Max Manus: Part 1 of article

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Max Manus: Part 1 of article

Post  Bob Pearson on Fri 9 Jan 2009 - 20:53

I have taken the liberty of writing an article on Max Manus in response to the interest shown about him. My interest in Max Manus stems from his association with a Norwegian officer whom I research, Major Johan (John) Rognes. The National Archives file, which was recently released, has been copied and sent to Max manus' widow and the Hjemmefrontmueum. Please note there are two parts to the article, the second of which will immediately follow this one and focuses on his time with the British.

Max Manus - An Extraordinary Man

Along with his great friend, Gregers Gram (N9), Manus was a very prickly thorn in the side of the Germans tormenting them with regular exploits of marine sabotage. The Germans were desperate; the sheer audacity of the man had them ranting and raging in the German HQ in Oslo, but despite some close calls they were never able to run down their quarry: Manus always had the edge on them. Known as N12 to the Norwegian Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the UK, but also by the cover names of Torleif Halvorsen, Torlief Hauge, Kristian Rustad, Kaare Rasmussen, Hans Engebretsen, Kjell Bugge and Knut Sorlie, Manus was certainly a man of many identities. As a result of the interest in Max Manus I have written this article in the hope that it will spark debate about Max Manus and also some of the other resistance men/women who worked with him.

