Malcolm Munthe and the Norwegian Resistance

My awareness of the Munthe family began last summer when we visited an old house in Leksand called Munthes Hildasholm. I had seen the house advertised in tourist brochures for years and thought it would be an interesting outing sometime. However, it wasn’t until our cycle tour around Siljan last July that we first saw the old house. It is an imposing edifice, massive and white with red-framed windows, rather unlike the typical red and white log houses one sees in Dalarna. The house’s location on the heights above the shore of Lake Siljan is spectacular.

We cycled past on a grey and stormy day, stopping only briefly to peer through the big white gates before continuing to the Leksand city centre. Some weeks later we came back to Hildasholm with family from Australia who were visiting. We took a guided tour, and as we wandered through the big dark rooms I heard for the first time the story of the rather unusual family who had lived here, the family of Axel Munthe, physician to the Swedish royal family, and his wife, Hilda Pennington, an English society lady whom he met and married early in the 1900s. Munthe was much older than his wife and was also something of a philanderer and I gather that Hilda raised their two sons largely on her own. She lived with them in London and used the house, which her husband built for her (hence the name), as a summer residence. Axel owned numerous houses around Europe and Hilda also came from a wealthy family. After they were both dead their estate was sold off apart from four of the properties, two in the UK, the house in Sweden, and a fourth in Italy. The houses were administered by a trust and were opened to the public.

Axel Munthe was a colourful character, a doctor and writer, whose story is told in his own books but also a recent biography by Bengt Jangfeldt (Axel Munthe. The Road to San Michele). Both the sons, Peter and Malcolm, were officers in the British army in the Second World War. Malcolm was rather eccentric in later life. Often working as a tour guide in the various family houses, he movied from one to another according to the respective tourist seasons, but interestingly he seldom revelaed his identity to the public or mentioned that the stories he was telling were the stories of his own childhood and family. He died in the 1990s.

Something about Malcolm Munthe caught my interest and I resolved to find out more about him. I have recently finished reading a book he wrote in the late 1940s after the end of the Second World War. It has the arresting title, Sweet is War… for them that know it not. In that book he tells the story of his life during WWII as a British army officer. With a knowledge of Scandinavia and the ability to speak Swedish ( he spoke several languages other than English) he found himself initially posted to Finland where he was engaged in the Finnish-Russian war which broke out shortly after the invasion of Poland by Germany. After the fall of Finland to the Russians Munthe made his way to Norway, where he found himself trapped shortly after the German invasion in May 1940. As a British soldier he was waiting for forces promised by Britain to assist the beleaguered Norwegians – forces that never eventuated. He was stuck, injured, in Bergen, determined to escape back to the UK, logically across the North Sea to Scotland. One attempt after another was frustrated and he eventually made his way on foot slowly and painfully across the whole of Norway and into Sweden, where he got unofficially (and illegally) involved in assisting the Norwegian resistance movement, spawning the so called Operation Red Horse.

I have been fascinated by stories of Norwegian resistance against their German occupiers in WWII since I read as a child Escape Alone, by David Howarth, a book that was first published under the name We Die Alone. A conversation that I had with my good friend Hamish recently after he had returned from a trip to the Shetland Islands reignited my interest. He mentioned “the Shetland Bus”, an operation based in the Shetlands during WWII to ferry escaping Norwegians and returning Norwegian spies and saboteurs. I subsequently read a book, also by David Howarth, entitled The Shetland Bus, which devotes one chapter to the story told in We Die Alone. Munthe’s book provided a glimpse into Norwegian resistance from the Swedish side of Norway. I have also started reading a new book in Swedish, De glömda agenterna (The forgotten agents), by Anders Johansson, which is about Swedes who were involved (also illegally) in assisting Norwegian refugees to became resistance fighters and re-enter their country to assist in the struggle against their Nazi oppressors.

