Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum, Vemork
- darkometer rating: 3 -
This site at a disused hydroelectric power station is not only one of Norway
's most significant industrial heritage sites, with an associated cultural/technical museum, but it is also a place of quite immense historical importance with regard to the course that WWII
took, namely in terms of the development of the atomic bomb
At the time Vemork had the world's key production plant for heavy water (a rare and important moderator substance for controlling nuclear fission). This was a major concern for the Allies as by 1940 Norway had become occupied by Nazi Germany
. So British commandos and Norwegian resistance fighters set about sabotaging the plant, which after a few failed attempts did indeed culminate in success and terminally thwarted any nuclear efforts of the Nazis
. Who knows what could have been otherwise …
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The industrialization of the Rjukan valley began in the early 20th century, and a major part of this was the completion in 1911 of the hydroelectric power station at Vemork, a few miles up the valley from Rjukan town and close to the mighty Rjukanfossen waterfall (in fact partly harnessing its waters' power). At the time it was the largest power station in the world.
The main industry developed in the area (and powered by the Vemork plant) was synthetic fertilizer production. For this a range of technologies were devised that included highly energy-consuming processes to bind atmospheric nitrogen into nitric acid and/or ammonia. (Incidentally, this also makes for a remarkable link to the subsequent demise of the natural nitrate/saltpetre mines in Chile
– see Chacabuco
The Vemork hydroelectric station directly powered an associated hydrogen plant – and a by-product of the electrolysis process employed in it was so-called "heavy water
". This contains the hydrogen isotope deuterium
. It occurs naturally in ordinary water in only a very small proportion (around 0.02%), but is concentrated in the electrolysis process and can thus gradually be collected. Heavy water is not only literally heavier (by ca. 10%), but also denser and has slightly higher freezing and boiling points than normal water. Most importantly, however, it was discovered in the 1930s that highly concentrated (99% almost pure) heavy water is a useful neutron moderator required in controlling nuclear fission. (Hence the term 'heavy water reactor' when this is utilized in the generation of nuclear energy – graphite is another such moderator commonly applied in competing nuclear designs, such as were being developed in the USA
Suddenly this by-product of the Vemork industry became a prized commodity in the nascent nuclear research programmes of the time, especially in Germany
, but also in France
or Great Britain
. However, obtaining heavy water is a very slow process, requiring vast amounts of electric power while yielding the stuff in only minute amounts. To increase production to build up usable quantities, a large hydrogen/heavy water production facility went into operation in 1934 directly adjacent to the hydroelectric power station at Vemork and it became the world's foremost source of this sought-after substance.
After Nazi Germany
in the early stages of WWII
from April 1940, the Vemork plant obviously fell into German hands too. Fearing that this could dramatically increase Germany's chances of producing an atomic bomb
, the Allies came up with plans to sabotage
the plant with the help of a group of the Norwegian Resistance
within the country (initially code-named Grouse). Thus it was hoped to at least limit Germany's access to heavy water (of which very large quantities were needed in a possible nuclear programme).
There were a series of failed attempts during 1942, including special commandos from Great Britain
. The worst disaster involved planes/gliders that crashed off-target in the mountains followed by the capture and subsequent execution of the British survivors by the Germans. The Norwegian team, meanwhile, had to overwinter in the harsh and vast emptiness of the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.
In February 1943, however, another attempt by a regrouped saboteur team (now under the code name Swallow) was finally successful in what became known as Operation Gunnerside. The Germans, meanwhile alerted through the failed sabotage attempts to the fact that the Allies clearly had an interest in the Vemork heavy water production facility, had fortified the plant and upped the guarding of the site. Still, the daring saboteur team managed to climb down the icy steep sides of the deep gorge opposite Vemork and back up the other side, cut their way through the fence and place explosive charges under the electrolysis chambers. With these they not only blew up part of the plant itself but also spilled a large amount of heavy water already produced. Remarkably, all 11 saboteurs managed to get away and flee to safety, despite a huge search operation mounted by the Germans immediately after the sabotage operation.
However, the Germans soon rebuilt the plant and resumed production within just a few months. By this time it was deemed too risky to undertake another on-the-ground sabotage attempt so the USA
resorted to air strikes
. In November 1943 a massive fleet of heavy bombers (figures range from 140 to 300 planes) showered the plant with their bomb load. A large proportion of the bombs missed their intended target and hit other buildings instead, killing 22 Norwegian civilians in what today would be called "collateral damage", whereas the physical damage that the heavy water plant sustained was comparatively limited.