Max Manus was born on the 19th December 1914 in Bergen to Danish mother, Gerda (nee Kjørup) and Norwegian father, Juan. Max was the first son, the couple having had three daughters already; Carmen Wetsold, Ann Marie & Bente Lydia. The family moved to Copenhagen when Max was only 4 months old and they settled in Jagtveien; his father having taken over the Spanish-Danish Wine Company in the capital. From 1921 to 1924 he went to St Knud’s School, but in 1924 his parents divorced and Max returned to Bergen with his father and his sister Ann Marie. Max attended the Nordstrand Folk School in Bergen from 1924 and then at the Jarn Folk School until 1928 when his father decided to travel to Cuba to take over the agency of Kongsberg Harpoon with selling rights in Cuba and Mexico, but disaster struck the family as Manus senior was refused permission to sell because President Machado was concerned that the weapons would fall into the hands of the rebellion that were protesting at that time. Manus’ father and sister returned to Norway, but it was here that Max had his first taste of work as he became a ship chandler for his uncle’s business in Havana, but then later going to sea for a few months travelling on the SS Harboe Jensen, which belonged to the United States Fruit Company. He signed off in Philadelphia where he stayed around a week and then returned to Havana on the SS Jakob Kristianssen. This was followed by trip to sea on the M/V Belle Mona which belonged to Christian Smith of Oslo. Later, having tired of sailing Manus returned to Oslo in 1930, but only stayed for a month before heading off to Copenhagen where he took up a job as a lard salesman, again working for another uncle who owned an animal fat business. But Manus soon grew weary of Danes and Danish life and again returned to Oslo to work with his father from 1931 to 1934, as a wholesale fruit dealer, but he also imported flowers from France, Holland and Italy as a sideline. But this wasn’t enough for Manus and he found it difficult to settle. It was around this time that he served for 3 & 1/2 months in the Norwegian army with IR1 in Fredrikstad.
Manus did not settle on a military career but instead set up a glasshouse business with his friend Jens Nilsen. This was not a successful venture and after a row with his then fiancé in March 1936 he left Norway again taking up an offer of a farmer friend to work for him in South America. Manus sailed out on the M/V Geisha. The job lasted only a month before Manus moved on to a larger and more lucrative farm, owned, interestingly, by a Dane, Mr. Krarup. This post lasted for 8 months before he took a post with the Chilean Electricity Company at Laguna Verda whereupon he struck up a friendship with a German called Verner, a diesel motor engineer.
Manus’s wander lust was still much in evidence and a year later left the company to travel to Buenos Aries with Verner. The journey was an exciting one, though as they travelled by rail, boat and then hiked through the jungle for two days until they reached the city. Attempts to get a job failed so Manus decided to try his luck in Veneuela with the Standard Oil Company, but without success. Disaster then struck Manus just after he left Buenos Aries he became seriously ill with a tropical disease and was strongly advised by the doctor to return to Europe. Manus was hospitalised for 2 months and once recovered he returned to Norway on the M/T Beau during March 1938.
Manus’ father was now living near Oslo and Manus once again began importing flowers, rose trees, and bulbs from Holland, France & Italy. The office was in Karl Johangst No 8 whilst the warehouse was at Dronningsgt No. 20. Business was good and carried on right until the invasion during April 1940.
Manus’ thirst for adventure continued and in January 1940 he volunteered to fight in Finland as a Sergeant. Like the other volunteers he fought hard for about for 3 months, but the odds were nigh on impossible and with the dramatic news of the German invasion of Norway he decided to return home on the 9th April. Manus obtained a permit to leave Finland to answer his country’s call to arms and on the 12th managed to return safely and in the process helped form a small armed company of 130 men. The men saw active service in Kongesvinge and Brumendal specialising in guerilla warfare against the invaders, but like the war in Finland the odds were just too great. For Manus, though, this type of warfare was to become the norm.
Around the 15th of April the company laid down their arms, disbanded with the men returning to their respective homes. Manus, meanwhile, made his way to Oslo and joined his father at his home. It was a very dispiriting time for him and the majority of Norwegians, but his mind soon turned to matters of resistance and it didn’t take him long to meet up with like-minded people to try to do something about their frustrations. Manus was not a man who liked to sit around, moan and do nothing and the Norwegians he mixed with were of a similar ilk. Manus began collecting weapons from around the area and from this he managed to make contact with a friend of his, a man called Petersen who worked for Skau & Company as a gunsmith. Petersen was well connected and soon he was recommending Manus to make contact with a certain Fridjof Tidemand-Johanssen. The two met and immediately agreed to work together. Tidemand-Johanssen was already a member of a resistance organisation that had been set up by Major Helseth: Milorg was growing in numbers and saw Manus as a useful addition to their work. NB The group was known as the ‘R Organisation’, but in the UK it was more commonly called the ‘Rognes Organisation’. At the National Archives in London there is an SOE file of the same name.
Manus spent all his time working for the organisation collecting weapons and acting as a correspondent collecting articles for the free, but illegal, newspapers. His work was much appreciated and soon he was in contact with Finn Juel, Captain Johan Ingebrigt Rognes (a fellow pioneer of Milorg and later liaison officer between Norwegian SOE and FOIV), Kolbein Lauring, Reinholt Eriksson and Per Jakobssen, whom at that time was engaged in secret transmitter work.
