Escape from Norway

“Karstein’s gone!” 

His mother wept.

“How will I know he is safe?  If he is caught he will be shot.”

Karl wrapped his arms around her,trying to give comfort, but failing miserably.  He and his wife were illiterate and he had never told Karstein how much he was loved and how proud of him they both were. Karstein had done so well.  He was distraught at the thought he would never see him again.

For weeks Karstein and his friends had planned and organised how to make an escape.  Should it be over the mountains to the north or steal a boat and take the huge risk of sailing down the Høgsfjord in the dark, passing close to the harbour at Stavanger?  They chose the latter.

It was a moonless night when they set out.  Karstein kept to where the shadows were deepest, carrying a heavy knapsack.  He made his way along the road by the fjord, listening out for any unusual noises.  Making his way down to a dilapidated old barn which was the pre-arranged meeting place, he gave a signal and waited for a response.  His friends were already inside and soon they made their way cautiously down to an old fisherman’s landing stage at the edge of the fjord.  A fishing boat was tied up to its mooring and awaiting them was a fishermen known to Karstein.

“You must make it look as though you have stolen it, so tie me up.” Insisted the fisherman.

Timing was crucial, as the boat was due to head out to the fishing grounds the next day.  After tying him up they climbed aboard and cast off.   Karstein’s hands were shaking and a mish mash of thoughts hammered through his brain.  Was Sigurd right?  Should he have stayed and joined the resistance?  They were bound to be caught, this was hopeless.

An engine would alert the German patrols, so using long oars they rowed to the other side of the fjord where there was nothing but steep mountain slopes – no easy feat in the dark as it was a mile wide.  His muscles screamed and sweat soaked his inner clothing;  he winced and his anxiety grew each time the oars hit the water.  ‘splash, smack, splash, smack.‘ 

Hugging the side of the fjord, but not so close that the rocks would not tear the hull of the boat, they made their way down towards the sea.  There were hair raising moments when patrol boats passed up the fjord, but by three o’clock the next morning the island of Isdal had been reached.  Now they had to negotiate the channel which cut between the island and the mainland.     The currents grew stronger the nearer they got to the sea  and they negotiated a myriad of small islands which dotted the coastline.  As this terrain was remote they decided to chance switching on the engine. Nerves were stretched to breaking point and communication kept to a minimum.

Anger spurred Karstein on.  He had left his family, his way of life and his homeland.  He believed at this point that if he could get his hands around a German’s throat, he could squeeze the life out of him.

Depending on the vagaries of the weather, it would be at the very least a two day crossing when they reached the North Sea.   All they carried were casks of fresh water and tinned food.  If they were caught now they all knew they would be sent to forced labour camp or face execution.

As darkness gave way to light they realised they would be easily visible, so they decided to lay up and rest in an isolated inlet and wait until darkness once more before attempting the crossing of the North Sea. Mooring as close as they could to an overhanging rock to hide from enemy aircraft, they took turns on watch while the others slept.

Night came all too soon and with the engine started, they began the hazardous crossing.  Karstein was on constant alert.  Was that a periscope?  What was that shadow/object/movement?  His heart was beating abnormally loudly, his stomach was doing somersaults and his breathing was laboured.  Hunger gnawed at him and despite his layers of clothing, he was freezing cold.

As the hours slowly passed, the sea stayed fairly calm.  In other circumstances Karstein would have relished the sting of the salty air and the smell of the sea carried on the wind.  Ships appeared on the horizon but never came near.  His eyes grew weary with the strain of keeping watch for enemy shipping, aircraft and mines  Then, the engine coughed and spluttered several times, creating alarm among the mariners.  As the first day  drew to a close and darkness approached once more, the temperature plummeted alarmingly.  Karstein’s lips were cracked and dry and his energy levels were at an all time low.  His brain felt sluggish, his clothes sodden and his body was numb.  Exhaustion was taking its toll.

By the second morning the storm clouds had rolled in and the weather worsened.  Bitter gusts of wind ripped at their clothes and the rain was relentless.  The boat rolled from side to side and the timber planks creaked and groaned.  The crew were by now bailing out constantly and as the waves grew higher, the boat plummeted down into the troughs only to rise again on the crests of the waves.

Then disaster struck, the engine spluttered one last time and died.  Karstein the engineer could not fix it.  His hands were so numb he could hardly hold anything in them.  They were left to the humour of the sea, holding on tightly to anything that was bolted down as the boat tossed around like a cork.    Had they escaped from the Germans only to succumb to the weather?

As quickly as it had come  the storm died and with it took all their remaining strength to hoist the small, torn sail and keep sailing west.    Food and water was diminishing when a ship hove into view.  Karstein’s heart stopped while he strove to see if it was friend or foe.  He felt sick to his stomach, the waiting seemed endless.

A fishing vessel – but whose?

“Ahoy there!”

English!

With a remarkable stoicism born from endurance they hauled themselves upright, signalled, shouted and managed to gain its attention.  They laughed and sobbed with relief simultaneously knowing that their ordeal would soon be over.  They were safe!

