Read The Odin Mission Online

Authors: James Holland

The Odin Mission

Chapter 1

 

Thursday, 18
April 1940. The German invasion of Norway was nine days old, but in that time the
small Norwegian village of Okset had seen little sign of the disaster that
faced their peace-loving nation - a few aircraft overhead, that had been all.
Indeed, Stig Andvard had listened to the unfolding news on his wireless with a
feeling of mounting unreality. Swastikas now flew over the capital, Oslo, over
Kristiansand, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, the coastal ports that
provided the life-blood of the country The King and Government had fled - God
only knew where to, but His Majesty's voice could still be heard crackling over
the airwaves. A number of lads from the village had responded to the general
mobilization and had hurried off to Elverum to join their army units, and had
since disappeared into that other world where the war was taking place. Where
were they now? Still fighting, or prisoners of the Germans? Norwegian
resistance in the south was crumbling, that much was obvious, but to the north,
British troops had landed at Namsos and the Royal Navy had sunk a number of
German warships.

And yet could these cataclysmic events really be happening? It all
seemed so far away. On his farm, Stig still had his pigs to feed, his cows to
milk, and his sheep to watch. He had still drunk beer with Torkjel Haugen and
Jon Kolden in the bar the past two Wednesdays, just as they always had. Life
had continued during those nine days with the same unwavering regularity as it
had for as long as Stig could remember.

In the valley, patches of grey grass were beginning to emerge through
the snow, but the landscape was still monochrome, as it often was in April.
Spring: a curious time of year, when the days were long and light, with barely
more than three hours of darkness, but the ground remained stuck in winter, as
though it had yet to catch up with the sun.

That morning, however, as Stig had dropped in the slops to the pigs, he
heard a distant, dull thud from the south, followed by further muffled crumps.
'Elverum,' he muttered to himself, then stomped inside to find his wife.
'Guns,' he said to her. 'From Elverum.'

Agnes put her hands to her mouth. 'My God,' she said. 'Do you think
they'll come here?'

Stig shrugged. 'It's only a little village,' he said. 'What do the
Germans want with a place like this?'

'Oh, Stig, what are we going to do?'

'Try to keep calm.' He knew it was hardly a helpful comment, but in
truth he had no idea what they should do. Their farm was the first house to the
south of the village, more than half a kilometre from the next. He wondered
whether he should walk into the village and see what everyone else was
planning, then dismissed the idea. What would anyone else know? He glanced
briefly at Agnes and could see that she was looking to him for guidance. Angry
at his lack of decisiveness, he banged the kitchen table with his fist, then, avoiding
her eye further, headed back out into the yard, where the sound of detonations
and explosions from the south was becoming louder and more persistent.

What to do for the best? Stay, or pack up the truck and head north? He
went over to the shed and opened the bonnet, checked the oil and fuel levels,
and that the plugs and points were clean. At one moment, he glanced up towards
the house and saw his wife staring at him from the kitchen window, her brows knitted
together. Slamming the bonnet down harder than he might otherwise have done, he
sighed, kicked at the watery mud on the ground and strode back across the yard
to the farmhouse, into the kitchen, sat down at the table and drummed his
fingers on the ageing pine.

'Stig, I'm frightened,' said Agnes, after a few moments' silence. 'I'm
going to fetch Anton.'

Stig nodded. Their second son was still at school in the village. 'Yes,
I think you should,' he told her. But then, as she was taking off her apron, he
added, 'We'll stay put. Stick together. They won't want anything with us. Why
would they want to do anything to us?' Agrtes looked at him and then left, a
brief brush of her hand on his shoulder as she passed him. Stig cursed under
his breath, annoyed with himself for betraying the uncertainty he knew his wife
had recognized.

For two more hours, Stig tried to keep busy and to pretend that all
would be well, but he had read reports of the fighting in Poland. The
newspapers had printed pictures of burning villages, of towns shrouded in
smoke. Polish resistance had been brushed aside and he hated to think what had
happened to the people there. Agnes returned with Anton, and Nils, their elder
son, came back from the wood where he had been sawing the pines they had felled
the previous day. 'Stay with your mother,' Stig told him. 'I want all of you to
stay near the house.'

At lunch, they sat around the kitchen table, saying and eating little.
Stig toyed with his soup. His stomach felt heavy and nauseous and eventually he
pushed the bowl away and went out again, into the barn where he hoped the
banging of his hammer as he repaired some of the woodwork would deafen the
sound of battle eight miles to the south.

It was Anton who fetched him early in the afternoon. 'Henrik's here,
Papa,' he said, 'with some men.'