One of Manus’ jobs was to ensure that the organisations’s documents and papers were kept safe and secure. This meant a regular trek to a hut in the forest outside of Oslo. During February 1941 Manus heard whispers that a Finn, named as Toivannen, who had previously worked for the resistance, was touting names around when he should have been a little more discreet. Major Helseth’s name had become familiar to many people in Oslo, but Rognes, whose work and actions with the resistance up to that period was unknown, was now being spoken about and it was Toivannen who was talking loudly about Rognes (NB Manus later stated to the British authorities that Toivannen was some sort of international spy who was prepared to work for the most munificent paymaster and his moral values were not of the uppermost concerns). On the 16th of February, Manus returned to Oslo after his duties at the hut and started to prepare a report for Rognes about the discreetness of Toivannen, or rather lack of it, but Manus was also acutely aware of his own security and wisely didn’t write down any names. Around 21:30 that night Manus returned to his house in Viedarsgt No.4. Suspecting nothing he entered his locked room, but was immediately jumped by 6 men, four of whom he later stated were Norwegian and the other two as Gestapo agents. Manus was quickly overpowered by the men, searched and the document he had previously written for Rognes, along with some papers for the newspaper, ‘Vi Vil Os Et Land,’ recovered. Manus knew the game was over, but now became frightened as he was well aware that he knew too much about the ‘Rognes Organisation’ and that the Gestapo methods of extracting information would be brutal. Manus had to think fast and drew his captor’s attention to some sporting trophies in the room and whilst their attention was taken momentarily Manus ran and dived head first through the window, much to the shock and dismay of his captors. However, his apartment was on the second floor and the drop to the ground was too much for anyone to take and he crashed on to the concrete floor unconscious. He knew nothing except darkness until he came round in Ullevol Hospital.
Manus was taken into the X-Ray room and whilst in there with no Gestapo or Norwegian present, and at great risk, he confided in the doctor and urged him to help him escape or poison him by injection. The doctor refused to do either, but said that if Manus gave him a name he would try to make contact with the resistance. At huge risk to the resistance Manus gave the names of Lauring and Eriksson to the doctor. But Manus was no fool and he purposely did not mention Rognes as he knew the other two were known to the Gestapo. The doctor, though, couldn’t promise Manus anything, except to try and make contact with the names he gave.
The x-rays revealed that Manus had suffered spinal injuries, a broken shoulder and concussion and consequently he was placed in a private room, but guarded continuously by two Norwegian policemen. However, Manus complained that the policemen were disturbing him and so they moved outside the room. Manus then took another risk by asking his nurse, Astrid Olsen, if she would contact Per Jakobssen and pass on a secret message. Nurse Olsen, taking pity on Manus and feeling the need to do something positive duly obliged and a few days later Jakobssen replied via the nurse. Manus now knew that help was close at hand and that some sort of bid to escape would happen soon. A few days later an un-named doctor smuggled a note to Manus that instructed him on how to deal with the Gestapo interrogation if and when they started their interrogations. Up to that point the senior doctor at the hospital had not allowed the Gestapo access to their patient on the grounds that Manus was not in a fit state of health to be interviewed. Such actions from the doctors and nurse were brave and almost certainly saved the life of Manus and thwarted the Gestapo in their attempts to extract information from Manus about the resistance. Their contribution to the resistance by the hospital staff was immeasurable, but would be felt over many times in the future, especially by the Germans.
Manus realised that time was of the essence and that escape was crucial to his and the organisations’s survival so he began plotting his escape. Manus recruited Nurse Olsen to act as the go-between with him and Per Jakobssen and soon a plan was in place. A fishing line was smuggled in to the hospital and passed to Manus with the idea that at the right time it could be lowered from a window and then tied to a stronger rope which could then be hauled back in. On the night of the 13th March 1941 that is exactly what happened. Manus tied the rope to a blackout frame, climbed out of the window and with immense bravery and strength shimmied down the rope using his one good arm and hand. The pain radiating from his broken shoulder and damaged back must have been considerable as he escaped down the rope, but he endured the pain knowing that freedom was just metres away.
Considerately, Manus ensured that no reprisals would be taken against the nurse and so he arranged with a doctor for the nurse to receive some painful facial injections that would cause her face to swell and discolour to make it look as if Manus had beaten the nurse with his fists in his quest to escape.
The plan worked well and upon reaching the ground he was quickly bundled into a waiting car by his friends and driven away. A short time later Manus reached Røa, but even here Manus’ ordeal was far from over. Slipping on some skis he then spent the next 6 hours skiing his way to a small, remote hut where he spent the next 10 days recovering with the luxury of a gramophone and just one record, ‘The Greatest Mistake of my Life’! Whilst at the hut his friends took the opportunity to bleach Manus’ hair and to alter the shape of his eyebrows – every opportunity was being taken to stop the Germans, and those Norwegians in league with them, in recognising this wanted man.
Ten days later, one of Manus’ friends, Andreas Aubert, came up to the hut to collect and escort him to the safety of Sweden. The pair set off eventually crossing the border at Flisa close to where they were both arrested by the Swedish Police. The Police seemed to be well aware of Manus and he had the impression that the resistance had had some contact with the Superintendent of Police. Manus was taken to Stockholm and allowed to report to the Norwegian Legation. This was an important move as proceedings were taking place to recruit Manus to SOE; his initial contact being Major Malcolm Munthe (Red Horse fame) of the British Legation.
Manus’ time in Stockholm was short-lived, though as the Police called on him to say that the Germans had requested that he be repatriated to Norway for a trial. The Germans had created the impression to the Police that Manus was a gangster and that everyone’s best interest would be served if Manus was handed over to the Germans. The Police, though, were sympathetic to Manus and graciously permitted him time to make his own arrangements to leave Sweden. Visas were hastily arranged to travel to the UK via Russia, but these were slow in being administered and so to avoid any conflict with the Swedish Police Manus was sent to Finland on the 17th of May. But he didn’t have to wait long, though, as his visas to travel were issued and consequently he made his way from Finland to Leningrad in Russia: Manus now began on a long journey to the UK via Turkey, Egypt, Cape Town, Trinidad and Halifax: a short stop-over in Canada enabled Manus to take advantage of a small arms training course before he eventually arrived in the UK on the ship ‘Brant County’.

© Bob Pearson 2008 End of Part 1
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Bob Pearson

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