In 2003 I visited Lars Aursland, an old seaman with a fascinating story to tell. Lars lives in Haugesund, a small town in Norway’s Karmundet Sound, adjacent to the North Sea.
In 1939 seventeen-year-old Lars Aursland left his home near Haugesund on Norway’s southwest coast. He was seeking adventure. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined how much he would find.
Lars had started working on local tugboats when he was sixteen. A strapping six-foot blonde, he was used to hard work. His parents farmed a few acres outside the city and Lars had spent his early years going to school and digging potatoes. Now he was an ordinary seaman on the M/S Nyhorn, a Norwegian freighter chartered by the French government to carry war materials from the United States to Marseilles. They had also loaded some farm equipment in Philadelphia that was destined for Morocco and Algeria. Their final stop for cargo was New York, and while they were still there, they heard the news. Nazi Germany had just carried out a surprise attack on Oslo – so their country was at war. Young Lars listened as the older crew members debated what it would mean for them, for their families and for their country. One thing it would mean was that now they were a target for German submarines. As they crossed the Atlantic, a very worried crew kept a sharp eye out for periscopes, and extra lookouts were posted. Fortunately, they saw none and had no problems.
On June 30, the Nyhorn arrived safely in Casablanca on Morocco’s west coast. There she proceeded to discharge her farm equipment. But now where could she go? On June 14, while they were still at sea, France had fallen and a stunned world watched as the triumphant German army marched into Paris.
Some of the Nyhorn’s crew thought they should sail back to the United States or to England. In London, the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission was just being formed to operate all the Norwegian merchant ships that had escaped German control. Nortraship, as it would be known, would become the world’s largest shipping company, controlling more than four million gross tons of shipping and employing 25,000 Norwegian seamen. However, Nortraship would never control the Nyhorn and she would be unable to leave Morocco. The Vichy French government, loyal to Germany, had just taken control of the country which was a French protectorate. The new government interned the Nyhorn and the other allied ships still in port.
On September 10, she was placed in a French convoy along with five other Norwegian vessels, a Dutch and an English ship, and five Danish vessels. They were taken a short way down the coast and five miles up on the Sebou River. There they were anchored, their engines were disabled, and they were stripped of lifeboats and communications equipment. The ships and their crews would remain in the river if they were fortunate. Some men were not.
A few days later Lars and all the other seamen watched as a group of other ships’ officers were marched off at gunpoint to Azenumour, an internment camp at the edge of the Sahara where, with the other “enemy” citizens, some would die of malaria and dysentery, and some of starvation. Luckily, almost no one on the Nyhorn was taken.
Many of those on board talked of escape and how they might accomplish it. Some were for overpowering the Moroccan guard who sat listlessly on the deck or occasionally rambled through a half-hearted patrol of the vessel. It was decided that since they could not steal the ship – with vital engine parts in the hands of the enemy – there was no point in trying to take over the vessel. It would simply bring French retribution. Besides, the guard often fell asleep at night, so it would be a simple matter to sneak off without being noticed. By the time they were discovered missing, they could be miles away.
One night after they had been there about six months, Lars and two other young crewmen crept off the Nyhorn and stole a small fishing boat that sat nearby on the riverbank. The boat had neither oars nor sails. “Then we waited for the tide to go out,” Lars said. “That way we could drift down the river. At the river mouth, we hoped to steal a sail or oars from another boat.”
Finally, when they judged that the outgoing tide was strong enough, they put the boat in the water and began to drift downstream. They knew they would have to pass Fortress Mhedyia a few miles down the river. The fort sat high on the southern bank with a commanding view of the river mouth. The French garrison there had orders to shoot anything moving at night. Lars and the two others prayed that clouds would be covering the moon, but when they came in view of the fortress, the clouds parted. Almost immediately French machine guns opened up and their boat was hit.
Lars and the other two boys threw themselves over the side and began swimming toward the far bank. Machine gun and rifle bullets splattered the water around them. Lars struggled to swim. His clothes and shoes were dragging him down and every stroke felt like he was pulling through molasses. He was terrified and every moment waited for a bullet to come crashing into him. Still, he paddled as hard as he could and eventually saw that he was making headway. Finally he came to a marsh where he was able to wade, ducking behind cattails to keep from being seen. Soon he was joined by his companions and they ran back to the Nyhorn. “We were able to sneak back aboard without being seen,” Lars said. “We were crazy young fools – idiots.”