Nevertheless, the air strike was enough to make the Germans decide to discontinue the Vemork plant. Instead they prepared for moving equipment and all the available stocks of heavy water already produced by then to Germany
. As a last resort, the saboteurs then thwarted these German plans by attaching a timed explosive charge to the railway ferry "Hydro
" that would take the precious cargo across Lake Tinnsjø on 20 February 1944. The explosion sank the Hydro in deep water together with the heavy water – but again, a number of Norwegian civilians on board also lost their lives in the process … a sacrifice the saboteurs consciously had to accept. Such are the complicated moral predicaments of sabotage warfare …
It was, however, the ultimate element of the overall success of the whole plan. Germany had to give up on heavy water and with it any hope of a nuclear weapons programme. Because of this impact, the heavy water sabotage in Norway
is widely regarded to this day as the historically most significant instance of sabotage of all time.
On the other hand, though, it remains rather unclear whether Germany
would really have proceeded with such a programme, with heavy water or not. Most sources suggest that any attempts made by German scientists were either half-hearted or doomed to fail in any case, going by what little evidence was found after the war. Another aspect was, of course, that many leading scientists had been driven into exile (e.g. because they were Jews) or were drafted into the army. Moreover, it is assumed that even with all the heavy water produced at Vemork it would still not have been a sufficient amount to develop an atom bomb by the end of the war
Another aspect that is better understood now is that Hitler
himself had apparently not grasped the significance of this new and complex branch of physics and thus failed to provide the German nuclear researchers with the support and financial means necessary for the development of such difficult technology. Instead he kept clinging on to more traditional concepts of weaponry/warfare, which were obviously easier to envisage by this "Führer's" cerebral capacities, such as ever bigger tanks, faster planes as well as mobilizing more human cannon fodder … The most modern technology that the Nazi top brass placed exaggerated hope in were the alleged "Wunderwaffen" ('miracle weapons') from Peenemünde
, i.e. the V1 and V2 missiles
, which ultimately weren't such a success either, though. But they did not really foresee the potential of nuclear weapons.
This misjudgement on the part of Nazi Germany is pretty much universally considered a very good thing for the world. The very thought of nuclear weapons in the hand of the Nazis
would indeed have been an especially terrifying one. As history had it instead, it was the USA
who – mobilizing enormous financial and technological resources – finally managed to actually make an atomic bomb
(see Manhattan Project
). And instead of Germany, which had by then already surrendered, it was over Japan
that this new weapon of mass destruction was subsequently actually used, at the end of WWII
in August 1945: see Hiroshima
After the war, the importance of the industries at Vemork and Rjukan slowly declined, from the 1960s onwards in particular, as other technologies were developed and production facilities moved to logistically better situated locations. The hydroelectric power station ceased operations in 1971, the hydrogen/heavy water plant was closed too and eventually demolished in 1977. Plans to convert the old power plant into a museum were developed in the 1980s and in 1988 it first opened its doors to the public. Since 1995 it has enjoyed the status of a National Museum.
In the 1960s, the story of the sabotage operations was the topic of the Hollywood film "The Heroes of Telemark", starring Kirk Douglas, which was partly shot on location and with the aid of one of the surviving genuine saboteurs – as well as locals instructing the Americans in Nordic skiing. The film was however criticized for its overly romanticized and historically inaccurate depiction of the story.
What there is to see: The Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum ('Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum' in Norwegian) is actually several museums in one. In terms of the space it takes up, the main element is the old turbine hall of the former hydroelectric power plant of Vemork. For those with a liking for such industrial heritage it's a spectacular sight! I found it fantastic to walk around all this big old machinery – made in days when attention was still paid to aesthetics as well as functionality. The same goes for the whole architecture – a wonderful example of an early 20th century industrial "temple".
Apart from all the old real technology and heavy machinery (note the manufacturers' names, which are mostly Swiss and German!), there's also a little model hydroelectric power generation set-up in the western half of the turbine hall. As part of guided tours this is put into operation so people can see how water cascading down from diagonal tubes hits a partly transparent mini-turbine to produce a tiny amount of electricity. If that's too childish for you, you can move on into one of the various museum exhibitions proper.
