Hydro at Mæl in 1925
|Port of registry:||Oslo, Norway|
|Route:||Tinnsjø railway ferry|
|Launched:||10 December 1914|
|Out of service:||20 February 1944|
|Fate:||sunk by SOE (Special Operational Executive) in World War II|
|Length:||53 m (174 ft)|
|Installed power:||2x 186 kW steam engines|
SF Hydro was a Norwegian steam powered railway ferry that operated in the first half of the 20th century on the lake Tinnsjø in Telemark. It connected with the two railways Rjukanbanen and Tinnosbanen, at Mæl and Tinnoset, operating between 1914 and 1944. The combined track and ferry service was primarily used to transport raw materials and fertilizer from Norsk Hydro's factory at Rjukan to the port in Skien. It was the target of a Norwegian operation on 20 February 1944, when resistance fighters sank the ferry in the deepest part of Tinnsjø in order to prevent Nazi Germany from sending heavy water to Germany.
The railway ferries operated a 30-kilometre (19 mi) route connecting Tinnosbanen and Rjukanbanen. Transport included both railway cars, carrying primarily fertilizer, potassium nitrate and ammonia from Norsk Hydro, as well as passengers.
Hydro was the second ship delivered for the service; the initial ship, SF Rjukanfos, had been delivered in 1909 but soon proved too small for the service. Hydro was ordered from Akers Mek. Verksted on 19 July 1913 on a bid of NOK 268,000; in the end the cost was NOK 334,293. It was launched on 10 December 1914, but rebuilt and relaunched on 5 June 1915 as the original configuration used too much coal.
Hydro was larger than its predecessor, at 53 meters (174 ft) with a capacity of 493.60 gross tonnes. Like all the railway ferries it had two parallel tracks, which merged at the front to allow a single track to enter the ship; total track length was 80 metres (260 ft), allowing twelve wagons weighing 300 tonnes as well as 120 passengers. It was equipped with two steam engines, each at 190 kW (250 hp), giving it a cruise speed of 8 knots (15 km/h).
The German occupation of Norway (1940–1945) during World War II made Rjukanbanen the area for a crucial struggle between the Norwegian resistance movement and the Third Reich. In February 1940, before the occupation, the entire Vestfjorddalen and the docks were closed to foreigners. On 4 May 1940 German troops reached Rjukan, a month after the invasion of Norway had started. The ferries were camouflaged and by January 1941 lack of coal resulted in the steamships being fired by wood.
One of the byproducts at Rjukan was the production of heavy water—a key component in nuclear weapons, and necessary as a moderator in German nuclear designs. The hydrogen plant at Vemork was the first mass producer of heavy water, and in 1939 the German company IG Farben, owning 25% of the shares in Norsk Hydro, asked for permission to import five liters of heavy water into Germany, later denied due to a lack of an export licence. In 1939–40 production at Vemork was 20 kilograms, by 1942 production had increased to five kilograms per day.
The first attempt to halt the production from the resistance movement was Operation Grouse in October 1942, which failed when the Germans caught the plotters. As a consequence passenger transport after 7 April 1942 from Ingolfsland Station to Rjukan was only permitted for soldiers, police, workers at the plant and schoolchildren. All filled ammonia wagons were stored indoors in a tunnel under heavy guard. On 16 November 1943 the United States Army Air Forces bombed the hydrogen plant; the attack killed 21 civilians but failed to damage the heavy water plant as it was located under seven stories of reinforced concrete.
The Germans decided to cancel production of heavy water at Rjukan and move the remainder of the potassium hydroxide— from which the heavy water was distilled – to Germany. The resistance movement was aware of this plan, and considered blowing up the train at various places, but instead chose to target the ferry Hydro.
To minimize the civilian losses, Kjell Nielsen at Norsk Hydro delayed the tapping of the potassium hydroxide one day to allow the shipment to be carried on a Sunday. On Saturday 19 February 1944 the plant director Bjarne Nilssen informed the railway that a wagon with potassium hydroxide would be sent with train number three the following day departing from Rjukan at 8:55 and connecting with the ferry from Mæl at 9:45; the shipment would arrive at Tinnoset at 11:35. NSB car Lf4 no. 32628 was loaded with 39 barrels, of which five 70-kilogram (150 lb) barrels were to be unloaded at Notodden. The wagons were set up at Rjukan on the Saturday, but failed a weight check, and part of the load was transferred to wagon L-84. The wagons were stored overnight with a single guard.