Lars had borrowed an old mess jacket from the steward, and since it was now covered with mud, he left it on the deck. The Vichy gendarmes who came aboard searching for the escapees discovered it the next morning. The steward, who had not been part of the escape, was put in jail for two months. Fortunately, he did not tell the authorities who had been wearing his jacket.
As time passed, the food stored onboard were consumed, and the French provided little besides some old potatoes, sad looking vegetables and, occasionally, half rotten fish. The crew constantly plotted escape. After about a year Lars and the two other young crewmen again snuck off the ship at night. This time they made their way overland to the coast. With little food and only a few bottles of water, they began walking up the coast toward Algeria, nearly three hundred miles away. Dodging enemy sentries, they walked mostly along empty beaches. Sometimes they met Moroccans, who would have been paid a bounty for capturing escapees, but the people they encountered were usually friendly or paid little attention to them. Near settlements they hid until nightfall before proceeding around village outskirts. They carried a gray blanket, and whenever they heard or saw an aircraft, they lay on the ground and covered themselves with the blanket to camouflage themselves.
Algiers was still a free state, and they thought that if they reached it they could be repatriated, possibly to Britain or to the United States. They headed inland a ways to cross the “horn” of Morocco and also to avoid the city of Tangier, then joined the beach again east of the city. After nearly two weeks of walking, they neared the Algerian border. When they approached it, the border guards looked them over with interest. But of course the guards were harmless Algerians, right? Wrong. They were Vichy French, who promptly arrested the three and sent them walking back, under surveillance of armed, horse-mounted guards, to where they had started.
The young sailors were put in prison. Day after day they each sat or stood in single-man cells so small that they hardly had room to lie down. They were fed beans and some withered green vegetables and were only allowed out in the exercise yard for twenty minutes a day. “We came out in the sunshine for twenty minutes,” Lars said. Then he whistled and made a sweeping motion – back inside. Their cells were crawling with lice, fleas, and bedbugs, and all manner of other carnivorous insects, which feasted on them until the boys thought they would go insane from the itching. Some prisoners did go insane. One poor fellow lost his mind completely and had to be dragged out of his cell every day for his twenty-minute exercise period.
Fortunately for the boys, however, their prison was so overcrowded that after a month they were released to make room for more dangerous enemies of the state. The three itching, scratching escapees were placed back aboard the Nyhorn. You would think that their incarceration would have made Lars give up further thoughts of escape. If it did, it was only for a while and it only made him plot more carefully. A year after he had been returned to the Nyhorn and twenty-two months after the ship and crew had been interned, Lars made his final bid for freedom.
For many months a secret activity took place in a small, previously refrigerated compartment tween decks on the Nyhorn. At night when the guard was asleep, small boats were being constructed using dunnage for the framing, which in turn was covered with waterproof canvas. Sails were also made from old canvas. The first of these boats set out form the Nyhorn on September 20, 1941, carrying Ingolf Saxe, the Nyhorn’s second mate and three others. It reached Gibraltar on May 24. The second boat, constructed of the same materials in the same location, quietly rowed down the river and set her sails on December 8, 1941. On Sunday April 13, 1942, construction began on the third boat, to be occupied by Captain Thy Messel and mate Ingolf Valvatne of the Norwegian vessel D/S Ringul, the Nyhorn’s AB Hans Johansen and oiler Karl Linnerud, and Egil StrØmmen, a survivor of the torpedoed M/T Knutsen whose lifeboat had been picked up by the French. While the rest of the lifeboat’s occupants were sent to Azenmour, the fortunate StrØmmen was put aboard the Nyhorn. Deckhand Lars would be the sixth occupant of the new boat, which he also helped to build. Seventeen feet long with a three-foot draft, the boat was made of the same materials as the previous two vessels. So that the guard would not hear hammering, they used screws instead of nails. The boat had a jib and a main, a rudder, and two thwarts to accommodate four oarsmen. The men worked feverishly around the clock to ready their craft before the end of the new moon, which was due in only a few days. By the evening of April 16, the boat was completed. Thy Messel and Ingolf Valvante had returned to Casablanca, which was where they were interned. On Sunday April 20 they took a train back to the Nyhorn, purchasing round-trip tickets to deceive the gendarmes at the station.
