Easter evening 1945: Two southerners on a top secret mission die when their plane crashes in the Orkney Islands. The operation they were part of may have shortened World War II by several months.
ARENDAL / FARSUND / KIRKWALL:
– There are still remains here. It’s been a while since I’ve been here now… yes, look here!
William Shearer does not need many seconds to find the first piece of metal from the crashed plane. The merchant with above average interest in local history has taken Fædrelandsvennen to a height one kilometer outside Kirkwall center, the capital of the Orkney Islands. This is exactly where the black-painted B-24 Liberator plane went down 72 years ago.
– There were almost no buildings here at the time, says Shearer where he stands on a small plot of land surrounded by residential houses on all sides.
He looks up at the cloudy sky and shows us where the plane came from in the morning hours of March 31, 1945 – on the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean.
Some said they heard the engine roar in the seconds before the plane hit the ground, others described the deafening noise when the accident was a fact. One witness claimed to have seen the approach and what was the pilot’s last desperate attempt at a successful emergency landing. Others claim that the plane was shelled from the ground because it was thought to be an enemy bomber.
– According to the accident report, the pilot tried to make an emergency landing, but one of the wings hooked onto a telephone pole, spun around and caught fire, Shearer says.
At 04.50, the plane hit the ground and sealed the fate of 13 of the 14 on board. The only one who survived was co- pilot Peter Pulrang , who was allowed to parachute just in time. Leif Meland from Farsund and Gjerulf Ottersland from Arendal were not so lucky .
The soldiers were on a secret mission to the US intelligence service, and died in service just five weeks before World War II was over.
Saved countless lives
Meland and Ottersland sacrificed their lives during “Operation Grouse”, which involved delaying the German troop transfer from Norway to the continent in the last days of the war.
– It shortened the war by several months that the Germans were not allowed to deploy hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the war further south. The operation cost many lives, but saved countless others.
Gerald Ottersland (54) sits in the living room at home on the family farm in Arendal and tells about his uncle Gjerulf . He has for many years been interested in his uncle’s past, and has collected a lot of documentation in the form of letters, photos and war medals.
– He was the eldest of ten siblings, and was born here on the farm in 1920. After primary school, he took a year at Birkeland Folk High School, corresponding to today’s high school. He was tall and strong, and got a lot of small jobs on the farms around here, strong as he was. It has been said that he carried 100 kilos of flour sacks up in the attic of the neighbor all alone, the nephew says.
Stopped angry pig
Another time he is said to have stopped a fight by lifting the two fighting cocks in the neck:
– He took one in each arm! He must have been raw, I have been told. The best story is probably the time he saved my father, his brother, from an angry pig. He averted the attack by running a plank into the pig’s mouth, says the nephew and chuckles.
On September 29, 1939, tough uncle Gjerulf traveled on the sea with his cousin Kristoffer Kristensen. They were hired on the cargo ship “John P. Pedersen” from Staubo, and the trip went to Great Britain. During the stay, the cousins parted ways , and Ottersland sailed to New York with “Leiv Eiriksson”, where he got a home address with his uncle and aunt in Brooklyn.
– Gjerulf patterned on board a ship bound for Africa, and worked as a machine man. But the ship was torpedoed, and even though his uncle came unharmed from the incident, he did not want to work at sea anymore after this, says Gerald Ottersland .
When the United States became involved in the war, Gjerulf enlisted in the service after first working for a time at a shipyard in Brooklyn. He received American citizenship in 1942, and ended up in the so-called battalion 99, among other things because of his language skills.
Battalion 99 consisted mostly of Norwegians and Norwegian-born Americans. To become part of the battalion, one had to know Norwegian. The main training camp was Camp Hale, Colorado, and numbered over 1,000 men. Like my uncle, many of them were stranded sailors, says the nephew.
It was also here that Leif Edvin Kristiansen Meland from Farsund ended up after a few years at sea.
– He was the second youngest of a sibling group of seven then, and was born in Skagelia , which lies against the old Herad border and belonged to Lista municipality. In 1918, when uncle was four years old, the family moved to Meland, the neighboring farm to Saudland , where grandfather was born, says nephew Leif Jarle Kristiansen (67).
The bomb in Narvik
He says that his uncle worked in Farsund before he went to sea in 1935.
