Book Review: We Die Alone
We Die Alone is the miraculous survival story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian commando infiltrated into northern Norway in the late winter of 1943 with a mission to disrupt or destroy Nazi communication and air assets. The four man English trained unit arrives at a remote island in a disguised commercial fishing boat laden with explosives and arms smuggled inside herring barrels and fish boxes only to be betrayed by collaborators who alert the Nazi occupiers. Everything goes wrong in a brief firefight as the 4 man commando group and the 8 man crew flees to shore under a hail of gunfire. Only Jan escapes up a steep snow slope, shot in the foot and fighting for his life. Thus begins one of the most improbable escape and evasion stories ever to come out of the Second World War.
The author, David Howarth, a Naval officer and British historian was involved in the Shetland Bus, the very SOE operation based in the Shetland Islands that was responsible for this particular tragic fiasco. After the arrival of the doomed vessel at the tip of Norway, nothing more was ever heard again of the fate of the men until much later in the war when it was revealed that there had been one survivor, Jan Baalsrud who managed to escape to neutral Sweden. This is the story of that escape pieced meticulously together by Howarth in a thin book published in 1954.
Howarth had heard of bits and pieces of the saga during the war and found it almost unbelievable and his work to unearth the details was a masterwork in itself. He went back to the area some years later and retraced all the events, photographing and interviewing not only Jan Baalsrud but all of the Norwegian farmers and fishermen who concealed Baalsrud and help him reach the Swedish border. The photographs in the book showed the heroic Norwegians and their Fjords and villages and even include some pictures of a memorial climb by Baalsrud and three of his rescuers a decade later. The final leg was a mad dash across a thawing lake on the border in Lapland being pulled by reindeer with German bullets zinging over their heads.
Baalsrud is clearly a remarkable man but the real heroes were the villagers in these remote hamlets who risked their lives to save him. Above and beyond the call of duty is an understatement and Davis Howarth gives credit where credit is due.
We Die Alone was written almost seventy years ago and deserves much wider dissemination and remembrance. IT is extremely well written and suspenseful and is a page turning extravaganza which will lock the reader from beginning to end. I couldn’t put it down.