Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review of We Die Alone by David Howarth (1955, reprinted 2010, Canongate Press)

In March 1943 a fishing boat sailed into Norwegian waters high above the Arctic Circle near to Tromso. On board were 8 crew, 4 Norwegian commandos and several tonnes of supplies and arms. The mission was to land the commandos and the cargo, make contact with local resistance leaders and to train them, and to attack a German airbase used to patrol the north Atlantic and the northern passage to arctic Russian ports. They find their original landing site patrolled by German craft so head to a new island 30 miles to the north. There, their attempt to make contact with local allies goes disastrously wrong and they are betrayed. Attacked by a warship, only one man, Jan Baalstrud, manages to get away, swimming to shore in freezing waters and climbing up a snow gully to the top of steep fjord walls whilst under fire. Baalstrud has already had an eventful war. When the German’s invaded Norway he worked with the resistance, eventually being arrested by the Swedes whilst operating an escape route. He was imprisoned, then deported, travelling through Russia and eventually making his way to England via Bulgaria, Egypt, Aden, India, South Africa, America and New Foundland.

Heading across the island pursued by search parties he’s lost one shoe and sock, and one toe has been shot off. He realises that the only way to avoid capture is to take to the water again and swim across a sound to another island. There he is taken in by sympathetic family, warmed up and re-clothed. The son then rows him to another island and provides the names of potential helpers. He then spends four days crossing the island by foot to seek help; the second leg in Baalstrud’s quest to cross Norway and enter neutral Sweden. It is a journey of 40 miles, but it takes him 68 days.

During that time he goes through a living hell, trying to survive in sub-zero temperatures with no tent, no fire, sun-blindness, frostbite, and gangrene. He spends nearly all of it on his own though he is helped by and passed between a number of different villagers, who know that Baalstrud’s compatriots on the boat had been shot by the Germans and four people who helped them sent to a concentration camp in Germany. When his physical condition deteriorates the only way to the border is for villagers to carry him across the snow covered mountains. Unfortunately, once up over the first peak the weather halts progress. Unable to carry him down again, they leave him sheltering under a boulder, expecting him to die. He remains amongst the snow and blizzards for 4 weeks, visited every 3 or 4 days by villagers. During that time he is constantly wet and frozen and loses half his body weight and all his toes except one. That he survives at all is simply remarkable. He basically refused to die. Even more amazing is that once he’s recovered, he returns to England, volunteers to go back to occupied Norway, and ends the war fighting with the Norwegian resistance.

Howarth does an admirable job in researching and telling Baalstrud’s story. It is a remarkable read - one of those survival against all odds stories that stays with you. I was hooked from the first page to the last. My only quibbles are with the surface stuff - I’ve no idea why the book is titled, ‘We Die Alone’ (since he didn’t), nor why it has the cover it does (he didn’t have a rifle, he saw no planes, the landscape is wrong), and the book badly needed a map of the journey (I managed to find one here). But this is minor stuff. The narrative and story is compelling. First rate stuff. One of those books that affirms that humans can be amazing creatures – both in endurance and community. Thoroughly recommended.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Can I post this on Friday?