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Operation Freshman: 41 dead, but 'no official recognition for their sacrifice'


By Alan Hendry

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Military historian Bruce Tocher before giving his talk at Staxigoe hall on Saturday as part of the Caithness At War project. Picture: Alan Hendry
Military historian Bruce Tocher before giving his talk at Staxigoe hall on Saturday as part of the Caithness At War project. Picture: Alan Hendry

An expert on Operation Freshman has admitted he still finds it upsetting that the victims never received official recognition for the sacrifice they made.

Military historian Bruce Tocher was speaking after he gave an illustrated talk in Staxigoe village hall on Saturday, 81 years on from the ill-fated wartime mission launched from RAF Skitten near Wick.

It was a follow-up to a presentation by Dr Tocher in Reiss earlier this year about the bid to sabotage Nazi Germany’s attempts at developing an atomic bomb. The talk in Staxigoe focused on the war crimes trials that followed on from Operation Freshman.

Forty-one of the men who set off from Skitten on the night of November 19, 1942, lost their lives – 23 of them murdered by the Gestapo.

After the war, only two of the Germans responsible were executed. A dozen were given prison sentences but they were free by the first half of the 1950s.

Asked whether or not he felt justice had been served, Dr Tocher replied: "It was war, and I feel that if it hadn't been for the politics many of them would have spent longer in jail.

"But it really was a bigger political situation. The British needed to pull out of Germany and reduce their numbers there, administering and keeping all these prisoners. I'm only talking about the Freshman ones – there were many, many more.

"So I think a deal was made with the German authorities.

"I also think of the families who were left after the war with no husbands or no sons and with no compensation. These Germans went back to their everyday lives in 1951, 1952, but the British guys never came home.

"Their families were left without fathers to their sons, they were left without their brothers, and they were given nothing back.

"What makes me feel most upset is that the Freshman soldiers and airmen were never given any kind of official recognition by the military authorities.

"There should have been something that said these guys were on a mission that Churchill himself was aware of and Mountbatten [chief of Combined Operations] was in charge of, and yet there was no official recognition by the military authorities afterwards for their sacrifice."

Military historian Bruce Tocher and his wife Joyce after laying a wreath at the Skitten airfield memorial on Sunday, the 81st anniversary of Operation Freshman.
Military historian Bruce Tocher and his wife Joyce after laying a wreath at the Skitten airfield memorial on Sunday, the 81st anniversary of Operation Freshman.

Dr Tocher, who lives in Norway, is writing a book about Operation Freshman which he intends to complete next year. He has managed to trace 38 of the 48 Freshman families – more than 100 people in all.

His latest contact is Bob Simkins, son of Driver George Simkins who was in one of the gliders.

Dr Tocher explained: "He had lots of information and he sent me some amazing pictures of his dad in uniform. He just said, 'I'm so grateful for what you're doing.'"

Making a return visit to Caithness were Phil and Linda Falconer, from St Cyrus, Aberdeenshire. Mr Falconer's uncle, Flight Sergeant Jim Falconer, was one of the victims of Operation Freshman and the couple had also attended Dr Tocher's talk at Reiss in April.

The Falconers joined Dr Tocher and his wife Joyce in touring the former airfield and buildings on Saturday before laying a wreath at the Skitten airfield memorial on Sunday, the 81st anniversary of the operation.

"I love coming here," Dr Tocher said. "I spent a couple of hours at Skitten airfield with the farmer Willie Mackay and the historian Andrew Guttridge with Phil and Linda. We saw the places where the aircrews had their last dinner before they left."

Dr Tocher's talks were organised by Sinclair’s Bay Trust as part of the Caithness At War project, the aim of which is to establish a heritage trail highlighting the importance of the area in guarding against a potential Nazi invasion. More than 80 people attended the Reiss event, while at Staxigoe there was a turnout of about 40.

Again there was no admission fee but donations were invited for Caithness At War.

Bruce Tocher brought a small quantity of Norsk heavy water. Picture: Alan Hendry
Bruce Tocher brought a small quantity of Norsk heavy water. Picture: Alan Hendry

Alistair Jack, east Caithness development trust support officer at Caithness Voluntary Group, said: “I would like to express my thanks to everyone that turned up and to Dr Tocher, who travelled over from Norway once again to deliver this amazing second instalment on Operation Freshman – detailing the war crime investigations, trials and sentencing of those involved in the murders of the Freshman soldiers.

“The timing of the talk coincided with the 81st anniversary of the tragic events of Operation Freshman and the horrible weather we had on Saturday night was very similar to the conditions of November 19, 1942, so it really hammered home what those young men must have gone through just getting to Norway all those years ago.”

The airborne assault on Nazi-occupied Norway involved sending sabotage troops to attack the Norsk hydroelectric company’s plant at Vemork, situated amid high cliffs and deep gorges, with support from a Norwegian resistance group. The plant produced Europe’s only supply of deuterium oxide, otherwise known as heavy water, a key component in atomic research.

Two Halifax bombers, both towing Horsa gliders containing commando-trained Royal Engineers, took off from Skitten, a satellite of RAF Wick, but the mission failed disastrously and only one bomber crew made it back.

Dr Tocher had brought a small quantity of Norsk heavy water which he showed to the audience during his talk on Saturday.

Originally from Forfar, Dr Tocher is a geologist who was a university lecturer and worked in the oil and gas industry. He moved to Norway in 1995. Last year he arranged for 67 of the Freshman relatives to spend a week in Norway, visiting the Vemork heavy water cellar, crash locations, execution sites and graveyards as well as attending a reception at the British embassy in Oslo.

The murdered men were victims of Hitler’s notorious “commando order” of October 1942 demanding that sabotage troops or partisans working for the Allies should be “killed to the last man in battle or flight” or, if captured indirectly, handed over to the SS.

Operation Freshman was the precursor to Operation Gunnerside. That mission became the inspiration for the 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris.


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