Book review: ‘We Die Alone,’ by David Howarth
Special to the Daily
There is no shortage of heroes and heroic deeds remembered from World War II: Stories of daring rescues, epic battles and moving liberations fill the history books. But, as is common in such a long and encompassing war, countless tales of struggles of brave men and women have slipped through the cracks; many would be forgotten if it were not for books such as David Howarth’s “We Die Alone.”
Written in 1955, it is the true account of the extraordinary survival of one expatriated Norwegian in the isolated, Nazi-occupied region of arctic Norway, after his commando team’s tragic failed mission to aid the Norwegian Resistance.
In 1943, eight sailors and four soldiers set out on a nearly impossible journey with an even more difficult goal. Disguised as fisherman, the 12 Norwegians set sail from England during the dark days of Hitler’s occupation of their country. They hoped to pass unseen and land in the remote northern reaches of Norway, with the intention of outfitting and aiding the war effort from land. In a deceptively well-armed fishing vessel, the men know that their mission has a high likelihood of failure, and their objective is clear — to land unseen or die in the effort, destroying any evidence that they carry information and resources to aid the Resistance.
In gripping detail, Howarth paints vivid imagery of the wild and unforgiving landscape in which the men find themselves. With spring’s thaw not yet upon them, the high mountains feed icy water into the remote reaches of the fjords, where the men must find sympathetic locals willing to risk their lives to support them. Things go quickly awry, of course, and this true story’s real hero emerges after the men must destroy their booby-trapped fishing vessel when a German patrol happens upon them.
All souls are lost, either captured or killed, save one. Jan Baalsrud finds himself on the run, suffering from severe frostbite and with an angered Nazi platoon alerted to his presence. Not sure whom to trust, and aware that spies, either German or local Nazi sympathizers, could be behind any door, Baalsrud knows his best chance at survival is to take to the mountains and find his way to Sweden, a simple enough task as the crow flies but an epic ordeal in his condition and with winter’s grip still holding tightly to the frigid land.
With one bare foot, no food and otherwise ill equipped for an overland journey, Baalsrud knows he has no choice but to trust in the local population, many of whom are members of the very resistance movement he has been sent to aid. But, in times of war, the first instinct is to protect one’s own, even if it means sacrificing someone else. Baalsrud discovers this bitter truth the hard way and is betrayed. Nonetheless, aside from the few who dare to report one of their own countrymen, there are countless others who come to his aid, risking their lives and the lives of their families, knowing full well that the Germans would not hesitate to mete out swift and severe punishments, should they be discovered.
After the initial acts of faithlessness and furor, the rest of the book is a whirlwind survival adventure in the high arctic tundra. Baalsrud’s sheer will to persevere is astounding and nearly superhuman. Countless times, just when the reader is sure he is dead, Baalsrud is assisted by a team of compassionate saviors, and his unimaginable journey toward the safety of neutral Sweden inches forward, through deep snow, avalanches and one unfortunate circumstance after another. Truly an extraordinary reading experience, “We Die Alone” will stay with you long after the last pages of the book are turned.
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