The Vichy French officials, exasperated by the spate of escapes, had recently moved the Nyhorn and the other vessels further up the river to Port Lyautey, where they were moored along the bank opposite the town’s quay. There the two officers rejoined the other men. On the evening of Monday April 21, despite a now bright moon, the escapees proceeded with their plan. After fooling the guard into leaving the Nyhorn, they used the ship’s gear to lower their boat into the river on the opposite side of the ship from the town. Thus hidden from view, the men began boarding the boat with their meager supplies, but as the sixth man came aboard they realized that the boat simply could not take their weight. She sat so low in the river that any movement by any of them, much less any heavy seas, would immediately put her railings in the water. It was impossible to go anywhere under such conditions, so hurriedly they raised the boat back on the deck and returned her to the ‘tween deck compartment in the hold.
After some debate, they decided the boat had to be rebuilt. Thy and Ingolf returned to Casablanca, and the others, aided by their mates, set to work. They widened her by eighteen inches to give her a beam of six feet, three inches and rounded her bottom to provide greater floatation. By the middle of the following week she was ready again, but then a series of storms hit and they were forced to delay their departure.
Finally on the evening of Saturday May 9, all was ready. A sliver of moon gave but little visibility, and at midnight the tide began a strong ebb. The third mate had got rid of the guard by asking him to go to town to pick up the Nyhorn’s captain and first engineer, who were on “official business.” At 2200, as soon as the guard left, they set a derrick over the hatch of the compartment, raised the boat, and set it next to the Nyhorn alongside the deserted bank facing away from town. Three men jumped in and began quietly rowing by the other interned ships – each with a guard aboard. On the other side of the river, beside the town jetty, were some small French patrol vessels. From time to time their crews would shine spotlights on the interned vessels and on the river itself. However, since it was a Saturday nights, the escapees hoped that many of the enemy sailors would be ashore and those still aboard would have other things on their minds. In any case, they were not observed and their boat crept quietly down the river.
The next obstacle was the airport bordering the river a few miles downstream. It was heavily guarded, with many lights shining on the river, but somehow they passed unnoticed. Once past the airport, they rendezvoused with their three compatriots, who had fled on a small barge used for painting the Nyhorn. In fear of capture, the escapees had split into two parties, figuring not to jeopardize all of them in the same boat. Still, now all together in the canvas craft, they had to get past numerous native fishing boats moored by the riverbanks, many of which carried barking watchdogs. The Arab fishermen would be very happy to receive the reward paid for information leading to the capture of escapees. Holding their collective breaths, the men drifted past one boat after another without arousing humans or canines.
Still to come was the fortress at the river mouth. At 0230 they silently glided by it and were now nearing the much rougher sea. To reach it, they had to pass between two breakwaters with large waves breaking along the northernmost. Five men rowed as hard as they could while the sixth manned the tiller. They feared not only the waves, which could so easily overturn their crude boat, but also the possibility that in the shallow water the canvas would be snagged by an underwater obstacle. However, luck was still with them, and soon they moved into deeper water and calmer seas.
A breeze came from the west, and the escapees could have used their boat’s sails, but with lookouts along the coast and planes patrolling regularly, they thought their white bed sheet sails would give them away. Instead, the five oarsmen rowed as hard as they could. Lars remembers feeling exhilarated by being back on the sea. I asked him if he or the others were afraid. “Afraid? Have you ever seen a Norwegian afraid?”
The men did have lifebelts made from rolled-up oilskins. Other supplies onboard were two zinc buckets for bailing, a water keg, a sack of ship’s biscuits, and six cans each of sardines and corned beef. They had also fashioned a homemade sea anchor.
Once they judged they were a few miles offshore, they set their two sails but kept rowing so that they could direct their craft more easily. Small squalls also helped push them further out. About midday they spotted native fishermen ahead. To avoid them they had to change their course from north to east. By this time they were nearly six miles offshore. Later in the day they resumed their northerly heading.
Captain Thy Messel adjusted their course, checking it with the old ship’s compass they had brought. He had copied a map onto a sheet of paper together with compass headings, and by match light he referred to it during the night. But even at night they had to be careful. Lars said, “We had fishing boats passing us right by, very close, so we had to be very quiet – not even rowing.”
