Thursday, 10 May 2012
At the road’s end: Gunnar Sønsteby (1918-2012), Norway’s greatest war hero
He was born on 11 January 1918 and was working as an accountant when war came to Norway. He is generally believed to be the young man with the bike standing in the foreground of the famous photo of the citizens of Oslo passively watching the German troops march down Karl Johan Street on 9 April 1940.
But Sønsteby did not remain inactive long. He took part in the fighting outside Oslo that spring and soon joined the illegal press as well as acting as courier for between Norway and Sweden. He was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and became something of a spider in the network of resistance groups. From the spring of 1944 he led the so-called Oslo Gang, which carried out crucial acts of sabotage against the occupants and where described by the British historian William Mackenzie as “the best group of saboteurs in Europe”.
Gunnar Sønsteby often said that he believed his ability to get away had something to do with how ordinary he looked. It was only towards the end of the war that the Gestapo finally succeeding in revealing his true identity. “No 24”, “Erling Fjeld” and “Kjakan” were among the cover names he went by; the latter eventually becoming the name under which he was known to all Norwegians.
During the war King Haakon instituted the War Cross, which ranks as Norway’s highest decoration (above even the Grand Cross and Collar of the Order of St Olav) and which is awarded for exceptional gallantry during war. Gunnar Sønsteby was alone in being awarded the War Cross three times, making him the most decorated citizen of this country. He also held a multitude of other Norwegian and foreign honours.
In the summer of 1945 Gunnar Sønsteby led the group of resistance fighters who took care of the royal family’s security upon their return to Norway. When one of his men, Erling S. Lorentzen, eventually married Princess Ragnhild in 1953, Sønsteby acted as best man at the wedding.
Following the war Gunnar Sønsteby worked as a businessman. After he reached the age of retirement he began a new career as a travelling time witness. Unlike so many of his friends and fellow resistance fighters, he had lived to tell the tale and was determined to do so. Until he was well past ninety he toured this country from one end to another and back, talking about his wartime experiences, but also the values of democracy. He was known for his ability to hold groups of unruly teenagers completely spellbound. For this voluntary work he was created a Commander of the Order of St Olav by the King in 2006.
Gunnar Sønsteby also wrote several books and contributed to many other works. He was, however, occasionally criticised by revisionist historians for holding too firmly on to the “official” war history, i.e. the one most agreeable to the war veterans. Sønsteby himself maintained that there were many secrets he would take with him to his grave.
Sønsteby could regularly be seen in the streets of Oslo (he was a slow driver and a fast walker) until last autumn, when his health began to give way. At the end of April it was announced that Sønsteby would be the first recipient of the new decoration the Military Cross of Honour. But on Liberation Day two days ago, Sønsteby was absent from the ceremonies at Akershus Fortress; nor did he attend the unveiling of a statue of himself in his hometown Rjukan the same day.
His death had hardly been announced before the first flowers were laid at the feet of the statue of him erected a few years ago in Oslo’s Solli Square, while tributes were led by the King and the Prime Minister. The government has decided to give him a state funeral.
On a personal note I remember meeting him in the Bird Room of the Royal Palace while we were both waiting for an audience with the King. “Sønsteby”, he said, extending his hand – obviously an entirely unnecessary introduction of himself. His physical presence was small, but his legend filled the room.