Feature

Gunnar Sonsteby, 1918–2012

The Norwegian saboteur who foiled the Nazis

Operating in occupied territory with the Gestapo always on his tail, Norwegian resistance leader Gunnar Sonsteby had no choice but to become a master of disguise. He used some 30 to 40 false identities during World War II, and could slip into a new persona at a moment’s notice. But Sonsteby always suspected that the real reason he avoided being captured by the Germans, even as he staged audacious raids on Nazi factories and offices, was his unremarkable looks. “I was a very common man,” he said in 2011. “In the street you would never notice me. I was one of the many.” 

Born in Rjukan in southern Norway, Sonsteby was a student in Oslo when Hitler invaded the country. The sight of Nazi soldiers in the capital’s streets infuriated him. “When your country is taken over by 100,000 Germans,” he said, “you get angry.” Sonsteby volunteered for the Milorg resistance movement, said The Guardian (U.K.), and served as the group’s intelligence chief. In 1943, he was sent to Scotland to study sabotage, but he chafed under British military discipline. He took a potshot at some Highland sheep and almost got thrown out of the training course. Later that year, Sonsteby parachuted back into Norway with orders to hamper the German war effort in any way possible, said The Times (U.K.).

Under his guidance, the resistance performed “several spectacular acts of sabotage,” said The Telegraph (U.K.). His men destroyed munitions factories, troop ships, and, after D-Day, the railway infrastructure, stopping German reinforcements from moving to the new front line in France. He also saved many of his countrymen’s lives by blowing up the office for forced labor, wrecking the Nazis’ plan to ship young Norwegian men to the Eastern Front. After his homeland’s liberation, in 1945, both the British and Norwegian secret services tried to recruit the master saboteur. “I flatly said no,” said Sonsteby, who went on to study at Harvard and work in the Norwegian oil industry. “I didn’t want any more war. I had had enough.”

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