we had to take turns going early or late. There were no busses or cars but I had a boyfriend with a bicycle. At first things were fairly normal but the Nazis tried to force our teachers to teach things they didn’t want to teach. Many teachers were sent to concentration camps in Northern Norway. We objected by striking – not going to school. We were taught secretly in private homes – very exciting for us – but hardly good for our education.
Several of my schoolmates worked for the Resistance and some had close encounters with the Gestapo. Some were arrested and sent to concentration camps while others escaped by the skin of their teeth. Later I met some of those in Stockholm when I was a refugee there myself.
Everybody had to have an identification card issued by the Germans. It was forbidden to enter the areas along the Swedish border and the coastline. These restrictions were intended to stop the mass exodus of people over land to neutral Sweden or by boat to England where they could join and be trained by the Norwegian Armed Forces. They were trained to return to Norway with the Allies when the anticipated Allied invasion came. That was the day we all lived for.
As I mentioned, my father was in the USA when the Germans invaded. He had travelled with Bernt Balchen, the well known Polar flyer who flew Admiral Byrd in his historic South Pole flight. They were in the USA to buy fighter planes for Norway but it turned out that they were too late. After the invasion he said that he could be of no use to Norway in the USA so he decided to return home. It was a long journey: by plane to Japan, a ship to Korea, two weeks on a train through Siberia and Russia and then the last leg by plane to Stockholm. This was possible because in the summer of 1940 neither Russia nor the United States had entered the war. In Stockholm the Germans interrogated him at the German Consulate. “I’m a businessman who just happened to be in the United States when Norway was invaded” he explained. They let him enter Norway. Little did they know that he carried material for the resistance movement with him!
On his return to Oslo father worked for the Resistance. I don’t know all he did but his office was a hive of illegal activities. My favourite story is of him going up to Trondheim by train to deliver a briefcase containing money and illegal documents to the Resistance fighters there. At the station in Trondheim he saw that there were two exits, one for Norwegians and one for Germans – both civilian and military. The German soldier at the ‘Norwegian’ exit was checking papers and making everyone open their briefcases. He therefore walked towards the ‘German’ exit. The German guard started to object but father just looked at him as if to say: “Who are you, don’t you know who I am?” He was let through.
I must add that father had dark hair and brown eyes, not typically Norwegian perhaps, and he could have a most piercing look in his eyes when he wanted to!
Regardless, it took a lot of courage and if he had been caught he would have been tortured and imprisoned.
In April of 143 my mother died from cancer. Four months later my father had to escape to Sweden. In addition to his resistance work he was a reserve officer and the Germans were about to arrest all reserve officers. The evening before the arrests were to be made, the reserve officers were warned by under-cover resistance workers working for the Quisling government. Father moved to a friend’s house. The Resistance workers emptied the house of furniture and valuables on wheelbarrows and carts. Most of it went to a neighbouring friend whose house had burned a few weeks earlier. They had to work all night to empty the house but the Germans got none of our things. After the war we got everything back from our friend.
We children; brother Johan Fredrik who was 16, sister Elisabeth, 13 and myself were on summer vacation at our cabin in the mountains when the Germans came – they even placed machine guns in the yard – but nobody was home! We got a secret message telling us what had happened and were told to take the train to a station just before Oslo. When we got there we almost missed the person we were to meet because the train was late and had stopped, not at the platform itself but quite a distance from the station. After a confusing half-hour we found our contacts, Josie and her husband Rolf.
Josie and Rolf were good friends of our parents. The lived in the country near the small town of Risør where we stayed for almost two months. Then word arrived from Father that we should join him in Sweden. I had finished high school that spring but Johan Fredrik and Elisabeth had to continue in the autumn. We could not return to our home because the Germans had confiscated it and they were anxious to get hold of us so they could use us as hostages. They could then have forced Father to return to Norway and since he knew a great deal about the Resistance Movement this would have been dangerous, for him and for many others.
