With the exception of the Bible, there are scant few subjects that have been more studied, referenced, and written about than the Second World War. Much of this fascination is due to the event’s clashing of the ancient with the modern. It was the last (so far) of the old wars where the world’s most massive armies faced off and slaughtered each other in an even match (at least approximately). And at the same time, the advent of technology facilitated an incomprehensible scale of devastation. As a result, heart-wrenching mayhem swept over much of the planet and really set us on a course toward an entirely different world. not only geo-politically but socially and psychologically.
In any event, there are so many books about World War 2, one could read just those for the rest of his life. I went through my WW2 phase during high school like just about every other teenage boy. After that period, my interest in the subject became more analytical and so the personal stories, to some extent, went by the wayside, and were replaced by attempts to dissect exactly what happened, why it happened, and how we can avoid it happening again.
But to maintain perspective, the individual experience has to come into place now and then. I ran across David Howarth’s We Die Alone, and decided this could serve that purpose. In 1940, Germany invaded Norway to solidify Nazi control of Europe. One Norwegian in particular, Jan Baalsrud, fought against the invaders, until, though through a series of close-calls, he ended up in Britain in 1941; wondering when he would ever get to return to his homeland and when the Nazis would be driven out, if ever. Backed by his military experience and his heritage, Jan joined an elite commando unit that was sent into northern Norway, with the task of training the local population for insurrection and ultimately the destruction of a significant airbase. But before the team even reached mainland, past a network of islands, the Germans had captured or killed everyone but Jan.
Jan, himself, narrowly escaped, climbing up an embankment of ice and snow, with only one shoe on. He then ran several miles through more snow, swam through the icy ocean to another island and then swam further. We Die Alone is the story of Jan’s escape from the Nazi hunting-parties.
His story plumbs the depths of despair and anguish on every aspect of the human condition. Not only was Jan exhausted for months, he was frostbitten, sick, gangrenous, emaciated… He thought of taking his own life with his pistol, but found himself too weak to go through with it; so cold was he, and so fatigued, he couldn’t even clean away the rust that prevented the weapon from firing.
Desperation is so rare in the modern life that we marvel at such a horrifying and true tale. For this reason stories like Jan’s are fascinating to us, because if the author can tell them well, we can for a fleeting moment imagine a taste of the experience and try to consider what we would be capable of doing facing those trials.
And tell it well Howarth does. So powerful are his descriptions of the fierce climate that one can almost hear the howls of the blizzards as the sentences rush past. Howarth doesn’t so much ‘fancy up’ the sentences as isolate them with stark language, in a sense illustrating the barren landscape, blanketed in snow and rippled with towering glaciers. Impassable cliffs are all the more ominous because Howarth doesn’t wax eloquent that it cannot be overcome; he simply states the fact. Yet altogether, the tone leaves one with a detailed sense of how precariously Jan’s life was sustained, and how harsh was the environment that, by all accounts, should have killed him several times over.
This book is an adventure and while bleak, it also retains a strong air of hopefulness. The Norwegians who helped him along the way (at great personal risk), the providence which kept him alive for almost a week alone in a blizzard when no one in their right mind would have expected him to survive, and the mere fact that he survived at all (sans nine toes he had to cut off himself) remain obelisks of strength. We may wonder how we will get through a rough patch in our lives. But then, it’s all a matter of perspective and having read We Die Alone, I hope that I have gained some. You ought to as well.