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Posted on Jun 14, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Danes Resist

By Sterling Rock Johnson

A general roundup of all Danish Jews was ordered for October 1, 1943.  Word spread rapidly throughout the country, and, by nightfall, most of the Jews had disappeared into the cellars, sheds, outbuildings, and basements of their non-Jewish friends and neighbors.  Fewer than 300 were apprehended, more than 7,200 were smuggled out to Sweden in fishing boats.  Thus, Denmark was unique among the occupied countries–as far as is known, not a single Danish Jew died in a Nazi death camp.

A boat used by Danish fishermen to transport Jews
to safety in Sweden during the German occupation.

The abortive German roundup turned the ‘model protectorate’ into a hotbed of resistance activity.  The various resistance factions established a central committee called the Freedom Council to coordinate their activities, and divided the country into six regions, each in direct contact with London by radio.  Soon, sabotage was rampant, and resistance groups were openly ambushing German soldiers and troop trains.  Almost overnight, membership in the organized resistance surged to over 40,000.


While saving the Jews from extermination was the Danish underground’s finest hour, two other operations were to have immense effect on the outcome of the war.  There were the Niels Bohr rescue and Fortitude North.

In the case of Niels Bohr, British intelligence had learned in 1939 that the Germans were actively engaged in atomic research.  Their research was dependent on "heavy water"–deuterium oxide–which was being produced only at the Vemork plant in Norway.  Plans were made to destroy the plant.

The need for attack became more acute when, in October, 1941, MI6 received a telegram from the ‘Princes’ in Denmark.  This group of former Danish military officers provided London with its primary intelligence-gathering apparatus in Copenhagen, and now they relayed a startling message.  The leading German atomic research scientist had visited the Copenhagen laboratory of Niels Bohr.  Bohr was the doyen of the nuclear physics fraternity, having won the Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work, and had split the atom in his laboratory.

It was clear that the Germans were planning to use him to build their atomic bomb.  Winston Churchill demanded that he be brought out.  But Bohr refused.  Fugitive Jewish scientists were working with him, and he believed his work was the best guarantee of their continued safety.

At British direction, Danish saboteurs secretly laid charges in the basement of Bohr’s lab to blow up his work, the records, and Bohr himself, if need be.

Fortunately, the need never arose.  As the Gestapo began rounding up Jews, the protection of the scientists working with Bohr was no longer a possibility.  Bohr was finally convinced by the Danish king to escape across the narrows between Copenhagen and Landskrona, Sweden, by a converted U.S. subchaser.

But the British were not content to have Bohr out of Hitler’s grasp; they wanted him in theirs.  Thus, Bohr found himself on the night of October 7, 1943, stuffed into the bomb bay of an RAF Mosquito.  The unarmed, unmarked, black-painted plane transported him in a harrowing two-hour flight to Edinburgh.  The flight was almost fatal–Bohr nearly died from lack of oxygen.  Upon his recovery, Bohr and his son went to America, and joined the Manhattan Project.  Bohr’s escape, along with the destruction of the Norwegian heavy water project by the Norwegian resistance, ensured that Germany would not be able to manufacture an atomic weapon before the end of the war.

As for Fortitude North, when the Allies decided to invade Europe at Normandy, they saw the wisdom of letting the Germans think the landing would come elsewhere.  Many strategems were undertaken to help fool the Germans into believing other parts of Europe were under direct threat of attack.  One of these was code-named Fortitude North.

Fortitude North was aimed at Hitler’s obsession with Scandinavia, and the plan here was to compel him to keep idle the 27 divisions he had stationed in Denmark, Norway, and Finland on D-Day by threat of a joint British-American-Russian invasion.  Fortitude North also meant to suggest that once Allied armies had secured the Scandinavian peninsula, they would launch an invasion of Denmark, assaulting the Reich from the North.

To support this idea, an entirely fictitious ‘British 4th Army’ was created; it would link up with the nonexistent ’14th American’ army.  Dummy tanks, guns, and planes were constructed.  Fake rosters, uniforms, and insignia were created to be reported by German spies.  Bogus messages were relayed to Denmark to prepared for the invasion.

Other diplomatic, economic, and political campaigns associated with the ruse were extraordinarily successful.  The Fuhrer not only kept his garrisons in the North, he re-inforced them to counter the threatened invasion.

But all was not sham.  At 7 p.m. on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), members of a group calling itself the Middle Class Partisans attacked the huge Globus factory that manufactured replacement parts for German heavy weapons and aircraft.  The Danes wrecked plant equipment with hand grenades, completing the mission in fifteen minutes without the loss of a man.  The German war machine would get no more desperately needed parts from Globus for the rest of the war.

Certainly, the Danish resisters did not have the large numbers involved nor the effect of the French resistance.  But their continued, sustained refusal to knuckle under, by acts of disobedience, sabotage, and even assassination, forced Hitler to maintain large numbers of troops and huge amounts of equipment in Denmark when they could have been used effectively elsewhere.

In resisting the Germans, more than 3,200 Danes were killed.  After the war, the bodies of two hundred Danish patriots were found in a mass grave at Ryvangen near Copenhagen.  The spot has since been turned into a burial ground and memorial park for all Danes who died opposing Nazi tyranny.

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