Norwegian Resistance sinks troopship with timed mines

Norway had been under German occupation since 1940.
Norway had been under German occupation since 1940.
British deception plans had forced Hitler to keep many troops in Norway, waiting for an invasion that never came.
British deception plans had forced Hitler to keep many troops in Norway, waiting for an invasion that never came.

Way back in 1940 Churchill had sought to ‘set Europe ablaze’ withe the establishment of the Special Operations Executive which supported resistance groups throughout Europe. A series of very significant sabotage operations against the German nuclear programme had been mounted in Norway. Even though Norway now appeared to be something of a backwater, which the Germans surely would wish to evacuate at some point, there were some very determined members of the Resistance who wanted to carry on the fight. Attacks on German troops meant fewer men who might be transferred back to Germany to carry on the main battle.

One man who had already been involved in a number of successful sabotage operations, as well as escaping from Gestapo custody when he was arrested in 1941, was Max Manus. On the 16th January he would successfully carry out an audacious attack on German shipping, carrying his explosives into Oslo harbour right under the noses of the Wehrmacht. He did so at a time when the Germans were on high alert for sabotage attempts, with soldiers positioned around the docks with orders to fire at anything floating in the water in case it might be a frogman.

The following report reads like it might be fiction, perhaps from an episode of Mission Impossible, but comes from the Special Operations Executive’s file recommending Max Manus for the Distinguished Service Order:

Manus planned and carried out the operation which saw the sinking of the ship ‘Donau’ approx 9,000 tons and the damaging of the ‘Rolandseck’ of approx 2000 tons.

It was not a straight forward operation as the limpet mines, the rubber boat and other equipment had to be concealed first on a wharf in Oslo harbour that was used for the embarkation of German troops. This in itself was a hazardous operation, but the shear audacity of Manus’ methods saw him through.

Brazen use was made of a well of a lift which led from the deck of the wharf to the lower platform whereby the equipment could be stowed. To get through the guard entrance at the dock a decoy vehicle was used with the occupant creating a nuisance of himself with the guards.

The second vehicle, with Manus and packed with all the equipment was then waved through … the ruse had worked. But to Manus’ chagrin the wharf was full of Germans. However, fortune favours the brave and with great daring, and in full view of the Germans, the equipment was unloaded close to the lift. The car was then driven out of the dock.

Later, when the wharf was clear of Germans, the equipment was stowed away in the lift and taken down to the lower section. Manus was aided by two loyal Norwegian workers.

The plan was to attack a large, heavy transport ship, but Manus had to wait some days until a suitable target presented itself. On the 15th January the ‘Donau’ arrived from Aarhus and Manus made the decision to attack her (NB. The ‘Donau’ had previously been used to transport Jews from Norway to Germany whereby many of them were taken to Auschwitz where their lives were sadly and cruelly taken).

Early next morning, Manus, with a helper met with his dock contact, but the man was not at all optimistic. The water surrounding the wharf was full of floating ice, a German soldier had recently fallen in and a search was in progress and finally a number of horses had been tied off to the door entrance which led to the lift. Manus decided to carry on.

Manus and his companion, Roy Nielsen dressed in full British battle-dress with over 100 metres of cordtex tied around their waists, but all concealed under boiler suits, approached the dock guard and proceeded to take part in a comic sketch to aid them through the gate…

Nielsen ‘slipped’ on the icy ground, much to the amusement of the guard … it worked, though, and they were through, despite a cursory inspection of their papers.

Once again the sheer audacity and bravery of the Norwegians had come to the fore. However, the atmosphere was still tense as the guards that were posted on the wharf to protect the ‘Donau’ regularly aimed their rifles and shot in to the water at anything that was suspicious.

Fortunately, the horses had been embarked and the door was clear to enter. The lift was positioned so that the two men could slip underneath it. Looking through a small chink they could see Germans approaching, but all the Germans wanted to do was to get out off the wind. There was at least 8 degrees of frost and it was exceptionally cold in the biting wind. After a while the Germans moved on and Manus’ contact on the docks carefully locked the door.

A rope ladder was let down amongst the wharf timbers but soon the rungs were full of ice: the rubber dingy was also lowered and blown up to the covering tune of a German sergeant drilling an unfortunate squad.

Eleven limpet mines were care fully loaded in to the dingy along with two Sten guns, ammunition and grenades in case they had to fight their way out of any trouble. The two men removed their boiler suits and stepped into the dingy in preparation to pushing off. However, a German patrol boat pulled up alongside the wharf and began a searching amongst the timbers.

Manus and Nielsen laid low in their boat daring not to breathe, but the Germans were not the most observant and soon left. After a suitable period waiting for the all clear the intrepid duo pushed off.

The going was tough as they inched their way forward through the ice using oars and an axe. Navigating carefully alongside the ‘Donau’ they placed their limpets aft of the engine room. With all the limpet mines in place they made their way back to the wharf, but then noticed the ‘Rolandseck’ arriving on the other side of the wharf.

Manus knew this was too good an opportunity to miss. Despite both men being soaked through and very cold, they fetched the one remaining limpet from their improvised store. The German patrol boat returned once again, but as before it failed to spot the armed Norwegians and once it had moved off the duo paddled their way alongside the ‘Rolandseck’ and planted their limpet on its side.

During this operation the ‘Donau’ left its mooring moving into open water with two tugs attending alongside. This meant that light now streamed under the wharf making it even more hazardous for the men as they returned, but to their relief nothing untoward happened and they made it safely back to their timbered shelter.

The dingy was disposed off by knifing and the men once more donned their boiler suits. Suddenly, the sound heavy steps approached the door way and then men stood ready with their Sten guns cocked for action, but to their immense relief it was their contact who had come to open the door. The men stepped out on to the wharf and made their way past the guard at the dock entrance who again laughed at Nielsen’s unfortunate earlier ‘accident’. Manus and Nielsen stepped aboard a tram and made their way home.

At 22:00hrs the ‘Donau’ was in the sound just off Drøbak having just dropped off her pilot. The Captain had just increased speed when the explosion occurred. The Captain attempted to beach the ship and ran her ashore at full speed with crew jumping off in all directions. Despite the beaching the ship settled at the stern and sunk in 25 metre of water’.

It is not known how many casualties there were aboard the Donau, although a large amount of equipment was lost, as well as many unfortunate horses. Roy Nielsen was to die in a Gestapo round up of resistance fighters on 4th April but Max Manus managed to evade the same series of raids. He went on to be awarded Norway’s highest military honour the War Cross, for the second time, for his part in this raid. Read more about his career at

Max Manus, a leading member of the Norwegian Independent Company, a group within the British SOE.
Max Manus, a leading member of the Norwegian Independent Company, a group within the British SOE.
The SS Donau which was being used by the Germans as a troopship. Earlier in the war she had been used to transport Norway's small Jewish population to Germany - almost every one of them was subsequently murdered in Auschwitz.
The SS Donau which was being used by the Germans as a troopship. Earlier in the war she had been used to transport Norway’s small Jewish population to Germany – almost every one of them was subsequently murdered in Auschwitz.

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