Great Survival Stories: Jan Baalsrud Evades Nazi Dragnet

Survival
Jan Baalsrud's will to survive made him a role model of the Resistance during World War II.

One of the greatest escapes of all time

Picture a man swimming several hundred metres through ice water, bullets whizzing about him. One bullet shears off a big toe. He then runs barefoot through snow until the gunfire dies out. And that is just the beginning.

Jan Baalsrud’s 1943 escape from Nazi-occupied northern Norway is the stuff of astonishing individual courage — an almost bottomless will to survive — but also a larger kindness and humanity. During two months in which he attempted to escape into neutral Sweden, he was buried in an avalanche, amputated his own frostbitten toes with a penknife, battled starvation, went snowblind and groped around until he accidentally bumped into an empty cabin where he took refuge, and was under constant threat of capture and execution.

Eventually, through the support of local villagers who put their own lives in danger to help him, he found freedom and went on to live a relatively normal life until his death in 1988 at the age of 71.

Baalsrud was born in Norway’s capital city (now Oslo) in 1917. Like many other boys of his time, he came from modest means –- the son of an instrument maker. He completed military service at 19, and when World War II broke out, he went to serve his country.

After Germany took hold of Norway, the country’s politicians, royalty, and many civilians fled to safer countries. Baalsrud relocated to Sweden where he re-trained in spy tactics. Eventually, he arrived in Britain, where he was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and trained in sabotage operations.

Jan Baalsrud.

Baalsrud, 25, had three years of military experience behind him when he set off with 11 other men on a covert mission to Norway. His assignments: swim underwater, fastening explosive devices (limpets, or magnetic bombs) to German seaplanes, and to recruit Norwegian resistance fighters.

When the crew sought contact with the Resistance, they made a life-altering mistake. In a case of mistaken identity, they spoke to a civilian who had the same name as their contact. Fearing for his life, the man reported them to German authorities.

A German patrol boat attacked their ship. Baalsrud and his men hastily detonated all eight tons of explosives they had with them, then jumped aboard their dinghy, and sought to flee.

The Germans opened fire, sinking the dinghy, forcing all the men overboard into the freezing Norwegian water. Baalsrud swam to shore and saw that all his comrades were either in German custody, facing certain death, or were killed on the spot. Only he had managed to escape and he would certainly be killed if caught.

Baalsrud faced a grim reality. He was now stranded in enemy territory, aware that anyone who might help him would be killed if Germans found out. He had only one boot, his soaked clothes were beginning to freeze, and he didn’t have any provisions. Worse, he didn’t have a plan.

Somehow, he had managed to retain his handgun, a small Colt still firmly in its holster. When he noticed a soldier gaining on him, he pulled it out and fired a handful of failed shots before a final successful one killed his enemy.

On foot, wearing only one boot in the snow, he stumbled upon a house and took the risk of banging on the door. He was in luck: The house belonged to a family who bravely took it upon themselves to help the stranger. Baalsrud had no choice but to trust them.

Baalsrud’s route.

From then on, he was passed among families, reliant on kindness and goodwill. To minimize the risk his presence posed, he promised to never mention where he had come from, or who he had seen.

A kind fisherman gave him new boots and a pair of skis. A father grieving the loss of his own innocent child rowed him in a dinghy through the night. Another warded off a German soldier while keeping him hidden, and a midwife offered to disguise him as a woman in labor. He was shielded from German soldiers and shunted between villages, desperately trying to cross into Sweden.

He eventually found himself at the foot of Jaeggevarre, a 900m mountain near the Lyngen River. Passing over the mountain was critical to his escape, but he was ill-equipped for such a venture.

A blizzard set in. To help know which direction in which to walk without falling off a cliff, he made snowballs, listening to the sound they made as they hit the ground. Next, an avalanche swept him down into a valley, buried up to his neck and stripped of his skis and boots. His feet frozen, he spent three days wandering aimlessly in the blizzard. A further snowstorm entombed him for another four days. Ill-equipped as always, he braved the elements under open skies.

