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New Heroes of Telemark
11:50am Monday 11th March 2013 in National Sport
IT IS REGARDED as the most successful act of sabotage during the Second World War. Against all odds, six courageous Norwegian members of the British Special Operations Executive braved temperatures of -40C across a frozen wilderness to deal a serious blow to Nazi attempts to build an atomic bomb.
The February 1943 operation cost the lives of some 30 British commandos. Some were killed when two gliders crashed while attempting to land in Norway, and others were captured, tortured by the Gestapo and shot.
The operation that blew up the heavy water plant and saw the team escaping on skis inspired the 1965 movie The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris.
Now, 70 years on, 12 fearless men, including severely injured servicemen, will follow in the footsteps of the heroes to honour their bravery thanks to the New Forest charity Pilgrim Bandits.
This Friday, they will set off for the epic two-week Arctic expedition to become the first group including amputees to retrace the journey across the treacherous Hardanger Plateau, which in winter resembles the polar ice cap.
Among those who will make history will be the most seriously wounded soldier to survive the Afghanistan war – the remarkable Lance- Bombardier Ben Parkinson, 27, who lost both legs and suffered more than 40 injuries including brain damage – and 23-year-old Rifleman Paul Jacobs, the only injured serviceman to return from the conflict having completely lost his sight.
Too many people put too many obstacles in the way by saying I can’t do that, or it’s not achievable. Well, it is achievable. Everything is, it is how you go about achieving it.Mike Witt
Coordinating the expedition is New Forest granddad-of-two and the charity’s founder Mike Witt, who hopes the team will be met on the final night by the last surviving saboteur of the original mission 93-year-old Joachim Ronneberg.
Mike, a former martial arts instructor who was employed by the MOD for 14 years, runs Pilgrim Bandits from his New Milton home providing vital support to injured veterans. While many others his age are looking forward to retirement, 60-year-old Mike is determined to prove there is nothing wounded service personnel cannot do.
He said: “It’s never been done before, and it is not often you can say those words.
“It is an extreme environment and it will be horrendous but it is all about pushing your physical boundaries.”
Paul, who was awarded the George Medal for his bravery in helping his comrades when he was blown up by a bomb in Helmand Province, and is supported by the charity, agreed but said it would be an honour to pay tribute to the saboteurs.
He said: “It’s about pushing the wounded to our limits and paying respect to the original mission 70 years on. It will be tough but I know mentally I can do this.
“Pilgrim Bandits makes it possible to have routine, and be pushed. If we don’t have that, we would break down emotionally – a busy soldier is a good soldier.”
The £50,000 expedition is made possible by members of the public who volunteer for challenges to join the ex-servicemen raising vital funds.
Among the men in the team is Gary Jones, a 49-year-old retired policeman who served 32 years in the force and will lead Paul.
“I’ve done a lot of outdoor expeditions and things have got more extreme over the years but this will be a privilege,” he said.
“It’s going to be hard enough for able-bodied people to do this, it was hard for the originals, so for these injured lads it will be tough but I’ve every confidence they are going to blast it. It is inspirational to see them breaking boundaries.”
But that is the motto of the charity which was set up in 2010. And with the help of volunteer coordinators around the world, it raised £120,000 in its first year – and this year has raised £240,000. Mike was inspired to set up the charity to change the lives of young injured service personnel following the death of his son, Darren, who was killed aged 19 in a road traffic accident in 1998.
Mike said: “You want in some way to immortalise the name, so everyone remembers, because it hurts so much to you and you can’t understand why nobody else is feeling the same.”
Since it was created, Mike has served his son proud by organising and completing gruelling challenges across the world, from trekking across the Sahara to climbing Kilimanjaro, leaping from aircraft and kayaking the Viking Way in Norway.
The challenges are all different but one thing stays the same – the drive that Mike gives the team.
He said: “It is important to have challenges in life, personal goals, and we didn’t feel enough was being done for the injured lads.
“My background has made it easier because I know what is achievable. Too many people put too many obstacles in the way by saying I can’t do that, or it’s not achievable. Well, it is achievable. Everything is, it is how you go about achieving it.”
For more information, visit pilgrimbandits.org
To support the Telemark team go to http://www.justgiving.com/Team-Pilgrimbandits
THE SECOND WORLD WAR ‘HEROES OF TELEMARK’ RAID AT A GLANCE
Code name: Operation Gunnerside Where: The Norsk hydroelectric plant perched on a steep ravine 660ft above the River Maan in Telemark, southern Norway.
When: February 27, 1943 Background: An earlier attempt to destroy it ended in failure when some of the gliders carrying the team of 30 Royal Engineers crashed. Those who escaped were captured, tortured and killed.
Who: In the second attempt, the Special Operations Executive gambled on a sixman squad of Norwegians, who parachuted in and met up with four surviving members of the previous mission.
The attack: To avoid the guards the commandos climbed down one side of the ravine, waded across the icy river and scrambled up the other side reaching a railway track leading to the plant. One group smashed a window and the other crawled through a cable duct. They placed explosive charges on the heavy water chambers and set 30 second fuses before dashing out. They used cross country skis to make the 250-mile journey through snow storms into neutral Sweden, escaping 3,000 German soldiers sent to search for them.
Achievement: Around 1,000lb of heavy water and equipment was destroyed, thwarting Germany’s chances of developing a nuclear bomb.