Cover Photo: The Vermork heavy water plant disabled by Norwegian commandos in a daring 1943 raid. The operation probably prevented Hitler from acquiring atomic weapons.
“A gentleman’s club seems an odd place for a black tie event.”
If states could be ranked for their luck, Norway would be at the top of the list. Situated in a politically stable neighborhood and floating on an ocean of high-grade oil and gas, Norway’s starkly beautiful landscape is inhabited by an astonishingly small population of 5.2 million people. Those lucky few happily benefit from a sovereign wealth fund that at one point accounted for 11% of the wealth of the entire planet. As a result, Norwegians are uniformly healthy, well-educated, and even-tempered. They’re fantastic people, rugged yet refined in all the right ways to ensure equal measures of success and good company. But there is more to Norway than human and natural resources: the country commands some of the world’s most strategically important real estate.
My first two visits to Norway were for black tie affairs; anniversary celebrations of the country’s two Special Operations Forces, FSK/HJK (Army), and MJK (Navy). At these events I met the Ministers of Defense and Justice; the illustrious Mayor of Bergen, a very potent woman named Trude Drevland; and the Chief of Defense, General Harald Sunde. I’ve since maintained friendships with a number of NORSOF officers, particularly “Askjell” from FSK/HJK who served as General Sunde’s aide. He and I had become friends while standing “boss watch” over our powerful commanders.
One afternoon in May 2014 I received a call from Askjell. After catching up briefly, he asked me if by chance I would be in Norway the following week. “As it happens I will be in Stavanger to observe an exercise,” I replied. “What do you have in mind?”
Askjell grew excited. “Bring your best uniform,” he said. “I’m organizing an event to honor Norwegian veterans on Liberation Day and I’d like you to come. It will be well attended by important members of government and industry and will take place in the Norske Selskab (Norwegian Society), the world’s fifth oldest gentleman’s club.”
“A gentleman’s club?!” I gasped. “Seems an odd place for a black tie event.” Flashing lights and girls with silly tattoos were not really my thing.
Askjell laughed. Having lived and worked in the United States he knew what the term ‘gentleman’s club‘ meant to an American. “Don’t worry” he explained. “There are no brass poles or naked women in this gentleman’s club. Instead, you’ll find wood panelling, leather-bound books, and one of the world’s largest collections of original Edvard Munch art. In fact, women aren’t normally even allowed in.”
As he described the event to me I realized this would be a really special night. Established in Copenhagen in 1772 as place for Norwegian students to discuss events back at home, the Norwegian Society became a center of elite life after it was relocated to Oslo in 1818. Situated across from the country’s parliament, it is often used as a neutral location for sensitive meetings that cannot be held in the public eye. Membership there is a high honor reserved for Norway’s wealthiest and most influential white-haired gentlemen; very few outsiders will ever see its inner sanctum. Marveling at my good fortune I accepted the invitation.
The following week I found my head spinning with introductions to Ambassadors, ministers of the government, academics, thought leaders, and industrialists whose life’s work had powered the Norwegian economy before oil made everyone comfortable. But the most important attendees were a number of surviving World War II heroes. These men, all of whom are now in their nineties, had elected to fight for their government in exile in the United Kingdom. Enabled by the Royal Air Force and the Special Operations Executive, they formed the Linge Company; a legend in the global SOF community for conducting some of history’s most daring and important tactical operations in the harshest conditions imaginable. One of these missions, the raid against the heavy water plant at Vermork, was carried off without a single casualty on either side and probably prevented Hitler from acquiring nuclear weapons. Also in attendance, a young Magnus Sønsteby represented his late grandfather Gunnar Sønsteby, one of Linge Company’s most decorated members and whose picture graced the desk of my boss, Lieutenant General Frank Kisner.
The festivities began as a celebration of the past, with an amazingly spry 98 year-old Linge Company man bringing my hosts to tears with a stirring recitation of long-forgotten viking poetry. Dinner however, was reserved for the future. The only non-Norwegian in the room, there was a great effort to get my thoughts on the politics of Norway’s pending purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Knowing I was in the presence of men able to impact the deal, I carefully turned the question back on my hosts, sparking a furious debate between those that thought support for NATO allies was the most important consideration and those that wanted to buy the Swedish Gripen, uniformly considered a better value than the troubled F-35. As the wine took hold, the conversation morphed into a raucous philosophical discussion about Norwegian governance in which the pro-F-35 faction revealed itself to be firmly anti-monarchy. ‘What an interesting moment to be a Yank.’ I thought.
After dinner Askjell was invited to the podium to preside over the official recognition of Norway’s veterans. There was a hush as “Askjell Larssen” was repeated in whispered tones throughout the dining room as if a great leader had just entered the hall. In many ways one had. It was a testament to my friend’s charisma and skill that he, a non-member of the Norske Selskab, was able to organize this fine event and to command the apparent admiration of such an august group. I was doubly proud to be there when he revealed that among the guests were seven of the nine surviving winners of Norway’s highest award for valor, the Krigskorset; the War Cross. Most, including Askjell himself, were Norwegian commandos that had won the award while fighting in Afghanistan. Two had distinguished themselves in the Balkans, including one officer awarded the medal by Norway’s king at a ceremony the previous day.
Leather Books & the Soviet Navy
The remainder of the event passed in a haze of cigar smoke, aquavit, and good stories. We received a tour of the club house and its world-class collection of art and historical artifacts before ending the evening at a private room in a posh Oslo nightclub. After a sleepless night, I passed the ten-hour train ride in contemplation of Norway’s people and history.
To some, Norway seems a distant frontier. In many ways it is. It certainly seemed so to me as a child. Every couple of weeks I waved goodbye to my father who travelled there to work on a facility the United States was building with the Norwegians. Though designed for space surveillance and scientific study, the Russians believed its purpose was to monitor their ballistic missile program. Whatever the case, Norway’s 25,000 kilometer coastline – with the fjords one of the longest in the world – was a significant concern for the Soviets during the Cold War. From its home in Murmansk, the Soviet Northern Fleet had to pass through a 650 km-wide by 1900 km-long gauntlet between the polar icecap and hostile arctic fjord-land where its ships could be observed and targeted from invulnerable bases. In this way, Norway was absolutely critical to the strategic defense of the North Atlantic. Now that the old game seems to have been reignited by Vladimir Putin, it strikes me how little has changed since those days nearly three decades ago.
Every year Norway holds a multinational exercise called “Cold Response” designed to test the ability of Norway and its allies to operate in the Arctic. Though a national event, it has been growing in scope since it began in 2006. In 2016, Cold Response included 15,000 troops from 14 nations. The live portion of the event featured a submarine infiltration by Norwegian, Dutch, and American SEALs with a mission to destroy a coastal military facility similar to the radome at Vardø pictured above. In 2017, Norway will host NATO exercise Trident Javelin which will test the NATO Response Force’s ability to respond to an Article 5 scenario. “Article 5” refers to the collective defense aspects of the North Atlantic Treaty that formed NATO. It governs Alliance behavior when an armed attack occurs against a NATO member state. It has only happened once in the history of NATO and it is sobering to ponder why an Article 5 challenge is so important today.
Sitting on the train back to Stavanger, my thoughts kept returning to the words of President Franklin Roosevelt who said “…if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win…I say, let him look to Norway.”
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC