by Cindy Stewart in Heroes, Heroines, and History
Although Norway was neutral during WWII, Nicolai Rygg, the director of Norges Bank where the nation’s gold reserves resided, made preparations in case Norway should fall or a crisis develop. Early in 1940, Rygg brought in volunteers to pack bars of gold in white painted boxes and seal them with iron bands. Bags of gold coins were packed in smaller kegs. Of the 421 million Krone stored in the bank, 300 million was shipped to the United States. The rest was left in the vault because Norwegian law did not allow all the gold to be removed from the country at one time.
After Rygg learned that German warships were headed up the Oslo Fjord on April 9th, Rygg contacted General Laake, the Commander-in-Chief of military forces, who ordered Rygg to immediately evacuate the gold to the bank in Lillehammer. Moments later, Rygg learned that the Germans already occupied major cities but hadn’t reached Oslo (the sinking of the Blücher kept the Germans from seizing the capital for an extra eight hours).
|Norges Bank at Oslo 1906-1986. Courtesy of Norges Bank.
Twenty-six trucks were chartered from local merchants, and the drivers were directed to the side entrance of the bank but were not informed about what they would be carrying. Bank guards were placed close to the bank to keep inquisitive eyes away, but the military was not used to avoid drawing attention to the operation. The bank employees loaded the gold.
Each truck, along with two armed bank guards, drove away immediately after loading so there was no convoy to draw the attention of the Luftwaffe. The first truck left at 8:15 AM and the last truck shortly before 1:30 PM. German soldiers marched down the main street of Oslo at exactly the same time, and the Norwegian commander of the Oslo garrison surrendered the city at 2:00 PM at the Akershus Fort, only a couple hundred yards from Norges Bank.
The gold shipment totaled 818 large crates, 685 smaller crates, and 39 kegs of gold coins. Lillehammer was 115 miles from Oslo, and the trucks traveled over snow-laden roads. Vehicles and pedestrians fleeing the capital slowed down the trucks, and people became angry because the trucks didn’t stop to help them. The last truck arrived at the bank in Lillehammer at 8:00 PM.
The bank employees in Lillehammer tucked the gold away in their vault; however, they could only unload the cargo when the Luftwaffe wasn’t flying over them. The media picked up on the activity and broadcast that trucks of gold were arriving in Lillehammer. A Trondheim newspaper also reported on the shipment, but the Germans did not pick up on the reports. The Royal Family, the Norwegian government, and the Norwegian gold had escaped for the time being!
The gold remained at Lillehammer for ten days while the Norwegians barricaded the roads and kept the Germans from advancing. Rygg checked on the gold twice and on the second trip, he asked the bank manager, Andreas Lund, to memorize the numbers to the vault lock. Frequent bombing raids forced the bank to close and wait to reopen until the planes disappeared.
On April 14th, 15 German transport planes dropped about 180 lightly armed paratroopers in the Dombås area, northwest of Lillehammer. They were spread over a wide area, and the Norwegian troops successfully killed or captured them over a five-day period. This kept the railway lines to the north and the west coast open.
In the mean time, it became obvious that the Germans could overtake Lillehammer at any time. Oscar Torp, the Norwegian Minister of Finance, tasked Fredrik Haslund, Secretary of the Labour Party, with transporting the gold from Lillehammer to the port of Åndalsnes where the British Royal Navy could take it safely away. On April 17th, the British—determined to assist the Norwegians in ousting the Germans—had landed a large number of troops and equipment at three Norwegian ports—Harstad, Namsos, and Åndalsnes.
At midnight on April 19th, orders came to open the bank vault door. Unfortunately due to fear and anxiety, Lund had a difficult time getting the lock to the brand new vault open—it had only been opened once before and Lund was operating by memory. He finally succeeded with the code a little past 1:00 AM.
Haslund had recruited the Lillehammer chief of police who assembled 30 volunteers who met at a secret location at 10:00 PM. They were armed with spades and shovels so they would appear to be preparing to dig trenches. Instead they were quietly transported to the bank and loaded the trucks which took the gold to the railway station, a short distance away. The gold was loaded onto the wooden railcars. A small group of soldiers was ordered to accompany the train, but the men weren’t told what they were guarding. They soon figured out the contents because of the Norges Bank initials displayed on the outside of each container.
The train left Lillehammer at 4:00 AM with its lights dimmed in case any Luftwaffe aircraft flew over. When dawn approached, the bullion train stopped at Otta and pulled onto a siding to wait for a safer time to proceed. Later, a train arrived at Otta Station from the north with three carriages full of British soldiers who had their thumbs in the air. The Norwegians were encouraged. Little did they know what dangers lay ahead.
The story will continue on February 1st.