On 13 January 1945, the Norwegian sabotage group Woodlark carried out a sabotage operation against Jørstad bridge in Snåsa. Woodlark was British-led and included members of the Norwegian Independent Company No. 1 (Company Linge). Soldiers from Woodlark later joined the American-led Operation Rype. As a seven-year-old, Bjarne Aasum was a passenger on the first train that arrived at Jørstad Bridge shortly after Woodlark had carried out the sabotage operation. These are his experiences from the incident.
Time witness – a seven-year-old’s experiences from the Jørstad Bridge sabotage
By Bjarne Aasum
There are not many of us left. I was born in 1937 and was thus between 7 and 8 years old at the end of the war. However, it is amazing how much sticks in the memory of dramatic events even in a young boy.
My parents moved with me to Biri – south of Lillehammer – before the war. The intention was probably not to stay long before we moved back to Trøndelag. Mother was the heir to a farm in Grong and my grandparents were getting old. However, the German invasion came, and father was mobilized as a lieutenant in Hamar. He was given partial responsibility for a field hospital that was attached to the campaign that followed the king and government up Gudbrandsdalen and over Dovre. My father was captured in Isfjorden by Åndalsnes and put in a prisoner of war camp near Lillehammer for a while, before he was allowed to return home. Incredibly, I remember a good deal from the shelling over Lake Mjøsa. I was sitting in the potato cellar with a knitted doll man named Krølle. I remember the detonations and hits in the house wall. I also remember well that a few days later I was out on the road with my tricycle when a motorized German column arrived at full speed on the way north. The column stopped, and a soldier came and lifted me off the road, but before he was back in the car, I was out on the road again with the tricycle. I understood that it was important to cycle home as soon as possible. The same thing happened again, and the third time a soldier was sent to stand and hold me while the column passed. Father later said that this probably delayed the column so much that the Norwegians got enough time to blow up the bridge over to Lillehammer. That is why it was said in the family that I saved the King and Norway with my tricycle. Dad’s brother actually painted a picture of me with the bike.As one understands, even a three-year-old can remember a lot, and therefore I think I dare to trust my memories from the end of the war when I was seven. It was in January 1945 that it became possible for us to move north again. The train journey north was incredibly slow and tedious with lots of stops and controls. We arrived in Trondheim and spent the night at Trønderheimen Hotell with a window facing the street “Kongens gate”. My father pulled down the curtains, but I had to take a look at the blood-red flags with swastikas that hung down in front of the Mission Hotel across the street. This resulted in a powerful slap – without any explanation. The next day we continued by train to Grong. Several stops. German troop transports on their way south hindered much traffic. At Valøy station we stood for a long time. Then we rolled slowly to Jørstad Bridge. The sight that met us there was horrible. Down in the river stood a locomotive with its nose straight up, and above the coal wagon was overturned. It burned in coal and wood, and people shouted for help inside the broken train carriages that lay in a single pile down in the riverbed. The Germans had made a temporary walkway that we balanced over with backpacks and suitcases. I remember dead Germans lying all over. A soldier had half of his upper body under water. It was a full winter with snow and ice in the river. Even though I understood with part of my head, that he was dead, I thought that it must be terribly cold for him. A kind of defense mechanism struck, because it was like watching a movie, and the sounds came from far away – as if they were wrapped in cotton. However, there was something that cut through everything – and it was all the horses that screamed in pain and fear. If you have heard a horse scream, then that is a sound that you will not forget. There was carriage upon carriage with horses thrown into the river, and the sound of screams was only cut off by shots. The Germans went from carriage to carriage and shot the horses. On the other side of the river, there were set up cattle wagons with planks to sit on. Here we sat and rocked back and forth all the way to Formofoss. Grandfather met us by horse and sleigh. He was surprised that I did not greet him, but ran over to the horse “Svarten” and hung myself around the neck of the horse. I think he understood that later. The blasting of the Jørstad Bridge has been described as the biggest sabotage at the end of the war. This may be true if you look at the extent of the damage. There have been many different estimates. Some estimates suggested that almost 100 German soldiers and 100 horses had been killed. (2) This is a strong exaggeration. According to Tor Bush (1), there were 48 horses and 78 Germans that died, but several were also so badly injured that they died later. The bridge was only 30 meters long and 5 meters high, and the speed of the train was no more than 40 – 50 km/h, so it is strange that the extent of damage was so great. Trapphagenl (3) describes the incident in detail. He has had a thorough review of both Norwegian and German archives. He writes: Troop train 7762 left Grong station at 0610 on 13 January 1945. There were 31 carriages with 166 men and 48 horses. The train weighed 370 tons. This was more than allowed for the locomotives they had. The locomotive driver refused to drive, but was ordered. This was going to cost him his life. A passenger train with 30 Norwegian passengers was supposed to leave first, but was stopped. One can imagine what a tragedy it would have been for the saboteurs if it was this train that had come first, and at a much greater speed. As we know, Operation Woodlark was responsible for the blast. Second lieutenant Oddvar Østgård led four men: Harald Larsen, Jon Moan. Ludvik Krukse and Robert Andersen. It made a big impression on me that Jon Moan, after the troop transport ended up in the river, exclaimed: “Damn, we weren’t supposed to kill people!” Thus even an experienced soldier in Company Linge – reacted with horror at the outcome of the sabotage. He had obviously only imagined that they should destroy a bridge to delay troop transports.