The following day , Monday, Thy, the leader and navigator, again had to readjust their course to avoid more fishing boats, then recalculate their new course once the danger had passed. They had no sextant and no way to calculate their drift except by tossing a small matchbox overboard from the bow and seeing how quickly they passed before the man at the tiller grabbed it so it could be used over again.
Lars remembered the two officers, Thy Messel and Ingolf Valvante, with great respect. “They were fantastic sailors. The captain was an excellent navigator and the mate came, I remember, from Stord” (A small island near Lars’s hometown). Lars believed these two men provided the necessary leadership and seamanship to affect their escape.
The wind shifted on the second day to west-northwest, providing little help to the rowers, who nevertheless continued with few breaks. Their only long rest came during their turn at the tiller. The day progressed without incident until late afternoon, when a huge bomber passed just above the surface heading straight for Casablanca. Immediately they stopped rowing and pretended to be fishermen. If it was an enemy plane, maybe their crew would fall for the ruse. An hour and a half later, just before dark, the plane returned, flying so close to the surface that it had to lift a wing to avoid hitting their mast. Too late, the men saw the insignia of the British air force. Madly they waved their Norwegian flag and their hats. They rejoiced. Maybe they would be reported and a rescue boat sent for them. Later they learned that their boat had never been reported – probably the pilot had thought nothing about them except that they were local fishermen.
That night at 2200, they took a bearing on the light from the Pounta-Nador lighthouse on the Moroccan coast. Their calculation showed that even though they had rowed many more miles dodging local fishermen, they were about twenty-eight miles off the coast. By now they had been rowing more or less continually for nearly twenty-four hours and they were exhausted.
They divided themselves into two watches, each on duty for two hours. Two men would row with a third at the tiller while the other three tried to sleep in the bottom of the boat. Through the night they continued, generally bearing north-northeast.
The boat the Norwegians built in which they escaped.
The six Norwegians followed a long tradition of rowing at sea. From the Vikings to offshore fishermen in small skiffs, their countrymen braved the elements using oars, as well as sails for propulsion. Two notable examples were Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, penniless Norwegian immigrant fishermen who set out from New York harbor on June 6, 1896, attempting to be the first to row across the Atlantic. They hoped to reach Le Havre, France, in an eighteen foot surf-boat especially designed to weather heavy seas, and in doing so to reap substantial publicity and, they hoped, attendant riches in the form of interviews, books, and endorsements. Averaging fifty-two miles a day and enduring storms, capsize, fire spreading from their cookpot and ramming by a hammerhead shark, they did indeed reach Le Havre on August 7. But after two grueling months at sea and the international acclaim it generated, they never garnered the wealth they had dreamed of, so they went back to being fishermen in New York, though Harbo later became a Sandy Hook Pilot. Still, their names have gone down in history for their remarkable feat.
While the six escapees hoped only to reach Gibraltar safely, even that goal seemed in doubt. The next morning, Tuesday, they took their final bearing from the lighthouse and, with the wind picking up, were again able to set their sails. However, with a heavy sea from the northwest, the wind now began to build form the southwest. Wave rose larger and larger and soon the crests started breaking. As the boat was now broadside to the seas, the men were forced to take in their sails and start bailing frantically to keep afloat. Two men each manned an oar to try to keep the boat running before the seas. They only partly succeeded but still managed to avert catastrophe.
During the worst of the storm two large Spanish fishing vessels steamed up to observe them. It was tempting to ask the fishermen to take them on board, but the possibility of internment in Spain and then being returned to Vichy French Morocco or to Nazi-controlled Norway was too great a threat. So they asked for no assistance and after a while the Spanish vessels left.
By early afternoon, they were able to change their course to head due east and thereby to run before the seas. This helped them, even though they still needed the steering oar. They were also able to raise their jib and even put up a makeshift reefed main. By evening the seas had diminished some and they got their first glimpses of what they believed was Cape Spartel, the southernmost tip of Spain, just west of Gibraltar. During the night they were also aided by the Gibraltar current, which pushed them further east. At 0200 on Wednesday morning, they figured they were about seven miles southwest of Cape Spartel. They continued east, making sure to remain outside Spain’s three-mile limit.
