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Raining in the mountains

The story of six Canadian men trapped in Nazi-occupied Norway

Devon Biddle holding a photo of his father and four of the other airmen.

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

War leads to many things – hate, despair, pain – but sometimes there are stories which give hope, and shine a light on the good of people.

One such story took place 75 years ago during the Second World War in Norway.

Six Canadian soldiers were behind enemy lines after Cpt. Gordon Biddle crash-landed their plane outside of the small village of Os.

They were on the run from Nazi soldiers, who were attempting to hunt them down. But with aide from Norwegian civilians, they all escaped with their lives.

In a war which saw 70 to 85 million deaths, this was the only time a group of soldiers stranded in enemy territory all made it home safe.

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the incident, Devon Biddle reflects on the life of his father, and the time his parents rarely spoke of.

The senior Biddle was born in Windsor in 1918, and he enlisted in 1940 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“Dad was good at math and science, so he did achieve the promotion to pilot,” says Biddle. “He was always very proud of being a pilot, but he didn’t talk very much about the war.”

He explains his mother hated the war, as they married while Gordon was enlisted.
“From 1941 almost to 1945, he was overseas, and they were apart,” says Biddle. “I think that one of the most difficult parts of that time was when she got this ‘missing in action’ telegram – missing, presumed dead – it was pretty stressful.”

The Second World War began in 1939 with Germany’s refusal to leave Poland.

Although the Nazi-led nation had already invaded many countries, its refusal to end the invasion of Poland sparked the war.

The war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender in May 1945, and the death of Fuhrer Adolf Hitler a month earlier.

Several countries surrendered to the over-powering force of the German army – including Norway.

Yet, even though Norway’s military surrendered, the people themselves didn’t, as they resisted.

Biddle emphasizes the importance of the Norwegians who helped his father, saying they are the real heroes of the story.

Crash site, 1966 return to Norway to thank the helpers. From left: Maurice Neil, Kjell Harmens, Harvey Firestone (front), Helen Mowinckel Nilsen, Magnus Askvik.

“My dad crashed the plane without hurting anybody, but they were really secreted away for two weeks in the mountains and caves by the Norwegians,” says Biddle.

He explains they crash-landed outside of Os in the fall, so the weather was colder and “miserable.”

His mother got rid of notes and anything else which reminded her of the war, so it wasn’t discussed much growing up.

After the war, Gordon went to the University of Toronto for engineering.

“There were actually so many servicemen enlisting that they had the school in Ajax,” says Biddle.

Biddle doesn’t remember the war, as he was born in 1945, but it’s played a role in his life.

He quips there may have been some correlation with the time he was born and when the war ended.

“Dad was dad – he was a good dad,” says Biddle. “He never swore. Worst thing he would say would be ‘jeepers’ or ‘cripes.’”

He never had a bad word to say about anyone, says Biddle, including the Germans.

“The Germans were the enemy in World War II, but he praised the Germans for being smart,” says Biddle. “You had to be smarter than them. There was so many bad things which demonized them, but from his point of view they were smart, and they just had to be smarter.”

The senior Biddle died in 1993, and the younger believes it wasn’t his time.

“But it happens,” he says with a hint of sadness in his voice.

Gordon died after suffering from complications that developed while he had leukemia.

Today, Biddle lives in Oshawa, and followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming an engineer.

“[I have] two brothers, and a sister,” explains Biddle. “One brother, Anthony, he lives in Oshawa, my sister, Tammy, lives in St. Thomas, and my youngest brother, Ken, is also a civil engineer and lives in Calgary.”

But before starting a family, for Gordon, there was war, and there was Norway.

On Sept. 26, 1944, Cpt. Biddle was piloting his Wellington aircraft over the North Sea. He and his team were searching for German submarines off the coast of Norway when one engine caught fire.

After throwing out all unnecessary equipment, mines and fuel, Biddle and his team were forced to crash land after the second engine went out.

The only living member of the crew is Harvey “Red” Firestone, who wrote about his time in Norway.

Biddle provided Firestone’s manuscript to The Oshawa Express.

He describes the crash in a way some might believe impossible.

The plaque in Norwegian, English and French, mounted on its heart-shaped stone. On Sept. 26, 1944 an R.C.A.F. 407 Sqn Vickers Wellington with a flight crew of 6 crash-landed here. They contacted MILORG who kept them safe then sent them back to England on O1944.