Of the 31 wagons, 17 ended up in the river valley and of the 166 men, only 17 were completely unharmed. As stated previously at least 78 died there and then, and several died later from the injuries. All 48 horses had to be killed on the spot. The Norwegian locomotive driver and the stoker both lost their lives. The train-conductor and his assistant who sat at the back of the train, survived. I came to know Gunnar Jørgensen well, and he gave me an answer to several of my questions.When it dawned on me that this was an action carried out by Company Linge, the curiosity and interest I have since had for this company’s efforts in Norway – and especially in Trøndelag – was awakened. I have given several lectures about Company Linge in Historical-Societies, military associations, veterans clubs and the like. During the war, Grong was an important military hub on the “Nordlandsbanen” – it was the railway connection to Namsos. Around the railway there were several permanently manned air defense positions. Almost 3000 Germans were stationed in three large camps, Formo, Ekker and at Grong Gård. At Mediå there was a police department, and here were also Russian prisoners of war. At Formofoss, police forces were stationed. Here was the road junction to Lierne and the Swedish border. Our farm was located towards the forest and the mountain Tømmeråsfjellet so that from there you could get over to Sweden without getting close to any settlement. Just wilderness all the way. A lot of traffic went that way both to and from Sweden. Second lieutenant Oddvar Østgård – who later led the blasting operation at Jørstad – came from Sweden over Tømmeråsfjellet – early in the war and started building up the Milorg groups, the Norwegian resistance groups, in Namdalen. At the very end of the war, several Germans tried to escape the same way over to Sweden. Those who were taken, were shot as deserters by their own. This happened right behind the barn on our farm. I was held indoors but heard the shots and saw that the bodies were being carried away. I also remember well that the released Russian prisoners had their victory party brutally interrupted by a large boulder which after an explosion went straight through the roof where they stayed and killed several of them. Father spoke some Russian and had been used as an interpreter – so he knew several of them. This accident added sorrow to the joy in May 45. Many of my experiences have been remembered by me as being exciting and interesting. Much was remembered as a black-and-white film – without much sound (with the exception of the horse-screams in the Jørstad river). Later in my own military service, as a company-sergeant I understood that the soldiers needed something more competent than the priest and the company-sergeant to talk with when they had problems. I then started my education to become a psychologist, and as part of this I underwent training in trauma treatment, and then the old experiences from Jørstad Bridge came to life again in my memory. The scenario was a true hell – with an intense smell of burnt coal and wood, flames and screams of more or less mutilated soldiers who had been thrown into the riverbed and lay in the snow and ice on the river. The horses lay and kicked between broken carriages. The Germans who went around firing, shouted their orders terribly loud to be heard above all the noise. It was the smell of oil, coal and fire that were the first to come back to me from this memory – which had been preserved for over 25 years. I could tell about this when we celebrated the 70th anniversary of another primarily Norwegian sabotage group that participated in Operation Rype at Værnes in 2015. I was then awarded a commemorative medal by “Commander Sergeant Major” Gary Luke.
There are still some Americans who believe that it was a crew from Operation Rype who participated in the sabotage of Jørstad Bridge, and it always takes some explanation to clear up this misunderstanding. I have a suspicion that much of this misconception is due to a number of interviews with Lieutenant Helgesen in the years after the war. He was the formal leader of Woodlark, but absent when the sabotage was carried out. The antagonism between him and his next in command Oddvar Østgård is well known. Helgesen left Woodlark and went back to England. He returned to the Snåsa mountains with the crew belonging to Rype. Major Colby had connections all the way to the top and ensured that SOE (Company Linge) was ordered to provide assistance for Operation Rype – This despite great opposition from the Norwegian High Command.
1) Bush, Tor: Motstandskamp
2) Hjulstad, Ole: Krigens dagbok
3) Lindgjerdet, Frode. 70års jubileum for Operasjon Rype.
4) Trapphagen og Solhjell: Fra krig til fred