November 17, 2017

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Neal Bascomb on “Sabotage” and the Norwegian Fight Against the Nazis

From British SOE (Special Operations Executive) training camps to the harsh Norwegian winter landscape to an actual secret Nazi fortress perched above a gorge, Neal Bascomb has vividly brought to life the terror and intrigue that surround the heavy water sabotage operations, otherwise known as “the greatest act of sabotage in all of World War II.” SLJ spoke with Bascomb about his research process and what he hopes teen readers will take away from this lesser-known World War II account. Bascomb will be speaking at SLJTeen Live on August 10 as part of the “Stranger than Fiction” panel. Register for the free virtual event here!

In Sabotage, each of the Norwegian commandos who were involved in the heavy water sabotage, regardless of how big or small their role, received a full and complex portrait. Was it important for you that readers come away with not only a great story but a sense of empathy and understanding for the resistance fighters and the trials they went through for their country?Sabotage_ hires cover

Absolutely. As much as this narrative is about atomic science and the race to build a weapon unlike any before, it is a story of people at its heart. They drove the events; they shaped them. I wanted to know what motivated them, were they afraid, and how they managed to overcome those fears to execute these incredible missions that halted a key ingredient to the Nazi atomic research program. These individuals were not born heroes. Before the war, they were clerks, engineers, scientists, plumbers, and the like. Ordinary folks. History thrust great trials upon them, and they rose to the occasion.

Throughout Sabotage, you showcase quieter instances of resilience and quick thinking that may be unfamiliar to readers long accustomed to bombast in war stories. I’m thinking of leader Jens-Anton Poulsson’s brilliant way of keeping his men busy with chores during the day and lectures at night. With your work do you aim to present an alternative take to mainstream narratives on war?

I’m so glad this came through in the reading. Take Einar Skinnarland. He was incredibly tough and brave, but he still had moments where he was far from an unalloyed hero. On his parachute drop into Norway, he stood at the edge of the hole in which he would drop through, and he hesitated. He was not sure he could jump. The dispatcher almost had to shove him through. This did not make Einar any less of a hero, but it showed his humanity. Same with Jens-Anton Poulsson and his men telling each other stories at night to solidify their bond, to keep them together in a situation where they had thoughts of giving up and giving in. This is the truth, and to paint it any different would have been a disservice to them—and history. Also, I hope readers come away believing that they, too, could rise to the occasion because I show how much these Norwegians had their own doubts.

A hallmark of your work is the incredible amount of attention and care you dedicate to the bibliography, source notes, and other forms of back matter. When tackling such a rich subject such as World War II, where do you begin?

In researching my books, I always start with what has been written before. There were already a few works on the heavy water sabotage mission. I plumbed their bibliographies and read everything that they based their histories upon. I also read books on related subjects (German atomic history, Norway during World War II, British SOE history). Then I looked for magazine, newspaper, and scholarly articles. Once I felt like I knew everything that had already been written on the subject, I began my primary research. I scoured archival collections throughout the world. For Sabotage, there was great treasure in the Norwegian Resistance Museum in Oslo, as well as the British archives. After collecting everything possible there (and I am talking thousands of documents), I started reaching out to the individuals who experienced these events, as well as their families. I was looking for their recollections and any primary resources (diaries, memoirs, letters, etc.) that they may have had. Researching is typically a two-year process for me, but it’s one of the most rewarding parts of writing a book!

Photo by Meryl Schenker

During your research process, did you ever find yourself in disbelief over a piece of evidence (a record, a recounting, a diary excerpt, etc.)? How did you manage to sync together so many different perspectives?

Of all my books, I probably had more first-hand, primary source material on this one than any other I’ve written. There were secret reports, diaries, memoirs, letters, and more. Every memoir looks at events in a different way, sometimes in terms of how they unfolded, but more often, they are slanted to the perspective of the individual who is telling them. By reviewing the source material, I can judge where perspectives overlap and where they contradict. Often it’s a judgment call on whom to believe, whose recollections appear closest to the “truth.” Thankfully with Sabotage, I had so much material that my judgment was as well informed as possible.

I found your discussion of the psychological effects World War II had on the men of Operation Grouse and Operation Gunnerside in the epilogue refreshing. Was it difficult interviewing the family members of the Norwegian commandos?

Interviewing the family members was absolutely essential to telling this story in a real way. They [the families] were very open. Talking with them was not difficult, really. In some ways, I felt like I was almost allowing them to remember and understand who their fathers were. Furthermore, some of these individuals [discussed in the book] have been lost to history. They never earned the credit they deserved. In writing Sabotage, I hoped to restore the Norwegian resistance fighters to their proper place. Now that the book has come out, I’ve received some great letters from the families—their happiness is praise enough.

One of the larger things that I took away from Sabotage was just how long it can take to properly plan, prepare, and execute a military operation, even for missions such as parachute drops (waiting weeks for the right amount of moonlight). Do you hope readers will have a deeper understanding of just how complex and time consuming war is?

Yes. Yes. Yes. We often only hear about the great moments of action, but so much goes into preparing for these missions—and they are often the most dramatic part. Of course, the infiltration and sabotage of [the power station] Vemork by [Operation] Gunnerside is an edge-of-your-seat narrative, but that operation lasted only a few hours. Months went into gathering the necessary intelligence and assembling and training the team. And even more time went into preparing and surviving before the operation could take place. In these periods, the grit, intelligence, and skills of the saboteurs is tested every bit as much as they were during Gunnerside itself. Further, Leif Tronstad, the scientist turned spymaster who planned these operations, but was never on the ground, is every bit as interesting as the commandos themselves. Without him, the destruction of Vemork would never have been possible. Readers need to know why—and how.

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Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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