By Ragnar Ulstein.
A debate has been raised after the loss of four invaluable Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan. This reminds me of a memorial service held a long time ago – August 1941 in the Norwegian Church Abroad in London.
The church was filled with young men mostly from the navy. I will never forget the sight of all the blue collared navy uniforms worn by young men around my own age. Many of them, still doing basic training, had traveled up to London for the service.
Norway and our allies had for some time suffered great losses at sea.
One naval convoy after the other carrying vital supplies from American to British harbors had fallen victim to invisible submarines. There was a desperate shortage of escort ships. In some periods the submarines could carry on pretty much as they pleased.
The situation was discouraging. It seemed like Hitler was about to win the war. Germany had conquered Europe the year before and driven the British across the channel leaving their weapons behind them. The Norwegian government in London had for some time made plans for evacuating to Canada. Which neutral observer could seriously believe the
war against Hitler could be won? The Swedes did not, and neither did many Norwegians. They stayed out of it, until after the battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43.
In early 1941 Norway had taken over three of 50 American world war one destroyers, originally given to Great Britain. They were mainly put into escort service in the waters around the British Isles. The destroyer BATH was one of them. Although there was a shortage of young Norwegians abroad, they had succeeded in manning three ships.
In August 1941 the BATH escorted a convoy in the ocean west of Ireland.
It caught sight of a submarine at close range. The commander of the BATH made a sharp turn attempting to ram the submarine, but too late. Two torpedoes were already fired towards the BATH, hitting it mid-ship. BATH sank quickly. 83 members of the crew perished, among them the commander.
Now we young men having fled to join the fight, filled the church. The mood of that memorial service is still with me. We were there to honor the fallen, and it was a solemn occasion.
Nobody seemed to understand this better than the priest, and we understood his message: We were here to salvage something greater than ourselves, greater than our fatherland, but something which in a strange way also was the fatherland.
I pull myself away from this memory of one of the great moments in life, when a crisis taught people what is noble and how to pull together. And I remember again that a «debate» has been started over the Norwegian presence in Afghanistan. How odd! The August 1941 loss of 83 young Norwegians, and the loss of the invaluable warship, the almost
hopeless struggle in the Atlantic, and on all other frontlines, had given us a sense of urgency to JOIN the fight.
But today, in the war against Hitler’s equals in Afghanistan, the loss of four soldiers causes a debate to be started, which in clear terms means that Norway should LEAVE the fight. Before the four invaluable have been buried, the debate is started over if the fight they had joined was just and necessary. How audacious.
Ask the thousands of relatives left behind after 9/11 and the hundreds in London after 7/7, ask even more relatives of Taliban victims in Afghanistan. Ask all the world’s guardians against terrorism in our time. Ask the millions of frightened in many parts of the world. Obviously the Taliban is frightening the common sense and judgment out of many people in our country, too.
The 83 fallen of the BATH chose the pain and became a source of inspiration. They were not used, like our four dead from the Afghan battlefield are being used now. Allied civilian commentators, the greatest experts of their time, did not use British losses and defeats
to put the war against Hitler under new debate, the one Hitler interrupted as he attacked Poland in the fall of 1940. Just like Al Qaida interrupted the debate with the strike against New York on September 11 2001.
In the dark years of 1940-41, world war two seemed impossible to win. But retreat was not an option, there was no debate about that. A war that objectively speaking was a hopeless struggle, was eventually won. Those who may have had their doubts were responsible people who realized that doubt and disagreement would strengthen the enemy. They kept quiet.
If the shifting luck of the allied forces on the battlefield would be exploited, like for example the head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Jan Egeland, and several other former US-critics, do about Afghanistan, Hitler would probably have won the
Ragnar Ulstein was member of the resistance organization Milorg during the Second World War. He is one of Norway’s most distinguished historians of the war.
This article was originally published in Norwegian: Tap til smerte og inspirasjon