KARSTEIN HAD WON HIS BID FOR FREEDOM

To be continued…

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Prologue – Invasion of Norway Oltesvik 9th April 1940

As Karstein never spoke of his wartime experiences, much is unknown about some of the exact events in his life.  For example,  there is no record of how he escaped from Norway or where he landed in Britain.  I have therefore had to fictionalise certain areas,  the  names of his fellow escapees, his training in England and obviously the dialogue throughout the story.

The context in which it all took place is real, as are his war time experiences and the sinking of his ship the Tunsberg Castle, plus the meeting of his wife to be.

I suppose then that you can call this story fiction based on fact.  I am not a natural story teller, so please bear with me.  It is the man in the story that counts.  All mistakes are my own.

Karstein Karlsson Øygard  was born in Oltedal, a village in the municipality of Gjesdal, Rogoland, Norway, on 17th January, 1914, so he was 26 years old when Germany invaded Norway.

 

“Karstein!  Karstein!  Wake up!”

It was 2 a.m. on 9th April 1940, the second week of Karstein Øygard’s leave from the Norwegian merchant Navy.  He was visiting his family home in Oltesvik, Norway, and had been drinking with old friends well into the previous night.  He groaned and refused to open his eyes as the overhead light went on, instead rolling onto his side.

“Karstein, for God’s sake wake up you great meat head!” 

The voice refused to go away, stopping him from going back to sleep.  A cold douche of water hit him hard in the face.  His intoxicated brain played tricks on him and believing he was drowning he let out a bellowing roar.  His hasty lunge from the bed, found him sprawling onto the floor.  Standing over him with a serious look on his face, was his elder brother Sigurd, an empty pitcher in his hand.

“Have I got your attention now?” Sigurd shouted.

” They’re here, they’re only bloody here!  The Germans have invaded Norway!  

Karstein looked up, peering through bloodshot eyes.  His mouth felt like the inside of a fur boot and a hammer was banging inside his skull.   He swore, stumbled to his feet and with the help of Sigurd, found his previously discarded clothes.   Holding his throbbing head in a meaty hand, he slowly followed Sigurd from the bedroom and down the stairs.

The small parlour was crowded.  Nothing could be kept quiet for long in this tiny hamlet on the Hogsfjord .  Word had quickly spread and neighbours were crowding in while his father was shushing his mother, who was crying into her apron. Some tried to listen to the radio, while others  muttered to each other quietly.

“What is going on?”   Karstein’s deep, throaty voice rasped as he looked around in bewilderment.  He desperately needed a drink of water.  His father turned to him and spoke.

“Oddvar has just come with grave news. A Polish submarine ‘Orzel’ sank a ship full of German troops off Lillesand yesterday afternoon.  Some of our fishing boats picked up survivors who admitted they were German soldiers and on their way to Norway.”  

Karstein’s father Karl was a tall, lean man with a beautiful handlebar moustache favoured by his sons Sigurd and Osmund.  Karstein was only of average height, fairly muscular and strong with a square face and dark hair; a mirror image of his mother.  Taking a long drink of water from the pitcher on the table, which did nothing to slake his raging thirst, he reached for his coat and hat.  Questions churned through his befuddled mind.  Should he report back to his ship?  Could he get to it?  Maybe the fishermen who came in and out at all times of the day and night may have heard more news.

“Where are you going?”  His mother ceased crying and grabbed hold of him.

“I will try and find out more.  Osmund can drive me.  Sigurd must stay here and protect you and the family.  You must be brave mother and save your tears for what is to come.”  

 

 

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

History is the story of people and when events in history interlink with someone in your family… well… it cannot be ignored.  My father in law Karstein Øygard is one of those many unsung heroes of the second world war who have gone entirely unnoticed as individuals.  He was one of those ordinary men, leading ordinary lives, when fate took a hand.  His story is not the stuff of legend or film, but of the hardship, endurance and suffering encountered by thousands of men and women during war time.

The Battle of the Atlantic and Arctic Convoys during World War 11 are fast fading from memory.  The exhausting and dangerous nature of life on board a corvette, the men who not only risked, but gave their lives to bring food and much needed supplies to the British Isles and Soviet Union, are nearly forgotten.

This story is about putting a name to one of those faces.  Karstein did what he had to do.  He survived U boat attacks in the Atlantic, and the sinking of his ship the Tunsberg Castle, in the icy waters of the Arctic Circle.  More importantly he survived to see the liberation of his home country Norway.  Oh, and he found love!

I never met Karstein.  My husband and his siblings say he never spoke of his wartime experiences.  He, like many others, hid this dark side of his life, while retaining the memories.

Connecting the strands of Karstein’s story and researching the Battle of the Atlantic and the convoys to Russia has taken a long, long time and I have to particularly thank :-

The Norwegian Department of Navy and Defence

War Sailors.com

The Royal Naval Museum Book of the Battle of the Atlantic – an oral history by

Chris Howard Bailey

Numerous internet sites.

Now… let the story begin.

Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do.  There can be no courage unless you’re scared – Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823 – 1886)

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