Dawn was fine. The seas had moderated, the rain stopped, and only a light breeze blew. Late in the morning they could see Gibraltar clearly. Running up their small Norwegian flag, they steered directly for it, and early afternoon found them just off the Gibraltar pilot station. A Pilot boat came out to tow them in.
Lars figures they had rowed and sailed about two hundred and seventy miles during their three-an-a-half-day ordeal. He and the others were overjoyed. They had escaped and now they were safe. And aside from exhaustion, the only price they’d paid was rowing hands covered with blisters.
A great fuss was made over them at Gibraltar, first at the pilot’s station, then at the harbor office. They were surrounded by congratulating well-wishers curious to know the details of their escape. First they were able to drink their fill of fresh water, then they were fed, and finally the six tired mariners were whisked off, Messel and Valvante to the Grand Hotel, Lars and the other three to the Victoria Hotel, for hot baths and some long-awaited sleep. The following day the captain and mate were taken to the Admiralty and to government offices where they were presented as heroes. Lars and his companions were largely ignored.
All of the men had decided they wanted to return to England as soon as possible to join a fledgling Norwegian navy squadron that was being equipped with British warships. The two officers and two crewmen were scheduled to return on a Polish merchant vessel leaving for London the following week.
In the meantime all of the men were given a two-day training session as machine gunners. Lars remembers that they used a water-cooled Colt (probably .30 or .50 caliber) and that for the session he and the others were each paid ten shillings. As soon as their machine gun course was over, Lars and Karl Linnerud, the young oiler from southern Norway, were told that they could sail on an old English steam trawler leaving in a convoy for Liverpool the following day. The catch was that they would have to work as stokers shoveling coal. Lars laughed about it. “The captain said when we signed on, ‘And you’ll have pay when we come to Liverpool.’” Since that seemed to be the only way the two young sailors were going to get to England, they agreed.
The next day they sailed, but they were hardly out of the harbor when the convoy commander radioed the master of the trawler that his vessel would have to return to Gibraltar. The convoy was making ten knots and the old six-knot trawler couldn’t keep up. Three days later the trawler left as part of another convoy and the scene repeated itself. Finally, when the trawler docked at Gibraltar the second time, Lars and Karl went to the captain.
“I asked the captain for some money,” Lars said. “But he said, ‘You signed on for Liverpool and you won’t have any pay before we get there.”
“Well, you told us we would leave [immediately] but we couldn’t keep up with the convoys…”
“The captain shook his head. ‘Too bad, it doesn’t make any difference.’”
The next day Lars again approached the captain and told him, “Have a good trip. We’re leaving here.”
“’Oh, you can’t,” he said. “You signed on for Liverpool and for full pay when we get there.”
“I don’t give a damn for the full pay,” Lars replied. “I’ll just leave. I’ll go to a Norwegian ship” (one was in the harbor).
The captain hurried off the trawler and Lars turned to Karl and said, “Oh, that’s good. He’s gonna have some money” [when he comes back]. “But he came back with three policemen, three bobbies. Then we had to go to court and they gave us a choice: go back aboard the boat again or to jail for fifteen days’ hard labor and get a fine of forty shillings.” Lars told the judge, “We don’t care about that [going back on the trawler]. We’ll take the hard labor.”
The two boys were put in Gibraltar’s dank dungeon of a prison. Lars laughed, “There were Germans in the prison and Italians in the prison. We had some Turks to watch [as they worked] on a road, up on the top, on Gibraltar.” Lars remembers this time with tears of laughter in his eyes. “We had fun anyway. When we were put in jail, we were dressed up in the old Sing Sing suits, you know, the kind you see in old movies, with stripes, stripes on the cap, stripes everywhere. The Germans and Italians had it a lot better than us Allied; they lived upstairs. They threw down cigarette butts to us, but I didn’t smoke so it wasn’t that bad. There was very tight security. The Germans came from schnell boats and planes. How long they were going to be there I didn’t know, and amongst them were military people, English, Scotsmen, Irishmen – at least Scotsmen. They were going to sit there for years, or at least many months.”
Lars continued, “We had to get up early and get the blankets folded us or we would be punished for that. We had to scrub the floor and had to stand at attention. We were civilians in all of this, and after we had been there two or three days, we were taken before the leader there. He looked at our papers and found that this punishment was all wrong. He said we had to get in touch with Norwegian officials when we got out of there. He said we didn’t have to work but we had to stay there for fifteen days.”