They were standing round the range in the kitchen when Stig entered -
five of them - holding their hands to the warmth of the iron.

'Henrik,' said Stig.

'Forgive the intrusion,' his cousin said, clasping his hand firmly,
'but I'm afraid we need your help.'

'Of course.' Stig looked at the other four men. All, like Henrik
Larsen, wore the grey-blue serge greatcoats of the Norwegian Army, with their
double row of buttons and red piping round the collar and cuffs. Their large
green canvas haversacks were piled in the corner, along with their rifles. One
of the men stepped forward. There was a gold band around the kepi he clutched
in his left hand.

'Forgive us,' he said. 'I am Colonel Peder Gulbrand of His Majesty the
King's Guard. We urgently need to head north, but unfortunately our car broke
down some kilometres to the south.' He was, Stig guessed, in his early
forties; a strong face, lined round the edges of his eyes and mouth, and clean
apart from a two-day growth of beard. The colonel looked exhausted, though -
they all did. Stig glanced at them again. A lieutenant of perhaps thirty, and
another younger officer, like Henrik. The fifth man was older, with round
spectacles and a dark moustache flecked with grey. Stig noticed he was not
wearing a tunic under his greatcoat, like the others, but a rollneck sweater
and wool jacket. Nor was he wearing uniform trousers. Colonel Gulbrand followed
Stig's gaze, and said hastily, 'I wish I could say more, but please believe me when
I tell you our mission is a vital one and undertaken at the direct request of
King Hakon.'

Stig nodded. 'You've come from Elverum?'

'This morning, yes.'

'We've heard the guns.'

'The town will be in German hands by evening.' Colonel Gulbrand looked
at Stig, then at his watch.

'I've a truck out the back,' Stig told him. 'You take it. I checked it
this morning. The tank is full and I've some spare cans of petrol you can have.
It's old but has never let me down yet.'

'I can't thank you enough,' replied the colonel. He looked as though he
was about to say something more, then stopped.

'Have you time
for something to eat?' Stig asked him. 'You look tired, if you don't mind me
saying so. We've got some mutton soup and bread—'

'Colonel?' said
Larsen.

'All right,'
said Gulbrand. 'God knows we could all do with something inside us.'

Agnes had
already put the soup and a coffee pot on the range. 'Nils, go and get the fuel
from the shed and put it into the truck.'

Nils hurried out
and Stig ushered the men to sit down. As they did so, Colonel Gulbrand said, 'I
think you were intending to use the truck yourself.'

'I had thought
about it, but no,' said Stig. 'I decided we must stay.'

Colonel Gulbrand
smiled. 'Even so, I appreciate what you're doing. It's a big sacrifice.'

'Not as big as
the one you're making,' said Stig. 'We must all do what we can.' He turned to
his cousin. 'Where're Else and little Helena? Are they safe?'

Larsen nodded.
'In Oslo still. I hope so. You can imagine, it's been difficult. . .'

The soup had
barely been set on the table when Nils rushed breathlessly into the kitchen,
his eyes wide. 'The Germans are coming!' he exclaimed, pointing wildly towards
the road.

The men scraped
back their chairs and stood up. 'How far?' Gulbrand asked him.

'Half a
kilometre,' Nils replied, 'maybe a little more. Two trucks full of men and a
car out front.'

'Quick,' said
Gulbrand, 'to the truck.' The men grabbed their packs and rifles, but at the
door Stig said, 'I don't think you'll make it. They're too close. Let me hide
you. Perhaps they'll go on through the village. Then you can head back to the
bridge.'

Gulbrand peered through the window, glanced at his men and nodded at
Stig. 'All right. Quick.'

Stig led them through the house and out of the back, away from the
road, across a patch of packed snow to the ground floor of the barn, where the
cows still sheltered. The animals shuffled and snorted nervously at the sudden
intrusion, but the men made their way through the heavy, warm bodies and up a
dusty ladder to the floor above. The upper deck of the barn was filled at one
end with a stack of hay. 'Get under that,' Stig told them. 'I'll smooth it over
afterwards.' The men did as they were bidden just as the sound of the trucks
reached the barn from the road. As Stig covered the men and looked anxiously
around him for any sign of their presence, he heard muffled shouts in German
and felt his heart quicken. He hurried down the ladder, pushed through the cows
and stepped out into the yard once more. Not more than forty metres away, by
the road, several German troops were clambering out of a grey-painted Opel
truck and running over to an officer who stood a little way from his staff car.
The remainder - some thirty troops in all, Stig guessed - waited in the two
lorries, the tips of their rifles pointed menacingly skyward. Stig felt his
heart lurch, then froze as he heard the officer call out to him.

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