When the weather finally cleared, he was snowblind, hallucinating, and crippled with frostbite in his toes. Finally, his luck began to improve, when stumbled on Furuflaten, a small village between Mt. Jaeggevarre and the Lyngen River.

A desperate Baalsrud banged on the door of a house, uncertain whether friend or foe lay behind it. Narrowly escaping the clutches of Nazi soldiers who were just one door away, he was taken in by a family who helped him to freedom. By now, Baalrud’s fortitude had made him a symbol of Norwegian resistance, and the occupying Nazi army redoubled its efforts to capture him. Helping him was extremely perilous.

For days, the generous people hid him in a remote barn. While he awaited their delayed return with provisions, his toes severely deteriorated. The threat of gangrene increased every day, forcing Baalsrud to do the unfathomable: He used a pocket knife to slice off the tips of his toes and amputated his big toe to save the rest of his feet from infection.

In this barn, the family of Are and Kjellaug Gronvoll hid Baalsrud from Nazi pursuers during his escape to Sweden in 1943.

Eventually, the family returned and moved him to another town, where he waited for over two weeks in a cold, dark, cave in the Skaidijonni Valley.

By now, Baalsrud was on the verge of suicide. His remaining toes were succumbing to frostbite, risking severe infection. One lonely day inside the cave, he took out his pocket knife again and amputated the rest of them.

He was weakening by the day, in the grip of starvation and reliant on the goodwill of others. Now unable to walk unaided, he wondered if he would be best to end his suffering and ease the risk to those helping him. At one point, German soldiers even searched the barn where he was hiding, but he managed to evade detection staying quiet in the loft.

But something inside him kept fighting to survive. An unimaginable strength and resilience had taken hold of Baalsrud. Barely alive, he continued to resist. A normal man in many ways, he had a genius for survival.

Over the next weeks, local villagers coordinated to assist him safely from place to place. He lay tied to a stretcher as they stealthily took him through fiords and dragged him up and down snowy mountains. When the mountains became too steep, they enlisted a local carpentry teacher to build a sled to carry him.

Eventually, traveling by reindeer sleigh, with his pursuers now hot on his tail, he made it through Nazi-occupied Finland to Sweden. He was deposited into the care of the British Red Cross, weighing barely 35kg.

It took six months for Baalsrud to regain strength and learn to walk without toes. When he did, he moved to Scotland and trained resistance fighters. Once his country was liberated in 1945, he was reunited with his family in Oslo for the first time in five years.

Brave visitors can attempt the grueling route that Baalsrud took, now marked on certain maps with a small red “B”. The trail begins in Toftefjord, then zigzags south up and down mountains, across rivers, before finally ending at the border shared by Norway, Sweden, and Finland. During winter, the route has proved impossible to travel: When two commandos once tried, they needed to be airlifted out partway through their journey.

A small museum in Furuflaten commemorates Baalsrud. It houses some of his possessions, including the skis he lost in an avalanche.

A small, discreet museum in Furuflaten commemorates Baalsrud’s story. It houses a few of his recovered possessions, including his skis which were found in 1943 at the bottom of a gully, and hidden until the end of the war.

The museum tells the story not of a man lucky enough to escape death, but instead that of kindness and humanity. Inside sits a stuffed fox with a sign in Norwegian that says, “I saw him, but I didn’t say anything.”

David Howarth’s book We Die Alone (1955) retells Baalsrud’s story and was made into a film soon after its release. Years later, in 2017, a film called The 12th Man explored a new version of the events.

Ballsrud’s ashes are buried in a grave in Manndalen that he shares with one of the local men who helped him escape.

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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S R
S R
26 days ago

Incredible courage and determination. It’s time to check out the movie!

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Tahir Saban
Tahir Saban
15 days ago

Interesting story, but mount Jaeggevarre (aka Jiehkkevárri) is over 1800 meters high (I was there last year).

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