Oscarsborg Fortress

The poster on the left shows the real King Håkon VII. The poster on the right shows actor Jesper Christensen. Twinsies?
The poster on the left shows the real King Håkon VII. The poster on the right shows actor Jesper Christensen. Twinsies?

October 1, 2016.  Hey folks, to prevent chronological confusion, here’s a head’s up:  I’m jumping back in time a bit to catch up with my calendar of events.  In my last post before the U.S. presidential election, I’d written about Norway’s Oscar Bid and the film Kongens Nei (“The King’s No”).  Matthew and I were so taken with the movie that we decided to make a trip the next day to Oscarsborg Festning.  It’s the island fortress where one of the film’s pivotal scenes — the sinking of the Blücher, Hitler’s flagship  — takes place.

This Google map gives you an idea of the strategic position of Oscarsborg Fortress, sitting as it does at the end of the narrow Drøbak Straight. The German fleet had to squeeze past it to get to Oslo's harbor.
This Google map gives you an idea of the strategic position of Oscarsborg Fortress, sitting as it does at the end of the narrow Drøbak Straight. The German fleet had to squeeze past it to get to Oslo’s harbor.

If you haven’t had the chance to watch the trailer yet (or you can try downloading the movie here), let me set the stage for you.  It’s the night of April 8, 1940.  Unbeknownst to neutral Norway, Germany has sent a flotilla up the Oslo fjord to seize the city, king, and cabinet, and thus launch the Nazi invasion of the country.  But the surprise attack goes awry.  Shortly after 11:00 p.m., a Norwegian patrol boat spots the flotilla.  The boat barely manages to radio headquarters of the impending strike by an unknown enemy before being torched.  Warning fire from nearby Norwegian coastal guns does nothing to dissuade the mystery flotilla’s advance.

"Kongen's Nei" Erik Hivju and the real Colonel Eriksen
Erik Hivju in “Kongen’s Nei” is a dead ringer for the real Colonel Eriksen, the commander of Oscarsborg Fortress.

Darkness and fog continue to cloak the invaders.  The flotilla sails further into the fjord, towards the antiquated and undermanned Oscarsborg Fortress.  Situated on an island at the end of the Drøbak Straight, the fortress is the last line of defense before reaching Oslo’s bay.  In charge is 64-year-old Oberst (Colonel) Birger Eriksen, who is six months away from retirement.  His troops?  Reservists and raw recruits, who’ve been called up within the last week and have limited training.  Thirty men in all — only enough to man two of the fortress’s three big guns.

Kongen's Nei Oscarsborg Scene
In this scene filmed at the actual historic site, Eriksen rushes to Oscarsborg’s big guns, where he has to help his novice soldiers correctly sight their targets.

In the pre-dawn hours of April 9, the fog lifts briefly, and the fort’s searchlights suddenly illuminate the ominous silhouette of the Blücher.  Eriksen radios military headquarters, asking “Should we fire?”  The government waffles, unsure whether the ships are British or German.  Eriksen’s men call out the closing distance between the ship and the fort; every second ticks away the chance to square a direct hit.  Still no response from the Norwegian government, which clings to the hope of neutrality.

Gun #1 erupts in the film Kongen's Nei.
Gun #1 fires upon the Blucher from a distance of only 1,531 yards (1,400 m).  Firing on the enemy without first giving a warning shot was a violation of the pre-war Norwegian rules of engagement. When investigated later, Eriksen noted that plenty of warning shots had already been given earlier by the intercepting Norwegian patrol boat and nearby coastal battery.

Eriksen tersely observes “Those ships are running with no lights and no signals — those are the actions of a foe, not a friend.”  He makes a momentous decision and shouts out his now-famous command:  “Either I will be decorated, or I will be court-martialed.  Fire!”  The shell from Gun #1 hits the Blücher’s command tower and sets the ship ablaze.  Gun #2 takes out the airplane hangar and ignites stored fuel.  The explosion disables electricity to the Blücher‘s guns and does damage to its boiler room, reducing engine power.  But Eriksen’s novice crew cannot reload the big guns fast enough, and the Blücher begins to move out of range.

Smaller, secondary guns on the coastline and along the fort’s east-shore battery take over the fight, eventually disabling the Blücher‘s steering.  The ship soon drifts with range of Oscarborg’s torpedo battery.  Men stationed within the fortress’s hidden underground tunnels quickly load two of the torpedo chambers and fire.