My latest excursion into this fascinating era of history is a book about a BBC TV series called The Real Heroes of Telemark, by Ray Mears, which is the exciting tale of a British-Norwegian mission to destroy Germany’s supply of “heavy water” from a Norwegian power station in the remote mountain wilderness of the Hardangervidda. Heavy water was a vital ingredient in the development of the atomic bomb, and the allies were desperate to hinder that development. This meant interrupting the supply of heavy water, an operation that could only be carried out under the most adverse of circumstances. Major Malcolm Munthe gets a passing mention in this book too.
Norway is a apparently a very different country to Sweden, despite its geographical closeness and the similarity of the languages. Perhaps one day I will have the chance to see some of these places that have become familiar through reading. It has been fascinating nevertheless to begin to understand the cooperation that occurred between Britain, Sweden and Norway during the Second World War, and the part that a British soldier with an English mother and Swedish father had to play in it.
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11 thoughts on “Malcolm Munthe and the Norwegian Resistance

  1. Visit Hellen’s at Much Marcle where they lived. A fortified Norman Manor house in Herefordshire. As interesting as the Tower of London

  2. I found your blog while looking up Malcolm Munthe in connection with my research on a book I own which contains 3,500 signatures, of which about 1,000 are mainly SOE, Norwegian agents, escapees and evaders who flew from Bromma Airport to RAF Leuchars during the Second World War. I have identified most of the signatures and they include many decorated heroes including all the Norwegians that returned to the UK after their successful Telemark mission which you have mentioned in your blog.

  3. Wow, that’s a lot of signatures to identify. A lot of stories to tell. What will you do with your research? The Swedes really did do something for the allied war effort with so many flying out of Bromma. I guess it was later in the war as it became more obvious that the Nazis really were the bad guys, which maybe wasn’t as obvious in this country (Sweden) as it was to everyone in the UK.

    • The signatures in this Visitors Book include:

      • Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Montague Trenchard
      • pioneers of aviation such as Ian Harvey, Bernard Frost, Arthur Wilkinson, Robert Mayo and Donald Bennett
      • many Battle of Britain pilots including Paddy Finucane
      • dozens of air chief marshals, air marshals, air vice marshals, air commodore
      • some VC holders
      • over 100 pilots who were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
      • over 100 DSO holders
      • over 100 escapees and evaders including, for example, Terence Corkran, Rae Walton and Ernest Booker who were shot down on 28 May 1942 near the Lofoten Islands whilst on a reconnaissance mission to find the Tirpitz. Their story was the basis of Graham Pitchfork’s Shot Down & On The Run. On 1 September 1942, they were flown from Bromma airfield to RAF Leuchars in an aircraft of the BOAC courier service. All three signed the visitors’ book on 2 September 1942.
      • the 12 pilots from Leuchars who, on 11 February, participated in the search for the German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prince Eugen
      • over 60 signatures (mainly British but some Canadian) of volunteers in Finland’s Winter War. I have identified all of them.

      For me, the book’s main interest relates to Norway and the Special Operations Executive during WW2. There are over 700 Norwegian signatures, many belonging to Norwegian Resistance fighters. These signatures probably constitute the most valuable contemporary record of Norway’s role during the war.

      The book has the signatures of many of the SOE’s “top men” including:

      • Sir George Binney (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Binney)
      • Ronald Turnbull (http://www.specialforcesroh.com/awards-2419.html)
      • John Cordeaux (mentioned in this article http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1469303/Did-British-intelligence-send-its-own-spies-to-their-deaths.html)
      • Andrew Croft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Croft).

