The last surviving leader of Norway’s anti-Nazi resistance
Even in the glare of a crisp spring day the execution ground at Akershus Fortress is a chilling place. Snow still fringes the old gun battery and the Oslofjord clinks with ice. Sitting above this small patch of ground, in Norway’s Resistance Museum, I’m reminded of the risks taken by the man sitting next to me. Seventy years ago, Gunnar Sønsteby, the most decorated man in the country and the last remaining leader of the resistance movement, spent five years fighting the Nazi occupation. Avoiding the firing squad in that courtyard was his highest priority.
Sønsteby is a fine reed of a man; thin, poised and dignified, like a Nordic Giacometti. His long face led to him being nicknamed ‘Kjakan’ (‘The Chin’). At 93 he retains a keen intellect, and a charismatic and considered delivery. As we settle into the library, he gives the plate of digestives on the table a withering look and produces a box of pastries he and his elegant wife, Anne-Karin, have brought for the occasion. ‘They are the best,’ she says, busying herself with cups of coffee. Sønsteby smiles: ‘It’s like a breakfast.’ The couple have been a fixture at the museum since retirement, educating the Norwegian youth on the occupation.
At the time of the German invasion in April 1940, Sønsteby was a student working in a motorbike shop. ‘So there I was in German-occupied Oslo. Oh, the humiliation of seeing those green-uniformed creatures tramping our streets,’ he states in his memoirs, Report from Number 24. The Norwegian Nazis were even more galling. ‘It was hatred, you know,’ he tells me. ‘People who had got together with the Germans. So there were lots of discussions after the war, I can tell you that.’ Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi party leader, remains a byword for turncoats.
Initially resistance was slow. ‘The first year, very little,’ says Sønsteby. ‘Second, more. Third. Fourth. In 1941 I knew it would last.’ The inner circle of the ‘Oslo Gang’ included Max Manus, an expert saboteur, and Gregers Gram, who ran propaganda campaigns. ‘My thing was first of all intelligence,’ Sønsteby says. ‘To find out how the Germans built up their power.’
He became the British Special Operations Executive’s man in Oslo, liaising with the Norwegian military and American agents. He was told that he was born for it. ‘I knew one thing when I started,’ he says. ‘If you are arrested you are no good. If you are shot and killed you are stupid.’ Sønsteby received specialist training with the SOE in the Scottish wilds, where he reacted badly to the British military routine. ‘Discipline. Terrible,’ he laughs. ‘That training was based on the old rules, you know. You can never teach in a training course how to behave in Norway during the war. You had to find it out yourself. And I had found it out and that was good enough for me.’
One misadventure, involving a potshot at Highland sheep, almost got him kicked out. It was Colonel J.S. Wilson, chief of the Scandinavian section of the SOE and later the head of the World Scout Bureau, who backed him up. ‘He was a brilliant leader,’ says Sønsteby. Wilson sent him back to active service in Oslo, parachuting in courtesy of a night-time RAF drop. ‘It was very special to come over Norway,’ he says. ‘Seeing the whole country in moonshine, landing on the snow in the mountains with our skis. It was just wonderful.’
During the occupation Sønsteby and his men destroyed munitions factories, troop ships and crucially, after D-Day, the railway infrastructure, stopping German reinforcements moving back to the front line.
‘Security, security, security, was the main thing,’ he says. He employed a simple, but strict, process of using various names and forged documents, moving from flat to flat almost daily. One of his refuges was above a bakery. ‘When I came to that baker’s shop I always looked at the girl selling bread. If she gave a special face I would know the Germans were there,’ he says. ‘I would turn around.’
How easy was it to take on new identities? ‘It depends what you looked like. I was a very common man. In the street you would never notice me. I was one of the many. And it helped me enormously. I still have the suitcase that followed me all the time. I made all my false papers myself, personally.’ I tell Sønsteby that with such a skill set he was either going to be an agent or a thief. ‘I knew that but I refrained,’ he says through a wide grin.
Sønsteby had a forger’s hand. To illustrate, he puts his cake aside, takes out a sheet of paper, scribbles down a name and passes it over. It takes a moment for me to realise I’m looking at a copy of the signature of Karl Marthinsen, the notorious leader of the Norwegian Nazi police. Marthinsen was integral to the implementation of the Norwegian Holocaust and was ‘liquidated’ on an Oslo street by the resistance in February 1945. In reprisal, which Sønsteby admits was ‘for morale very difficult’, nearly 30 Norwegians were executed in the yard outside.
Torture was the greatest fear for Sønsteby’s team. ‘We knew if I had been taken it would have taken quite a long time to die,’ he says. ‘I could have given up things, of course. So I was just as dangerous as others.’ A disaster came with the Gestapo ambush of Gram and a co-fighter, Edvard Tallaksen, in a Grünerløkka café. Gram was shot dead in the gunfight, and Tallaksen taken for interrogation. Rather than talk he committed suicide. ‘He did a marvellous job,’ says Sønsteby calmly. It might seem callous but practicality was key. The friendship and comradeship shared in those times echo in his comments. ‘So many nice people, you know.’
As we near the end of our conversation and confectionary I ask if he was approached to continue his spying duties after the liberation. ‘Yes. They did of course. I said flatly no.’ Both the British secret service and the Norwegian intelligence agency tried to recruit him. ‘I didn’t want any more war. I had had enough. I’d lost five years of my life.’ Instead, in 1945, he left Norway for America and an education at Harvard. That, I say, must have been quite a shift from what he had just experienced. He smiles and says, simply, ‘Perfect.’