– He mustered on the Farsunds boat « Annavore », where he worked for about three years. The last time the family saw him at home on Meland was in a confirmation in 1938, says Kristiansen.
Later, the uncle ended up on Brøvig’s ” Cate B”, which was actually in port in Narvik on April 9, 1940. The boat was torpedoed by the Germans on the first day of the war. Meland escaped to England via Lofoten, but his nephew knows little about where he stayed or what he did before traveling across the Atlantic.
He had siblings in America, and lived with his sister Agnes and her husband Pål in Queens, New York. He could not return to Norway, but was offered to continue sailing or enlisting.
Meland chose the latter.
– In fact, my uncle changed his last name from Kristiansen to Meland before he enlisted. We have never received an answer as to why he did it, but one theory is that he would protect his family in Norway should he be captured by the Germans, says the nephew.
Meland was enlisted in battalion 99, where Ottersland from Arendal was already.
When the American authorities set up a special unit for sabotage and intelligence, the two southerners were recruited. The unit was named the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and was a breakthrough for the intelligence service in the country. While the various branches of arms had not previously cooperated with each other, and even refused to exchange information with each other, the US was a great success.
– This is the direct precursor to today’s CIA, and it was actually William Colby , who later became head of the entire agency, who led Operation Grouse of which our uncles were a part in 1945, Ottersland and Kristiansen say.
The Norwegian soldiers were gathered in the OSS Norso group , which was to operate in Norway and Scandinavia, and were sent out on life-threatening missions. Operation Grouse was no exception, and a third of the approximately 90 men who participated lost their lives.
– Despite large losses, the operation was successful. They succeeded in delaying large numbers of German soldiers from moving to the fighting further down in Europe. Among other things, sabotage was carried out against the railway network, and on one occasion a German troop transport train ran into a river, says Gerald Ottersland .
The training took place at various bases, and the soldiers were trained in both winter and jungle warfare, and became experts in sabotage, explosives and weapons handling. The nephews say that the men could handle “everything” of weapons.
In the shadow of Milorg
– We know little about what happened in the years between 1942 and 1944, and there was also a veil of secrecy over everything that was done in the US. But we know that Battalion 99 took part in D-Day in Normandy and the Battle of the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the coverage in the Norwegian media has been very modest, and the Norwegians here have undeservedly been overshadowed by the “guys on the show”, where 90 percent of the resistance movement worked from, say the nephews of the two war heroes.
The two believe that Milorg got the credit for most of the resistance work during the war.
– But the fact is that the Norwegians in battalion 99 and OSS did a heroic job, and exposed themselves to just as great danger through their activities, Kristiansen and Ottersland say .
The special building
In 1944, the Norwegians in the Norso group moved to England, and from here the final preparations for Operation Grouse were made. The soldiers knew this could lead to death.
The means of transport across the North Sea was the American-made B-24 Liberator bomber . It was produced in 18,482 copies from 1938 to 1945, and played an important role during World War II. Some of the planes were moderated and adapted for other missions, such as releasing saboteurs, spies and supplies behind enemy lines.
This included the six planes that set course from their base at Harrington in England towards Nord-Trøndelag on Friday 30 March 1945. The planes belonged to the 492nd bomb squad in the US Air Force, and had had their original olive green color replaced with black paint. In addition, almost all distinctions on the planes were removed in order to anonymize as much as possible.
In « Army 331», the plane where Meland and Ottersland sat, there were four more Norwegian, specially trained soldiers. Everyone was to jump out in a parachute over Gjevsjøen in Snåsa close to the Swedish border, and from there carry out sabotage against the occupying forces. On board was also a crew of eight Americans and supplies for the resistance movement.
But a lot went wrong this Easter night. In bad weather, ” Army 331″ never found the drop-off point, and after circling the area for a while, the pilot chose to make a turnaround with a full load. The only survivor, co- pilot Peter Pulrang , later explained how he experienced the mission:
– It was definitely a long and risky journey as far as the weather was concerned. When we came to what we assumed was the drop zone, we quickly found out that it was impossible to complete the mission, he says in the book ” Almost home “.
The pilot made a U-turn, but that was when the real problems started. First, the plane ended up on the wrong course, and had to adjust along the way, and secondly, they were met by an unexpected amount of headwinds and problems with icing. The heavily loaded plane began to run out of fuel after a while, and the pilot had no choice but to drop supplies into the North Sea in an attempt to ease the burden.