“As the crew braced themselves, Biddle swung the plane around into the wind,” writes Firestone. “Without power, at over 100 knots, he attempted to make a wheels up landing on what appeared to be the only spot possible. We barely missed flying into a house that was in our path as we came down. We did hit a cluster of trees which were a few feet in front of the house with our port wing, shearing branches about six feet from the ground. Biddle brought the tail down first to slow us up and then jammed the nose in. We slewed around and came to a very sudden jarring stop, having landed in approximately 65 feet.”

After attracting a small crowd of Norwegians, Firestone felt relief to find the crew had escaped the crash with only minor injuries.

After destroying the plane and attending to any wounds, Firestone says the group of Norwegians had grown to 30 people.

“None of the gathered group attempted to help or impede us, obviously fearful of what their actions might bring from either the German authorities or the resistance movement,” he writes.
They were made aware of a group of German soldiers on a nearby hilltop.

Magnus Askvik, a teacher in the village, directed the airmen towards the mountains in the east.

In a document provided by Biddle, which was translated from Norwegian, it’s explained Askvik was pointing them in the direction of Bjornen.

They then rid themselves of their Irwin jackets and flying boots, as they would have identified them as enemy soldiers. They also turned their battledress jackets inside out to look more like locals.

“I do believe that any German or Quisling spotting us would readily have taken us for what we were, six airmen on the run,” writes Firestone.

After reaching Bjornen, they met Marta Bruaroy and Inge Bjornen.

Bruaroy brought them to a small cave in the forest, and returned with Bjornen to give them food and water.

Einar Evensen had heard about the plane crash and he was interested in finding out what happened to the six Canadians.

Upon further investigation he was asked by Bjornen’s father, Hans, to help the Canadian airmen escape Nazi occupied Norway.

Bjornen and another local, Johannes Ferstadvoll, took the six men to Trynevika in the dead of night.

Evensen and his helpers then took over.

After being ferried by rowing boats across the fjord (a deep, narrow and elongated sea or lakedrain, with steep land on three sides), they were housed in a summerhouse in Strono with a German garrison facing them on the other side of a narrow strait.

A German commander was using the house at the time, but he was in Germany on leave.

They were there for four days, and spent their nights in the house, and their days hiding under a tarpaulin in the forest towards Husfjellet.

After being shipped around Norway some more, they hid in a hunting cabin in the mountains between Os and Samnanger.

Evensen then used his boat to move the Canadians from Sorstrono to Lonningdal.

The boat was rigged to look as though it were a fishing boat looking for tuna.

The trip first went across the fjord towards Vinnes.

Above are the telegrams telling Cpt. Gordon Biddle’s wife he was missing in action, and when he was found safe.

There were three men visible on the boat, including Cpt. Biddle.

A German patrol boat created some concern among the travelers before changing course.

They made a brief stop for Evensen to tell one of his colleagues he had “six sacks of potatoes” with him.

They used code because the Gestapo, the German spy syndicate, was searching for them, and they did not know who to trust.

Eventually they were moved to a cabin, where they spent a few days before moving on.

After a few misunderstandings, and caution in radio communications between Norway and England, the voice on the radio said, “keep the meatballs warm.”

This meant the airmen were to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.

At noon on Oct. 10, Lars Orrebakken took the Canadian airmen on his boat as well as one other man.

They navigated through German watch boats and submarines before reaching Khjopmannsholmen, where there was an old boathouse.

They were then told to wait there for a boat from Shetland.

After a three day delay due to bad weather, they received the message, “We walk on rubber shoes.”

Escape was on the way.

The next day, according to the Norwegian account of the event, everything stopped in Os, Samnanger, and Austevoll for a moment when they heard “It rains in the mountains” over the radio.

The Canadians had made it back to England and were safe.

Later on, it was learned there were roughly 4,000 German soldiers looking for the six airmen.

Biddle will soon be heading to Norway for a commemoration of the rescue.

“There’s 50 of us going back, which is a good representation of the families… just to thank the Norwegians,” says Biddle.

This was the only time in the Second World War where everybody in a crew this size made it home safely and unharmed from an emergency landing in occupied German territory.

Biddle wishes to emphasize the work the Norwegians did to save his father, noting no Norwegian citizen gave up the airmen’s position despite enduring torture and extreme duress from the Germans.