Shortly after their release from the bastille, Lars and Karl found another British vessel. They signed on and eventually made their way to Liverpool. From there they took the train to London and reported to the Norwegian shipping office. “Where have you been?” an official asked them (evidently they had been expected to return to London long before they appeared). “Oh, you know, here and there,” Lars replied. He asked for his back pay for working on the Nyhorn and was told that they couldn’t give it to him because he had not been eighteen at the time.
After a few months casting about in London, Lars joined the Norwegian navy. He went to Skegnes on England’s east coast for his training, part of which was a machine gun course. As a result of his merchant marine experience Lars was quickly promoted to decksman leader and then took more courses. His first sea duty was on the St. Albans, an old four-stacker, formerly the USS Thomas, which had been given to Great Britain as part of the lend-lease agreement. According to Lars, she was a good turbine-powered destroyer in spite of her age. But he wasn’t on her long before he received orders to proceed to Clyden to join the destroyer Svenner, which had just been launched and outfitted by the Scotts Shipyard in Greenock, Scotland. The Svenner had originally been named HMS Shark before being transferred to the Norwegian navy. She had been laid down on November 5, 1941, launched on June 1, 1943, and commissioned on March 11, 1944. She would be at sea less than three months before she was sunk. She carried a main battery of four modern 4.7-inch dual-purpose guns, which could be elevated for air defense. She also had a twin Bofors 40 millimeter, which had its own ranging radar mounted just aft the stack, and four twin 20 millimeter Oerlikons. Two banks of four torpedoes were positioned aft along with two of the four depth-charge mortars and two depth-charge racks mounted on the fantail. Her maximum speed was thirty-six knots and thirty-three knots fully loaded.
Many of the Svenner’s 235-man crew had been Lars’s shipmates on the St. Albans and so were experienced seamen. After their duty in the old four-stacker, the new destroyer felt like a luxury liner. The Svenner joined other warships for an arduous period of training in Scapa Flow. Rumors were rampant. All over the ship crewmen speculated about where they might be headed and what important mission awaited them. Something big was in the air but nobody knew what it would be. Finally on June 2, after their training was over, they headed south through the Irish Sea and joined even more warships, all gathering in various English and Scottish ports.
On the evening of June 5, Lieutenant Commander Tore Holthe was on the bridge and would remain there all night. The Svenner’s young captain had been given the greatest responsibility of his naval career. His new destroyer was one of the leading elements of the greatest seaborne invasion in history, and Holthe would see to it that he and his crew did their jobs to the best of their ability. A steady stream of positioning messages was coming in from the signalmen on the bridge wings. Holthe personally dictated replies, then gave orders changing speed and course as required for his ship to hold its position in the fleet. Since the invasion was to be a surprise attack on the German positions along the Normandy beaches, there was total radio silence on the part of the attackers. So messages sent by Aldis lamps, were the only means of communication. Holthe paced his bridge, first to one wing, then the other, looking port, then starboard, then astern to see that they maintained their station with regard to ships on both sides and astern of them.
He could clearly make out the British cruiser Mauritius, which was in the vanguard of the eastern bombardment fleet. It steamed thirty degrees ahead on his starboard bow at a range of one thousand yards. Then came the Norwegian destroyer Stord. Astern were the battleships Warspite and Ramillies, along with the ancient monitor Roberts. They were flanked by the cruisers Danae, Dragon, Frobisher, and Arethusa, as well as dozens of escorting destroyers. Further astern was a vast armada of attack transports and landing ships.