The part of most interest from a dark tourism perspective has to be the exhibition about the "race" to develop nuclear weapons and the role that the Vemork heavy water plant played in this.
UPDATE 2013: I have just been informed by the Vemork management that they are setting up an all new "war exhibition" and that the older one that I saw was removed in September 2013. The new exhibition is scheduled to open in May 2014. So note that the following text describes the old exhibition:
It's organized mostly in a chronological fashion, starting with the early research findings of the pioneer nuclear physicists and the rise of the Nazis
to power in Germany
, then moving on to the occupation of Norway
and the impact it had on the region. The largest proportion of the exhibition space here's obviously given to the sabotage operations of 1942-1944. And this included a life-size mock-up with dummies modelled on the Operation Gunnerside sabotage action (see background
). The subsequent actual development of the atomic bomb
by the USA
and its use over Hiroshima
also gets coverage. This exhibition involved some interactive multi-media elements, and there's also a cleverly designed mock-up impression of the former heavy water production facilities. [Note that the latter installations may not reappear in the reworked new exhibition.]
Upstairs, another small exhibition concentrates solely on the saboteurs, focused on the individuals involved and their lives, rather than the grander history and the technology.
Next door is the film theatre and here the 27-minute film "If Hitler had the bomb …" is shown on the hour and half hour. It's an American-made, part documentary, part dramatization effort from 1995, incorporating interviews and lots of material from an early Norwegian film from 1948 that featured several of the actual saboteurs playing themselves. The title is a bit misleading, though, as it is hardly a speculation about what could have been if the Nazis' atomic weapons programme had been successful. Instead, this film is almost exclusively about the sabotage operations and the Norwegian saboteurs' winter survival-skills adventure on the Hardangervidda plateau.
Back downstairs, there's another exhibition in the western wing of the building, which is about the history of the region's workers' lives and the Norwegian workers' movement. It features some perhaps surprising examples of Norwegian socialist
agitation posters and even a picture of Lenin
In an annexe behind the main turbine hall can be found yet another exhibition, this time called "The Industrial Worker 1950-2008". This features a timeline, various aspects of industry in Norway, and also looks at contemporary issues and future challenges industrial societies have to face. There's plenty of hands-on stuff, but overall I found it somewhat disorganized and in places a bit too kiddie-oriented and didactic.
There's yet another exhibition, but only one in which historical (mostly black-and-white) photos of Vemork and Rjukan are on display. Some of the images of the intact/working heavy water plant are the best aspect here. Upstairs behind the rather bland café there's additional space functioning as a gallery for temporary exhibitions.
Finally, downstairs in the basement where the toilets are, you can peek into a dark tunnel with thick cables that leads across under the centre of the building. And in a corner stands a glass display cabinet with a scale model of the "Hydro" steam railway ferry which was sunk as the last act of the saboteurs' actions. (Its sister ship, which is still afloat and in good shape, can be see at Mael station east of Rjukan – see combinations
The reception area by the entrance doubles up as a souvenir and book shop.
Outside the ex-power station there are a few more objects of interest. Along the path up you can find a relocated old radio shack used by the saboteurs and the Norwegian Resistance for communication with Britain in 1944/45. Nearby there's a huge Francis turbine on a low plinth of concrete. This is not from the Vemork plant, though, but from a different hydroelectric station nearby in Mael.
Directly in front of the old Vemork plant, right on the land where the former hydrogen/heavy water production plant used to stand before it was demolished in the 1970s, there's a millstone-like monument listing the names of the 11 Norwegian saboteurs of the February 1943 Operation Gunnerside.
A bit further down the approach path to the plant there's also a smaller memorial stone for the Norwegian civilian victims (women and children) who died in the USAF bombing raid of November 1943 (see background
Back in the small town of Rjukan itself there's a small war memorial in the churchyard, a couple of sculptures near the town hall as well as a fertilizer-production furnace of the early type employed when Rjukan was first industrialized. For more see under dark combinations
Overall, a visit to this pretty much unique site with its (literally) heavy historical legacy is one of the best commodified places I encountered in the whole of Norway
. Not everything in the various exhibitions will appeal to all visitors, but the sections about the role of heavy water and the saboteurs are a must-see when in this part of Norway, especially of course for WWII
history buffs and also nuclear tourists
. These museum exhibitions as well as the splendidly restored old turbine hall are alone well worth the detour e.g. from Oslo
. I was much more impressed by this site than I had anticipated. Highly recommended.
