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?
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…