Raised in Trondheim, thirty-year-old Tore Holthe was already a seasoned commander. He had been in the Norwegian navy before the war, and when the Germans invaded his country in 1940 he was the captain of an ancient coal-fired torpedo boat of World War I vintage, then stationed in the small port of Arendal on Norway’s south coast. By the time he was alerted, the Germans already controlled every major Norwegian port on the Atlantic. He and his men were helpless. They didn’t even have enough coal to take their boat out of the invader’s hands. So Holthe ordered the crew to scuttle her, then sent them home. With three other young officers he commandeered a fishing boat and fled to England, where they thought they could join the Norwegian navy in exile or, failing that, the British navy. There he first commanded a doddering Norwegian destroyer, built in 1909, that had somehow evaded the attackers. For the next eighteen months Holthe somehow kept his old vessel afloat as it patrolled England’s east coast. After that he was first lieutenant on a new Hunt Class destroyer, then on the Stord, another new destroyer. Both were operated by the Norwegian navy and manned largely by Norwegian exiles plus a few Danes, Dutchmen, and other Allied soldiers. The Svenner was Holthe’s first major command, and with her he was given a responsibility that nearly every young captain in the world would envy. He and his crew would be leading part of the greatest invasion in history. At 11:00 P.M. on June 5, 1944 the armada entered a channel of lightened buoys just laid by a flotilla of minesweepers. It led directly to their invasion beach. Then, at midnight, Captain Holthe ordered his crew to action stations. Leading seaman Lars Aursland donned his battle helmet and his life jacket and, with alarm bells clanging in his ears, quickly made his way topside to his anti-aircraft turret on the port side just under the bridge. There he was joined by the young Dutchman who was his loader and who would be feeding clips of twenty-millimeter shells into the weapon as Lars, rotating the power turret, aimed and fired.
For the last few days the Svenner’s crew had known where they were ordered and what their duties were. Together with the Stord, they were leading one section of the invasion, in appreciation by the British of the Norwegian assistance during the war. So now Lars and the young Dutchman, who spoke no Norwegian, spoke haltingly in English as they checked and loaded their weapon and waited for dawn and what would befall them. Overhead a steady drone echoed through the night air as hundreds of aircraft passed on their way to attack the coast.
At first light on June 6, just before 5:00 A.M., Lars saw hundreds of ships behind them. Vessels of every description, from battleships to coast guard cutters, filled the horizon, and he could see but a small portion of the entire fleet. The invasion armada, ten lanes wide and twenty miles across, consisted of more than five thousand vessels, of which seven hundred were major warships. Flashes of bombs lit the coast ahead and Lars heard the whump, whump, whump as they hit. The battleships and cruisers had anchored in preparation for opening their barrage on the coastal defenses. Meanwhile, the Svenner and the other destroyers stopped to the west of the battleships, which were opposite “Sword,” the most easterly of the five major invasion beaches. Almost dead ahead was the small French port of Ouistreham, now totally obscured by smoke from the bombing. Lars, Captain Holthe, and every man aboard the Svenner waited nervously, expectantly, for a flotilla of minesweepers ahead of them to complete a sweeping of the channel so that they could head into the shore to begin their own bombardment.
And where was the German navy? By June of 1944 most of it had been destroyed. Other than U-boats, only three vessels larger than destroyers could still go to sea. Among the few German vessels even in the vicinity of the landings were six 1,400-ton torpedo boats stationed at Le Havre, and of these only three were immediately ready for action. Heinrich Hoffman was the young German officer in charge of the flotilla. At 2:00 A.M he received a radio report of six large ships heading toward the coast. At 3:30 A.M. Hoffman led his torpedo boats out of the harbor on a westerly course in the direction of the sightings.
At dawn Hoffman saw what he thought was a fog bank ahead of him. Then he saw an aircraft dropping smoke floats and he began to realize that this was the invasion everyone had been expecting. He ordered flank speed and the three torpedo boats shot into the dense layers of smoke at better than thirty knots. Since they couldn’t see through the smoke, they had no idea what lay on the other side.
While the allied command expected that bombarding prior to the invasion would destroy some of the Germans’ large caliber guns, which lay shielded by heavy concrete bunkers all along the coast from the Cherbourg Peninsula on the west end of the invasion front to Le Havre on the east end, they realized they wouldn’t be able to eliminate them all – or even most of them. Therefore, at first light on D-day squadrons of light bombers began to drop hundreds of smoke flares mounted on floats between the shore batteries and the invasion fleet. This, it was hoped, would provide at least some protection for their ships and landing craft.
Thus, when Hoffman’s three torpedo boats emerged from the bank of smoke, he simply was not prepared for what he saw. Directly in from of his boats lay six battleships and heavy cruisers protected by dozens of destroyers – and all the heavy ships appeared to be at anchor. It was a torpedo man’s dream. Hoffman radioed headquarters that he was about to attack. Then he positioned his boats to make their final run from the best possible position to maximize their hits while providing the smallest targets for the enemy. Finally he ordered flank speed and the three boats charged ahead. The German torpedo boats were already so close to the capital warships that they needed only a short run before releasing their torpedoes. Hoffman and his crews expected a withering fire from the Allied ships, but to their amazement there was none, so they just ran until they thought they couldn’t miss. They let loose their salvo of seventeen torpedoes and immediately, as the first Allied shells began falling dangerously close, they turned 180 degrees and headed back to base. Hoffman railed in frustration when, just before they disappeared back into the smoke, he realized that somehow none of their torpedoes had hit any of the capital ships.