UPDATE May 2022: since 2017 there have been archaeological excavations that brought back to light the very historic cellar in which the saboteurs destroyed the heavy-water production facility. This is being integrated into the museum and the new facility will open to the public on 18 June 2022.
near the small industrial town of Rjukan in the central mountain valleys of the Telemark region in southern Norway
, ca. 80 miles (130 km) west of Oslo
(as the crow flies, i.e. much more on the actual roads!!). Vemork is about 4 miles (7 km) west of Rjukan, off the main Rv 37 road.
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track, but not too difficult to reach; not cheap, but still quite adequately priced.
It is a bit off the usual Norwegian tourist routes that most international visitors take (i.e. to the fjords, mainly), at least that's true outside the winter season when this is a prime skiing area and thus generally much busier. You can get to Rjukan by bus from Oslo
(even straight from the airport), but the museum is quite a way out of town. So it's really best reached by car. You have to park your car quite a bit away from the museum, though, and then have to cross the narrow suspension bridge across the deep gorge on foot and climb the hillside along tracks that are quite steep in places. But it doesn't take much more than ca. 15 minutes for the half-mile ascent (700 m). Those with mobility problems (or simply too unfit to do this) can use a shuttle mini-van that provides transport from the car park to the museum – but this operates only in the high season (June to mid-August, for an extra charge of ca. 30-40 NOK).
UPDATE: in the summer high season, parking is now restricted: you have to leave your car at designated spaces at Rjukan station, from where there is a dedicated shuttle bus service (included in the ticket price) to the Vemork site.
Opening times: daily, January to mid June and mid August to end of December from 12 noon to 4 p.m., in the summer high season from ca. mid June to 15 August 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed 17 May, Christmas and New Year's Eve/Day)
Admission: in the summer high season 200 NOK, rest of the year 100 NOK (for a regular adult ticket, several concessions apply).
If you are planning on staying overnight in the area (which has more to offer so it would be a good choice to do so) then one rustic option is just a few hundred yards from the bridge at Vemork. It's called "Climb Inn" and is fittingly aimed primarily at a sporty, mountaineering, backpacker type of clientele. More sedate options can be found in Rjukan itself – or at the hotels, hostels or cottages of the skiing centre of Gaustablikk, which is, as the name implies, located in a spectacular setting with perfect views of the glorious Gausta mountain. See under Gaustabanen
Time required: I spent a total of a full two hours in the museum's various exhibitions, but I can imagine that some visitors who are less into industrial heritage and only want to see the WWII-related parts can probably go through it in much less time. The film about the saboteurs' efforts is ca. 27 minutes long (starting on the hour and half hour). Allow a bit of extra time for getting there and back and also for taking in some of the further sights in the vicinity. All in all up to a half day should be adequate.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Those with a really keen interest in combining dark historical heritage tourism with some stiff hiking in the mountainous outdoors of the Telemark region can go on the so-called Saboteuruta (saboteurs' route). This is the actual hike the Norwegian resistance fighters, who had been so instrumental in the destruction of the Vemork heavy water plant, took to get to and from their hideout in the vast, remote and harsh Hardangervidda mountain plateau. In the summer season, there are organized guided hikes on this route from Rjukan that take about 3 hours (and cost around 200 NOK).
Also related to the Vemork plant and its history is the Rjukanbanen, which used to connect the plant with the Norwegian industrial railway network and included a special railway ferry connection across the Tinnsjö lake. The train line as such is defunct now. But the sister vessel of the "Hydro" ferry that was sunk by the saboteurs is still there, moored at Mael station about 12 miles (18 km) east of Rjukan. It is called the "Ammonia" and allegedly is the only steam-powered railway ferry left in the whole world! In the summer season (end of June to about mid August) you can go on guided tours of the old veteran vessel (daily at 2 p.m.; 75 NOK). Near the ferry's mooring are a few old railway carriages loaded with obscure heavy machinery (whether related to the heavy-water industry or not I could not determine). In summer you can go "rail biking", i.e. ride part of the old railway tracks on draisines (also called dressins – a kind of pedal-powered tricycle-cum-cart on railway bogies); check with the Rjukan tourist information.