      Norwegians signatures include:

      • Leif Larsen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leif_Larsen)
      • Leif Tronstad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leif_Tronstad)
      • Max Manus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Manus)
      • Einar Johansen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einar_Johansen)
      • Konrad Nordahl (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Nordahl)
      • William Houlder (mentioned in http://www.wwiinorge.com/TempsfordTaxi_eng.htm)
      • Claus Helberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claus_Helberg)
      • Sverre Midtskau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sverre_Midtskau)
      • Johan Rognes (mentioned in http://www.nuav.net/maxmanus.html)
      • Konrad Anker Hennum (whose SOE files are closed until 2024)
      • The Gunnerside Team (“Heroes of Telemark”), each of whom using their SOE alias when they signed the book:
      o Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joachim_R%C3%B8nneberg)
      o Knut Haukelid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knut_Haukelid)
      o Fredrik Kayser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredrik_Kayser)
      o Kasper Idland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasper_Idland)
      o Hans Storhaug (http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Storhaug)
      o Birger Strømsheim (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2245979/Hero-Telemark-dies-aged-101-WWII-carried-raid-Hydroelectric-plant-thwart-Hitlers-nuclear-ambitions.html)
      • Martin Gundersen (whose SOE files are closed until 2017)
      • Henning Nordhal (whose SOE files are closed until 2031)
      • Many of the Norwegian government in exile in London
      • Olav Crown Prince of Norway and his father Haakon VII

      I’ve spent over a year trying to decipher the signatures, many of which are almost impossible to read. Gradually, and with the aid of numerous books and hundreds of files from The National Archives, Kew (TNA), I have identified over 96% of the first 1,973 signatures which cover the period September 1938 to May 1947.

      The “Cold War” period is, I am sure, going to produce some interesting signatures.

      For each identified signature, I add an entry to a Word document with biographical and other information gleaned from Google searches, TNA files and books in my library.

      I am not yet sure what I will do with the results of my research. One of my wife’s cousins is Assistant Curator of the National Museum of Flight. He recently said:

      “Your research has certainly uncovered interesting connections and I think this deserves a wider audience. This could be done in a variety of different ways:
      o Public lectures. There would, I am sure, be various historical societies who would be interested to hear about your research
      o Magazine article: writing about your discoveries would make an interesting article
      o Book: I think there is enough material there to write a book, with information about all these interesting historical figures and their achievements. Tying all these people to Leuchars also gives it a fascinating local connection
      o Exhibition: it might be worth contacting museums in St Andrews (or indeed Norway) to see if they would be interested in an exhibition of the visitor books and the people featured in them, with objects relating to wartime Leuchars. With RAF Leuchars closing and the base transferring to the Army very soon, such an exhibition would be topical and might be something a local museum would be interested in.

      There are possibly other options that I’ve not yet considered, but these are what I can think of. Any one of them would be a great way to get your research out into the public domain and ensure that the stories and sacrifices of these men are better known.”

      This Visitors Book illustrates the role played by SOE in Norway and the importance of Sweden.

      Let me know if you would like to see the Visitors Book. I have created a PDF facsimile and can email you a DropBox link. The PDF is about 79 MB. I’ve also created a PDF of my research. This is ongoing and, at the moment, it has about 1,849 A4 pages including an index. The PDF is 43 MB.

      • Trevor I would love to see a copy of both your research and the Visitor Book itself. You certainly should find some way to get all that research “out there”. There is a lot of interest in this subject, but exactly how to present it in a way that is palatable to the public is hard to know. Blogging is a good way to do it, which is just telling short stories about individuals and events. Of course writing a book is a great thing to do, but not everyone has the ability to write such a book without it being boring. Perhaps you do. I saw an interesting looking book on Amazon the other day called “How to write history that people want to read.” I thought I would read it one of these days. Maybe you should too!! Good luck. David.

    • I have picked up bits and pieces of information about him from various books and brochures and websites, but apart from the book I mentioned in the post, “Sweet is War…” I am not aware of anything he has written. There is probably a lot more to find than I have come across. Let me know if you find more!

    • Thanks Eileen! I didn’t think there was anyone much around old enough to remember the Second World War. I suppose they’re all in their 80s or 90s by now. I did know some WW2 veterans in the past but they’re mostly gone now. They had some amazing stories to tell.

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