We took a train to Oslo and stayed at a friend’s house for a couple of days. A man from the Resistance gave us false identity papers and special passes for the zone bordering Sweden. Pretending to be school children going home we took a train to a small station outside Halden which is a town near the Swedish border. We had to give someone a password and were then taken by taxi to our next destination. A young man, cycling fast some distance in front of us was there to warn us if anything – like Germans – appeared on the road. We stopped at the house of a kind lady in the middle of a wooded area, given some sandwiches and told to wait. When it was dark, two young men arrived and guided us to Iddefjorden – a narrow fjord that separates Norway from Sweden. They were to row us across but the rowboat had been stolen – probably by someone sneaking across to Sweden for groceries. Sweden, being neutral, had much more food than Norway. They found another boat but it was chained to a boathouse and had to be sawn off. But first we had to wait until a German patrol boat, that came hourly, had passed by. I remember that the young men complimented us because were so calm. They said that the people they had escorted into Sweden the night before would have been hysterical, since they were so nervous to start with. Today I would have been hysterical too, but then I was too young and didn’t have the sense to be afraid.
Finally we crossed the Iddefjord to Sweden. Sweden was marvellous. Everything was lit up – no blackouts here! I looked across the water where everything was dark. It was very sad. Now I was a refugee in a foreign country.
The Swedish customs inspector, the first Swede we met, said to the Norwegians who had escorted us out; “Only three today?” Usually the groups of escaping Norwegians were larger.
From the border we were sent to a camp outside Stockholm where we were questioned, given a physical check-up and food and clothing. We were very impressed by what you could buy in Sweden. We saw items that we had not seen since before the war; oranges, coffee, butter and, most important to my 19 year old mind, nice dresses and shoes. We were overwhelmed.
Father came from Stockholm and as we were considered ‘children’ we only had to stay one day. Others sometimes had to stay much longer. The Norwegians running the camp, refugees themselves, had to interrogate everyone who came to the camp. They were seeking out traitors, “Quislings” as we called them, who could give the Germans in Sweden information about the escape routes from Norway.
It was October 1943 when we left the camp and went with Father to Stockholm. The war was still going in Germany’s favour and many Swedes were pro-German. They laughed at Norwegian refugees and called them “Nordbagger”, a word with no English translation, but it was a very derogatory expression to us. There were about 100,000 Norwegian refugees in Sweden at that time and many more from Denmark and the rest of Europe. The young Norwegians who had escaped to Sweden were anxious to fight the Germans they looked forward to the day when the allied invasion of Norway would come. They lived in camps where they received military training – first with make-believe weapons and then with the real thing.
My brother was too young for these camps so first he went to a boarding school and then to the Norwegian High School in Uppsala. This school was set up to help children of Norwegian refugees and it had Norwegian teachers and curriculum. Elisabeth stayed with a Swedish family and went to a Swedish school but unfortunately se was teased because of her Norwegian accent and had a difficult time adjusting. She also missed our mother very much, she was separated from the rest of the family, living in a strange home in a strange country. It was a lot for a 13 year old.
I too lived with a Swedish family for a few months but then a Norwegian friend and I rented an apartment together. The husband of my friend was in one of the military training camps but he came to visit us often. I found a job in a library because I had thought about training as a librarian. In the spring of 1944 I became a receptionist at the American Legation (later Embassy) in Stockholm.
There I met my future husband, Larry, who was Swedish-American. His parents had returned to Sweden before the war to care for an ailing parent and had been unable to leave when war broke out. As an American citizen, Larry was working at the Legation when I met him. We dated, wrote to each other after I returned to Norway and married in 1947.
In Stockholm we met many people of different nationalities. We also met American flyers. They had been dropping bombs over Germany and their planes had been hit. In a crippled condition they often barely made it to Sweden where they were interned. However, they were quickly allowed to return to the U.S.A.
I didn’t see much of my Father while I was in Stockholm He and Bernt Balchen shuttled back and forth to London. When the war ended he returned to Norway before I did. The war in Europe was over and the German army pulled out of Norway without a fight. It was a time of great joy for everybody.
I would like to finish this story by saying that I am very grateful and proud of the men and women who fought so bravely and endured so much in both Norway and all over the world during the war. Without them we could not be here enjoying our many freedoms and the prosperity that victory and peace have brought.