The King and government leave the Palace just hours before the Nazis arrive and remain on the run, moving from town to town across Norway for three months before being evacuated.

Torpedo #1 does little damage, but Torpedo #2 manages to blow a hole in the Blücher‘s side.  Efforts to save her prove futile when subsequent explosions rip open her bulkhead.  She sinks in less than an hour, taking some 800 crewmen and 1300 troops with her.  Only about 200 men survive to swim to shore.  The rest of the German fleet turns tail and runs.  An invasion by air will commence later that day, but the delay of a few hours gives the royal family, cabinet, and parliament time to escape Oslo.  They will eventually be evacuated to England, where they will continue to work as the Norwegian government in exile and lead the resistance movement for the remainder of the war.

A postscript at the end of the film tells us that, for his courageous efforts, Colonel Eriksen is eventually awarded the War Cross with Sword, Norway’s highest honor.
A postscript at the end of the film tells us that, for his courageous decision, Colonel Eriksen is eventually awarded the War Cross with Sword, Norway’s highest honor.

Okay, so that’s my 500-word wrap-up summarizing a mere five minutes of the film’s many incredibly intense moments.  It’s a true David-and-Goliath tale. Maybe now you can see why Matthew and I loved the the movie and were so interested to see the real Oscarsborg Fortress.  If you’re visiting Oslo and are also intrigued by the idea, I’d devote a full day to the trip.  In summer you can take the B21/B22 ferry to the adorable village of Drøbak (a scenic 1.5-hour voyage).  Or throughout the year, you can hop on the Drøbak Express Shuttle from Oslo’s main bus station, a trip that takes 45 minutes and provides lovely coastline vistas along the way.

Drøbak, Norway
Matthew’s trying to use his internal “spidey sense” to navigate his way through Drøbak’s winding streets.

From Drøbak, you can catch the tiny ferry to Oscarsborg itself.  But I’ll warn you that the walk from the Drøbak bus stop to the ferry landing is quite circuitous.  I think we stopped about five times to ask for directions.  The good news is that the path takes you along the outskirts of the town, which is made up of gingerbread cottages possessing serene seaside views.  With our usual flair for terrible timing, we finally arrived at the dock during the ferry crew’s lunch break, so we spent the hour before boarding-time prowling back lanes and taking photos of the town’s storybook cuteness.  (Click on them for bigger views.)

Love the tiny tugboat of a ferry -- and the crewman taking tickets is a cutie, too.
Love the tiny tugboat of a ferry — and the crewman taking tickets is a cutie, too.

The Oscarsborg ferry itself is a dear little thing compared to Oslo’s big boys.  I wanted to put it in my pocket, then wind it up and launch it in my bathtub back home.  After climbing aboard and claiming a spot on deck, we got a good gander at the coastal hillsides studded with the old gun batteries that had played such an important role in the Battle of Drøbak Sound.  And we got our first glimpse of Oscarsborg Fortress — covertly tucked into the greenery of South Kaholmen, an island that sits in the middle of the fjord’s narrow neck.  From a distance, South Kaholmen appears completely wooded, so I can understand why the Nazi flotilla was caught unawares by the fort’s gunfire.  It’s only at close range that you can see the island’s shaved flanks, crowned by the main battery and fort.

Oscarsborg Harbor Bar
Everyone sat at the outdoor bar on this fine fall day, but you can see that the interior of the bar offers a great view, too.

A ten-minute jaunt aboard the ferry brought us to the fort’s main dock, where we alighted and began the hunt for a late afternoon lunch.  Crossing a sweet little stone bridge brought us to the larger island of North Kaholmen, where we sat at the harbor bar, sucked in the sunshine, and watched the boats bob on the water — a truly relaxing experience that’s reason enough for a trip to Oscarsborg.  But with only a couple of hours left to tour the site, we finished our meal quickly and made a beeline for the main fort.

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An aerial photo displayed in the bar shows the horseshoe-shaped fort on South Kaholmen island, which is connected to North Kaholmen via a tiny stone causeway.  Along the opposite shoreline, the town of Drøbak can be seen.
Oscarsborg Fort's inner courtyard
Matthew strolls through the fort’s eerily deserted inner courtyard. During summer, the space hosts theater performances, operas, concerts, and art exhibitions.