Neither Lars nor the rest of the crew on the Svenner even saw the torpedo boats, which had attacked from the east, on the opposite side of the heavy ships from their position. Lars, on his port twenty-millimeter, saw a torpedo coming directly at him, but he couldn’t bring his gun to bear on it. “I saw the first torpedo coming towards us,” he said, “but we probably slid into a position that allowed it to pass without coming into contact at all. But then I saw another incoming and then I said, ‘Now it’s just bang.’”
The torpedo hit just aft of the bridge, almost directly astern of Lars’s turret. “There was an unbelievable explosion that I have never seen the likes of and I flew up out of the turret.” Captain Holthe was on the bridge, almost directly above Lars. Like almost everyone in his crew, he went into momentary shock when the torpedo hit. The Svenner immediately began to break into three sections. While the center section of the destroyer settled into the sea, her bow and stern each rose into the air, forming a V. Holthe gave the order to abandon the ship. The destroyer’s boats were ruined, but some of the crew managed to release a few large life rafts. Sailors began jumping overboard because it was evident their ship was sinking. Holthe, too, leaped into the sea.
Lars found himself lying in the wreckage of the collapsed bridge. He could barely move. His back felt broken, as did his hips, and he knew he’d broken some ribs. The young loader was still there. He asked Lars if he could move him, because to stay there might mean being sucked down with the sinking ship. When Lars said yes, the loader pulled Lars over the side with him into the Atlantic and then began shoving his comrade away from the Svenner. Lars was in agony. Every movement was excruciating, but he tried, feebly to propel himself away from the ship. While movement was painful, the cold water felt soothing and wonderful.
The sea was filled with the living and the dead. Many of the men were wounded. An English destroyer, the H.M.S. Swift, stopped and began picking up survivors, but almost immediately she was ordered to proceed into shore and had to give up her rescue efforts. Some men were calling out for help. Barely able to move, Lars was quiet, simply waiting for help, but next to him a man he knew named Gregorsen was screaming. When asked if Gregorsen was hurt, Lars said, “No, he wasn’t hurt at all. He was well as ever. He was missing a bottle of booze. I said to him that nobody could hear him so he might as well shut up.”
The survivors were in the water a long time. Other vessels went by but wouldn’t stop to pick them up. Through it all, German shells screamed overhead. Lars thought they sounded like trains rushing by. Finally, after and hour and a half in the water, a rescue launch picked them up and took them to a hospital ship lying well offshore.
Thirty-two of the Svenner’s crew died in the attack, including almost everyone in her engine room. Two British liaison men on board died as well. The Svenner was the only ship sunk by German naval action (though another destroyer, the USS Cory, was sunk by shore batteries). After a short while the Svenner’s stern section turned over and sank, but her bow remained above the surface, a grotesque signpost for all the attackers to see as they made their way toward shore.
Lars was transferred from the hospital ship to hospitals first at Birkenhead, then at Liverpool. He was fortunate that even though his back was broken, it would mend. Nor did he sustain any permanent injuries. Eventually he was assigned to another destroyer, the Arendal, and then when the war ended he returned to his home in Haugesund. For some years he went to sea as a merchant seaman sailing all over the world. Then, at a dance, he met Ingrid Glette, who had been raised in Skjold, a small town outside Haugesund. They married in 1955 and are still together, living on the same quiet Haugesund street where they brought up their children. After Ingrid told him, “No, I won’t let you go back to sea; I can’t live without you here,” Lars gave up the sea. He worked in, then ran, a garage. He is retired now, and he and Ingrid are quite comfortable. Also, he has not lost his sense of humor. “I have my pension, my war pension, free doctor, my social security. That’s why I’m a millionaire,” he said laughing softly.
I asked him if there was anything else he remembered about his time in North Africa. “Yeah,” he chuckled, “nice weather.”