Pulrang , who died in 2008, said that two of the four engines stopped working within a few minutes, and that he was the one who sent out an emergency message when the plane approached the Orkney Islands.
But even though there had been no German attack in the area for several months, there was still a real fear of enemy aircraft over the archipelago, and the emergency call from ” Army 331″ was never answered.
– In principle, it was radio silence, so it is not so strange that no one responded to the message. Hatston Airport outside Kirkwall was darkened, as was usual during the war, but the pilot still made an attempt to find the landing strip, says Gerald Ottersland .
Before the emergency landing, it was announced that the crew had to parachute, but according to the log, it probably arrived too late. Only two men managed to jump out, and of these, only co- pilot Pulrang survived , who came from the accident with a broken ankle.
– The pilot probably thought they would get to the airport, and the message to jump came too late. These were trained paratroopers, and if they had been told a little earlier, they would have made it. At the same time, there were only small margins which meant that there was no controlled landing, says Gerald Ottersland .
The plane crashed a few minutes before the gray light – and only one and a half kilometers from the airport.
– In order not to reveal the operation, a large-scale clean-up was initiated. Two days after the crash, the wreck was gone, and the local newspaper had barely covered the incident. Remember that this was a strategically important area, where there had been German submarines and where there was a large prison camp for Italians. Documents were classified, and no one had to know who the soldiers were, where they had been or where they were going. The whole organization could be shaved, says Ottersland .
Just one week after the tragedy on the Orkney Islands – Friday 6 April – another B-24 crashed during Operation Grouse. 12 Americans died when the plane crashed on Plukkutjønnfjellet by Snåsa.
The dead after the plane crash on the Orkney Islands were buried outside Cambridge in the south of England, but after the war, relatives were offered to bring the remains home at the expense of the United States.
– In 1949, the stretcher came home with Uncle Gjerulf , draped with the American flag. He is buried in Austre Moland cemetery, says nephew Gerald.
Leif Meland, who is buried at Herad church, also came home, just a few kilometers from the home he last visited in 1938.
– The graves are permanently protected by the Norwegian state. Our uncles helped save thousands of lives with their efforts during the war. They did not die in vain, Ottersland and Kristiansen say.
Settled in the United States
The nephews say that those who survived the war marched in Trondheim on the day of liberation, and were also guards of honor for Crown Prince Olav, the father of today’s King Harald. Nevertheless, the vast majority chose to settle in the United States after the war, despite their Scandinavian origins.
– They probably felt a strong sense of belonging to the United States and had also connected with their colleagues during the war. There were also far better living conditions there than in Norway, where it was still quite poor, says Ottersland .
Leif Jarle Kristiansen adds:
– The soldiers had the also given a promise of secrecy they could not break, which might be easier to deal with by staying in the US than here.
In the summer of 2015, the nephews visited the Orkney Islands in connection with a memorial ceremony 70 years after the plane crash.
– It was a strong experience to sit in a propeller plane and get low over the Orkney Islands, where my uncle crashed in 1945, says Gerald Ottersland .
Present during the ceremony were relatives and war veterans, including one who remembered the crash.
– A wreath was laid and a hymn was sung, while a priest read. We also handed the Norwegian consul a memorial stone. It will be set up in connection with the development of a residential area that will be built exactly where the plane crashed, Ottersland says .
The memorial stone is made of feather granite from the now closed quarry in Fjæreheia in Grimstad, and survivors of the victims have paid for the 160 kilo stone themselves.
– You can not get more of the granite, as the place is now protected. That makes it unique. Hitler wanted a victory monument in granite in Berlin after the war, but now one is being built in the Orkney Islands instead, Ottersland says .
Sources: “Almost home ”, David W. Earl (2011); “The OSS Norwegian Special Operations Group in World War II”, Bruce H. Heimark (1994)
The memorial stone in Fjære granite weighs 160 kilos, and was bought by Fevik Steinindustri and sent over to the Orkney Islands by boat. Here it stands at the town hall in Kirkwall during the handover from Ottersland’s family to the Norwegian consul. The stone will be set up in Walliwall just outside Kirkwall city center, where the plane with the soldiers crashed in 1945.
You can read the full article (in Norwegian) here Fædrelandsvennen 14. april 2019
The story is also told in the book “Almost home” av David W. Earl.