Just south-east of Rjukan – and high above it – can be found another nearby attraction with a certain dark twist, namely the unusual and highly remarkable Gaustabanen
. This is a train/funicular combination that goes right up to the top of the famous Gausta inside
the mountain (not for claustrophobia sufferers) and thus provided the Americans access to their NATO
radio tower near the summit at all times during the Cold War
For things to do further away see under Oslo
Combinations with non-dark destinations: A spectacular option for those courageous enough beckons en route to the museum, namely on that narrow suspension bridge over the deep gorge. Here you can go bungee jumping (called "Strikkhopping" in Norwegian, literally 'rope hopping'). It is one of Europe's highest and certainly one of the most spectacular anywhere in the world. It's 84 m down from the bridge to the bottom of the gorge where roaring white waters pummel the rocks (but hopefully never any jumpers). The water comes straight from the mighty Rjukanfossen waterfall further up the valley. The jumping season lasts roughly from May to September and operates usually only on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the high season also on Sundays (same times) as well as on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 6 p.m.; price for a jump: ca. 700 NOK (so the shock to the nerve system is a double whammy, one physical, the other a painful stab at your wallet). If you're not quite up for the thrill and adventure of a bungee jump yourself, just linger for a bit and watch – it's still quite a show to behold without actively taking part!
Rjukanfossen waterfall itself can also be viewed not far away. There's a small car park by the eastern entrance to the Maristigentunnelen on the road leading west out of Rjukan, ca. 2 miles (3 km) from the Vemork car park. Try to get there at a time when it's not so busy, otherwise chances are that the small car park, which only has space for about four vehicles, will be full so that you can't stop here at all. Early mornings offer the best chances for getting a space – however, the light is better later in the day when the sun is higher … From the tunnel entrance a footpath leads along the mountainside to viewpoints of the fall. From here you can see the over 100 m (340 feet) roaring fall at its best. It is also possible to get up closer (but with inferior overall views) from the other side of the tunnel, from where hiking paths lead closer to the top of the falls. Even though the waterfall (or rather: the river feeding it) has been partly "tapped" for hydroelectric power generation, it is still a very impressive sight.
Nearby, the Krossobanen, Europe's oldest cable car (constructed in 1928), takes visitors nearly 3000 feet (885 m) up to the mountaintop opposite Vemork, from where glorious views are to be had. Trailheads of hiking routes lead off across the uplands from the upper cable car station.
There are loads of other mostly outdoorsy attractions in the area, both hiking or mountaineering in summer and skiing/ice climbing in winter – see also under Gaustabanen
- Vemork 01 - hydroelectric plant and bridge
- Vemork 02 - main building
- Vemork 03 - water pipes
- Vemork 04 - apt symbol for the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum
- Vemork 05 - turbine hall
- Vemork 06 - turbine
- Vemork 07 - more technology
- Vemork 08 - beautiful curves
- Vemork 09 - main control console
- Vemork 10 - honoured saboteurs
- Vemork 11 - photo with the old heavy water plant - from the Norsk Hydro picture collection, used by permission
- Vemork 12 - its place in history
- Vemork 13 - mock-up of the saboteurs at work in the old exhibition
- Vemork 14 - reconstruction in the old exhibition
- Vemork 15 - in the end the bomb was in US hands - section in the old war exhibition
- Vemork 16 - industrial workers timeline
- Vemork 17 - Marx
- Vemork 18 - Norwegian workers movement
- Vemork 19 - threatening worldwide revolution
- Vemork 20 - with a little help from comrade Lenin
- Vemork 21 - cable tunnel
- Vemork 22 - model of the Hydro
- Vemork 23 - memorial stone outside the plant
- Vemork 24 - relocated resistance radio shack
- Vemork 25 - turbine wheel scenically relocated
- Vemork 26 - the bridge to the plant is used for bungee jumping
- Vemork 27 - dangling over fierce water
- Vemork 28 - Rjukan waterfall
- Vemork 29 - end of the railway line
- Vemork 30 - railway ferry Ammonia, sister of the Hydro
- Vemork 31 - stranded industrial train