That same evening two civilians, Jon Berg and Oskar Andersen, were guarding the Hydro. The saboteurs Alf Larsen, Knut Lier-Hansen, Rolf Sørlie and Knut Haukelid waited a few kilometers from Mæl and broke into the ferry quay by cutting through a fence. They entered the ship, but were discovered by one of the two guards; Lier-Hansen indicated that he was a worker and wanted to sleep on board, in the end convincing the guard. Sørlie and Haukelid went below deck to the keel where they spent two hours placing 8.4 kilograms (19 lb) of plastic explosive; they placed it in a circular formation 3.6 metres (12 ft) long. The explosion would blow out one to two square meters (ten to twenty square feet) of the hull. The saboteurs left the ship unseen; Larsen and Haukelid left for Sweden while Sørlie left for Hardangervidda.
According to Anthony Cave Brown in Bodyguard of Lies, Haukelid concluded after a trial run that the explosives would be most effective if placed in the bow. If holed near the bow, the ship's screws and rudder would quickly be lifted out of the water, leaving the captain and crew without control. Haukelid also determined that "[t]he explosion had to be big enough to sink the ship, but not so severe as to cause casualties among the passengers and crew." He carried the bomb, made from eighteen pounds of Nobel 808 plastic explosive and two fuses fashioned from alarm clocks, on board in an old sack.
The timing was set to cause the ship to sink at the deepest part of the lake, but close enough to shore to allow any survivors a hope of rescue. The weather was calm; the temperature was −9 °C (16 °F). On 20 February 1944 just before reaching the lighthouse at Urdalen the bomb exploded; the ship immediately headed for land. The ship's crew failed to loosen all the lifeboats, and there were no instructions available for using the lifebelts. By the time the crew left the bridge, the ship had tilted so much that they could walk down the side. At 10:30 Hydro sank, settling on the bottom at 430 metres (1,410 ft) depth. Farmers from across the lake were soon in their boats and came to the rescue of the crew and passengers.
In all, eighteen people were killed; twenty-nine survived. The number of dead included eight German soldiers, the crew of seven, with the remainder being passengers. Some of the Norwegian rescuers felt that the Germans should not be saved, but this attitude did not prevail and four German soldiers were saved. All but one of the twelve passengers below deck died during the sinking. Eight days after the incident SF Rjukanfos went out to the place of the sinking for a memorial service.
Post war interest
In 1948 the film The Fight Over the Heavy Water was made, depicting the various sabotage actions including the sinking of SF Hydro, featuring some of the original saboteurs. In 1965 a British-American film, The Heroes of Telemark depicted the same events, though in a less accurate way. In 2015 the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation produced the acclaimed 6-episode TV miniseries The Heavy Water War. Post war, a monument in memory of the dead has been raised near the location where the ship sank.
In the early 1990s the wreck of Hydro was found by a mini-submarine. 600 kg of heavy water were also found on board, leaving no doubt that Hydro was indeed carrying the heavy water the day it was sunk. Two of the barrels have been salvaged, and one of them can be seen at Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum at Vemork, Rjukan. Analysis of the contents of one recovered sealed barrel (No. 26) confirmed that they contained heavy water.
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 50–56
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 84
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 196
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 102–04
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 104
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 105–06
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 106–08
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 108–09
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 109
- Brown, 1995: 375
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 109–15
- Payton and Lepperød, 1995: 115–16
- Payton, Gary & Lepperød, Trond (1995). Rjukanbanen på sporet av et industrieventyr. Rjukan: Maana Forlag.
- Brown, Anthony Cave (1975). Bodyguard of Lies. Guildford, Connecticut: Lyons Press.
- Private web site on ferries on Tinnsjø (Norwegian)
- Worldwide Shipwreck Database entry on Hydro
- Norwegian Home Fleet WWII (Norwegian)