A stroll through the fort’s museum provided us with some historical background (in English, thank goodness).  Built in the 1850s, Oscarsborg was once considered the most modern fortress in Northern Europe.  It underwent numerous upgrades over the years, but by the Battle of Drøbak Sound, time and economic depression had taken its toll, and the fort’s guns were over 40 years old.  Yep, that’s right.  The weapons that took out the Blücher were ancient and out of date.  Gives me hope that middle-agers like me still have some life left in them.

Battle of Drøbak Sound Diorama
A diorama shows the progression of the Battle of Drøbak Sound. You can see the two guns targeting the Blücher at the head of the flotilla. The next ship in line, the Lützow, takes a hit from a shore gun and flees the scene. On the far left, you can see the two torpedoes targeting the Blücher as she drifts close to North Kaholmen. (Click for a bigger view.)

A couple of rooms are devoted just to the Drøbak battle, with photos, weapons, and other ephemera that help tell the story of that fateful night.  Aside from incredible images of the sinking Blücher, my favorite exhibit consisted of an old-timey diorama — the kind where you push the button for a narrative, lights, and sounds that bring the miniature battle scene to life.  The audio is in Norwegian, but a nearby panel provides a translation, although I’d recommend a quick Wikipedia reading to really understand how events unfolded.

Krupps 28cm gun at Oscarsborg Fort
In the distance, you can see the open water where Oscarsborg’s guns first targeted the Blücher. These big boys roared to life once again on April 8, 2014, for the movie “Kongens Nei,” when they were refurbished and fired using blank rounds.

After touring the museum, we wandered outside to explore the main battery armed with three big biblical guns — Aaron, Moses, and Joshua — the first two of which were responsible for those devastating initial shots fired at the Blücher.  (The third, Joshua, was armed and loaded, but there simply weren’t enough men to man him.)  Kinda ironic that the weapons responsible for sinking Hitler’s invading flagship had Jewish names.  Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?

A cruise ship passes the Askholmene islets not far from spot where the Blücher went down. On June 6, 2016, the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage commemorated the shipwreck as a war memorial for those who are buried at here at bottom of the fjord.
A cruise ship passes the Askholmene islets near the spot where the Blücher went down. On June 6, 2016, the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage designated the shipwreck as a war memorial for those buried at the bottom of the fjord.

We continued our walk along the main battery’s bristling bluff, down to the east and west shore batteries, and eventually to the torpedo battery that put a final period to the Blücher‘s short career.  Looking down the narrow Drøbak straight towards the ship’s gravesite gave me goosebumps.  If not for Colonel Eriksen’s willingness to take a chance at being court-martialed, Norway’s fate might have been quite different.  (See the details in my post, Norwegian Resistance.)

The QR code is keyed to a map of Oscarsborg so that you can take your own self-guided tour. Or if you have a large group, you can contact the fort online to schedule a private guided tour.
The QR code is keyed to a map of Oscarsborg so that you can take your own self-guided tour. Or if you have a large group, you can contact the fort online to schedule a private tour.

For those of you who might be considering a visit to Oscarsborg, I’d recommend a few things.  First, download the QR code for the walking tour to make the most of your wanderings around the site.  Second, try to plan your visit in mid summer, when the fort hosts re-enactments of the historic battle.  And if you get a chance, stop by the Commandant’s House for a fascinating look at today’s Norwegian military.  I didn’t get an opportunity to try out the spa or check out the hotel, so those are on my “to-do” list for next time.

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Drøbak Fish Smokery transformed itself into a German Biergarten for Oktoberfest as hosts and patrons donned traditional German dress.

As it was, we barely finished our tour in time to catch the last ferry back to Drøbak, where we prowled the streets looking for a good place to have dinner.  Eventually we came upon  Drøbak Fiskerøkeri (Fish Smokery), which had a great backyard space set up with outdoor heaters to ward off the autumn chill.  In celebration of the season, the place was hosting an Oktoberfest party, complete with oom-pa-pa music, guests dressed in lederhosen and dirndl skirts, lots of beer on tap, and an amazing buffet consisting of bratwurst, potato salad, sauerkraut, pretzels, and more — really delicious.

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When the DJ wasn’t spinning Oktoberfest hits, the terrific band Tasty entertained us with some good ol’ American music, including covers of the Beach Boys, 70s rock, and classic Country ‘n Western tunes.

We sat there, chatting with our friendly neighboring table, singing along with the crowd, and marveling that, having just come from a battle site commemorating a Norwegian victory against the Nazi’s, here we were celebrating German culture.  Ain’t life bizarrely grand?

 

 

 

 

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