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Former Special Operations Executive agent and black propagandist Erik Gjems-Onstad died after a short illness on 18 November 2011. I had corresponded with Erik for the last few years and helped him to gain access to his SOE personal file. Only recently he had invited me to Norway to meet in person and look through his surviving archives of black propaganda material. Erik was always willing to share his knowledge and was very encouraging with my own research regarding the application of psychological warfare in the Second World War.
Erik was born on 22 February 1922 in Oslo. When war broke out in Norway he tried on two occasions to contact the Norwegian Armed Forces but each time was prevented by German troops. He made his way back to Oslo and found employment as a clerk. In September 1940 he also began studying law at Oslo University but after fights with Quislings, he was soon blacklisted by the Nazis. Later Onstad distributed clandestine newspapers and posters. This landed him in more trouble. At the beginning of March 1941, he was spotted by Nazis while out delivering one of these illegal papers. For some time he had been thinking about getting out of Norway and this was the final prompt to go. By 8 March he had made his way to Stockholm in Sweden.
In Stockholm he became embroiled with a Norwegian resistance movement. However, the Swedish authorities were soon on to him and ordered his deportation. The deportation was suspended in lieu of internment and Onstad spent a number of months at the Oreryd internment camp instead. Still keen to take a more active role in the war, a flight to the UK was arranged and he arrived in Scotland on 9 December 1941.
In Britain, initially too young to join the fighting services, he enlisted into the SOE-controlled Norwegian Independent Company in April 1942 with the rank of Sergeant. A period of training ensued and he soon qualified as a wireless operator. The SOE instructors thought very highly of the young and diligent Onstad. Some of their reports on him included the following comments:
"...Good and keen, and extremely security minded. Very interested in his work, and is sometimes carried away by his boyish enthusiasm."
"...Has already been thrown into the lake by the 'rowdy gang', for working in his spare time. However, he continues to work very hard at his Morse, in spite of threats from some of the others. He is intelligent, painstaking, and enthusiastic about the work. The most security-minded member of the party."
"...The best man in the party, especially in security matters. He is intelligent, hard working, studious and determined. He has plenty of common sense, and a remarkably even temper. He is quiet but very good company. Although not of an aggressive nature, he is quite tough and hardy. He takes a great interest in his work and should do well in any sphere. He neither drinks nor smokes and is utterly reliable. He speaks excellent English, and might prove useful in an accompanying or interpreting capacity."
Onstad's work for the Norwegian resistance in the following years is best summed up by the official recommendation for his MBE award:
...In February 1943, he proceeded to the Trondheim area where, on account of the activity of the Gestapo, and bad weather conditions, wireless communication was very difficult. He quickly established contact and organised his transmissions in such a way that the enemy never managed to locate him.
For the next two years he worked alone, his activities extending far beyond those of a wireless operator. His work consisted of coding and operating, training W/T operators, organisational work, propaganda, and arranging courier routes to Sweden. He sent to the United Kingdom long encoded despatches with valuable intelligence covering the whole of the South Trondelag area, including the German Naval Base in Trondheim.
In February 1945, Gjems Onstad took part in the sabotage of the railway line between Kvaal and Ler, laying down ten charges and destroying many lengths of rail. This was a highly successful action and was of considerable value in the general campaign against the transport of enemy troops to the continent.
The far reaching work of this enterprising young officer was above all praise, for at the time of his entry to the field he was only 21 years of age. He was of necessity left to his own initiative and the work he did contributed considerably to the orderly state in which the Allied Forces found Trondelag on their arrival.
His propaganda activities around Trondheim involved the setting up of the DURHAM mission for the production and dissemination of black propaganda. He recalled to me that he came up with the idea of creating a fictitious German resistance movement called the Deustsche Freiheitspartei (German Freedom Party). Many of the black propaganda leaflets disseminated in Norway bore the authorship of the DFP. Most of the propaganda distributed by the DURHAM organisation was supplied through SOE's outpost in the British Stockholm Legation. The following two leaflets are typical examples.
TRANSLATION OF DEUTSCHE FREIHEITSPARTEI
German Freedom Party
Local Group Trondheim
THE GERMAN FREEDOM PARTY
Germany has lost the war!
In the East the Russians invade, in the West the Anglo-Americans are unstoppable.
Whoever fights on only prolongs the suffering of the German people and must take full responsibility for it later!
Do not drive yourself into the mass grave of the Western Front!
Let's not force you to spend a dark and cold winter in the far north for a lost cause!
Take a stand close behind the German Freedom Party!
FORT TRONDHEIM - ON TO SWEDEN!
In Sweden there is no blackout -
In Sweden you can expect a decent life and freedom -
In Sweden you can work for the
GERMAN FREEDOM PARTY!